If I could do one thing other than write my dissertation…

…it would be to run deliberative polls, or to assist in running them, or just to participate in one.

Some questions for Professor Fishkin: how much does this cost? Do you generally run polls on public or private money? My idea is to get a bunch of rich philanthropists into a deliberative poll about deliberative polls themselves. You can have Richard Posner present the case against deliberation, then trounce him and take all that money and give me a job. It’ll be fabulous.

On the title “Liberal”

I can never decide whether to call myself a ‘liberal.’ A lot of the time, you’re only presented with two options, and I think in those situations it’s okay to glom on to some basic party affiliation: Democrat/Republican, leftist/rightie, progressive/conservative, etc. But when you’re writing about yourself, you’ve got the power to present yourself in your own terms, so there seems to be no reason to settle for easy dichotomies. In those situations, I’m still not entirely sure how to refer to myself.

As for liberalism, my objection generally is that it’s a misnomer. I suspect that most people who read this are aware of the difference between the liberalism of Locke and Mill, and the current usage of the term. In a nutshell, liberalism simply indicates a regime guided by constitutional restrictions on state intrusion into the private sphere and a respect for property. (Property is both a bundle of rights and the archtypical right: all rights are ‘properties’ of individuals, and all rights generally reflect the exclusion, use, transfer, or possession of something, like one’s speech or one’s body.)

Beyond the homophone problem, I often disagree with the version of rights and property that sustains pretty much the entire political spectrum in this country. So far as I’ve been able to discern, I have too thick a sense of the Good to be a strict libertarian. I suspect that there are many matters in which communally organized governance should involve itself, whether that be civic and moral education, or environmental and labor regulation. I oppose home schooling and the strange usage of the ‘takings’ clause that many Republican jurists favor in order to combat community oversight.

Yet it seems like the strategy of identifying ‘liberal’ with ‘libertine’ has been wholly successful: the thin liberty by which one requires the government to leave one to enjoy one’s privacy gets too easily conflated with the licentiousness we are supposedly engaging in that privacy. So whenever I hear a fellow-traveler accused of ‘liberalism’ in that particular snearing tone that suggests that she has inappropriate relations with her pets, I want to stand in solidarity with liberals. After all, bourgeois property-rights were very progressive when the King effectively owned everything and loaned it out to his subjects until the whimsy struck him to take it back. I’m glad Locke spent the time to deflate the supposed divinity of the sovereign, too. (And watch out during this NSA wiretapping scandal for the Supreme Court to remind us that the executive’s power is unified and came directly from the English monarchy! Never mind that we, like, had a revolution.)

Anyway, back to being a ‘liberal.’ Sometimes I prefer the term ‘progressive,’ because the implication is that I’m hoping things will get better. But this is a little like calling oneself an optimist; it’s not a political position, it’s a mood. Certainly I suspect that many conservatives are driven by a cynical convinction that things will keep getting worse unti the world ends, so the best course of action is to stem the tide of modernity. That’s why they try to conserve traditional values, and hew to settled hierarchies and business models that have worked ages and ages, or at least for several fiscal quarters in a row. But I’m actually a bit suspicious of progress, too. I suspect that we’ve lost a lot, especially compared to the Greek polis, or even the heady days of the American Revolution.

On the other hand, I’ve got these perhaps irrational pockets of hopefulness. I’m optimistic that some developments might improve our situation. I hope that we Americans will someday learn that it is always wrong to torture people, for instance, the same way I hope that my friend’s baby will learn to walk and talk and control her own bowels, like a big girl! But I’m skeptical enough of progress that I think it would be a bit disingenuous to call myself a progressive (since I once thought that our country had already learned to control its own bowels… I mean, its intelligence community.)

The term that has the most promise, from my perspective, is ‘egalitarian.’ I wish a lot more people referred to themselves this way, especially politicians. In the US, egalitarian populism often meets with the charge of ‘class warfare,’ as if making corporations and rich people pay taxes was the same as throwing Molotov cocktails and disseminating seditious literature. But frankly, I like class warfare, (and seditious literature, actually) or at least I think it’s uniquely important to what politics really is, rather than what it’s come to look like. For one thing, the Democratic big three, race, gender, and sexuality, strike me as categories worthy of attention insofar as they have import for class. If non-whites weren’t predominantly poor, or women too often relegated to a strange secondary class of housework, I wouldn’t be as interested in feminism and post-colonial studies. A lot of people complain that there is a collusion between class issues and cultural production, such that we repress and avoid canonizing the work of non-whites and women, and I’m willing to go along with that too, if only because it means that there might be some good seditious literature to be had.

The funny thing about homosexuality, of course, is that it’s not really a class or cultural issue. As Sedgwick puts it, “Not only have there been a gay Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust, but their names are Socrates, Shakespeare, and Proust.” Rich people seem to be gay about as frequently as anybody else (though there are more poor gays because there are more poor people.) Still, given the role that marriage plays in accumulating capital, it does seem that disallowing marriage has had some impact on the microeconomic situation of homosexuals. But I’m just saying that so I don’t have to admit that I object to restricting marriage for basically liberal reasons. The other way to put this position is that legalizing gay marriage is a matter of equality of opportunity (even if it’s simply the opportunity to be overfed, bored, and vaguely dissatisfied.)

So, call me an egalitarian. I won’t duck the other labels when I don’t have to, but at least now we’re clear.

Skin to Skin: Between Logos and Flesh

Sometimes when I read too much I get very quote heavy; rather than letting my own voice through in my writing, I can’t think of a better way to say it than the way I just read it. So when Merleau-Ponty explains the problem with Husserl’s project in two pages in the midst of The Visibile and the Invisible, I can’t think of a better way to proceed than to copy his words down.

“It is by considering language that we would best see how we are to and how we are not to return to the things themselves….

The philosopher speaks, but this is a weakness in him, and an inexplicable weakness: he should keep silent, coincide in silence, and rejoin in Being a philosophy that is there ready-made. But everything comes to pass as though he wished to put into words a certain silence he hearkens to within himself….

[What he seeks] would be a language of which he would not be the organizer, words he would not assemble, that would combine through him by virtue of a natural intertwining of their meaning, through the occult trading of the metaphor–where what counts is no longer the manifest meaning of each word and of each image, but the lateral relations, the kinships that are implicated in their transfers and their exchanges…. If language is not necessarily deceptive, truth is not coincidence, nor mute….

Because he has within himself the need to speak, the birth of speech as bubbling up at the bottom of his mute experience, the philosopher knows better than anyone that what is lived is lived-spoken, that, born at this depth, language is not a mask over Being, but–if one knows how to grasp it with all its roots and all its foliation–the most valuable witness to Being….

Philosophy is an operative language, that language that can be known only from within, through its exercise, is open upon the things, called forth by the voices of silence, and continues an effort of articulation which is the Being of every being.” (VI, 125-7)

The best and the worst thing about this text is that it seems to be the last word on the topic. A statement of openness that forecloses discussion, it was work like this that seemed to spell the end of philosophy. But Merleau-Ponty discouraged that kind of talk, so I think he’s blameless of the hubris of people like Heidegger or Strauss, who seemed to believe that the only interesting way to do philosophy was their way. Instead, he’s simply culpable for being so damned good.

I find inspiration in the notion of a project that grasps language in its ‘natural intertwinings,’ that seeks ‘lateral relations’ rather than ‘manifest meanings.’ What are the lateral relations within the vocabulary of governance and justice? How can words be ‘naturally’ intertwined? How can the ontological difference (the Being of every being) be understood as an ‘effort of articulation’?

M-P concludes that this is only possible if we give up the potency/actuality, real/ideal distinction that drives post-Aristotelian metaphysics. In its place he pushes the fleshy, embodied metaphors that cut through phenomena/noumena in favor of a “sensible world” that “emigrates… into another less heavy, more transparent body, as though it were to change flesh, abandoning the flesh of the body for that of language, and thereby would be emancipated but not freed from every condition.” (VI, 153) The flesh of politics brings the body politic into sharp focus. Bodies are characterized by health, strength, and beauty, rather than justice, power, or virtue. Is there a specifically active, communal sense of health that should guide governance, perhaps one that takes the notion of constitution to be a substantial rather than simply formal matter?

Whether building fortresses, and many other things that rulers frequently do, are useful or not

From the NYRoB:

“A critical mistake was made,” observed the American security analyst Anthony Cordesman as early as September 2003. “By creating US security zones around US headquarters in Central Baghdad, it created a no-go zone for Iraqis and has allowed the attackers to push the US into a fortress that tends to separate US personnel from the Iraqis.”

The Green Zone has apparently become an idyllic suburban transplant in the midst of a Baghdad that resembles the Beirut of the 80’s. Private security forces are supplanting the American military, and the rich and white population travel in heavily armed convoys. You’d have thought those silly neo-conservatives would have read their Machiavelli.

“The best fortress a ruler can have is not to be hated by the people: for if you possess fortresses and the people hate you, having fortresses will not save you, since if the people rise up there will never be any lack of foreign powers ready to help them.” (The Prince, Chapter 20)

The military likes bases and safe spaces, and I can’t blame them for that. So do I! The problem with the Green Zone is that it divides the country into safe (green) and unsafe (red) spaces. The goal ought to have always been to make the whole country green! As the matter stands, the average Iraqi is stuck out in the Red Zone with the insurgents, and can only preserve his or her own safety by siding against the Western invaders.

You know, everyone says that conversatives are supposed to be better at making war than liberals. I don’t buy it. The bad Straussians in this administration are just smart enough to trick the rest of us into doing something we ought to have known better about, but still too stupid to realize that all the liberal ‘whining’ and ‘cowardice’ was in fact wisdom.

States as persistent political entities

What is the relationship between the state of things and the political State? This is Badiou’s question, after you take away all his mathematical obfuscations. Machiavelli suggests the initial connection: starer, the verb for persistent existence. From this we derive the ‘state,’ the thing that lasts beyond particular politicians. Politics, after all, doesn’t mean what we think it means: for a long time, political questions were questions about the best regime. Only recently have we decided that politics is the lottery-cycle by which we select the next party to run our specifically democratic/capitalist regime.

Does the ontological difference between beings and Being have a political expression? Perhaps Jean-luc Nancy starts this conversation with the difference between the various freedoms (from fear, from want, to pray, to speak) and Freedom itself. Indeed, Nancy takes the relationship to be quite perfect, since freedom comes to resemble the becoming or happening of events, rather than a particular human’s action. Freedom stands in for the novelty or instability at the heart of futurity. Is there a crucial distinction, then, between esserer and starer? Is this a false distinction? Between lo stato, the state, and mode of persistent standing characterized by starer, we can perceive an analogous difference. It is not the same, however. In English and French, this is expressed by “going” or “aller.” “Ca va?” (“How’s it going?”) becomes in Italian or Spanish, “Come stai? Sto bene.” (“How does it stand with you? It stands well.”) This persistent state of being is the ‘way it’s going,’ the trend or prevailing movement.

In politics, this trend is supposed to be manifest or set into law through state institutions: the king’s whims, the people’s will, are both subject to all sorts of manipulations and perturbations. The State suspends those perturbations a bit, but not completely. The State’s laws are not static, nor is the rule of law an utterly consistent, wholly unchangeable situation. In fact, thus understood, stasis itself takes on a different flavor: it is no longer the immortal and unchangeable, but rather simply the persistent and locally prevailing state of things. To stand is not to stand immobile, but rather to stand still. It does not preclude movement, but nor is it characterized by flux.

Heidegger’s notion of ec-stasis, standing-outside-oneself, initially intended to show the internal motion at the heart of stasis: the reaching forward (projection) and backward (throwness) of temporality, as well as the spatial diffuseness and plurality of every identity that claims to be sui generis or authentic. Yet at some point, it appears that Heidegger became more interested in the breaks and novelties of eventuations than the persistence of the work or the constancy of the product.

Note that the State doesn’t resist the dynamic flow of events: it simply has a tendency to steady them, to stabilize them, often by managing and regulating flows. From the regulator’s perspective, a flow of currency or goods looks like a steady stream. Its velocity becomes a known and calculated quantity, and only the acceleration or deceleration of its flow remains to be quantified and stabilized. Large events, like accidents, assassinations, disasters, or even revolutions cannot destroy the state. They can alter it, sometimes even transform it into an unrecognizably new form, but the new political entity will tend to persist. A series of such insurmountable surprises will tend to institute l’etat de siege, the state of exception. Yet even when martial law sacrifices the patterns of authority for the brutal reign of physical force, it only does so in an attempt to discover what persists in the tumult: violence.