Tag Archives: politics

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:

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, 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.

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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One writes as one reads. Few are the things I like reading more than a great review. Take Samuel Moyn, recently, in the Boston Review on Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism:

Yet there is little insight in this book into how liberalism in the past half century has risked becoming illiberal precisely in response to external threats that, its political theorists insisted, demanded a return to basics. In response to Communism, Isaiah Berlin did not so much defend as deform the liberal tradition, which to that point had focused less on the fight against ideological enemies (except Christianity itself) than on the institutionalization of freedom and equality. Siedentop’s conviction that radical Islam prompts the West to respond with moral clarity about what it represents is the continuation of Berlin’s project: the reinterpretation of liberalism in the face of presumed enemies. Siedentop dallies in the Middle Ages in implausible reaction to anxiety and worry, distorting the history of liberalism and omitting how much further it had to go—still has to go—to take individual freedom and equality seriously.

That is an amazing paragraph. I think a good review should give the reader as sense of 1) the original text as it understands itself and 2) the unvarnished judgment of the reviewer. Judgment is the key, because often academic journals are littered with faint praise and faint criticism, or superficialities that teach us nothing. I don’t care if you liked the book, or hated it. How do you judge the work, in your capacity as a learned individual, with some expertise in the area?  This is what matters.  I don’t want compassionate reviewers but humane ones, who know who to praise and blame.  The modern ur-text here is Miguel Vatter’s review of Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty:

First, I wish to say something about the book in terms of its exegesis of Schmitt. I don’t think Kahn is claiming to be saying anything “new” about Schmitt, either in general or on Political Theology in particular. Since there exist by now hundreds of books and articles on Schmitt and his political theology in German, French, Italian, Spanish (and, since the late 1980s, English), and since Kahn’s thin book lacks even a basic bibliographical treatment of this material and one that does not go beyond secondary literature in English, one would have to assume that this text is not really intended to contribute to the scholarly literature on Schmitt.

This is how you review a book.  If you have a better example I’d love to read it.

Over the last couple of months I’ve had a couple of reviews published. Both books are excellent. And they are quite related. The first is Nicholas Rengger’s Just War and International Order: The Uncivil Condition in World Politics for the Review of Faith and International Affairs. The second is Robert Howse’s Leo Strauss: Man of Peace for E-International Relations. Both are published with Cambridge University Press. I want to say a couple of things that didn’t make it into the reviews for the sake of space.

First, regarding Rengger’s book. It is remarkable the extent to which just war is totally misunderstood, and the reasons causing us to misunderstand it. His point is, essentially that once politics began to question the morality of certain tactics of war, the big question of whether a war was just became displaced by the question of whether our actions were legal. This is a hugely important change because it is no longer easy or clear that we should ask whether or not to allow violence to enter politics but how and in what way politics is violent. This is quite obviously related to the question of security, which only arrives in full bloom once Machiavelli and Hobbes have had their way with the holy books. Violence is permitted too easily. Far too easily. I’m writing this post under the environment of the American Senate releasing the executive summary of its committee report on torture. The questions, “is it worth it?” or “Is it permissible?” miss the moral point. Merely posing them means some kind of moral introspection about the relationship between politics and violence has been lost.

This relationship between politics and violence is a running them in Howse’s book. Strauss, it turns out, has a great deal to say about international politics, state violence, international law, and so on. Howse covers an incredible range of material, in Strauss’s written work and in his newly available lecture transcripts. One point which I left out of the review is that using the transcripts is not as difficult as at first seems, despite their quasi-private character. This procedure is perfectly legitimate, as Strauss used it himself. In his introductory essay to Mendelssohn’s The Morning Hours and the Friends of Lessing, Strauss uses the private correspondence between Jacobi and Mendehlssohn to clear up ambiguities in the public record regarding Lessing’s “Spinozism,” that is, whether he was an atheist. Certainly if private correspondence is suitable for that weighty subject, the less private character of classroom conversations can be used for insights regarding questions of everyday political relevance.

The one thing I loved about Howse’s book is how it puts to rest any doubt that Strauss resembles the caricature usually represented in popular media. The polemical case against this has already been made by a handful of others in the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq, but now we have a philosophical case against this nonsense. Any writers who continue extolling that simplistic tripe demonstrate the shortcomings of their reading habits. To wit, this bizarre review by Richard Wolin in the Chronicle of Higher Education. We leave this review learning more about Richard Wolin than either Leo Strauss or Rob Howse’s book. Though Wolin has faced criticism recently about his reviews.

Two reviews well worth reading are from Steven Smith and Benjamin Wurgaft.

Video of a dialogue on the book held at Penn State with commentary from Anne Norton is available here.

First things. After many, many, months (i.e. almost two years) I finally finished Tecumseh and Brock – what a wonderful book. One thinks the Canadian government’s valourization of these two eminent figures of Canadian history was the right intention, poorly executed. (Next will be The Civil War of 1812).

I am also looking for a treatment of the rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada in 1838/9 that is truly a work of political history. If you’ve stumbled across this space and have some suggestions, please share.

Like the rest of the world I inhabit, I’ve started reading Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Doubt I’ll have more to say than what has already been printed. I recommend Larry Arnhart’s thoughts, comparing Piketty’s account of the origins of inequality with the light and compass on that topic.

Oh, I’ve read Crazytown, the story of the incredible last year in my humble metropolis. The title is appropriate. I also read a fantastic book (on the recommendation of Elise) by John Vaillant: The Tiger. This gripping account of life in the Taiga is superb writing. This author is a notch above Krakauer who is far more famous in this genre. Next up is The Golden Spruce.

But the purpose of this post is the intellectual autobiography by McMaster Professor Emeritus Janet Ajzenstat: Discovering Confederation. This book is a treasure, and permanent possession. If only more academics would be so brave to recount their relationship to the great and permanent questions – but this first requires the bravery and courage to face these questions. And though it’s an autobiography one learns far more about Canada than about Ajzenstat. This book is a window into the essence of the Canadian founding, or at least one path there. It is for that reason necessary reading – not just for any Canadian, but especially for them – but for those of us who aspire to a truly liberal education. Here is an example of a scholar devoting a lifetime of study to the regime in which she was cultured and educated, in order to divine some insight into the permanent problems of political life – i.e. good and just governance, the exercise of freedom, the struggle for equality, and so on. Canada’s governing institutions come to life not as some counterrevolution as I was taught, or some afterthought, or some accident, but as a purposefully chosen. When Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said that the constitution was not worth the paper it’s written on, he could not be further from the truth nor a better example of the need for a thorough evaluation of Canadian civic education.

The highlights of this book for me are many. The kind words for one of my supervisors (whose heavily annotated copy of Ajzenstat’s Political Thought of Lord Durham I have been lucky to inherit). The shade throwing on my university library for its past greatness and current shame. The gloss on her Rabbi who remains unnamed but must have been Rabbi Stanley Weber, and whose dissertation on Strauss I’ve written about previously in this space. And the wonderful recollections of Allan Bloom during his Toronto days, and her fond memories of his Emile course. As a student of political philosophy whose culminating year at U of T was spent reading Emile with one of Bloom’s most famous students, before arriving at McMaster to study political theory and modernity, Ajzenstat’s book is a beautiful depiction of the two places my education has called home.

These personal attachments to her story are, of course, not so important to those with a different biography. But her book, as her career, does its best work advocating for the importance of the way Canada’s Fathers of Confederation answered the most pressing question that humanity has ever face: “How must we live?”. I should turn to the edited collection on Canada’s Founding Debates right away.

I dare you to find someone currently reading a better crop of books right now than I am. OK, slight hyperbole, but this is a fun mix of pleasure and dissertation material: 

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind

Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars

James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom (this one has been a slow burn for a while now)

Michel Foucault’s “Society Must be Defended”, Lectures 1975-1976

Thucydides, Kthema es Aei

W. Robert Connor’s Thucydides

Leo Strauss’s Defense of the Philosophic Life: Reading ‘What is Political Philosophy?’ edited by Rafael Major. 

Oh, and Dirk Hayhurst’s Out of My League. (baseball is the most esoteric of sports–being played between the lines, as it is–so this title is allowed).   

Also just finished Philip Gourevitch’s We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families, which is a book deserving of its own post.