Archive for April, 2007

Puffery and the politics of complaint (or the fetishization of textual revolt)

Sunday, April 29th, 2007

I’m re-reading David Harvey’s timeless article, “The practical contradictions of Marxism”. This is what he has to say about the sorry state of post-60s wannabe radical intellectuals:

“But all is not well among the new academic enterepreneurs. Sealed off from the regulative dialectics of the proleterain public sphere and hence, deprived of a corrective dialogue with the producing classes, they are now turning in on themselves. Safely sequestered in the universities but still playing at resistance, their “discourse radicalism” has led them into a dead end dalliance that fetishizes language. When not promoting the ‘politics of complaint’ (Hughes, 1993), these masters of theory-in-and-for-itself engage in the hollow puffery of introspection, creating occupationally safe crusades, and demanding bad faith reforms that deftly side-step the enduring conundrums of class struggle” (29-30).

Colourful. And scathing. There’s a lot more where that came from. You should read it.

Something good

Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

Something good happened today. I saw a copy of my latest article in Tailoring Biotechnologies. I say “saw” because I haven’t yet received my copy, although Feenberg has (there’s a review of his book on Heidegger and Marcuse). I will put the link up when they update their site…

Also I’m going to Montreal. In May. I’ve written about this before, but now it hovers on the horizon of my immediate existence like some sort of redemption. I’ll be staying at a friend’s pad (here’s a link to her recent ZNet article), who will be in Windsor, Ontario for the Propaganda Model conference. That will rock – Chomsky, Herman, McChesney, Goodman – all those types will be there. Plus it’s our old stomping ground – always fun to go back. But it’s not too hard to go to Montreal. I just have to book the ticket.

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After the dreaming, the doing

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007

It’s been awhile since I’ve written here. I’m swearing a lot, and shaking my head, in that “tut tutting” manner of mother hens and busy bodies. I have little to no patience with the world. Things are fucked.

On another note, my first comprehensive exam (written) is in 2 weeks. This is the reason for my wracked emotional state. Not enough sleep, too much coffee. Too many children. Way too much stress. Will I be done? No. Yes. Who cares? Let’s write it and see. I could be the first person to fail this thing ever, or in a long time, in our department.

Things I know: 1. I don’t have a photographic memory. 2. I don’t speak well publicly under pressure.

That is a deadly combination for comps. If I believed in anything, I’d pray, but since I don’t, I feel oddly at peace with it all since there’s nothing beyond what I’m doing – nothing superhuman – that can help me. It’s just me. All me. And in the end, that’s all you’ve got for certain anyhow.

Below is my final (I think, hope) definitional essay of the first exam. In other words, this is supposed to map out and somewhat justify or explain the texts in my bibliography. Most people have this thing done way WAY a long time ago. Not 2 weeks before their exam. But who really fucking cares? See, I’m swearing. And now for some light reading…

Toward a theory of change: Radical social theory and emancipatory communication

This comprehensive exam considers radical social theory in its efforts to liberate humanity, particularly through communication. To this end, it investigates the history of thought that attempts to understand how human society is organized as well as articulate visions of progressive social change based on appeals to freedom, justice and equality. A recurring theme in this account is human oppression – the domination of (hu)man and nature that ensures the rule of a minority elite to the detriment of the masses. Radical social theory therefore comprises theoretical frameworks that are both sociological (analyzing “what is”) and philosophical (considering “what should be”) in an effort to realize the good, to create a better world. One of the critical components needed to foster this aspiration is communication.

This exam is guided by questions that take on an urgency in the contemporary era of perpetual war, increasing global human immiseration and ongoing ecological devastation. These questions are founded on notions of power, democracy, agency and – naïve though it may sound – ethics. Is another world possible, as the global justice movement proclaims? Can we reorganize society based on human need versus corporate greed? Can we collectively administrate our affairs without devolving into totalitarianism? Can we create a power structure that is networked, self-propelling and self-fulfilling? Can we build a sustainable and holistic social order that cares for people and the earth they derive life from? These questions have answers only in the social imagination, which is the basis for many of the texts on this exam. Before we build it, we must dream it.

The exam is divided into two subsections in order to clearly identify alternatives for social reorganization as well as the function of communication in achieving this; the first is organized historically, the second, thematically. Visions of a Liberated Society traces the lineage of socialist thought, beginning with pre-socialist utopian writings, following the evolution of socialist thought, and outlining recent progeny: post-Marxism, post-colonialism and feminism. The Enlightenment offers an obvious starting point, when ideas of progress, guided by reason instead of religion, began to be linked with ethics in examination of the individual, society and the state. Social theory emerges at about this time, with intense deliberations on inequality, the nature and limits of power in society and human liberty. One of the central debates that arose dealt with the relation of the individual to society, and the competing rights and obligations of both. Here we see the seeds of socialism being sown, especially in ideas of the benefits of association, common ownership and collective organization of the state.

Both democracy and capitalism took root in the fertile soil prepared by the dramatic shift in scientific, intellectual and philosophical thought during the Enlightenment. In turn, these developments nurtured a response in social critics who observed the concomitant rise of extreme poverty and other societal ills. With the rapid rise of modern industrial capitalism, socialism shed its utopian foundation and was transformed into a political doctrine in the 19th century. Anarchism distinguished itself from other currents of socialist thought with its theory of freedom, which accounts for human liberty in the context of nature, value and social conditions (Crowder, 1991) This is manifest in anarchism’s opposition to the state as the destroyer of freedom: redemption is achieved only in free and voluntary association. Marx considered anarchism a critical position with no practical application. For him the state is a transitional but necessary stage that anticipates a classless society. Marx locates human oppression in class struggle, which arises in the division of labour and characterizes all of history. Marx’s dialectical approach provides a framework in which to understand social change through contradiction and negation; indeed, his method of historical materialism produces an analysis of capitalism that implies an alternative mode of social organization. Marx’s notion of praxis is central for this exam, which considers generally the problem of social transformation: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach, No. XI). Agency is thus the key to emancipation.

Marx’s work inaugurated a new system of philosophical, political and economic thought, which sparked countless, and continuing, debates. Heirs to the Marxist legacy include Western Marxism, which emphasizes culture over economic analysis, and Critical Theory, which salvages the radical, emancipatory elements of Marxism. Capitalism as a source of repression (of human and nature) was a persistent focus for critique, while peace, freedom and happiness remained the inspiration for alternative visions of society. Key debates concerned the failure of the Enlightenment (particularly the technological basis of rationality), the viability of the revolutionary project, and the loss of the working class as an agent of change. New interpretations of Marxism continued to evolve out of the foundational tenets; by the mid-twentieth century, the material basis of analysis broadened, and other dynamics, such as gender and ethnicity, gained equal footing with class. Post-colonial theory customized a Marxian analysis to comprehend the devastation wrought by colonial rule, conceptualizing imperialism through the prism of class struggle.

The convergence of race, class and gender heralded a post-modern turn in radical social theory, and anchored theoretical approaches to “new social movements.” This exam considers such movements dialectically – as both products and creators of modernity and hence, social change. The post-Marxist approach contended that social inequality and unfreedom can no longer be reduced to considerations of class, and identified patriarchy, nationalism and racism as intersecting sources of oppression. Thus there was an insistence upon a reflexive relationship between the classic Marxist dualism of base and superstructure. Reinterpretations of Marxism flourished in light of the changing dynamics of capitalism in late modernity – especially technological advancement. Key Marxian concepts were rearticulated: power was decoupled from its material base, becoming decentralized and relativistic; praxis became pedagogical; and emancipation was no longer self-evident.

The loss of the revolutionary class caused a shift in radical social theory toward communication as a means to achieve liberation. Arguably, the development of communication theory imbricates with the evolution of socialist thought, culminating with Habermas’ (1981) concept of communicative reason. On this account, rationality is the cornerstone of both emancipation and domination. It is through the action of communicating that society operates and evolves; only when communication is free from domination and oriented toward mutual understanding is emancipation possible. Habermas relocates agency from its traditional class base to communicative action, which is both the instrument of progressive social change and the foundation for deliberative democracy. The transfer of agency from the working class to the citizen is also evident in the notion of the public sphere (Habermas, 1962/1989), that civic space between state power and private interests where rational-critical debate can occur among members of society on matters of public interest. The public sphere enhances and defends democracy by facilitating free speech and assembly and enabling organization against oppressive forms of social and political power. As the public sphere presupposes a free press, this concept has contributed much to theoretical debates in communication theory about the media’s role in social transformation, particularly in relation to democracy.

Communication is central to human interaction; it is the cornerstone of all social organization. The task for creating a society free from domination, where human needs are fulfilled and human wants are satisfied through self-empowered activity, lies before us. That it is a task that relies a new approach, one guided by holism, collectivity and sustainability, is clear. It is ours to first dream – and then communicate – this new approach. And after the dreaming, comes the doing.

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