Stephen Harper Wants to Spank Canada

April 28, 2011

The same Conservative government that shut down parliament twice and orchestrated one of the greatest human rights abuses in modern Canadian history, has also attempted to invalidate votes cast in an advance ballot by students at Guelph University. Elections Canada has decided that the 241 advance ballots were, in fact, valid, but that all subsequent advance ballots at universities, implemented to encourage students to more easily engage in the democratic process during the busy exam season, will be shut down for this election. The image of Michael Sona, the communications director for Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke, barging into the student voting station and attempting to make off with the ballot box would be comic if it did not typify the conservative orientation to political practice, which is characterized by a flagrant disregard for the central tenants of participatory democracy.

“He tried to grab for the ballot box. I’m not sure he got his hand on the box, but he definitely grabbed for it,” said Brenna Anstett, a student, who at the time of the reported incident was sealing her second of two envelopes containing her vote. (The Record.com)

But what does Harperite cynicism and disrespect for due political practice indicate about the larger socio-political landscape of Canadian? John Meisel of Queen’s University suggests that the “Harperizing of our Minds” has its roots in a political culture based on a top-down model that implements policy from the ideas and mandates of a governmental elite. While Meisel’s article overlooks the way in which progressive agendas such as gay marriage or respect for diverse cultural heritages are grounded in the overlapping concerns of a large portion of the population, it does raise questions about the composition of our post-political society that minimizes democratic participation in favour of cultural or “lifestyle politics.”

This depoliticization works to the benefit of a strong, centralized state that cloaks its hold on power in the guise pastoral care for the population. The modern development that Foucault called the rise of “biopower” turns governance into a form of population management, casting the governed into a largely passive position as the recipients of various programs and policies aimed at fostering the flourishing and productivity of society as a whole. I would argue that this, and not political elitism, is the larger context behind the “top-down” structure of modern politics (political and technocratic elitism being just one of several ideological guises under which biopolitical structures manifest). If this is the case, how are we to understand the popularity of a leader like Harper, whose conservative policies serve to further dismantle social programs, labour protections and other guarantors of communal well-being?

This is where the biopolitical model needs to be coupled with an understanding of the anti-social, capitalist principles that attempt to cast the generation of huge profits for a small minority of shareholders into the guiding principle of economic, and hence social prosperity in current dominant discourses. The incompatibility of the neoliberal economic model with the basic tenets of biopolitics forms the central contradiction of what we might call “biopolitical capitalism,” and provides the ideological milieu in which the popularity of a dictatorial leader like Stephen Harper can be properly understood. For while neoliberalism champions the individualizing and personalizing of risk, it can only do so by liking this privatization — the shifting of the onus for social well being from collectively owned, governmental agencies to private institutions and individuals — to the greater flourishing of society as a whole. This is done by focusing on an image of a “free market economy” as the sole guarantor of social prosperity, and relegating all other issues to a secondary status.

Neoliberal economics demands the privatization and degrading of collectively-funded projects aimed at providing material well being for citizens, while simultaneously strengthening government’s surveillance and control of the people in the service of transnational capital. In place of social equity and security for the most vulnerable, neoliberal governments offer increased policing and incarceration for the growing poor, while the less poor suffer the radical instability of a volatile and irrational capitalist market whose “invisible hand” has been systematically reorganizing global politics for the last forty years in the interests of a tiny minority of extremely wealthy elites. In this context, the biopolitical function of government, coopted by capital, is focused almost exclusively on one function: guaranteeing the reproduction of a cheap, available labour force. The mounting sense of anxiety over loss of job security, erosion of living standards, compromised healthcare and familial support — not to mention degraded cultural institutions and educational systems — translates into a feeling of existential uncertainty and fear whose underlying causes are then disguised and deflected onto the ideology of the “free market” as the final term dictating the health and welfare of communities, countries and individuals.

This climate of fear coupled with ideological obfuscation encourages popular desire for strong, authoritarian leadership whose central platform of economic stewardship promises to lead the country through its difficulties. The cynicism and “realpolitik” exhibited by Harper’s government speaks to a concealed intuition, shared by explicit Conservatives and the merely apathetic alike, that democratic politics has been all but hollowed out by rampant economism. The belief that no alternatives are possible to global capitalism cements this cynism and anxiety, leading to a covert respect for authoritarian figures who are able to “tell it like it is.”

"Which version of the free market would you like us to beat you with?"


Under these circumstances, the biopolitical function of government gradually transmutes into a sado-masochistic relationship between the people and their leaders, a tendency that can be detected, not just in a figure like Harper, but in popular television shows like CBC’s Dragon’s Den and other reality shows. The popular draw of both Conservative politics and reality TV is grounded in the domination of a striving, utopian impulse by a stern and dictatorial “reality principle.” What has been described by Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff as “the politics of fear” might thus be more accurately characterized as the strategic management of ressentiment: convincing people to take pleasure in another’s domination as a form of consolation for one’s own unrecognized subjugation.

Slavoj Žižek characterizes the permissive post-modern superego which, rather than dominating by directly forbidding certain paths of action, allows one to follow one’s forbidden desires by displacing responsibility for them onto an authoritarian figure:

Although, on the surface, the totalitarian master…issues stern orders compelling us to renounce pleasure and to sacrifice ourselves in some higher cause, his effective injunction, discernible between the lines, is a call to unconstrained transgression. Far from imposing on us a firm set of standards to be complied with, the totalitarian master suspends (moral) punishment. His secret injunction is: ‘You may.’ He tells us that the prohibitions which regulate social life and guarantee a minimum of decency are worthless, just a device to keep the common people at bay – we, on the other hand, are free to let ourselves go, to kill, rape, plunder, but only insofar as we follow the master. The London Review

This characterization perfectly describes Steven Harper’s political strategy. By reducing the complexity of democratic governance to a single issue, Harper gives his supporters license to engage in the kind of anti-social — one might even say sociopathic — behaviour that the biopolitical model of contemporary society would not, by its own precepts, allow. With The Economy as their stern Master or Mistress, conservative supporters can freely indulge their desires to oppress women, the poor, immigrants and other vulnerable segments of the population by systematically dismantling the programs and protections whose democratic articulation and institution have been the product of centuries-long struggle.

Should we, then, look to the failure of Canada’s Liberal party to circumvent Harper’s strategic appeal to what is actually a structurally produced political disengagement as evidence of a Frankfurt School-type argument for the latent totalitarian character of modern Western rationality and culture? I would look rather to the strong tone of critique that is present in both the embattled left and in popular vocalizations of dissent circulating through the new media, in cafe and dinner table conversations, and on university campuses such as Guelph’s. Though the line separating liberal democracy from a totalitarian biopolitical-capitalist state may be difficult to draw, Canada’s historical socialist tendencies have seem to preserved at least the possibility for a position of critique that could save us from a Conservative majority in the coming election. The recent and surprising rise in NDP support is a strong indicator that socialism has not been entirely undermined by neoliberal economic fear mongering. The conservatives also seem to have underestimated the extent to which a younger generation, weaned on alternative media and perhaps inspired by the recent political upheavals in the Middle East, might sieze on this moment to flex their political muscle in favour of a more just and democratic Canadian society.

China’s Ban on Time Travel

April 14, 2011

The attention of Kulturbot surveillance satellites were called away from cataloguing some spectacular sunspot activity today by news that the Chinese government has banned television and film that feature plots about time travel. As explained in the China Hush blog, the decision to ban time travel was made by the Television Director Committee on April 1st, due to the “disrespect for history” demonstrated by the genre:

From the end of last year, the time-travel themed drama is becoming more and more popular. Most of these time-travel dramas are based on real historical stories but with many newly added, and usually exaggerated elements to make it funny and more attractive. Nothing is off limits in this television genre. While some find it hilarious, others think the exaggeration and even ridiculous elements added into the story is a real source of annoyance and is a disrespectful for history. (from the China Hush blog)

Though having all the characteristics of a good April Fool’s prank, the alleged declaration does not seem to be a hoax, and it raises interesting questions regarding the utopian and political potential of narrative in its relation to history. Echoing Plato’s criticism of poetry in Book II of The Republic where Socrates would ban any representation that does not provide a model of virtue for citizens to emulate, the Chinese government complains that “The producers and writers [of time travel stories] are treating the serious history in a frivolous way, which should by no means be encouraged anymore.”

More than simple frivolity, the time travel genre allows for a form of escapism that might speak to needs and desires that contemporary Chinese social reality cannot satisfy for the majority of subjects, opening into what Fredric Jameson describes as the utopian class dimension of narrative. As Jameson argues in The Political Unconscious (Cornel UP, 1981), the feeling of “rage, helplessness, victimization, oppression by a common enemy” generated by the situation of subjugated workers produces a sense of class solidarity (289). It is the awareness of the threat posed by this “sullen resistance” that produces the dominant class’s own sense of solidarity as a kind of mirror image of the original and foundational subaltern consciousness (289-90). The affect that binds groups together, even when limited to a particular segment of the total population, has its roots in “the ultimate concrete collective life of an achieved Utopian or classless society” (291). Thus, alongside the “negative hermeneutic” that seeks to unmask the ruling class interests served by dominant discourses, Marxian scholarship must also practice a “positive hermeneutic” that identifies the Utopian promise within a text or practice.

"By the Key of Time! Where am I going to go now to get a decent dumpling?"

This element is “anticipatory” (296) in that it announces or prefigures the arrival of a post-class social order, even while the text in which it appears might coopt the utopian element by pretending that the hoped-for eventuality has already come to pass.

While the ideological-Utopian interpretive technique developed by Jameson is useful for deciphering the latent class dynamics of Western cultural texts, where everything from car commercials to TV sitcoms to Hollywood films can be seen as exhibiting these dual tendencies, nowhere are issues of class consciousness more pressing than in China, a country whose post WWII industrialization has seen the largest enclosure process (the capturing of previously rural populations in urban factory environments) in human history. By exploiting the hokou laws (the official household registration system implemented by the communists in the 50s to control the migration of populations) Chinese industry is able to create a system of migrational labour that employs the offspring of rural families without offering them the social services and resources available to urban families. Lured to the city with hopes of a better life, educated rural youth find themselves working ten or twelve hour days in large factory complexes whose working and living conditions have made suicide into a form of political and existential protest. (It should be noted that Western investors, manufacturers and consumers are prime beneficiaries of this exploitative labour system, and so the periodic token Western protest against Chinese human rights abuses constitutes a hypocritical and ideological position).

In this context, it should come as no surprise that Shen Hua (“Myth”), China’s first time-travel TV drama projects fantasies of political empowerment and social revolution into past history, and that this displacement of Utopian energies should be perceived as a threat to the current regime. As the China Hush blog explains, “The play depicts how a young adolescent travels through time to the China of 2000 years ago and becomes [a] sworn brother with Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, (both are prominent military leaders and political figures during the late Qin Dynasty period of Chinese history) and eventually ends up being an army general leading troops of thousands of soldiers. [At] the same time, his twin brother and [family] in modern [time] is fighting with a mystery man to find him.”

As Jacques Rancière points out in The Politics of Aesthetics (Continuum, 2004), “the word utopia harbours two contradictory meanings” (40), being both a “no-place” or the break-down of all accepted understandings of place, and a proper place of complete presence “where what one sees, what one says, and what one makes or does are rigorously adapted to one another” (ibid). Rancière notes how this ambiguity is exploited by historical regimes, who’s attempts to make reality conform with utopian impulses more often lead to the kind of ideological obfuscation that Jameson’s hermeneutics are designed to debunk. Rancière sides with the necessary unreality of utopia as a fictional “reconfiguring [of] the territory of the visible, the thinkable, and the possible” (41) which offers an imagined horizon from which to judge the present. This concept is similar to the Marxian vision of a (perhaps always to come) classless society that provides the coordinates from which to make effective political critique of the here-and-now. Projected into the past, as in the case of the banned Chinese television drama, Utopian critique points toward Alain Badiou’s concept of the political event whose eruption into actuality retroactively changes popular opinion about what is and isn’t historically possible. To this extent, the Chinese government is right to fear the power of fiction to harness and focus the energy of dissent, but there is a great irony to the fact that the Marxian analysis that best captures the political dimension of historical discourse should issue from Badiou’s revisiting of the very Maoist heritage that laid the foundation for the rise to power of the current Chinese regime.

“Blow up the Internet!”

March 14, 2011

The other day, I was waiting for a slice of pizza at my favourite spot, when a regular came in and struck up a conversation with one of the owners. “Lucy,” he said “all the excitement in the middle east is ruining my business. With the rise in the gas prices, the truckers can’t afford to operate, and we’re losing insurance deals.” The man, it seemed, was some kind of insurance broker. This is what I like about downtown: office types brush up against the unemployed and grad students, and you never know what type of conversation to expect while waiting for a piece of hot, Halal Hawaiian.

The man ordered a vegetarian slice and went on talking. “But do you know what the crazy thing is? They say all this chaos happened because of Facebook!” I thought about adding my two cents worth at this point. It’s a small pizza shop–standing room only–and so conversations between strangers do not seem entirely uncalled for. I thought about mentioning the rising costs of food, youth unemployment and tyrannical governments to the list of possible causes for unrest, but kept silent, hoping for further illumination. The man didn’t disappoint. “Facebook… can you believe it?!” he continued, “That’s why the first thing Mubarak did was unplug the internet.”

Happily, Lucy chimed in in support of the popular protests, noting that “they just see how we live and want the same thing for themselves.” I hope, actually, that they do a little better, and that the experience of living under tyranny for so long has engendered a longing for freedom and political engagement that surpasses Western lethargy in the face of oppressive and irresponsible governance. But the insurance broker’s sudden fear of social media and the revolutionary power of the internet struck me as a bad sign, given the recent proposed American legislation for an internet kill switch. While supporters of this legislation point out that the circumstances that would allow the President to utilize the switch differ from Mubarak’s opportunistic deployment–the switch could only be thrown in response to a significant cyber threat to American security–it does not seem like such a threat would be difficult to “generate” should circumstances dictate a strategic advantage to killing web-based communications on the part of the powers that be.

Last November, a successful cyber attack managed to temporarily shut down Iran’s nuclear program. The Stuxnet bug had the effect of speeding up and slowing down centrifuges in such a way as to cause them to breakdown. Because the bug’s effects took the appearance of random fluctuations in the centrifuges’

"Ok, which one of you was traipsing around here without the fuzzy slippers?"

rotor mechanisms, the virus went unnoticed until critical damage actually occurred. Though transmitted via data sticks rather than the internet, the Stuxnet bug seems symptomatic of a new era of cyber-warfare. In this context, what is to stop a Western government from sounding a “cyber emergency” as an excuse to initiate an internet blackout were a political situation like those occurring in the middle east to make such a move desirable? With the politics of national security playing an increasingly significant role in justifying state power, we should think twice about granting these types of powers to elected officials. At the same time, it is only to be expected that the middle Eastern demonstration of the emancipatory functions of social media should cause alarmed reactions from governments in the “free” Western world. What is sad to me is the number of people whom I imagine would gladly follow the call to greater state control of the internet if it would somehow safeguard the profit margins of banks and insurance firms.

The Spectaclular Politics of Security

November 30, 2010

The arrest of the teenager Mohamed Osman Mohamud for attempting to detonate what he thought to be a car bomb at a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Portland Oregon provides the latest example of the conservative strategy to relegate political discourse to concerns over the physical security of the population by manufacturing a climate of fear which acts to buttress the increasing power given to repressive organs of the state. What Georgio Agamben calls the politics of security, or the distortion of government’s pastoral function under pressure of a perpetual state of crisis management, effecting the dramatic incursion of state power into the lives of citizens (both domestic and foreign), is supported by these periodic “attacks” by “terrorists” on Western soil. Alongside gaining support for authoritarian government policies from a cowed populace, these incidents serve the further purpose of disguising the root causes of social anxiety (the unraveling of the social fabric by neo-liberal policies?) by deflecting them onto an alien threat which often takes the form of a racial other. Rather than questioning the political and economic structures that have stripped citizens of the protections offered by the post World War Two social settlement, the new politics of security locates the dangers to Western society in external threats (immigrants, the Middle East, the Global South), framing the current social and political crisis as an epic “clash of civilizations” and thereby deflecting public attention from the infiltration of capitalist, profit-oriented paradigms into ever more spheres of social and individual life.

Coming soon to a downtown near you

The recent event in Portland has been constructed by the media in a way that reads like the plot of an episode of the popular “realtime” television drama 24: the ruthless, Somolia-born killer Mohamud attempts to strike at the heart of America’s “greenest” city, choosing this location precisely because it is the place where no one would expect such an attack to happen. His desire for everyone attending the tree-lighting ceremony at Pioneer Courthouse Square (affectionately known as “Portland’s living room”) to “leave dead or injured” (Associated Press) appears to have been expertly neutralized by the FBI, who outmaneuvered Mohamud, arresting him as soon as the nineteen year old would-be killer dialed the number on a cell phone that he believed would set off a car bomb. Borrowing from the stock plot components of theater, the media coverage framed this as a moment of dramatic reversal in which the explosion failed to occur and Mohamud was swarmed by FBI agents while the lighting of the Christmas tree proceeded as planned. Mimicking Jack Bauer and his operatives from 24, and in a display of sentimental pathos that would be almost comical if its effects were not so perniciously and cynically positioned, the FBI agents saved Christmas from the heathen Muslim jihadist.

This narrative nakedly illustrates the disheartening reality of a discursively produced racism that, in the new climate of xenophobic paranoia, seemingly must attend the Western tribal ritual of Christmas: the public kindling of the tree of light as a symbol of hope at the darkest point of the year is spectacularly linked to the public humiliation of a nineteen year old boy who becomes the cipher for an Orientalist view of Muslim culture as violently opposed to everything America stands for. The psychological and social realities that would lead this young person to attempt such an act are paved over by a sensationalist focus on the heartlessness of the perpetrator and the mastering of this threatening alien by a skillful police force, and we are left to wonder the extent to which Mohamed Osman Mohamud might have been coached and encouraged by the FBI in its sting operation. Is it possible that Mohamud’s sense of disenfranchisement and anger was detected by security forces and directed toward the production of the act which they could then step in and play the part of the hero in neutralizing? To what extent was this alleged terrorist event enabled or even encouraged by the intervention of the FBI in the first place?

The manner in which the event unfolded, with the FBI secretly in control of the situation, the car bomb a mere prop provided by the security agents, and the would-be perpetrator thwarted at the very instant he expected to execute his plan, plants it firmly within the realm of a spectacular politics in which crime does not constitute a rupture with the given social order, but rather becomes the orchestrated means by which that order reifies and justifies itself. As in Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum, the difference between an actual crime and its simulation becomes irrelevant: what matters is that reality—the actual social relations between Christian America and Muslims, for instance—is effaced beneath a construction that is no longer even ideological, but rather inscribes the relations of domination directly into a carnivalesque spectacle of state-controlled violence and oppression. To this extent, the burning of the Corvallis mosque which Mohamud attended can be seen as the direct result of the FBI’s, rather than Mohamud’s, actions: knowing full well the strong anti-Muslim sentiments the spectacular arrest would make, state power nevertheless chose to apprehend Mohamud in this, rather than in a less public and inflammatory manner.

And yet, the question of whether Mohamud was a victim of entrapment or not, while important from the perspective of determining the guilt or innocence of the accused, is absolutely irrelevant to the spectacular politics of security that the event was constructed to support. Even were an investigation to reveal entrapment on the part of the FBI and thus at least partially absolve Mohamud, the roles played by the actors in this drama were scripted well ahead of time, and the event has already done its work of confirming dominant social mythologies. The idea of an FBI conspiracy behind Mohamud’s alleged plan to detonate the bomb actually serves to reinforce the spectacular nature of this “event” by producing the illusion of a political reality beyond the generated fiction. Following Baudrillard’s advice, we must resist the temptation to call this event a political scandal, as to do so simply reinforces the idea that there is a legitimate, moral order to contemporary politics that this particular instance ideologically manipulates and distorts. The Portland event, like the Watergate of Baudrillard’s historical example, is neither real nor unreal, but hyperreal. The hyperreal is fiction that conceals an absence by producing the illusion of depth. To believe that Nixon’s deception was a scandal is to assert that the political order has a modicum of accountability that it does not, in actuality, hold as an operating principle. In a similar vein, to assert that the Portland bomber’s arrest is a travesty because he is the victim of entrapment is to overlook the fact that the current “war on terror” is, itself, a screen for Western colonial interests in the Middle East, and that unjust American policies have generated the social tensions that would dispose a young Muslim man to such an act in the first place, with or without encouragement from the FBI. To navigate past the obfuscation provided by hyperreality, we must accept the two versions of “reality”–the bomber as “genuine” or as victim of entrapment–as interdependent and mutually-reinforcing products of an immanent yet unrepresentable social Real that prevents people from identifying the actual adversary exploiting them. It is this misrecognition which leads us to generate false threats (whether they be in the form of a racial other or a conspiratorial state power) to placate a sense of anxiety which originates in a completely different location altogether.

A Papal Crack of Light?

November 23, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI’s recently published comments stating that condom use could be deemed acceptable in certain circumstances is a strategic move that produces the appearance of a more progressive Catholic teaching while actually reinforcing atavistic and inhumane ideas regarding birth control and sexuality. Benedict is quoted as saying that

There may be a basis [for condom use] in the case of some individuals, as perhaps when a male prostitute uses a condom, where this can be a first step in the direction of a moralization, a first assumption of responsibility.

The statement that condom use is a step towards more moral, responsible sex is undercut by the specific context of male prostitution that Benedict offers. In this construction, any man using a condom is assuming the status of a male prostitute. The specific concessions for condom use thus uphold the Catholic church’s vilification of contraception, and support the idea that sex is only morally permissible as a means of reproducing the heteronormative nuclear family, while giving the appearance of providing a more progressive position on the issue.

This tactic is even more deplorable if one reads male prostitution as a code, not just for promiscuity, but for homosexuality as well–an equivalence that is difficult not to make given the context of the HIV epidemic that has raised the moral stakes of the issue in the first place. Indeed, the Pope’s recent statements were made in response to journalist Peter Seewald’s questions regarding comments made during a papal visit to Africa in 2009, when Benedict stated that condom use not only would not prevent the spread of HIV, but might actually make it worse. In Seewald’s recent book, Benedict is quoted as saying that he

does not regard [condom use] as a real or moral solution, but in this or that case, there can be nonetheless in the intention of reducing the risk of infection, a first step in a movement toward a different way, a more human way, of living sexuality.

The ideological force of this statement is readily apparent: men who have sex with more than one partner–a categorization with the specter of the promiscuous gay male lurking in the background–are less-than-human in their sexuality. Condom use is permissible in these cases because deviant and perverse sexual practices necessitate it, whereas a “healthy”, “moral” and “fully human” sexuality would have no need for such measures. Condom use is permissible by Benedict only as long as use of the contraceptive is made to do the double work of both stopping the spread of disease and marking the condom user as practicing a sub-human form of sexuality. In this sense, the condom serves as a double prophylactic, preventing both biologic and “moral” diseases from spreading.

A similar strategy was employed by the Vatican in the 1960s when nuns working in the Congo were permitted to take birth control pills because they were at risk of being raped by revolution fighters. As Peter M. J. Stravinskas explains in The Catholic Answer Book, the use of contraceptive technology was sanctioned by the Vatican in this case because the act of rape is not one of “true human intercourse” (134). (One can only wonder, judging by history, if the Church should perhaps issue condoms to Catholic priests as well.) In the case of the Congo, contraceptives were permitted so long as they provided the double prophylactic function of protecting the nuns from unwanted pregnancies and reinforcing Western stereotypes that demonize the black, male aggressors as sub-human.

Despite their perpetuation of repressive and homophobic sentiments, Benedict’s recent statements are being lauded as contributing to the prevention of sexually transmitted disease. Given the cultural power that the Catholic church still exerts, these accolades are the equivalent of celebrating an abusive father for deciding to only beat his kids on the weekend: the people breath a sigh or relief for the reprieve they have been ceded while overlooking the fact that the stick they are being abused with is still extremely long.

The System Loves Subversion

November 3, 2010

In a recent interview in Toronto’s weekly entertainment paper, the cult-turned-mainstream filmmaker John Waters lauded the latest Jackass film for its anarchic disregard for standards (“Dirty Waters” in Now Magazine, Oct 21-27, 2010). He is quoted as seeing in the success and wide distribution of the Jackass movies a popularization of the type of transgression once limited to avant-guard arthouse cinema:

Last night I saw a blue-collar audience, sold out; guys with their kids watch a pig eat an apple out of another man’s asshole. And I thought–huh? How do they get away with it? And they do get away with it, in a great way. It’s really anarchy.

The interviewer then asks whether this is not a lowering of standards, to which Waters replies “There are no standards. And that’s the point.” Apart from the standardized format of this exchange, in which the media interviewer plays the role of the mildly scandalized, voice of reason to which the outlandish interviewee replies with a diabolical rejoinder aimed at subverting his interlocutor’s conservative sentiment, the logic behind Waters’ championing subversion actually works to uphold the very standards he dismisses. The reason the producers of Jackass can “get away with it” is because their films are not truly subversive, but rather offer a cathartic release that serves to strengthen the standards they purport to overturn.

Jackass-style shock humour, an early example of which can be found in Tom Green’s public-access cable show from the nineties, works precisely because there are standards which these comedians can overturn and exploit. The fun in Tom Green having a pornographic picture airbrushed on the hood of his parent’s car lies in the fact that this act flaunts the staid, workaday order of respectable society. The audience can indulge an adolescent thrill in overturning social norms and expectations, but the reason this kind of humour contains an affective charge that can have popular appeal is precisely because these norms and standards are so pervasive.

If there actually were no standards, as Waters suggests, this form of humour simply would not work. The question is whether or not these type of carnivalesque inversions actually support the very structures they pretend to subvert, temporarily suspending them only to make them all the more entrenched when the momentary thrill of escaping the established order wears off. The mutually supportive relationship between transgression and repressive order is the secret hinge that allows so much allegedly subversive popular culture to be tolerated and even encouraged by the modern culture industry.

As Foucault’s anti-repressive hypothesis suggests, modern systems of social control operate within a permissive and productive, rather than a repressive framework. The repressive element enters in when we try to consider the types of truly oppositional actions that the sensationalist pseudo-subversions of popular culture effectively trivialize and preempt. John Waters is right to this extent: the antics of the Jackass crew are a popularized incorporation of the types of shock tactics developed by avant-guard artists, though I would look back to such innovators as the dadaists and surrealists rather than 70s trash films. By lacing surreal, interventionist imagery with a generous dose of sadomasochistic humiliation and macho fraternity antics, the Jackass films subvert subversion, reclaiming it for a social order based on power and domination.

But can we locate the initial kernel of resistance that lies buried in the incorporated form of guerrilla humour exhibited by the Jackass films? The genius inherent in some of Tom Green’s skits lies in his ability to use sensational disruptions of the everyday order to point out the urecognized absurdity of this order. To this extent, his best work is in the lineage of great modern art like the surrealists or the films of Chaplin where a character’s lack of fit with the social order brings out its inherent contradictions. With this in mind, I would offer one of my favourite Tom Green pieces…

Genocide as Metaphor, and the University as Political Space

October 17, 2010

The most recent Canadian episode in the ongoing debate over the right of anti-abortion groups to display graphic images on university campuses has been unfolding in Ottawa at Carlton University where five anti-abortion activists were arrested on Monday, Oct. 4th for refusing to remove signage that compares abortion with acts of genocide. Banning the images, claims the protesters, is a violation of their freedom of expression. They go further to argue that the images are not being banned because they are offensive, but because of the anti-abortion cause that they represent. A similar claim was made by the Youth Protecting Youth student organization at University of Victoria, B.C., who were denied club status by the student union, and had to fight a legal battle to have their status and funding reinstated (the university and club reached a settlement in July 2010).

This controversy raises interesting questions about the university as a politicized space. University students across Ontario will be familiar with the poster vendor Imanginus that sets up displays in student centres several times a year. The incursion of these images, which run the gambit from high art, to popular film, to commodified images of women and cars, have yet to produce an outcry from students that such imagery infringes on their right to enjoy the common spaces of the universtiy. The poster sales are largely accepted as part of the on-going commercialization of common space on university campuses, as is the selling of advertising spots in campus washrooms, where cell phone companies pitch a better deal on text messages while male students return the liquid deposit on the last two pints of beer they just drank.

I agree with the anti-abortionists that the reason they are discriminated against is that a large number of people disagree with the political position they are attempting to represent with their imagery. Abortion is an issue that triggers strong political divisions and emotional responses (the psychology of which has not, to my knowledge, been adequately investigated). Groups like the protesters at Carlton are no doubt aware of this, and they have chosen to display imagery designed to provoke a strong response. While one of the protesters claimed (on CBC radio) to be showing the “reality” of abortion, what they have in fact produced with the 8’ by 4’ images is a visual metaphor to express the strong feelings they have against the practice of abortion. These images are metaphoric rather than an “accurate” representation, because abortion is not genocide; the protesters use of this term can only be a polemic and non-literal application.

Genocide is the attempt to systematically kill an entire population due to their perceived ethnic, racial or national affiliation, and is motivated by complicated social, political and psychological factors which a number of modern thinkers, like Hannah Arendt and Arjun Appaduri, have struggled to articulate. While such campaigns do, by definition, include the youth and even the unborn in their targets, age alone is not a determining factor in genocide. Depicting abortion practices in this way thus grossly misrepresents and distorts actual, historical instance of genocide. The protesters need to recognize this, and to adjust how they represent their actions to the media.

A less generous interpretation of the protester’s choice of imagery would read the posters as symptomatic, as indicative of an unresolved contradiction within the psyche of the protesters themselves. Why, despite clear historical evidence to the contrary, do these individuals choose to understand abortion as genocide? Perhaps their setting upon this term reflects an apprehension of the dehumanizing aspects of modern medical systems of power and knowledge, which, in their most destructive aspects, can reduce human beings to mere mechanical placeholders in an impersonal, technical formula. Modern biopolitical models of power, as Hardt and Negri argue, infiltrate individuals to the level of drives and biological processes, and tend to discount the actual subjective experience and agency of its subjects. Perhaps an intuition of this lack of recognition of sentience on the part of biopolitical society is being projected onto a suitable (because mute) subject by anit-abortionists. The unborn human fetus becomes a receptacle for the anxiety people feel over the incursion of biopolitical power into their own lives and subjectivity. Put simply, the modern state, in its most oppressive aspects, refuses to recognize the agency of its subjects in a manner akin to the way anti-abortionists claim society refuses to recognize the sentience and agency of the unborn child. What needs to be investigated is the nature of the cathexis between abortion activists and the potential, unformed human life with which they identify. What projections, identifications and possible disavowals are being hoisted upon the fetus in this discourse?

One response to the anti-abortionist’s use of metaphoric imagery would be to allow them to present these images, but to set up, alongside them, auxiliary displays that educate the public as to the actual, historical instances of genocide, thus providing a historical context to balance the protesters’ distortion of the term. The misrepresentation of history would then become an opportunity for introducing actual politics into the public space of university campuses.

For more arguments about how the Genocide Awareness Project distorts the issues surrounding a woman’s right to control her own body, please follow this link.

Economic Weather Report from the Dentist’s Chair

September 10, 2010

This morning as the dentist and I waited for the freezing to take effect on the left side of my mouth, wherein two small cavities needed to be repaired, we had a short conversation about the skateboarding project I am working on, the life of a graduate student, and other related matters. As the hygienist and and dentist hovered over my reclined chair, waiting for telltale signs of speech slurring that would indicate that the local anesthetic was taking effect, I had a chance to ramble on about topics that are of interest to me. We came, eventually to the issue of dental benefits for graduate students, and mention was made of the teaching assistant’s strike that went on for about ten days last year at my university. Gladness was expressed by all that the strike hadn’t run on as long as the one at York University in Toronto, which caused great setbacks in the educational process of so many undergraduate students, and, in the end, accomplished very little in terms of improving the deal for the teachers and grad students who were on strike. This sentiment in itself is an indication of the manner in which education has come to be seen more akin to job training, to a regimented, goal-oriented set of proceedures, the slightest interruption of which is cause for serious alarm, even if it is an interruption designed to draw attention to issues which effect the very quality and nature of the education being provided.

But the lack of public sympathy and support for the York strike, as well as for labour movement actions in other sectors such as the recent miner’s strike in Sudbury, Ontario, was encapsulated by my dentist, who in the most inoffensive manner possible, pointed out that it is particularly difficult to elicit support for strike actions in the current economic hard times, where most people feel lucky for just having a job. This tack on the part of my dentist was an attempt to turn the conversation away from the political territory into which it had ventured, to preempt my getting too excited over an issue for which I showed clear bias and interest, and to keep to the primary goal of the conversation, which was to provide a relaxing distraction while we waited for the anesthetic to take effect.

And so the old chestnut of “economic hard times” was evoked, a trope which, like the weather, is designed to set the mind at ease by gesturing toward a larger, all-encompassing and autonomous system to which we puny humans must submit in resignation and humility. Yes, it would be nice if collective labour movements could convince capitalists to share more of their profits with the workers, to provide them with the minimal requirements to ensure their material comfort and survival, but, unfortunately, the economy just won’t permit those kinds of sentiments to sway public opinion into upholding any significant solidarity for striking workers. We’re all suffering, and we all have to accept cutbacks and reductions in our expectations and standards of living. Maybe eventually, things will get better, and we will be able to petition for the reinstatement of the amenities that have been dismantled and denies us, but until then we will just have to grin and bear it, much as one does the Canadian winter (and summer, for that matter).

Luckily, the second round of freezing that the doctor was obliged to administer started to kick in just as we got to this point of the conversation, and the benumbing of my tongue preventing my launching into a deconstruction of the alleged naturalness of the mythological entity known as “the economy”. But the operant metaphor of this exchange, that the economy is a natural system akin to the weather, is one of the central ideological tools by which capitalist structures of domination are implemented on a population that is tricked into the resigned acceptance of their own powerlessness in the face of a mechanism that is actually created for, and by, human beings. However, because the means by which wealth is generated in global capitalism are privatized, it is possible for the minority interests who have a controlling share in wealth production to generate the illusion that our prosperity, or lack thereof, is dependent of factors that are beyond anyone’s control.

Despite the dramatic examples recent history has supplied of actual natural systems wreaking havoc with human societies, the modern age has developed the means for providing the necessities of human life to the extent that, at least in the prosperous Western nations, the adverse effects of “untamed nature” on human life have been mitigated to a degree unprecedented in human history. In place of the old tyranny of the seasons and the weather, of droughts, disease, plagues and disasters, we have a new tyranny of the human economic system itself, a system whose determinate coordinates are not the whimsy of unpredictable environmental factors (though these do play a role), but the actions of private individuals and corporations which have the ability to shape the destiny of entire nations and continents. As we saw with the global financial crisis of 2008, the actions of these people and institutions can have a dramatic effect on the lives of millions, displacing people from their homes and lives with the efficiency of the most violent natural disaster. The difference is, of course, that this economic disaster was the result of the conscious decisions and actions of actual people, and not some unaccountable “act of God” or perfect storm.

The fact remains that the people who work to produce the illusion that the economy is a natural system are not the same ones who suffer from the alleged “downturns” of this same system. The economy-as-weather metaphor is useful to these parties because it undermines belief in our collective ability to determine our own lives and destinies, and so produces a gereralized psycho-social “climate” (if I may indulge in my own meteorological metaphor) of anxiety which further individualizes and personalizes what are actually collective problems regarding the distribution of wealth and resources.

The social reality of contemporary life in the developed world I would characterize as a mixture of fear and guilt. We feel vaguely guilty for whatever affluence we do enjoy–an affect fed, I would surmise, by a unspecific background awareness that our prosperity here is bought at the expense of someone else’s unpaid or barely paid labour over there–while we feel, at the same time, fear about losing what comforts and necessities we do possess. It is this latter which, sharpened to a point by the recent spectre of economic depression, effectively punctures the sails of collective labour movements that would attempt to assert worker’s rights by temporarily shutting down the mechanisms of production. How dare workers petition for better pay or benefits, or for more job security when so many of us are in a state of what is neologistically called “underemployment”! The destabilization of national economies that has occurred even in the most prosperous nations in the wake of the globalization of capital has undermined the old models of disenfranchisement and entitlement, but the representation of the fallout from this process as akin to a natural weather system is just the product of a centuries-old campaign of ideological warfare involving debates over the innate nature of what it means to be human and to live in society.

To counter this tendency I would argue for a rejection of the dialectical and mutually supportive categories of nature/artifice themselves. I would even go so far as to agree with the liberal economists: the economy is indeed natural, just so long as we recognize that so is every other product of human activity–including alternative economic structures like socialism or communism. Nature, far from being subsumed or “colonized” by modern culture as some critics would hold, has always been, and still is, everywhere. Human beings and human practices are natural, just as the weather and oceans are, and the nature that is the weather is effected by the nature that is human society just as much as the inverse is true. The human economy is a natural system, a subset of a larger totality of nature that interacts with this larger whole in complex and often unpredictable ways, but this is no excuse for relinquishing all efforts to be responsible for that part of nature which is human economy. If anything, as the realm of activity that can be defined as the product of the interaction of human practices with larger nature, the economy is the primary realm where we should take care to ensure that the forces of production, distribution and consumption are managed in a fair and equitable way.

I would like to say that I contemplated these issues as a form of distraction while the dentist drilled away at my now insensate tooth, but my attention was firmly focused on keeping my numb jaw open as wide as possible to prevent the buzzing metal implement from rubbing up against the glob of inert rubber my tongue had become. The mysteries of the weather is indeed a pleasant source of distraction in such situations, and I was comforted during the operation by a not bad oil painting of purplish rain clouds advancing across a northern lake, which the artist had perhaps unintentionally painted at ever so slight an angle so that it appeared the entire lake might eventually leak out the left corner of the frame. But whereas the quirky particularities of our generalized environment (and our quirky misrepresentations of the same) might provide welcome distractions to ease a trip to the dentist or an awkward moment in an elevator, the same trope should not be used as a means for disavowing our collective responsibility for the shape and direction our societal activities take. Until it starts raining money, the economy is not the weather, and (to borrow from a famous song) you can’t trust an economist to tell you which way the wind blows. Read the rest of this entry »

Take this Overdetermination and Shove it!

September 2, 2010

While struggling through Althusser’s “Contradiction and Overderemination”, I was trying to come up with an actual example the illustrate the idea that a single event can focus and filter the energy of a host of complex “secondary contradictions” inherent, but not immediately visible in the larger cultural and economic structure. Then former flight attendant Steven Slater got hit in the head by one too many pieces of overhead luggage, grabbed a couple of beers from the galley fridge, deployed the inflatable emergency chute, and slid his way to freedom and unemployment. Heralded almost immediately as a folk hero whose spontaneous act of resistance spoke to the secret pain of service industry employees everywhere, Slater became a minor celebrity, and was even given the VIP treatment at a Barry Manilow concert he attended the next weekend. CBC called the episode “one of the most awe-inspiring and cathartic resignations in labour history“, while the National Post pointed out that his reckless deploying of the chute could have injured workers on the ground.

What gets left out of most of the available media coverage is that, according to Mr. Slater, the woman who had attempted to retrieve her overhead luggage before the plane landed had fought with another passenger over use of the space at the beginning of the flight. On the other side, there are accounts from passengers claiming that Slater had been short with them over trivial matters, as well as insinuations that he may have been drinking before the flight. For the most part thought, Slater’s exchange with the irate passenger is presented as the “final straw”, the factor that tipped a background sense of alienation, exploitation and abuse over into the realm of demonstrative action. His protest was rendered all the more effective by the smooth, cavalier manner in which he pulled it off, skipping past airport security to his car which got him home before the police had even been notified. He even had enough presence of mind to collect his own carry on baggage.

The media response to this event is instructive in itself, producing a blogosphere debate over whether Slater should be considered a hero or felon. But the either/or construction of this discourse acts as a mythologizing screen for the complexities of actual social contradictions and relations which can be seen as overdeterming this event. For instance, the focus on the potentially harmful or emancipatory effects of Slater’s actions, the debate on whether Slater or the passenger was ultimately at fault, distracts from the fact that both the passengers and employees on airlines are placed in a position of discomfort and possible peril by an industry that packages the need for dangerously overcrowded flights as a response to consumer market demand.

As one might expect, an ad hominem attack has been launched by the press against Slater, but his request to have his job back is the appropriately political response to his action. By registering what was the hidden reality of his actual employment situation and making it visible in an immediately understandable way, Slater entered into what Ranciere calls the realm of properly political thought and action. Due to structural but largely invisible factors, Slater the airline employee was already excluded (along with the passengers themselves, and the pilots and ground staff) from the systems that would secure and maintain his well being (a properly historical understanding of this state of affairs would have to look at the massive deregulation that restructured the aviation industry in the late seventies and early eighties, with this development itself being placed in context of the state-corporate-union perpetuated monopoly that developed prior to this). His flamboyant gesture simply made this concealed estrangement a reality with mass-media visibility. His request to be reinstated in the airline industry is not a concession, but the proper culmination of this political act: by seeking to be included within the given social field as a radically excluded individual, Slater becomes a concrete figure for a universal situation of disenfranchisement produced by modern service industry (for both its employees and consumers in this case).

The wrong thing to do would be accept the offer to host a reality TV show based on the whole experience.

Don’t Protest, Think!

June 8, 2010

The revelation that the Canadian Harper government will be spending close to two million dollars to produce a media centre replete with a fake lake for the upcoming G20 summit only reinforces the fact that whatever actual political discussions take place will be secondary to the statement about modern power that is made by the spectacle surrounding the talks themselves. I do not think it is an overstatement to say that the primary political content of these types of events consists of the security and media regime that the governments involved are able to mobilize, with Canada’s 1.2 billion security budget proving that we can play the game in the same league as other First World nations. The overall effect of three metre high, 3.5 kilometre fence that will cordon off a large section of downtown Toronto and implement a check point system for entry and exit is to naturalize a militaristic model of urban regulation, an intrusion of totalitarian control structures into the realm of the everyday that a largely frightened population is coerced into accepting as necessary due to the heightened “threats” posed by protesters, malcontents and dissidents. But to what extent are these threats configured and produced by the implementing of the control structures themselves?

The two elements of protest and repressive state action are mutually supporting and dependent. To this extent, the protesters, though acting out of what might seem as politically justifiable motives, are unintentionally supporting and strengthening what Agamben calls the politics of security (the process by which a politics of governance is replaced by a reactive politics of fear that reinforces the state’s claim to power). Far from showing the world that there are still people in the West who don’t buy into the system of global exploitation, protesters are actually contributing to the G20’s hold on power by giving countries like Canada an excuse for implementing more spectacular and draconian security measures. The result is a restructuring of public space to produce the kind of “state of exception” that Agamben argues was manifest in the Nazi concentration camps of World War Two, but which also provides the hidden model for modern political power.

As a friend of mine pointed out, the protester needs the police truncheon just as much as the truncheon needs the protester’s head: the two acts of spectacular repression and resistance are mutually dependent and reinforcing. What would be a more effective tactic, one that actually points out the cynicism and excess of the governmental strategy, would be to not protest at all. By simply not showing up, protesters would prove that Harper spent 1.2 billion dollars of taxpayer money unnecessarily, thereby destabilizing his government’s claim to power.

The Harper government’s strategies, however, such as providing a designated protest zone replete with satellite feed so that dignitaries can watch the show while they eat their lunch in the Convention Centre lounges, or the refusal of the Canadian government to recompense property owners whose buildings might get damaged due to protester activity, are calculated to both incite reactionary protest and undermine public support for it at the same time. Through strategies such as these, the spectacle of protest is recuperated by the spectacle of power, and the protesters reinforce the very position they would hope to undermine or refute. There is nothing like a little state oppression to make a protester feel that his or her actions are more crucial and necessary than ever, but once the media frenzy subsides, the stories of incarceration and police abuse are circulated, and the “freedom fighter” endorphins wear off, what we will be left with is increased public sentiment in support of the stability, order and coercive control that politicians like Harper are only too happy to provide.

Better would be to stay home, read some Gramsci, and reflect on the social conditions that contribute to the dissolution of engaged public discourse productive of the climate of political apathy in which governments like the current Canadian regime can flourish.