Hurried Thoughts on the DNC, Academics, and the Left w/ Benjamin and Adorno

“The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight. Then we will clearly see that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against fascism…The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge – unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.” (Selections from Thesis VIII)

“The subject of historical knowledge is the struggling, oppressed class itself. Marx presents it as the last enslaved class – the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden. This conviction, which has a brief resurgence in the Spartacus League, has always been objectionable to Social Democrats…The Social Democrats preferred to cast the working class in the role of a redeemer of *future* generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This indoctrination made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than by the ideal of liberated grandchildren” – (Selections from Thesis XII)[1]

Social media has been consumed the last two weeks in the RNC and DNC. I include myself in this being-consumed. One of the more interesting phenomenon that is occurring are people whom I often assume (which I really should stop doing) are committed to a basically “leftist” view of history and politics succumbing to a rather banal form of liberal worship (see Sean’s previous post about the distinction between leftism and liberalism). Often this seems to appear in the guise of ‘strategy’ – i.e. Well, if you don’t vote for Hillary you are allowing Fascism to occur with Trump. I have seen this followed by comparisons of our current state of affairs with the Weimar Republic years preceding the rise of the Nazi party. The main thrust of these arguments is to neutralise the seemingly relentless critique that is coming from leftists whom aligned themselves with the Democratic party via Bernie Sanders (and we can all agree that Bernie is still a far cry from what we really want). Justifications are seen from all directions at this point, justifications for the status quo foreign and domestic policies that attempt to distance the Democratic party and HRC from any “outlying” issues of racist violence, conflict with certain Islamic groups, the violence done to the environment, etc.

I cannot help but think that these attempts by so many brilliant people I look up to in academia are nothing more than a desperately wilful attempt to not acknowledge the complicity of the Democrats and HRC in creating all of these problems, attempts that seek to neutralise relentless determinate critique (to blur my Benjamin references with some Adorno) in the name of utility.

The frame upon which the argument from utility rests is the frame that created Trump and HRC, in addition to so many of the aforementioned problems. Yet, so many seem to be doubling down within that frame, playing the internal dynamics of an already oppressive system – i.e. the dynamics between the ‘progressive liberal capitalist’ and the Fascist capitalist – on cue, rather than nourishing these real moments of critique that clearly expose the inherent lie at the core of a liberal politics of progress and redemption, the lie that we and the status quo just-are-good, that we happen upon moments of crisis rather than seeing that the crisis is our politics of liberal progress, that this politics is simply the other side of the same coin of what Trump is talking about. This desperate need to turn away from determinate critique is evidenced in both the resurgence of a language of American exceptionalism in the DNC speeches, and in the small expressions of nostalgia for Obama by ‘progressive’ academics on social media.

I know that politics is not voting and that organising is not equivalent with FB posting and canvasing for the main political parties in our country. But I am troubled by the acquiescence of so many scholars to the frame of liberal progressivism vs. Fascism, an acquiescence that only can serve to perpetuate oppressive violence, rather than enact violence against the frame itself.

[1] Both taken from: Walter Benjamin. Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Vol. 4. Ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. (Cambridge: MA, Harvard University Press, 2006). p. 392, 394.

The Uselessness of Bodies: Race and Economy Intertwined

About a year ago I wrote a post on the logic of use-value as applied to race, pointing out that in the logic of capital, use value is the only value that matters–except when it comes to white bodies. White bodies are inherently valuable, while bodies of color are not. In the wake of two more murders of black men (about 130 in 2016 so far) it seemed like a good time to revisit this, particularly because so many of the white responses that I’ve seen on social media have drawn attention to the fact that Sterling sold CDs outside the convenience store where he was murdered. Those same people have also struggled to find a “good reason” for Philando Castile’s murder since they can’t appeal to how he made a living. The shootings in Dallas have also drawn some equivocation between the death of police officers and the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The main point of the post is this: How people respond to these deaths is a matter of whether or not they see the lives taken as having inherent value, and the difference between use value and inherent value is vital for seeing the difference between these deaths.

The difference between use value and inherent value is important for understanding the effects of capital on how we see race in this country, in particular how white people who fully embrace that logic see race. It is not that the logic of capital created racism in the strict sense or vice versa. Rather, we need to see how these two ways of thinking are intertwined so that we can take steps forward. In short, use value is a red herring in thinking about why these murders happen, and the insistence that it be primary under the logic of capital prevents us from seeing the way we see inherent value in some lives but not others. The back to back murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile make this blindingly obvious.

Under capitalism, the value of something is determined strictly by conversion into capital, including human beings. For most people, this means their labor-power is indicative of how much they are worth as people. It’s the old “Protestant work ethic” put into more concrete monetary terms, and it’s a logic that is likely readily familiar to anyone who has been told that “laziness” is a vice while people who work hard for the money they earn are virtuous. If all that were in play in this logic were strictly mathematical conversions from labor-power to salary to size-of-house and type-of-car, understanding it would be a lot simpler, because we could say that in all situations, a person simply is what he or she is worth in terms of labor power under the logic of capital.

But it isn’t that simple because we want to believe that there is a “human” element within us that regulates this “pure” version of capitalism, preventing anyone from truly becoming just a robot. This “human” element is the identification of a value in human beings that extends beyond use value–an inherent value of human life. And it is at this precise point that race and economy become importantly intertwined. White people see themselves as having inherent value in addition to use value–and no one else–but must claim that they see all life as having inherent value because they know to not do so would just be seen as openly racist. This is why movements like “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” really mean “White Lives Matter.” With the claim of inherent value of all life in place, proponents of these movements must find some other reason a person like Alton Sterling had to die. These two strands of thought go hand in hand. All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter are appeals to the inherent value of white bodies, constructed precisely because any counter movement that tries to claim that other bodies also share any modicum of inherent value is a threat.

We can see this logic play out in the responses to Alton Sterling, but also Eric Garner and scores of other black men who have been murdered by the police. The defense among those (predominately white people) who side with the police is that these men were thugs, hustlers, shady, because they were engaged in what is deemed useless economic activity. This article from The Washington Post identifies the difference well. The “side hustle” (in the form of ride sharing or AirBnB) is acceptable if it has been sanctioned by whiteness. It is made inherently valuable by its connection to whiteness. Other shadow economies are unacceptable precisely because they lack this connection and thus the validity of inherent value. This lack of inherent value is easily disguised, however, through an appeal to use value by asking questions about criminal records, why these men couldn’t get a “real job,” etc.

The juxtaposition of Philando Castile’s murder throws this logic into complete disarray. Castile, by all accounts, worked hard at his job serving children. An appeal to use value can’t defend his murder. He was a law-abiding citizen through and through. The only recourse that defenders of law enforcement have is to focus on the individual officers and try and show that they themselves didn’t have a racist bone in their bodies and therefore Castile must have done something. The false narrative that all lives are inherently valuable must be upheld.

The deaths of five police officers in Dallas also brings this problem to our attention. It has provided an out for supporters of law enforcement in the immediate wake of Castile’s murder. The police are the paramount example of what it means for a person to have inherent value. The lives of police officers are always taken as inherently valuable precisely because they safeguard the proper operation of economy. They are, in fact, only inherent value. The police don’t “produce” anything in the normal sense of economic production; they ensure that production continues uninterrupted.

I think that it is perfectly reasonable and acceptable to be against the death of another human being. I am against killing people. But it’s also a mistake to conflate the deaths of these officers with the deaths of black people at the hands of the police. To do so continues to ignore the fact that black lives are seen as both useless and inherently valueless in this country, while the lives of police officers are the very definition of inherent value under capitalism.

Privation, Excess and Lack in Sein und Zeit


The following is a footnote from a recent paper on Sein und Zeit that refers to an ongoing discussion with my colleague Martin Becker regarding how to think about privation in Heidegger and Benjamin’s work. The coincidence of lack and excess, of void and opening, is, I think, an important part of what might be called an apophatic element of Heidegger’s thinking, following my advisor (at least I think).

“Logically it makes no ‘apparent’ sense to speak of a lack in Heidegger’s schema, since privation does not signify a relationship to a reality of fullness that one reaches in the future. There is only this contingency of Dasein upon its ‘now,’ having been thrown into the world, toward that which is unrealizable, and without a decision of Dasein’s own. Yet I am not sure that we need the contrast between ultimate fullness and lack in order for the latter term to remain logically sensible. ‘Excess’ and the impossibility of ‘outstripping’ likewise typically rely upon a contrast between what is realizable and what is beyond realization. In the sense that excess names a purely ontological feature of Dasein’s Being-in-the-world, and not a theological eschaton, excess does not refer to any-thing that lies beyond a deficient present. Such a rendering would mistake both excess and privation as present-at-hand terms. Rather, excess names the immanent fact of Being unable to overtake that toward which one is oriented, and the fact of this inability to overtake is what we can properly call the primordial lack.”

A Brief Note on the Difference Between Liberalism and Leftism

A number of people on social media and in the news today have been expressing anger at the Sanders campaign for refusing to withdraw from candidacy moving into the Democratic National Convention. The campaign–so the complaint goes–has lost any serious chance at the Democratic nomination for the presidency, and should withdraw, because any refusal to withdraw at this point only serves to undermine party unity in the face of its opposition to Trump in the general election. This complaint is based on two related assumptions:

  1. That the only point to Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the presidency was to actually win the presidency.
  2. That disrupting the vote against the presumptive Republican nominee (Trump stand in here, but if it had been Cruz or anyone else, I don’t think we can imagine that the rhetoric would differ) is a tacitly conservative move, because the political arena is circumscribed by two electoral options.

These two assumptions seem predicated, however, on forgetting the terms of Sanders’ original run, and on foreclosing a host of alternative conceptions of politics. In the first case, those angry with Sanders’ continued run have forgotten that the original goal of the Sanders campaign was never to directly seek the presidency. The massive outpouring of support and momentum that made his nomination appear to be a real possibility during the primary season came as no less of a surprise to Sanders campaigners than it did to the political punditry. Instead, Sanders originally campaigned in a bid to pressure the Democratic platform in a leftward direction. This is not to say that the real possibility of gaining the nomination didn’t come as a pleasant surprise, or that it was hypocritical to reach for that goal while it appeared possible. Insofar as exerting platform pressure was the initial goal, however, and insofar as the tradition for Democratic candidates moving into the DNC after the primaries is to reposition rightward in an attempt to prepare for the general election, maintaining the campaign as long as possible is completely consistent with that goal, and building party unity would in fact be antithetical to that goal.

This, in turn, brings up the second issue: is disrupting the unity of the Democratic party a tacitly right-wing move, insofar as anything that’s not beneficial to the Democrats is beneficial to the GOP? While I’d hesistate to directly identify Sanders and leftism, what these reactions seem to obscure are a few fundamental differences between liberal and leftist politics, and those differences are worth reiterating, because they’re a helpful proxy for the obscured premise of the reactions in question.

It’s a basic tenet of any left theory of politics that the State, and thus electoral politics, are not the primary locus of political struggle. This is because, insofar as left theory incorporates some form of a critique of capital, it also entails a critique of the form of the liberal State. What this means, in brief, is that in contrast to liberalism, where the apparatus of the State (rightly ordered, of course) is taken to be the very thing that makes politics possible, leftisms have to theorize a locus for politics that logically precedes the State. The State has to have a genesis. Now, obviously, different forms of leftism are going to identify the key locus of politics, or the key antagonism that politics must address very differently. But it’s only for the liberal–who, by necessity, sees the form of the State as a condition for politics to be legible at all–that there are only two options, and that to harm the Democratic party is to benefit the right. For leftists, not only is the Democratic party itself part of “the right,” but the location of political antagonism is to be found elsewhere, as is the locus of political struggle. Involvement in the electoral process may or may not be tactically pertinent, but either way, it’s not the plane upon which politics plays out, as leftist movements have historically understood.

Not Enough Time is Time Enough – iPhone Notes

I think it is strange that, upon reflecting on my life, I think my time so short. I have no other reference for my life-time that what I-am. What I am is finitude, I am only ever someone born and someone who will die. I am always dying. So why is it that I feel my time is too short, that life doesn’t last long *enough?* I think this is part of the tension of what Heidegger calls Dasein’s being-toward-death, which is being-toward-possibility itself insofar as I never experience my own death as an event. The entirety of who I am is only intelligible as finite, ‘finite’ names the unitary phenomenon of my being born, my dying and the anticipation of my death. That I never am outside of anticipation discloses the entirety of my Being as temporality.

So what do I make of my feeling that there is never *enough* if I have no reference to anything other than who I am? What do I make of this pressure I feel? It seems that this pressure is simply the phenomenological texture of time, of my life, for-me. I am this pressure, my relationships to others are this pressure, the world for-me is this pressure.

Love and Futurity- A Thought

Love and Futurity: there is always an incompleteness, an inadequacy that constitutes our orientation toward-possibility and with/toward-others. In both cases an irresolvable tension constitutes our relations – namely, between the act of and identity in love, and the quality of the other, of the not-yet, that forever eludes culmination, or fulfillment, in any total sense on the side of one’s Self. Loving an-other is the act of engaging, perhaps even building this tension. My love of an-other is only so insofar as my love never overtakes the excessive quality of the other in relation to both myself and my act(s) of love. Such a view discloses the temporal dimension as a constitutive element of what we see in the phenomenon of love, in acts of love. I hug those that are closest to me in-love, attempting to hold onto what inevitably goes away. So too does each moment of my falling in the world attempt to make graspable and arrest what invariably goes away. Indeed, the presence of what I hold is only intelligible by the fact of its potential-to-go-away. It is this characteristic of tension that I believe accounts for the coincidence of pleasure and pain when love manifests. Too, that words seem to fail in our attempts to express “exactly” how we feel toward those whom we love discloses this tension as constitutive for our Being-in-love with others, a dimension of solicitude left latent in Heidegger’s treatment in Being and Time.

The Irrational Event and HBO’s The Leftovers

I’m looking forward to the HBO series The Leftovers, which will begin its second season on October 4. I enjoyed the show immensely last summer despite my initial reservation regarding the involvement of a former Lost producer. One of the reasons for my enjoyment, of course, is that I think the premise of the show is quite beautifully explicative of a lesser known or recognized aspect of Max Weber’s theory of religion: The rejection of a totalizing material explanation for religious ideas in favor of understanding the latter’s efficacy in their political, social, economic, and historical contexts.

Last summer, I caught a review of the pilot episode from Slate‘s Culture Gabfest podcast. The questions and speculation surrounding the supposed aims of the show were what drove an ultimately tepid review. As I say, the reservations are not without good reason given the way that Lost spiraled out of control and, in retrospect, never really found any solid footing in terms of a premise to begin with. Reflecting back, the entire series was mystery all the way down with the promise of some kind of satisfying explanation. Deep down, I think most of us knew by the end of the fourth or fifth season (maybe much earlier) that the writers and producers probably weren’t going to be able to pull off anything satisfying. What drove the popularity of the show was the allure of a material explanation that would tie up all the mystery in a nice bow, giving us a collective sigh of relief. So strong was this allure that everything that happened in the show was somehow tied back to this center–which ended up being essentially non-existent. In other words, both action and character development on Lost never moved forward in any meaningful way. It was always directed backward, or inward, to the mysterious core, the material explanation that would make everything make sense.

And so this review immediately jumped on the premise of The Leftovers, which is based on a novel of the same name: 140 million people worldwide disappear on Oct. 14, 2011, and no one knows why. Given the first season, one thing is clear: We will never find out what happened to those people because the answer to that mystery is not what drives the narrative. It is fundamentally the opposite structure of Lost even though both shows begin in more or less the same way–the introduction of a mystery whose fog hangs over the entire series.

Rather than the cause of the mystery, The Leftovers is interested in exploring what Weber would call an irrational interjection into the rational progress of history. How do human beings respond to incomprehensible tragedy, paradox, revolution, and prophecy? The Leftovers is about the formation of new ideologies–religious ideologies in particular–out of the chaos of history. It is about the consequences of the introduction of the unexplainable, the prophetic, and the mystical into history and the ways in which these introductions render everything that follows irreversibly changed.

Weber’s understanding of theodicy is germane here. In Sociology of Religion, Weber devotes a chapter to a material account of the rise of theodicies among both wealthy and impoverished classes. His argument is that theodicies provide rational explanations of evil and fortune that would be able to reconcile why some had much and others had basically nothing. This explanation is not new. Weber is essentially borrowing from previous intellectualist traditions in theories of religion from the 19th century. The explanation is also weak and, frankly, not that interesting, but Weber then follows this analysis in the next chapter with a really interesting move. He drops the intellectualist explanation for theodicy from his analysis of what theodicy does. In other words, the political, economic, and social effects of the popular circulation of theodicies within a society have nothing to do with their “original” material cause. You can’t get to those effects from the material causes without the circulation of religious ideas (their social psychology) that bridges them.

One could potentially trace a line from the beginnings of rational explanations for fortune and evil to, for example, the development of the Protestant ethic and then the spirit of capitalism, but the reasons why Weber thinks these kinds of rational explanations devlop fit more into his broader theory about rationalization as a general feature of human life rather than as something that has specific explanatory purchase on later historical concepts like the spirit of capitalism. And when an irrational experience, idea, figure, event enters the scene, material explanations go completely out the window. That’s because, for Weber, the “concepts” that drive history in radically different directions are formed out of confrontation with the irrational.

For example, for Weber, the Calvinistic belief that one stands alone before a God whose motives are wholly irrational (i.e. not approachable by human reason) coupled with the previously existing general dominance of “moral behavior” in Christianity, generates a particular mode of moral activity (inner-worldly asceticism) that in turn produces the spirit of contemporary capitalism: the earning of money for the sake of money itself. (You can find a more detailed explanation of these moves in Weber here and here.) Importantly, it is the specific Calvinistic formulation of the problem of the relationship between God, world, and individual Christian that has causal efficacy rather than the underlying, “rational-material” cause of that formulation that would tie it to any other such formulation (i.e. in other religious practices/systems.) There is an irrational, terrifying relationship between God-I-world that necessitates the generation of new modes of social organization.

The collective character of The Guilty Remnant in The Leftovers represents Weber’s analysis quite explicitly–to the point of actually incorporating it into the core of their own system and ritual practice. Their aim is to continually instantiate the original event that generated a new way of being in the world. They don’t want anyone to forget what happened on the day 140 million people disappeared. But their interest is not simply the exercise of memory. As in Christianity, it is performative. It’s the institutionalization of the event’s irrationality into the collective memory which will generate a new politics, social structure, and economy. The Guilty Remnant, however, reverses the Christian performance of the Eucharist (or, one might say, negates it) because the very idea that reasons don’t matter–that a causal explanation for the mass disappearance is irrelevantis actually integral to their practice.

In the penultimate episode of season one, Patti Levin (Ann Dowd), the leader of The Remnant, tells Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) that she thinks about the day of the disappearance “every fucking waking moment” but that “it doesn’t matter what happened.” This is precisely the opposite of Christianity. In both cases, we have an event which, for the faithful, utterly changes universal history. Yet in Christianity, we have a teleological cause; God’s ultimate and final reconciliation of the world to himself necessitates the Christ-event. In the case of The Remnant, there is no cause. They have explicitly institutionalized the original charisma of the event-sans-reason. It is a rejection of both the classical religious explanation as well as the reductive materialist explanation. There is no why and it is in the very act of performing this rejection that the center of The Remnant’s religious power resides. In continually instantiating the irrationality of the event, they attempt to resist the reification and institutionalization of the event on its behalf. For example, in the finale, by orchestrating the placement of the life-like mannequins of the disappeared in their former homes, The Remnant forces the citizens of Mapleton to recall the charismatic power of the original event, which in turn tears down the edifice of normalcy and solemn acknowledgement erected by the local government.

It’s unclear what endgame, if any, there is for The Remnant other than to be a living negative force (in Adorno’s sense) against the institutionalization of the event–to ensure that people understand that everything has now changed. All attempts to return to “the normal” reify and mask the irrational event as merely an aberration, a tragic but ultimately insignificant historical event to be commemorated like any other tragedy (with State acknowledgment, parades, memorials, holidays, etc.) The Leftovers, then, is not merely an indictment of institutionalized religion. It is also an indictment of the modern project of history, of empiricist accounts of religions. It is critical of attempts to synthesize the once irrational event into a rational flow of cause and effect, rather than attempt to seize upon the tension the irrational produces within the political, social, and economic and ask how its circulation contributes to new forms of social organization.

What if the ‘gun debate’ is, fundamentally, a confusion?

Bee_A1-536x409Or, America doesn’t have a gun problem, it has a race problem.

Over the last few days, in response to the shooting deaths of a Virginia news team consisting of reporter Alison Parker and cameraman Adam Ward, a familiar cycle of debate has occupied news media and, if my own feed is any anecdotal indication, social media as well; the ‘gun debate.’ Columnist Nicholas Krystoff, for instance, reminds us that “more Americans have died from guns in the United States since 1968 than on battlefields of all the wars in American history.” Given such an ‘epidemic’ of gun-related deaths, one more-or-less unique to American society, it seems crucial to determine how, exactly one might reduce this figure. The form this debate has taken in the last several decades of American political theater should familiar enough to readers that I don’t need to rehearse more than the basic arguments here. Either–the story goes–the solution to the ‘gun problem’ lies in some form of increased regulation of access to guns, or it lies in distributing guns broadly enough to dissuade shooters from risking reciprocation. And so, invariably, the question is framed in terms of the appropriate form and level of ‘gun control:’ are there any, and if so what are the correct, limits to be placed on the ability to access guns? Presumably, mental health, the existence of a criminal record, etc. are common indices that such controls could be framed around. I want to suggest, however, that this approach to the question of gun violence in America is fundamentally confused, no matter which ‘side’ of the debate one occupies. It should be obvious to anyone with even a cursory understanding of American society that gun violence itself simply indexes other antagonisms that structure American society. And, I want to suggest, it indexes one antagonism particularly directly: white supremacy, or, antiblackness. If this is in fact the case, then it follows that to frame the problem in terms of ‘guns’ is to reify the index at the expense of the antagonisms indexed. Without attempting to offer a comprehensive model or account of the racialization of American gun issues, I want to offer a few brief indicators that any analysis of gun deaths in America that presumes to actually address the problem needs to move away from the question of ‘gun control’ or its inverse ‘gun rights’ and directly address questions of antiblackness.

1. First of all, one cannot forget that the question of race is always tied directly into the history of ‘gun control’ debates. From the explicit framing of the Dred Scott decision in terms of keeping firearms out of black hands,1  to gun control’s place at the forefront of the KKK’s early agenda (culminating, notably, in the institution of the Black Codes), the early history of gun control in the United states is more-or-less explicitly the history of the disarmament of black Americans. One cannot forget, for instance, that the passing of the Gun Control Act of 1968 was viable in large part as a response to the Black Panther party’s open-carry occupation of the California legislature in response to California’s own Mulford Act of 1967, which was explicitly framed to disarm the Panthers in the face of the police. If the history of the ‘gun control’ lobby is tied up with antiblackness however, it is not the case that, conversely, the emergence of an organized ‘gun rights’ lobby has been any less tied to this history of antiblackness. Gun shows, of course, are one of the most consistent places one can go to find far-right, explicitly racist organizations recruiting. Further, even the rhetoric of more mainstream conservative gun advocates relies on a barely concealed specter of racialized criminality for intelligibility. Homeowners should have guns because, after all, the ‘criminals’ will always-already have them, and homeowners should be prepared to defend themselves from criminal (read: black) interlopers.

2. Secondly, there’s the transparent disconnect between the incidents of gun violence that ‘bring up’ the gun control question, and those that make up the sorts of alarming statistics that Krystoff draws attention to. The perpetrators of the sorts of randomized mass shootings that make up the news cycle, after all, overwhelmingly take the form of young, white men. And yet, the faces on both sides of the figures Krystoff cites are overwhelmingly black. The difference in both kind and degree between these subsets of gun violence raises a host of racialized questions. What is it, exactly, that makes white men far more likely than any other group to take life indiscriminately when they feel slighted? Why is it that black Americans die of gun violence at such staggering per capita rates? (Blacks, for instance, accounted for 55% of deaths at the end of a gun in 2010, but only 13% of the overall population) To answer these questions would require asking about the conditions that connect blacks in America overwhelmingly to intractable poverty, poverty to violence, etc. It would require asking questions about white power and entitlement. It would require examining a whole host of questions that have nothing to do with guns per se.

3. Finally, taken together, these two indicators point towards possible explanations for the statistical confusion that underlies both sides of the gun debate. Advocates for both increased controls on gun purchases and for deregulation of gun ownership can smugly point to statistics that seem to indicate that their position, and the narratives that undergird it, more satisfactorily explain and can deal with the realities of American gun violence. Both sides would claim that these massive statistical variances can be explained by flaws in the research methodology of the ‘opposing’ side. But what if there’s a simpler explanation for the wide, almost random-seeming divergences between rates of gun violence and national gun policy? What if the factors effected by gun control legislations are more or less exogenous to the causes of gun violence in America? What if the only way to address ‘gun violence’ in America is not to address guns at all, but to address the ongoing operation of antiblackness in the structure of American society?

1.”For if [the protections of the Bill of Rights] were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police […] It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognised as citizens in any one State of the Union, […] to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went.”

Critical Theories and Conspiracy Theories

There has been a veritable explosion of counter-stream movements in the last few years that have not only gained ground but have actually had serious social effects: Anti-vaccination (fear of medical professionals in general), anti-chemicals-in-food (or “chemicals” in general), continued climate change denial, etc. These movements all operate with a very similar rhetoric which points to a nefarious plot to profit off of an ill-informed and vulnerable public. The key to resistance is to arm yourself with the true scientific (or “alternative”) knowledge that isn’t being produced for profit. The recent surge of hidden camera footage produced by pro-life activists in an attempt to defund Planned Parenthood is exemplary of this logic as well. That case is particularly interesting because we have a now decades old position (anti-abortion/pro-life) being presented as an exposé of a conspiracy to profit from the sale of dead babies and in the name of “mainstream science.”

For those of us arguing against this kind of rhetoric, it often feels like talking to a wall. The response is typically that we have been sucked in, are blind to the reality that is all around us, are uncritical shills ourselves. It often feels as though the very arguments that we generate against these theories get turned on us. “You think I’m being uncritical? You’re the one being controlled by Big Pharma/the liberal media/the abortion industry/etc. Wake up!” The script is flipped. And the truth is, the rhetoric of these claims is eerily similar to the kind of social philosophy that has been the core of the humanities since the middle of the 20th century–the kind of social and cultural criticism out of which many of us are attempting to build a career. Furthermore, given the proliferation of the theories mentioned above, we are force to ask: What is the difference between a critical theory and a conspiracy theory? Why can’t a conspiracy theory be critical or vice versa–or are those in fact interchangeable?

The French sociologist Bruno Latour thinks, in general, they are. In his 2004 essay entitled “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Latour laments this very thing: that a suspicion of “fact” first leveled in the post-structural and critical theory of the mid-20th century has become almost indistinguishable from contemporary conspiracy theories. He begins the essay citing a number of examples where dissenters engaged in political discourse surrounding particular matters of fact cast those facts as somehow “undecided,” “produced,” “contested” in some way. For example, even though most scientists agree that global warming is a human-caused phenomenon, a “Republican strategist” can counter this fact with an appeal to the incompleteness of the evidence rather than direct evidence to the contrary (which he knows does not exist.) In other words, he aims to establish a lack of scientific certainty.

Do you see why I am worried? Latour writes. I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show “the lack of scientific certainty” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a “primary issue.” But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument–or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?

Latour’s concern here is heightened even more today in a way that he probably could not have imagined even just ten years ago. Though the Internet was already showing signs of movement toward larger and larger echo-chamberfication, there were certain mediums that did not yet exist; namely, vast networks of social media. YouTube didn’t exist. MySpace, Friendster and the like were at nowhere near the level of information production and circulation that Facebook and Twitter are today. But for this reason, Latour’s “criticism of criticism” is perhaps even more important in our contemporary climate. Latour continues, chastising those of us making a career out of social and cultural criticism:

Let me be mean for a second. What’s the real difference between conspiracists and a popularized, that is a teachable version of social critique inspired by a too quick reading of, let’s say, a sociologist as eminent as Pierre Bourdieu [. . .]? In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes–society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism–while conspiracists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below.

Before I get to Latour’s solution, I want to parse this relationship between the structure of conspiracy and critique a bit more. Drawing a sharper distinction between critical and conspiracy theories at this point will help us to see how we can further distinguish them using Latour’s solution. Latour points out here, I think, only a surface level rhetorical similarity between these two discourses. He is right that there is a structural or formal similarity, but even that is only superficial. Take any of the examples I mentioned at the opening of the post; those are all structurally similar to each other. There is an entity of some kind that has duped the public into thinking its motives have been above reproach when, in fact, it has been profiting from the public’s suffering, actually putting the public’s well-being into very serious jeopardy. Arguments for the existence of institutional racism or structural socio-economic injustice also seem to follow this same pattern. There is an entity to which certain segments of the population are blind. Their continued blindness has perpetuated a threat that has always been there but is now institutionalized through its normalization (i.e. because these segments of the population think of it as normal, they can’t see it as a problem.)

However, we can already begin to see in these examples the important differences to which Latour does not give enough attention in his initial analysis. These differences, I think, can be summed up in the difference between entities. Latour does admit that while conspiracy theories identify a physical group of people, critical theories are interested in abstractions–society, discourse, etc. But this isn’t a small difference. To be sure, critical social and cultural theories accuse more “visible” entities too. For example, we implicate Halliburton and Dick Cheney in the creation of the second Iraq war. We point to a conspiracy there. The difference is that both the effects of that conspiracy and the conditions that made it possible extend far beyond the aims of the conspirators and into the realm of abstractions such as “capitalism,” “discourse,” “neo-liberalism,” etc.

Those abstractions themselves are not conspiracies in the same sense because those who participate in them are not “historically” complicit in their original creation; they are complicit in their perpetuation and thus their creation by cultural inheritance. In fact, it would be hard to say that these abstractions, though they certainly exist, were “created” in the same way that conspiracy theorists want to say Big Pharma created the “myth of vaccinations.” That’s a really important difference. The latter kind of conspiracy theory is the stuff that Hollywood dramas are made of. They begin and end with the people involved. Critical theories may point to people who are consciously involved in a phenomenon “conspiratorially”–but those conspirators are always only an example, a particular manifestation of a larger systemic problem that always transcends their specific conspiracy.

Latour, I think, downplays too much the necessity of critical cultural and social analysis of discourse, of structures of power, of political economies, etc. Of course, I too have written here in the past about my desire to move beyond mere critique and toward a more constructive discourse. And though I disagree that the state of critique is in as dire a situation as Latour claims it is, I think Latour does provide us with an interesting proposal for doing that.

Latour’s solution to this problem, the confusion between a critical theory and a conspiracy theory, is to move our attention from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern.” In other words, while our previous modes of social critique, e.g. discourse analysis, deconstruction, critical theories of race, gender, and class, etc. have insisted that we move away from “facts” as such and toward the production of those facts, Latour argues the aim of critique “was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism.” A “matter of concern” is a way of talking about phenomena as states of affairs in all of their complexity rather than uncritically accepting what a matter of fact is, thereby limiting our analysis to the production of “bare facts” for the purposes of power. Matters of fact are “objects in the world” in the old, Enlightenment sense of that phrase. They are dead, concretized, and neutral, available for our observation but also our manipulation. Matters of concern, comparatively, are Things in the Heideggerian sense–an object that is struck by an inexhaustible set of connections.

A better way of putting this, I think, is to say that Latour is adding a dimension of value to any social or cultural critique. Matters of concern extend beyond matters of fact precisely because they take into consideration the values that traverse them and make them what they are. By “value” I mean descriptions that are not facts–attributions of beauty, certain attributions of goodness or badness, attributions of fear or disgust, etc.

I would contend, then, that Latour’s proposal shares more similarities with the projects of Simmel or Weber, with the added dimension of an ethical standpoint from which analysis is performed–that is, with the dimension of social critique. When Horkheimer and Adorno abandoned the old sociological descriptive project, which was epistemically relative and anti-empiricist, and was championed by the Neo-Kantian sociologists of the early 20th century like Simmel and Weber, we might say, anachronistically, that they also shifted the focus of social analysis from matters of concern to matters of fact. That maybe seems counterintuitive, particularly because these figures (especially Weber) argued polemically against using sociology as a platform for social criticism. Weber thought that had no place in scholarship. But his approach to social phenomena is exactly what Latour describes here. The “historical individual” (a concept I’ve written about here) in Weber’s sociology is almost identical conceptually to what Latour is calling a Thing here. That is, a Thing for Latour is an historical-cultural concept that is formed out of the nexus of other Things and values which cross it and give it its character and significance.

Using this framework casts an even sharper distinction between critical theories and conspiracy theories because we can show how the latter will always be trapped in the logic of matters of fact while the former can easily move beyond facts to concerns. In other words, critical theories are equipped to talk about values (fear, comfort, danger, safety, familiarity, violence, privilege, advantage, etc.) and show how they become transformed into facts: “White people attribute the values of danger and violence to young black men” becomes “Young black men are violent and dangerous” through the normalization of police and other state violence against African Americans as evidenced by the disproportionate number of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers and the disproportionate number of incarcerated African Americans. Conspiracy theories, by contrast, can only describe what they take to be the facts: Big Pharma wants to profit from the death of our children; Mexico is sending us its most violent rapists and other criminals; Abortion is a means for profit from the discarded body parts. You get the idea.

Why Raising Your Voice Matters

The responses from Christians to the SCOTUS ruling last week have fallen across a wide spectrum including all the hits from predictable fear mongering about Christian persecution to more reasonable responses reminding conservative folks that the church isn’t supposed to have any political power to standing united with a group who has received some measure of equality. There’s a response on this spectrum that at first blush seems easy to place because the people championing it tell us that it’s a neutral, middle ground kind of argument. These people are calling for respect on both sides, casting Jesus as neither Democrat or Republican but “just Jesus” as a means of arguing that everyone should try and love everyone else. Here are some reasons why this “middle ground” is not neutral at all.

The folks calling for this “ceasefire” are almost all white straight males. People who have never been the victims of systemic injustice have the luxury to ruminate over the potential negative effects of a watershed decision like the one last week. They have the ability to consider the feelings of the oppressors (even if they claim to understand the plight of the oppressed) and ask whether we’re being too hasty, thereby potentially infringing on the rights of those oppressors or maybe even just hurting their feelings with the way we talk about this issue.

The moderate position is attractive because it situates itself as having critically considered all view points equally. Like Libertarianism, it has an “in-the-know” quality that marks those who espouse it as privy to something concealed from the majority of other people. For Libertarians, it’s knowledge of particular government operations and agendas that “someone” is trying to obscure from public view–only those smart enough to see it can. For moderates, it’s the sense of clarity that they attribute to themselves over those on either the left or the right–a division, by the way, which is always uniquely demarcated by the moderate person. The moderate claims a unique sense of clarity on the issue which is unavailable to either the conservative or the progressive person. That doesn’t mean that moderates are always smug and self-satisfied. Nor are they stupid. I think the opposite is true actually. They have a firm utilitarian conviction that what they’re after is happiness for the largest number of people, and they see love and respect as the best road toward that goal.

Moderate Christians, who think that those celebrating last week’s decision are dangerously aligning the church with the state, who want to remind everyone that, yes, Jesus wasn’t a Republican, but he wasn’t a Democrat either, are misunderstanding something very important though–the reality of facing systemic oppression. From the moderate perspective, conservatives should drop the vitriol and carefully consider the arguments of the opposition. On the other side, progressives are supposed to treat conservatives with more respect, understanding that they’re people of tradition, and not inherently bad. This, however, misses the point. The argument from the progressive side is not that conservatives who want to deny equal rights to same-sex couples are inherently bad people; it’s that the system in which we have all been complicit is bad and needs to change.

Moderates and probably many conservatives (at least in Chicago) wouldn’t flinch at all at the idea that there exists a bad system in which we are all complicit, if that idea is put in the context of race. If you live in a densely populated urban area (as my wife and I do), it is an inescapable reality. It confronts you daily. No one would ever think to return to those passages once used both implicitly and explicitly to build this system in the first place and say, “Now hold on everyone–are we sure we aren’t stepping on the feet of those with a religious conviction that the races should remain separate?” I see no tenable reason to think that the issue of homosexuality is going to be any different.

If there’s one thing that the movement for gay rights can learn from the landmark decisions on the part of racial minorities that were made 40-50 years ago, it’s this: The fight is far from over. Those who have lost their jobs, have been denied housing, have been bullied to the point of suicide, have been maimed or murdered have no time to nicely explain to those on the other side of these acts of horrible oppression why they want them to stop. They don’t owe them a nice discussion about it either. And the ruling last week doesn’t end those things. There is so much more work still to be done.

It’s true that this work is going to involve a lot of dialogue. But it is not the case that said dialogue need involve a patient respect on the part of the LGBTQ community for opinions that are clearly bigoted and wrong, that are causing violence against them. As a white, straight, male Christian, I may have the time and and ability to speak lovingly and patiently with people who think that SCOTUS made the wrong decision, who want to double down on their reading of the Bible, etc. Certainly, there are people in my life with whom I want to be patient and loving when it comes to this issue because many are my friends and family. Most of my friends and family are thoughtful, caring people, and when you’re a thoughtful, caring person, it takes a really long time to come to see that you are actually complicit in a system whose construction you had nothing to do with but whose benefits you receive daily.

At the same time, I have to recognize that the middle school boy who is just beginning to realize that he is definitely gay does not have the same opportunity to have a patient dialogue about this realization. I have to recognize that the woman denied a job or housing for being gay does not have the time to patiently listen to those who have just denied her those things explain their reasons for why they think homosexuality is a sin. So while I have the incredible luxury of patience and kindness on the one hand, I also stand with folks who do not have that luxury, who need voices to be raised because they are actually in danger. My voice is raised not because I’m being hasty, not because I haven’t considered all the angles, but because real lives are at stake, and my religious commitments call on me to do something about that.