The Contemporary Condition

Monday, July 14, 2014

Whose Freedom? Birth Control And The Enduring Fight Over Our Bodies.

Kathy Ferguson
University of Hawai'i at Manoa

Current attacks on access to birth control from conservative and religious sources often elicit disbelief from progressive women: we thought those battles were over. We thought we had won. A recent Planned Parenthood ad reminds us that it’s not the 1950s anymore: “It is unbelievable that in 2014 we are still fighting about women’s access to basic health care like birth control.” Progressive women often ask, sarcastically, if this is 1914, not 2014, as if the passage of a hundred years were a guarantor of progress.
However, a stronger grasp of the history of the birth control movement suggests otherwise: the anarchists and socialists who fought those battles in the early twentieth century would not, I think, be surprised that the issue is still with us. I imagine that Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Marie Equi, Ida Rauh, Crystal Eastman, Eugene Debs, Walter Adolphe Roberts, and many, many others working for access to contraception would know better, because they understood birth control as a central tenet of a larger struggle. Rather than looking at opposition to birth control as a lingering remnant of an otherwise settled past, the earlier radicals encourage us to see birth control as inextricably woven into other ongoing struggles for freedom and community. Rather than assuming progress and being repeatedly surprised at its absence, we could learn from earlier struggles to locate our understanding of birth control in a more radical frame.

 The anarchists and socialists who fought for birth control in the late 19th and early 20th centuries did not think they were winning a definitive war, but that they were engaging in a prolonged and messy set of battles in which victories came at significant costs. They understood that if women did not control their own reproduction, someone else would control it, since states, capitalists, churches and families have serious investments in controlling women’s bodies. It wasn’t just attitudes that needed to be changed, but also institutions. They fought for birth control, not as a private decision between a woman and her doctor, but as a potentially revolutionary practice that radically challenged prevailing power arrangements, including that of men over women, capitalists over workers, militaries over soldiers, and churches over parishioners.
The recent Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby offers an unwelcome opportunity to think about birth control through an appreciation of its radical past. Many good questions have been asked regarding the Hobby Lobby ruling – why do for-profit corporations have religious rights? Why is men’s sexuality unproblematic, so that insurance coverage for Viagra and vasectomies is uncontested, while women’s sexuality is subject to scrutiny? Why are straightforward medical distinctions between preventing conception and aborting a fetus ignored or confused? Why do conservatives such as Mike Huckabee and Rush Limbaugh decry recreational sex on the part of women but seem unconcerned that men might have sex for fun
While recognizing the legitimacy of these queries, I want to raise a different question: Why are we surprised? Why is our indignation tinged with disbelief: “How could this happen in this day and age?” Critics routinely call the decision “hopelessly backward” and accuse critics of wanting to “turn back the clock,” as though there were a single historical timeline that carries us forward unless someone pushes us back. This is an utterly inadequate view of history. Instead, we need to locate both our victories and our defeats within multi-directional and open-ended historical processes, not steps in a single unfolding drama. We won’t understand the tenacity of efforts to control women’s sexuality until we give up the comforting assumption that history is a story of progress, and look more closely at the stakes and the terms of political struggle.


Reclaiming our radical past

Linda Gordon rightly points out, in her landmark study Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, that the radical roots of the struggle for birth control are largely unknown today. The situation faced by women in the U.S. in the early twentieth century with regard to controlling their reproduction was dire. The main problem was not a lack of known birth control technology, since, as Gordon documents, ancient, effective forms of birth control were selectively available, but in the U.S. had been largely forced underground. In 1873 the passage of the Comstock Law, which criminalized sending “obscene” material through the mail, gathered birth control, sexuality, and radical ideas in general into its elastic net of prohibitions. During this time, various barrier and suppository methods, called pessaries, were known and available to wealthy women through their doctors, but largely unknown or unavailable to the poor. Diaphragms and condoms had to be smuggled into the U.S. from Europe. Politics, rather than technology, made birth control unavailable to most American women, and to change that situation political struggle was required. 
From a contemporary point of view, it is startling to realize that many anarchists and socialists placed women’s access to birth control at the heart of social revolution. We are accustomed to seeing the medicalized perspective – the claim that reproductive choices are questions of women’s health and should be left to women and their doctors – as the feminist position, the position we must defend. Yet, there is another set of feminist voices, radical voices, voices that aimed to free women as well as liberate workers, end war, and transform society. Jamaican writer Walter Adolphe Roberts championed birth control both to enhance women’s freedom and to advance the cause of social revolution. Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman located women’s control over their reproduction as a central aspect of workers’ struggles and anti-war activism. They objected to Margaret Sanger’s strategy, which legitimized the birth control movement by aligning it with (mostly male) doctors, because Sanger’s approach removed birth control from the larger political context while giving power over women (including midwives) to doctors rather than to women themselves. Understanding these arguments can help feminists today to learn from our own movement’s past and perhaps to shape current reproductive struggles as steps toward more radical political change.

Anarchists and socialists who embraced birth control framed it as a revolutionary demand to include sexual and reproductive freedom as necessary aspects of social justice and individual autonomy. Controlling one’s own reproduction was part of transforming society. These progressive women and men integrated the liberation of women’s sexuality into their vocal anti-capitalist, anti-war mass movements. Just as capitalism sought to control the laboring bodies of workers, and militaries sought to control the fighting bodies of soldiers, so did patriarchal families, churches, professions, and governments seek to control the reproductive bodies of women. Restrictions on birth control, they concluded, served the interests of states by producing an endless supply of cannon fodder for imperial wars, the interests of capital by generating a reserve army of labor to keep wages down, and the interests of organized religion by maintaining women’s subservience and vulnerability within families and communities. A free society would be a society in which workers control their own labor, soldiers control their own fighting, and women control their own wombs. The radicals watched with dismay as their vision of a transformed society was displaced by the rise of a coalition between feminists, doctors and the state to privatize contraception as an issue “between a woman and her doctor.” Understanding the potentially radical implications of women’s reproductive freedom, they also saw that some kinds of birth control reform could reinforce patriarchy rather than challenge it.
Attention to these struggles can reframe contemporary debates over birth control. The Hobby Lobby decision and other losses for women are not temporary backsliding or inexplicable throwbacks to an earlier era, but instead indicate ongoing and predictable unrest over proper standards of sexuality and of women’s place. It would not surprise earlier anarchist and socialist feminists that the current Gilded Age, driven by neoliberal values and global corporate priorities, includes a resurgent war on women’s reproductive autonomy. These radicals would, however, likely recoil from the pallid notion that birth control is a “women’s issue” rather than a central aspect of a larger system of exploitation and control. A fuller grasp of our radical past can help us think of history as a dynamic network of shifting relations, operating at different paces in response to various challenges. The birth control movement then becomes a site of struggle, not an unfolding of a telos of development. We can look for the forgotten victories and lost possibilities of human freedom recorded there and bring those minoritarian views back into contemporary discussions. 

How can birth control be more radical?

How might a greater appreciation of birth control’s radical past change feminism’s present and future? Perhaps it could give us an alternative to being on the defensive: rather than asking for health care, we might demand freedom. Rather than seeing doctors as our main partners, we might see unions, antiwar groups, civil rights organizations, environmental groups, alternative spiritual movements and other radical communities as coalition partners. We can make common cause with others who are similarly disadvantaged by, for example, judicial rulings granting corporations personhood, defining money as speech, and attributing religious identity to for-profit businesses. We might become more bold, not more cautious, in our thinking and acting.
For example, feminists often stress the difference between preventing and terminating pregnancy in order to use opposition to abortion to promote acceptance of birth control. Abortion and contraception are two separate issues, we say. Hobby Lobby’s court arguments are invalid because they confuse technologies that prevent fertilization with technologies that remove fertilized eggs, we point out. We invite people who oppose abortion to agree with us about birth control because, if all women had access to birth control, there would be fewer abortions. Perhaps we need to stop concentrating on these arguments. Even though these claims are accurate, they don’t appear to be working. I suspect they give up too much. While clearly abortion and contraception are different, it is their common value to women who want to control their fertility that makes both birth control and abortion into targets of conservative wrath.
Also, feminists often stress the priority of the relationship “between a woman and her doctor” to discredit other possible relations, say, between a woman and her employer, a woman and her husband, a woman and her Supreme Court justices. Perhaps we need to stop doing that, too. Medicalization of contraception has come to be the progressive position, the position we have to defend. But that only happened because more radical, more feminist perspectives were sidelined. Maybe it’s time to stress women’s freedom – and access to affordable and high quality health care would surely be an aspect of that freedom – rather than women’s health as our primary goal. When Sandra Fluke bravely testified before Congress about the importance of oral contraception for treating health issues other than pregnancy, she was vilified as a slut and a prostitute anyway. So perhaps it’s time to demand access to the birth control techniques that we want rather than parsing our desires to downplay sexual freedom. Calling on the courts to consider the “plight” of women who use contraception for non-sexual purposes implicitly suggests that those uses are somehow more legitimate, that women who have a “plight” are more worthy of consideration than women who have a cause. If oral contraceptives were sold over-the-counter at affordable prices or distributed for free at clinics (like condoms), then women’s reasons for wanting them would be irrelevant and the opportunites to judge women’s sexuality might diminish.

Further, feminists sometimes speak of opposition to birth control as psychological, a question of men’s fears of women’s sexual autonomy. Joan Walsh of Salon.com writes of a deep fear of women’s freedom on the Right; Andrea Flynn of Alternet denounces the Right’s obsession with punishing women for having sex. I don’t disagree with either of these claims, but I want to push them further – opposition to women’s reproductive freedom is not primarily a bad attitude or emotional hang-up. The interests of material structures and institutions that distribute resources, organize labor, conduct war, and administer spirituality are fully in play. Birth control keeps coming back as an issue not just because men don’t get it, but because capitalism, the state, empire, war and patriarchal religions are still in power, and those institutions have an enormous stake in controlling women’s sexuality. 

Finally, feminists need to give up the comforting idea that history is on our side, that progress toward fuller rights and greater equality is written into the order of things, once we dispense with those irrational, wrong-thinking obstructionists. History, I think, isn’t on anyone’s side; more importantly, there are many histories, many trajectories, many different futures past. When feminists assure us, as Joan Walsh recently did, that “the right’s crippling panic over women’s autonomy will eventually doom it to irrelevance,” or, as Marcote commented, “the anti-sex argument is a losing argument,” we should question the implicit progress narrative folded into such guarantees. We are neither doomed nor blessed – rather, we have multiple opportunities to struggle for a better world and we should think carefully about their possibilities.

*My thanks to Nicole Sunday Grove, Jairus Grove, and Lori Marso for their help on this essay.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Extinction Events and the Human Sciences


William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University
                &
Jairus Victor Grove
University of Hawai'i 

Mill, Marx, Weber, Mannheim, Hayek, Keynes, Berlin, Wittgenstein, Arendt, Elster, Schumpeter, Rawls, Habermas, Shklar, Taylor, Strauss, Kateb… The canonical list could be extended. These are justly famous, Euro-American, mostly male, philosophical, social, economic and political theorists writing predominantly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They disagree with each other about several notable things. Those are the debates we love. There are, however, significant affinities and complementarities between them occluded by those debates. Some humanist versions of postcolonial theory and feminism also participate in them. Whether they define humans as so exceptional that everything else fades into “nature”, or treat that nature as forming the background, natural context or staging ground of human action, or silently fold providential assumptions into the course of that nature, or treat humans as actual or potential masters of it, or combine some of these views into one synthetic picture, they tend to think of most nonhuman change as set on long, slow time. 

There is a sense amongst many in the human sciences ,even those who reject creationism, that the ‘chaotic earth’ is part of a primordial past. Not unlike the origin myth of Genesis the formative processes of upheaval that set the world in motion are thought to have congealed and cooled for the age of man. That asteroidal bombardment, ocean currents, symbiogenesis, plate tectonics, and the manufacture of the molecule O2 by early plants can be subsumed under the word “nature” is revealing. It may disclose the masters to be mistaken along a dimension that infiltrates the rest of their thinking.
The dominant tendency among them is to construe “nature” to change slowly unless and until “culture” becomes entangled with it and, often enough, to weave a cocoon around the human estate to insulate it from rapidly changing nonhuman processes. That was understandable for a while. As Elizabeth Kolbert and Michael Benton review respectively in The Sixth Extinction and When Life Nearly Died, even eminent geologists and evolutionary biologists pushed a version of gradualism for a long time. The seminal geologist Charles Lyell and the evolutionist, Charles Darwin, made fun of older theories of periodic “catastrophe”, as advanced for instance by that strange biologist Cuvier who Foucault found to be so mesmerizing. Echoing Kant’s postulates about human progress without radical breaks, they found no sharp punctuations in geology or biological evolution. They advanced their own theories against adamant opposition from some theological orientations. Did the hegemony of the theo/evolution debate drain attention from an equally important debate between gradualism and the theme of periodic “catastrophe”?
When Luis Alveraz and Stephen J. Gould challenged gradualist views, as late as 1980, the theory of “punctuated equilibrium” was ridiculed by many evolutionary biologists. That theory, now backed by a lot of evidence, contended that evolution could proceed gradually and then turn rapidly due to a major, sometimes exogenous event. If that theory turned out to be true evolutionary biologists would need to pay attention to geological change, astrophysical events, the changing pace and range of human migration, settlement and travel, and climate processes to study their own field. They would have to become transdisciplinary. That alone was enough to cause consternation in academic departments.
The claim was that dinosaurs had been wiped out suddenly 65 million years ago in the aftermath of a massive asteroid hitting Mexico. The impact, the global dusting, and the ensuing climate change destroyed these masters of the earth in a short time, setting off a new turn in evolution that favored mammals and other species. As late as the nineteen nineties an eco-friendly colleague strongly advised one us to drop Gould because the pros in evolutionary biology found him to be incredible. Today, of course, the asteroid event is supported by massive evidence and its effect on evolution now widely accepted. Things change rapidly sometimes in the world and in theory. Both the scope and speed of punctuation are pertinent.
We now know that there have been several extinction events The most devastating, when life itself came close to being extinguished, occurred about 250 million years ago. Over a mere 100,000 years about 90% of the earth’s species succumbed, with the rate and pace varying on sea and land. Why? That debate continues. Was it another asteroid? Few seem to think so. Was it a series of huge methane bursts from the sea, fouling the atmosphere and changing the climate? Perhaps. Other major evolutionary turning points are now under investigation as well, punctuated by a large series of “minor” events. One major extinction started around 450 million years ago, another around 200 million years ago, and, yes, another is rapidly underway as we speak. The last one is primarily a product of human activity, in which our modes of travel inadvertently carry bacteria, fungi, and other species into new environments, our modes of carbon extraction contribute to rapid climate change, and our break up of species migration routes block the escape of diverse species. Welcome to the Anthropocene.
Well, what difference would it make to that diverse group of canonical thinkers listed at the beginning of this post if each had been impressed, at least on this score, with Cuvier over Darwin? If they both accepted evolution and stood Darwinian gradualism on its head? After all, most of these events happened long ago and many are set on fairly long historical scales.
Well, they and we might have become more alert to how a host of nonhuman processes including plant evolution, hurricanes, ocean currents, volcanoes, fungi transmissions, asteroids, bacteria, and animal evolutionary patterns, both follow specific trajectories of their own and periodically become imbricated in unruly ways with human processes of production, travel, faith, politics, investment, consumption, and war. We might have folded a sense of how interacting force fields set on different time scales enable, interrupt, turn and reshape our own trajectories of being. And we theirs.The twentieth century thinkers also might have come to terms earlier with how modern human practices can affect climate, help to acidify oceans, and serve as prime movers in extinction events. (The hypothesis of planet warming because of human action was offered as early as 1896) We might have explored the terms of our entanglements with a host of other active forces and micro-actants. We might also have sensed how the hotly contested ideals of radical individualism, national unity, productionist collectivism, market rationalism, providential theism, capitalist mastery, human exceptionalism, and organic holism may all reflect in different ways evasions of the planetary conditions of life.
Each tends to project a future of smooth possibility in our relations with the nonhuman world more than to prepare us to cope with modes of change and unruliness coming from multiple sites. It is difficult to imagine that thinkers engaged with the catastrophic tendencies of the world could sustain ideas about impersonal market stability or argue that ecological concerns were secondary or tertiary to real politics. We certainly would not lionize James Carville for insisting to a Democratic party at the tipping point of a new conservative era that “It’s the economy, stupid.” We might even have explored how the cultural hesitancy to accept the reality of a world set on multiple interacting tiers of time expressed a series of theistic and atheistic, conservative and liberal, demands for a world that was ours for the taking. We might have challenged spiritual denialism in the human sciences. Certainly, Nietzsche proposed such a course of action quite a while ago. 
Dominant modes of explanation, multiple spatiotemporal scales to engage in exploring an issue, problematical features of several western ideals of the good life, and the dubious standing of spiritual demands we make upon God, the earth, and/or the cosmos. Could they be interrupted by challenging both naturalist gradualism and human exceptionalism?
Should theorists and social scientists today drop the crew listed at the top of this piece? No, some of their insights remain. But we should not lionize them too much either or understand them simply in their “cultural contexts”. (The “we” is invitational.) We need, rather, to read them against themselves, with one eye on their assumptions, demands and affinities and the other on the predicament they have helped to bestow upon us. We may also read them in the company of "minor" thinkers who, though not perfectly prescient either, waged war against the dominant contests and the existential spiritualities clinging to them. Think, for instance, of Thoreau, Nietzsche, James, the later Merleau-Ponty, Val Plumwood, Guattari, Gandhi, Kafka, Rachel Carson, Bateson, Gould, Terrence Deacon, Whitehead, and Werner Herzog.
Rachel Carson Testifying Before Congress on the Dangers of Pesticides, 1962.
Yes, Marx’s theory of alienation reveals things about capitalist hegemony, the burdens of factory work and the commodity form. But we need to add the alienation from mortality, from interspecies entanglements, and from the shaky place of the human estate in the cosmos to the list. These modes of spiritual insistence can also surge periodically into the intercoded domains of production, consumption, investment, and voting. More of us need to pursue the transcendence of some modes of alienation and to transfigure others to help us affirm a world of becoming that is neither simply our oyster nor our staging ground. Certainly we might think twice before wagering a century and a half of industrial expansion and development in the hope of creating the conditions for a true revolutionary class. We need both to confront our contributions to the sixth extinction and to affirm the shaky place of the human estate on the planet as one of the conditions of being rather than seeking another world to be built on the ruins of this one.
What of Kant’s reliance on ‘nature’s secret plan’ for the self-organizing moral maturation of humanity. Despite the claims of contemporary philosophy and liberal thinking to be post-metaphysical have the cosmopolitans and neo-Kantian’s really rid themselves of this strong faith in providence? We do not think so. Even as most on the Academic left challenged climate deniers, not enough has changed in their own views of a human-centric world. Like their fellow travelers the Neo-Arendtians, they bristle at the idea of a world not for humans. If instead climate change teaches us, as Timothy Morton has argued, that this was never our world to begin with how confident can we be of moral theories hitched to a human separatism? It seems in an age in which thoughtless human globe trotting has spread fungus imperiling the existence of all amphibians we may want to hesitate before we declare ourselves global citizens. That global justice is no match for one of the more than 8,000 life ending near earth asteroids should give us pause. Certainly it should humble our sense of uniqueness among living things and maybe inspire a little creaturely solidarity.
Or take Geroge Kateb and Charles Taylor, the radical individualist and the neo-providentialist who disagree with each other so much. Is our place on the planet more entangled and fragile than either the atheist or the theist has so far projected? Is it time to challenge respectfully the patterns of existential insistence expressed in both versions of providentialism?
Our Pale Blue Dot.
Today perhaps more of us need to experience plants and other actants more through the eyes of Jane Bennett, capitalism through those of Gilles Deleuze and Eugene Holland, the shifting affective tones of human perception through those of Brian Massumi, species evolution through those of Elizabeth Grosz, Lynn Margulis and Terrence Deacon, the pertinence of Sophocles and tragic possibility through those of Bonnie Honig and Steven Johnston, the issue of sovereignty and tragic possibility through those of Mike Shapiro and James Der Derian, the pursuit of theopoetic pluralism through those of Catherine Keller, the event of the Anthropocene through those of Bruno Latour and Tim Morton, creative Bangladesh ecological practices through those of Naveeda Khan, the waxing and waning of Indian spiritualities through those of Bhrigu Singh, the thinking of forests in the work of Eduardo Kohn, the break up of Antarctica through those of Werner Herzog, and the relation between extinction events and existential politics through those of Elizabeth Kolbert, Michael Benton and artists like J.G. Ballard who in 1962 wrote a novel called the Drowned World set in the aftermath of radical sea level rise.
Detroit Public School.
As The Dark Mountain environmental collective recently put it, maybe we should try to, “paint a picture of homo sapiens which a being from another world or, better, a being from our own — a blue whale, an albatross, a mountain hare — might recognize as something approaching a truth.” This seems to us what is at stake in a revaluation of our master thinkers. To take seriously the world at large is to theorize along side whales, trees, hurricanes, asteroids, the fleeting presence of iridescent frogs, minor human thinkers, other ways as well as forms of life all while not losing sight of the human estate we struggle to hold on to in the maelstrom of an expanding universe.
The frail heritage of gradualism and exceptionalism is not up to this task. The human sciences must no longer feed off the carbon remains of old emissions. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

Making War on Citizens at the National September 11 Museum


Steven Johnston
Neal A. Maxwell Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service, University of Utah

The National September 11 Museum, which opened to controversy in May, functions as an affective and political continuation, even intensification of the National September 11 Memorial. It is not a freestanding institution. Philip Kennicott, architecture critic of The Washington Post, considers the Museum a “supplement” to Michael Arad’s Memorial pools, but destructively so: it “overwhelms—or more literally undermines—the dignified power of [the] memorial by inviting visitors to re-experience the events in a strangely, obsessively, narcissistically repetitious way.” This is what makes the Museum, in my judgment, a continuation of the Memorial. That is, the Museum, which is located directly beneath Ground Zero, does belowground what the Memorial does aboveground: it makes war on citizens. The Memorial creates this effect more subtly as the reflecting pools’ waterfalls mimic the collapsing towers. Here there is no debris left over; the water crashes down and disappears into a void where it is recirculated to provide the material for subsequent collapses. The Museum, on the other hand, recreates the horrors of September 11 in intimate, assaultive detail and does so primarily by targeting individuals—their memories, their experiences, their traumas. This approach to commemoration crystallizes America’s understanding of itself as an unrivaled source of right and good in the world and nothing more than an innocent victim on September 11, 2001. It thus obscures, among other things, the violence and tragedy constitutive of its imperial democracy. Nevertheless, it was precisely the institutional structures of this violence and tragedy that were attacked on September 11. To explicitly acknowledge this, of course, would be to acknowledge al-Qaeda’s success on September 11, thereby showing respect for an enemy, an act of which America, not alone among democracies, is incapable.

http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/j/MSNBC/Components/Photo/_new/pb-120910-sept-11-memorial-jm-5.photoblog900.jpg

What, more specifically, does it mean for the National September 11 Museum to make war on citizens? The idea here is not to kill them, of course. Wars are much broader in scope and their violence assumes myriad forms. The idea is to overpower them with an awesome display of architectural and archaeological engineering, a display that perversely matches, even surpasses, al-Qaeda’s 2001 assault. It’s as if the world’s leading democracy, feeling insecure not just about its porous borders but also its very identity, needed to prove itself equal, even superior to its deadliest enemy regardless of the cost. What Terry Smith has written of the World Trade Center’s and al Qaeda’s masterminds could be said of the Museum’s: ”To attempt creation or destruction on such an immense scale requires both bombers and master-builders to view living processes in general, and social life in particular, with a high degree of abstraction. Both must undertake a radical distancing of themselves from the flesh and blood of mundane experience ‘on the ground.’” This claim might seem counter-intuitive with the Museum, given its emphasis on the individual, but it simultaneously addresses everyone and no one, hence its air of abstraction. Emanating from its own cavernous vacuum, the Museum seems determined to induce a certain emotional-political sensibility, to break the morale of visitors and any possible resistance they might offer to its impressive and appalling death-laden design itself in service of a nationalist politics. I’m tempted to say it may not even matter if anyone visits the Museum.  For the United States, it’s enough that it was built.

http://0.tqn.com/d/architecture/1/0/b/z/9-11-Museum-Tridents.jpg

Visitors enter the Museum on the same level as the Memorial. To access the Museum proper, one first takes a long descending escalator ride past one of the massive steel tridents that formed part of the World Trade Center fa├žade. It is the first official ruin one sees, a sign both of mass murder and indestructibility. It also serves, along with the other ruins, to make a point of political pride. The towers collapsed, but total destruction was not and could not be achieved. These are exceptional artifacts. The enemy did not succeed as it might first appear. The Museum begins officially, if you will, at the bottom of the escalator. The contentious gift shop is located on this level; it contains souvenir items—coffee mugs, T-shirts, key chains, hors d’oeuvres plates—which can serve as daily reminders of horror and death.

http://thenypost.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/feature-copy.jpg?w=720&h=480&crop=1

The Museum’s inexorable descent to bedrock seven storeys below ground level, which somehow renders a sense of return to the surface and life problematic, if not quite doubtful, is reminiscent of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall on the National Mall, except this descent takes place on a much grander scale and entirely indoors. Instead of virtually walking into a tomb from outside, as in Washington, D.C., one is always already in a tomb at the National September 11 Museum. This tomb is filled with thousands and thousands of the still-unidentified remains of the day’s victims. After all, the site is both a cemetery and the official repository of the dead. The tomb is also littered with ruins and debris from the day’s attacks: an antenna from the roof of one of the towers; the motor from one of the elevators; the last steel beam to be removed from the clean-up site; a fire truck badly damaged during rescue efforts; twisted steel remnants from the floors that were struck. These substantial items look tiny in the immense surroundings of the underground tomb, which include the original slurry wall that held back the Hudson River to the west. The visitor is made to feel puny.

http://www.newyorkinspiration.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/13.jpg

Puniness apparently reaches its climax next to the north Memorial pool, the bottom of which can be circumnavigated underground. Here one encounters a small information sign. It reveals that some 1,200 feet above this very spot, “hijackers crashed American Airlines Flight 11 into the World Trade Center” and “tore a gash in the building more than 150 feet wide.” What is the visitor to do now? How is the visitor to react after reading this matter-of-fact fact? Look up and imagine the day’s terrible events, the towers suddenly collapsing above and down upon him, and winding up beneath 110 floors of compressed rubble? The inclusion on site of a composite of several floors of one of the towers flattened and fused gives one answer. It’s not enough to imagine the death of others; one must also imagine one’s own. Vulnerability, susceptibility, contingency define life here.

 http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/06/03/arts/03museum3/jpMUSEUM2-popup.jpg

In the Museum’s Memorial Exhibition, which highlights the identities of those killed in the day’s attacks, the memorialization circle is closed. On a “Wall of Faces,” there is a portrait photograph of each and every victim. This complements the names inscribed in the Memorial directly above. On so-called touch screen tables, visitors can call up the name of any victim and learn more about her. Inside this memorial hall there is an inner chamber with benches lining the walls. The name of everyone killed is sequentially projected onto opposing walls, followed by biographical information, and, where possible, audio-visual reminiscences from family or friends. Visitors sit respectfully in the chamber and watch the alphabetical parade of names relentlessly pass by, as if afraid to leave, which would seem rude given the solemnity of the space. The attacks that are recreated by the Memorial waterfalls produce their offspring here.

 http://static01.nyt.com/images/2014/05/15/nyregion/20140515_memorial-slide-4B26/20140515_memorial-slide-4B26-jumbo.jpg

The Memorial Exhibition aspires to pay tribute to the day’s victims. To challenge this aspiration seems almost offensive by the time you reach the Museum’s nadir, especially if you have seen the room in the Historical Exhibition which catalogues and documents those who jumped from the Towers on September 11. Still photographs capture these horrific scenes, estimated at some 50 to 200, accompanied by recollections of people who witnessed the suicides but could not look away, for that would be to abandon people (though strangers) at the worst moment of their lives. It’s a gut-wrenching alcove, one of several with a box of tissues at the ready, and with a bench just outside it so people can sit and compose themselves afterwards.

What is the point of this death-driven redundancy? Edward Rothstein speculates that the Museum “is the site of their murder. And the attention to individuality presumably highlights the scale of the terrorist crime.” It also serves, as Rothstein notes, to distract. The Museum signifies avoidance, even denial of America’s contradictory role in the world and its contributions to the circumstances that make 9/11 all too conceivable rather than unthinkable. The Museum thus contributes to the impoverishment, through privatization, of public space. Leaving the National September 11 Museum, the single, solitary brick from Osama bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad, Afghanistan, liberated by the American assassination team that eradicated him from the face of the earth, and proudly on display at bedrock, may be the Museum’s representative artifact. There are two possibilities, the brick suggests: challenge the American-led global order of things and you will be reduced to this; or, align yourself with the American-led global order of things, which also reduces you to a brick, a mere pillar of America’s global war on terror.

https://www.911memorial.org/sites/all/files/imagecache/blog_post_medium/blog/images/Brick%20from%20OBL%20Compound.png

Friday, June 20, 2014

Full Employment, Working Hours, and the Democratic Prospect

John Buell is a columnist for The Progressive Populist and a faculty adjunct at Cochise College. His most recent book is Politics, Religion, and Culture in an Anxious Age.

Despite all the talk about economic recovery, the US remains mired in slow growth and persistent unemployment. That we are far from full employment becomes clear if we recall recent history. During the final months of the Clinton Administration, unemployment dipped below 4% Those on the bottom of the income distribution began to make modest gains. Unfortunately, recollection of that history is likely to lead the Federal Reserve to tighten interest rates well before those on the bottom have any real market power.  Late nineties gains, however welcome as they were to those on the bottom were also the product of a speculative bubble fed by irresponsible and often criminal banking practices. A full employment agenda with more enduring base would involve a green New Deal with substantial funding for alternative energy, conservation, and public transit. Unfortunately, such an approach is currently off the political radar.



How might we move closer to full employment without relying on speculative bubbles, easy money, or more robust federal spending? And what do we mean by full employment? Should this concept be defined as providing every healthy worker the promise of forty hour per week throughout his or her working life?


Europe can be one source of inspiration on both of these questions. Though Eurozone leaders –especially Chancellor Merkel—remain committed to a destructive fiscal austerity, Germany has provided some positive examples. Dean Baker has pointed out that despite a growth rate generally no higher than the US, Germany has managed to keep unemployment rates lower than ours throughout the Great Recession. Under the German work sharing system, if a firm’s decline in orders requires a 20% cut in workers, rather than lay off a fifth of its workforce it cuts each worker’s hours twenty percent.  “Under work sharing, if firms cut back a worker’s hours by 20 percent, the government makes up roughly half of the lost wages (10 percent of the total wage in this case). That leaves the worker putting in 20 percent fewer hours and getting 10 percent less pay. This is likely a much better alternative to being unemployed.”



US law includes provisions that make such work sharing practices more attractive, but Baker points out that these options have not been well publicized. This is unfortunate, and progressives should do well to spread the word. In the medium and longer terms a politics of hours reduction could be one key to addressing the environmental and ethical inadequacies of contemporary capitalism.

Baker goes on to add “There is no escaping the logic that more workers and more hours per worker are alternative ways to meet a growing demand for labor. There are good reasons for preferring the more worker route to the longer hour route.”


This logic goes the other way as well. With productivity steadily increasing in all modern industrial economies, unemployment rises unless consumer demand continues to grow commensurately. Orthodox economists assert that consumer demands are insatiable and that we work hard to meet those demands. Yet it is just as plausible to argue that long work hours coupled with the US practice that productivity gains can be taken only in the form of higher wages rather than shorter hours encourages an emphasis on more consumption. And as working hours in workplaces where the gap between CEO compensation and frontline employees has reached obscene levels, the pressures for conspicuous consumption have grown. (Witness the recent Kia ad that tells us luxury is a function of how we feel about a product and “how it makes others feel about us.”)  At the very least long hour jobs give workers few opportunities to experience satisfactions other than more commodities.


University of Leeds economist David Spencer also wonders about the broader spiritual ethos encouraged by a society where some are workaholics and others are permanently unemployed or must scramble for some combination of welfare and part time work.  Should we “be asking society to tolerate long work hours for some and zero hours for others. Surely we can achieve a more equitable allocation that offers everyone enough time to work and enough time to do what they want? A reduction in work time would offer a route to such an allocation.”

The quest for shorter hours and the political and social gains it might bring are hardly new themes in American history. Nonetheless, as historian Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt points out, this history has nearly been forgotten. Kline reminds us of the visions of poets, religious leaders, social critics, and architects, all of whom saw the possibility of “higher purposes” beyond mere accumulation and work for its own sake.  Walt Whitman imagined a future in which with the necessities of life having been met all citizens would be free to celebrate and sing. Workers embraced such visions and made them their own through advocacy of shorter working hours, a theme that united both organized and rank and file workers for over a century.


Today the downsides from the institutional rejection of this vision and the consequent turn toward perpetual work and accumulation have severe social and ecological implications. A world of extreme work for some and no work for others can also be associated with the demonization and racialization that is such an ugly feature of our politics. Inner doubts lodged in the minds of workaholics about what all this work is for and about the work and spend treadmill can be stilled by demonizing those who do not or cannot find work.

There is however a positive spin on these connections. More equal distribution of work can alter perceptions of those formerly excluded from work and the experience of more leisure can curb the sense that work is the exclusive meaning of life.



In addition, as Julie Schor has suggested in Plenitude, curbing an obsession with consumption while also enhancing the ability to collaborate on non-market solutions to common problems is already a an increasingly common response to the market’s failure to deliver adequate jobs. Forging social bonds across ethnic/religious/political divides around nonmarket solutions to pressing problems is likely to become all the more necessary as the global climate crisis intensifies. We may already be witnessing a rebirth of that nineteenth century reform spirit. As Hunnicutt characterizes that spirit: “Instead of changing political and economic orders, most hoped simply to move beyond them, using them, as Walt Whitman suggested, as stepping stones to a “larger liberty.”” Work sharing is a short term imperative with the potential both to grow and to encourage other positive changes in our political economy.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Bruno Latour, the Anthropocene, and The General Strike

William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University

The humans, the bifurcation of nature and culture, the modernists, the abstract scientists, the theo-escapists. To Latour, in his recent Gifford Lectures on the Anthropocene, this cadre of escapists faces an emerging cadre of the earthbound, the Anthropocenists, carriers of a Gaia geostory, labcentric scientists and new secularists. The latter are spiritually attuned to the dangers of the Anthropocene, to the roughly two hundred year period when human carbon production has triggered significant shifts in climate that will last for centuries.
The latter cadre, barely underway, acknowledges the Anthropocene as the defining condition of today; it acknowledges the absence of either a providential cosmic order or one predisposed to our mastery; it shucks off fantasies of escape to an afterlife or another planet. It adopts a new secular image as it sees how the sciences are key in the struggle against those who deny evidence of climate change. And it challenges modernists who emphasize the past we have escaped to avoid thinking about the future looming before us.
I learn from Latour. I think that there is something to the Gaia story as modified by Lynn Margulis, when she retreats from calling the biosphere an organism to focus on its character as intersecting, self-organizing processes with limited powers of self-sustainability. I agree that climate denial finds varied degrees of expression, from outright denial to official acceptance joined to refusal to do anything about it. And yet...
I suppose that the onto-creed I myself embrace is closer to that of Latour than to most others floating around. But this preliminary agreement does not exhaust the issues. My sense, rather, is that struggles are being waged within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, nontheism, and Hinduism as much as between any of them and something called the new secularism. How so? Well, each creed (including secularism) expresses a set of formal understandings, say, of an omnipotent God, or of a limited God, or of the ability to define the contours of public reason without drawing upon “private” resources of faith. Each set of believers is also invested with spiritual dispositions not entirely exhausted by its formal creed. An Augustinian may confess omnipotence and salvation and fill that doctrine either with love of this world and a diversity of life or, say, deep resentment of alternative doctrines and the intrusion of the Anthropocene. An immanent naturalist might resent the world for lacking a salvational god or love it for the sweetness of life it secretes.
The fact that creed and existential spirituality are interinvolved but not equivalent opens up the possibility of a new pluralist assemblage. The new assemblage will not be organized around one class, one party, or one secular creed. Rather, in an age of multiple minorities of multiple sorts diverse constituencies may draw upon spiritual affinities across differences to form the assemblage.
Not every creed is apt to sponsor many participants in that assemblage. Neoliberals and the right edge of evangelism are improbable candidates. But many pledging support to diverse creeds might hear a call to respond resolutely to the Anthropocene. We thus don’t need a new secularism as much as we need spiritual alliances forged across multiple lines.
I also doubt that scientists divide on this issue in conformity to Latour’s distinction between lab and theoretical scientists. Some lab scientists may be too narrow to care much about climate change. And some abstract scientists may care a lot even though their accounts of it will vary from Latour’s. Diversities of spiritual focus and intensity make a difference here. For that matter, other lines of social division such as class, education level, gender, race, sexuality, age cohort, religion, and ethnicity may not correlate that closely in the future with a favorable stance on climate change. You also need to fold the tricky dimension of spiritual disposition into the calculus. Something contemporary social scientists often resist.
But isn’t spirituality itself infused with belief and creed? You adopt one version of Augustinianism by playing up the importance of love while others focus on excommunicating heretics? Or some “new” atheists dismiss theists while others pursue relations of presumptive generosity across such differences. Yes. But spirituality also infuses belief with variable degrees of intensity; its variable intensities bathe the quality of participation in creedal communities. That is why arts of the self and micropolitics are so important to the quality of political life.
Today spiritual struggles over the appropriate response to the Anthropocene are increasingly waged within church communities, scientific practices, families, university courses, labor unions, age cohorts, and some businesses. The need today is to mobilize a militant pluralist assemblage composed of diverse constituencies with affinities (not identities) of spirituality.

II
Today, as discussed in an earlier post we face a dilemma of electoral politics: 1) The logic of the media/electoral/corporate/neoliberal/evangelical/filibuster/gerrymandering complex makes it extremely difficult to pursue a broad time horizon, to express attachment to the earth, or to address the Anthropocene within the grid of political intelligibility supported by the electoral system. The scandal focus of the media, the power of corporations to take market initiatives and protect them by exercising veto power in the state, the gerrymandering of seats and the filibuster, the strategic role of uniformed undecideds in elections--all of these work to make electoral politics dysfunctional.2) But to forgo electoral politics merely cedes more power to the radical right. It gives it another institution to enact an extreme agenda. So the new assemblage to be constructed must both participate in electoral politics and resist the grid of political intelligibility it secretes.

How to pursue such a tricky combination? To me the most promising path, out of perhaps a bad lot, is to multiply the sites and scales of action, moving back and forth between role experimentations in churches, work, consumption, locality and the like, participation in new social movements, involvement in elections, and forging a cross-state citizen movement. Take role experimentation. You may bring new visitors, issues and themes to your church, mosque or temple, support the farm to table movement, buy a hybrid or join a zip car collective and tell others why, put up solar panels if you can afford them or sign up for wind power where available, shift a larger portion of your retirement fund to sustainable investments, write for a blog like the Contemporary Condition, and so on. I have enumerated additional examples elsewhere.
Such experiments are radically insufficient to the scope of the problems, as many social scientists and erstwhile revolutionaries combine to tell us everyday. “They make you feel good but do not resolve the issue,” couch objectivists say. ”You can shift a few role performances, but your authenticity is suspect unless you transform the system,” revolutionaries say. Or, “now that you have dropped out you have lost purchase anywhere to make a difference.” Ignore such attempts to place you in a double bind.
They do not understand how social movements emerge. As you proceed (the “you” is both individual and collective) a series of things happen. First, you now become a bit less implicated in role performances that contribute most to the problem; second, you may find that the shaky belief/spiritual perspectives from which these experiments were launched have become more entrenched; third, you may now be primed to participate in larger, militant movements. For example, the new student movements in universities to divest them of stocks in fossil fuels could spread fast.
At some point as such actions proliferate a new event will surely erupt, such as a devastating hurricane, a severe drought, an even greater surge of migration attempts, a new series of wild fires, radical protests in poor countries against rich countries for imposing the burdens of climate change on them while escaping the worst effects themselves, a more radical acceleration of glacier flows, or a dangerous deceleration of the ocean conveyor system. Now, if the seeds of a critical movement have been sown, the stage may be set for more militant action. 
Spiritual affinities, role radicalizations, enhanced knowledge about the Anthropocene, a precipitating event. Will it now become possible to mobilize a cross-country General Strike, pressing from both inside and outside international organizations, states, corporations, churches, political parties, unions, consumers, investors, and universities? The goal would be to defeat neoliberalilsm, to curtail climate change through radical changes in the energy grid and ethos of consumption, to reduce inequality, and to install a more vibrant pluralist spirituality into democratic machines that have lost touch with the vitality of being.
It seems urgent today to project a time when it becomes possible to enact a nonviolent General Strike across several countries. Of course, such an action is improbable. It is an improbable necessity. It is essential to envision and support that possibility to speak to the urgent needs of the day.
Don’t refuse such an agenda in the name of realism and probability unless a) you think that climate change is unimportant, or b) you believe there are already adequate policies in place, or c) you don’t really care much about its severe, differential effects on people now and in the future, as long as you can escape the worst effects. If you are gripped by the last spiritual consideration don’t forget to factor in the forced population migrations, wars, crises in food supply, and civil unrest that will accompany consolidation of the Anthropocene.
I am glad Bruno Latour gave these lectures. They focus attention on the severity of the planetary issue and the denials and evasions attached to it. I am also moved by the spirituality that infuses them.