When I started graduate work many, many, years ago, I wanted specifically to write a project on Thucydides and Aristotle, and what they had to say about the passions, politics, and the philosophic life. What I didn’t realize at the time was how the path to this project would make an important detour through international relations theory.

I took the core IR Theory course specifically so I could fill my requirement for a minor field. It was soon clear to me that what I thought International Relations meant and how I thought about International Relations were severely underdeveloped and juvenile. The professor during that course work went on to become my PhD Supervisor. That early encouragement from him that my interests aligned with IR theory in more ways that were immediately clear to me was a pivotal moment in my education and training.

However, there was one particular moment when I could see the path forward for myself, and how to frame the problem of politics and passion that I wanted to write about. That moment was when I read Roland Bleiker’s seminal essay, “The Aesthetic Turn in International Political Theory“.  The key point that I took away was this: Aesthetics and aesthetic representation conceal the entirety of the political problem. The movement from original thing to represented thing requires, as a matter of responsibility, a logos; it requires a reasoned and rational account of what the differences are between original and copy. Of course, this isn’t new. At the same time that I was reading Aesthetic Turn essays in IR I was also preparing a presentation on Book VI & VII of Plato’s Republic. Circumstances!

This notion of aesthetic distance concealing the political is the thread that wove together everything for me – from Aristotle’s teaching on the passions in Book 2 of his Rhetoric, to Rousseau’s teaching about masks and amour propre in Emile – and made the project that I wanted to write intelligible to an audience I wouldn’t have expected.

With all of this said, it’s wonderful to see this topic revisited so many years later by Bleiker and others in Millennium.  Here is a quote that inspired this post:

the aesthetic turn was and should continue to be about opening up thinking space…Opening up thinking space inevitably involves risks. It is to embrace creativity, and the uncertainty associated with it, over the comfort of time-honoured procedures and disciplinary conventions. It is to never stand still and to search for ever new ways of writ-ing, sensing, seeing and hearing the political.

There’s clearly an ethics, a morality, a duty upon writers, researchers, and practitioners, that is demanded by the aesthetic turn, once one is attuned to it.

51etmw-kbml-_sx323_bo1204203200_For many months now I’ve been slowly but surely making my way through The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I’ve reached the chapter titled “Black Muslims” where Malcolm is describing the public reaction to the Nation of Islam, and his response to the documentary, “The Hate that Hate produced”. What’s been striking for a long while in this book is how the scripting of dissent is framed not just in racial but in religious terms.

ISIS  Apocalypse_MECH_01.inddThis leads me to the most recent book purchase of mine: Will McCant’s The ISIS Apocalypse.  I’ve followed him for a while on the Twitter, and he knows of what he speaks. But really that’s just a segue for this point that’s been at the back of my mind for a while: the American anxiety over terror hits on a deep rooted identity crisis at the heart of the self-image of the republic. But as it seems to me the special anxiety that’s gripped American for the last 15 years, and the narrative of the War on Terror, didn’t end with the killing of Osama bin Laden because it touches a special nerve in American identity politics.  So we have the spectacle of adherents of the same religion scripting dissent from within, and security threats from without.**  To use Foucault’s phrase, society must be defended.  (Malcolm X – Martin Luther King is as good a stand in for the Foucault – Habermas debate that never was).

My thoughts here are admittedly crude and unrefined, and I would be very grateful to be put in the direction of good work and commentary that concentrates on this theme.

**I leave aside the doctrinal details here, somewhat unjustly, as I’m thinking mostly of the reaction that the average citizen with only a superficial understanding of these things might have. Doubtful that such a person would make it past the world how both groups self-identify, despite the obvious murderous messianism of ISIS versus the legitimate protest of Malcolm X.  

Read the “Ten Rules of Writing” by Amitava Kumar.  Pay special attention to number six:

A bookshelf of your own. Choose one book, or five, but no more than ten, to guide you, not with research necessarily, but with the critical matter of method or style. Another way to think about this is to ask yourself who are the writers, or scholars, or artists that you are in conversation with. I use this question to help arrive at my own subject matter, but it also helps with voice.

That is a fantastic idea.  I think it’s worth reflecting on this and then coming up with my own list.  Off the top of my head, Williams James and CS Lewis would be way up there for tone and rhetoric. But I need to think much longer on it, if we’re talking about 10 books (and I won’t be cheeky and say the 10 books of Plato’s Republic or something, though that can totally count).

Mark Kelly has some very interesting thoughts at Contrivers’ Review and some very worthwhile reading on the “Foucault as neoliberal” debate that was (re)ignited thanks to that Jacobin interview a few months back.  A quote:

In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault neatly summarises this problem by noting, in relation to the Left-wing coalition that was on the verge of winning state power in France at the time of the lectures, that there had never been a socialist form of governmentality.  That is, socialists have never had their own form of government appropriate to their aims, but rather in practice have either been liberal capitalist governors or had taken the route of the totalitarian party form of government also adopted by fascists. Some readers of Foucault’s lectures seem to have taken him here to be recommending neoliberalism itself as the appropriate governmentality for socialism. That such a view could be imputed to Foucault boggles the mind. He was clear enough that he thought the existing centre-right regime in France in the 1970s was already neoliberal: then as now, it is a socialist alternative to neoliberalism that is needed. The dual danger for Podemos and Syriza is that, on the one hand, they contain enough orthodox Marxists, particularly Trotskyists, that they will repeat mistakes of past attempts to govern in a socialist way, or on the other hand, that they contain enough political naïfs that they will simply fall into standard, which is to say neoliberal, ways of wielding governmental power. Of course, it remains opaque what it can mean to have a socialist governmentality: Foucault never provides us with a solution, only the means for analysing the problem.

Read the whole thing.

Jacques Rancière, “Who is the Subject of the Rights of Man?”

The expression “infinite justice” was dismissed by the U.S. government a few days after having been put forward as an inappropriate term. But I think that it was fairly appropriate. An infinite justice is not only a justice that dismisses the principles of International Law, prohibiting interference in the “internal affairs” of another state; it is a justice which erases all the distinctions that used to define the field of justice in general: the distinctions between law and fact, legal punishment and private retaliation, justice, police, and war. All those distinctions are boiled down to a sheer ethical conflict between Good and Evil

Aristotle, On Rhetoric, Book 2 – “Orge, or Anger”

Let anger be defined as desire, accompanied by mental and physical distress, for conspicuous retaliation because of a conspicuous slight that was directed, without justification, against oneself or those near to one. If this is what anger is, necessarily the angry person always becomes angry at some particular individual…and because he has done or is going to do something to those near to him; and a kind of pleasure follows all experience of anger from the hope of getting retaliation. It is pleasant for him to think he will get what he wants; but no one wants things that seem impossible for himself to attain, and the angry person desires what is possible for him. Thus, it has been well said of rage [thymos], “a thing much sweeter than honey in the throat, it grows in the beats of men.” A kind of pleasure follows from this and also because people dwell in their minds on retaliating; then the image that occurs creates pleasure, as in the case of dreams.

Professor Clifford Orwin, expert in Thucydides, Rousseau, and everything in between, has written a fantastic editorial opposing the ban on veils during the taking of the Oath of Canadian Citizenship. Here’s the link: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/stephen-harpers-veiled-attack-on-religious-freedom/article23044095/

Prof. Orwin taught me while I was at U of T (as he has thousands of other students). I recall reading (or hearing, I can’t remember) him admit that he was too liberal to be a conservative, and too conservative to be a liberal. This editorial demonstrates this self-description perfectly well. And look at the “veiled” criticism of PM Harper after praising him highly in the first two sentences. Not only is Harper “New Agey” he is revealing himself to be downright cowardly in his lack of confidence in Canada’s laws, institutions, customs, and conventions. Canada is a commonwealth of recognition. There is absolutely no threat posed to anything or anyone if a Muslim woman who wears a veil over her face as an expression of her identity does so while taking the Citizenship Oath. Harper did a legitimately good thing by founding the Office of Religious Freedom (and Andrew Bennett has long been respected in the world of religious scholars and practitioners, from what I am made to understand). Why has this courage and vision disappeared? Because of the looming election? Because of demagoguery? Because Harper thinks so little of Québec voters that he’s willing to pander to the lowest common denominator amongst them?

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Interests in Affect, Emotion, &c., eventually puts you into the orbit of some interesting literature in neuroscience.  I’m thinking especially here of the work of people like Antonio Damasio, Jonathan Mercer, and Rose McDermott.  But more interesting is the critical work on neuroscience from people like Ruth Leys, and Patricia Clough, and in a different way William Connolly.  Jan Slaby and the Critical Neuroscience project have produced some mind-bending yet spot-on philosophical critiques of the state and aims of neuroscience and politics (cf. Personhood v. Brainhood).  But none of this work really, truly, meets the challenge of neuroplasticity.  If our brain does change itself, if our biological structures are a result of our environment, then culture and politics have a much more important role than this work realizes (and anatamo- / bio- politics is even more powerful than Foucault might have anticipated).   In short, let’s listen to this interview with Norman Doidge at The Guardian.com, who is the pioneer in Neuroplasticity.

[Norman Doidge] started out as a poet and a student of philosophy, before moving into psychiatry. He authored guidelines for the practice of intensive psychotherapy, before working to integrate new discoveries in neuroscience with existing psychiatric, psychological and psychoanalytic knowledge.

In 2007, he published the best-selling book, The Brain That Changes Itself, and has just written the follow-up, The Brain’s Way of Healing.

Interview here.

Lawrence Serewicz has written an incredible commentary on the first half of Howse’s “Leo Strauss: Man of Peace”. The commentary must be 10,000 20,000 words and has ~50 footnotes, and he’s only halfway done. There are many points of disagreement that I have with his treatment of some of Howse’s points (the use of transcripts, for one), some of his interpretations of Strauss (the status of Socrates v. Aristotle, for example), and whether these constitute a refutation of Howse’s project as a whole. But, overall, the quibbles are with details rather than intention. This is a serious treatment of a serious book, that takes no question for granted. Professor Howse is lucky to have such a thoughtful critic, a testament to the quality of his book. I will add one point, in the event I don’t get to writing a longer response. Serewicz’s review has convinced me (and I’m not sure what his intention is, here) that people like him and me are not the intended audience of Howse’s book. Readers capable of the care that he demonstrates in his review would never have been seduced by the popular narrative of Strauss-as-immoderate-neoconserative-imperialist. In a way, debating Howse on the particulars implicitly grants Howse the big picture. This happens to be a big picture I agree with, though one that is for the moment on shakier ground thanks to Lawrence’s review. You should follow him on twitter (@lldzne) and the debate he’s currently having with Rob Howse about this commentary: https://twitter.com/lldzne/status/569134894984663040

Philosophical Politics

Leo Strauss Leo Strauss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prefatory remarks.[1]

Professor Howse has written an ambitious book to make the case for Leo Strauss as a man of peace and to defend him from his critics. That he has to meet both charges is indicative of the state of American politics and academics. In these prefatory remarks, I want to sketch my limited and indirect relationship to Leo Strauss’s students and by extension Leo Strauss before commenting on Professor Howse’s book.

In the early 1990s, I studied at Claremont Graduate School. At the time, a number of Strauss’ students and students of his students were associated with the School. Leo Strauss had taught at Claremont McKenna College for a year in the early 70s. [Correction LS was at CMC in 1969] Since I left, the School became University. However, my time at Claremont had a lasting impact on me. Even though my…

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I’m struggling with how to “introduce” my dissertation, now that it is finally, officially, the end game for writing. Looking through notebooks and old files I found my preparatory work for my Proposal defense. It isn’t quite appropriate for the dissertation itself, but it’s always nice to revisit the clarity with which one thought about a project at its beginnings, as opposed to the layers upon layers of literature that obfuscate at the end of it. Here’s what I had to say, then:

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