One of the More Idiotic of False Equivalences

Sometimes you hear people complain about ‘politically correct’ changes in language by comparing them to Orwellian ‘newspeak’ – for instance, this article makes that claim about the BBC’s move to use ‘CE’ and ‘BCE’ in place of ‘AD’ and ‘BC’. This article doesn’t go quite that far but does call it “an example of the BBC trying to undermine Christianity by pushing an aggressive secularism.”

Without wanting to dignify with a response the claim that this represents “a Marxist plot to destroy civilisation from within”, I think it’s worth pointing out that the aims of ‘political correctness’ and of ‘newspeak’ are actually precise opposites.

The goal of newspeak, in 1984, was the narrow the range of available thoughts, by having fewer words, so that each word would cover and blur together a greater range of meanings. The goal of the linguistic tendencies labelled ‘PC’ are, at bottom, to widen the range of available thoughts, by separating distinct meanings.

For instance, replacing ‘chairman’ with ‘chairperson’ doesn’t abolish the words ‘chairman’ and ‘chairwoman’, it keeps them as gender-specific terms for when you want to convey information about gender, rather than having a single term that means both ‘person who chairs, of unspecified gender’ and ‘man who chairs’. That’s not a narrowing of the range of available meanings.

The AD/CE case is similar, though the meanings here are very subtle associations. If you want to specify a year and also suggest that the birth of Jesus of Nazareth was the most important event in human history, you can still do that, but saying CE also allows you to do the former without doing the latter. Maybe that’s a trivial benefit, but if it’s not worth doing it’s also not worth predicting the end of Western Civilization over.

As for the idea that these linguistic changes make bigoted claims impossible, it seems they do quite the opposite. If the people who just want to specify sexual orientation, and the people who want be generically insulting, both stop using the word ‘faggot’, your ability to use it to insult people with specific reference to their sexual orientation is increased. And if you’re worried people will misunderstand, you can still always fall back on more complex phrases like “your romantic habits render you subhuman”.

Now, this diversification of words might work against ease and naturalness of speech, might make people inconveniently self-conscious; indeed in the short-term that’s probably inevitable. But that’s the opposite of what you would go for if your aim was to make people docile and unthinking drones who automatically accept a party line. If you want to indoctrinate people you want to make the words just slip from their mouths like a vegan lactose-free spread that mimics the viscosity and melting point of butter. If you see what I mean. You can be a pedant or a populist but not both at once.

Anyway, I’m probably beating a dead horse in a barrel of fish, but I’ve seen this link made a few times and it just struck me how upside-down it is.

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Bush is a War Criminal, but I don’t believe that Bush is a War Criminal

“Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has been stripped of legal immunity for acts of torture against US citizens authorized while he was in office.

The 7th Circuit ruling is the latest in a growing number…Criminal complaints have been filed against Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials in Germany, France, and Spain.

Bush recently curbed travel to Switzerland due to fear of arrest following criminal complaints lodged in Geneva… And this month Canadian citizens forced Bush to cancel an invitation-only appearance in Toronto.

The Mayor of London threatened Bush with arrest for war crimes earlier this year should he ever set foot in his city, saying that were he to land in London to “flog his memoirs”

Colin Powell’s Chief-of-Staff Col. Lawrence Wilkerson surmised on MSNBC earlier this year that soon, Saudi Arabia and Israel will be “the only two countries Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest will travel too.”

When I saw the title of the article linked to here, which includes the phrase “Mr. Rumsfeld, you’re under arrest”, I felt an unexpectedly strong surge of happiness. Upon reading it, of course, I found that such an arrest was merely being speculated about, not reported. But still the thought of it makes me happy. They deserve it if anyone does, and it would be a sort of symbolic execution of the king, and I’m not ashamed to admit how much I love that idea.

But there’s not much point telling you how much I’d like to see those fuckers in court. For one thing, it’s unlikely to happen – what’s exciting here is only that it’s become not-quite-certain to not happen.

For another thing, sharing strong expressions ofanger, hatred, or vengefulness on a blog is rarely edifying or informative. So instead, I want to say something about the war crimes themselves, and my representations of them.

The paradox is that to me, these facts seem both obviously real, and yet only pretend.

I mean, there’s no need for you to click the above link, really, and read all about the deaths and the penis-slicing is that you probaly already know enough. After you’ve read that they killed a bunch of guys, or that warlords arrest random people and give them to the Americans to torture just because it builds their relationship, or seen a video of kids being gunned down from a helicopter, etc. etc. why do you need to know more?

And it’s not like this is speculation, really. I’ll admit I haven’t done in-depth research, but the drip-feed of information, whistleblowers, allegations, etc. doesn’t leave me in that much doubt. There’s official denials, of course, but they’re not persuading anyone.

And yet… and yet it still feels slightly unreal. Like, sure these people had thousands of people abused in various ways, but it’s not as though they’re criminals. I mean, you wouldn’t be scared talking to them. It wouldn’t be like talking to Hannibal Lecter, or that creepy homeless guy who stabbed someone.

At the back of my mind, this all feels like partisan rhetoric, like calling Bush a ‘Nazi’. He’s not a Nazi. He’s a bad, bad, man but that concept just factually doesn’t fit him, or his political role. If we call him a Nazi, it’s a sort of inflated rhetoric, exaggerating things, demonising him because it feels good. Like telling a crowd that they live in the world’s greatest country, or that we should make poverty history. It’s standard politics:  you say things that fit the emotional tone you’re going for, even if everyone knows they’re not strictly true.

And when you’re engaged in that sort of rhetoric, you know you are, at some level. You can feel, if you pay attention, that you don’t really believe what you’re saying. You can feel that at bottom you’re pretending, even though it may be the sort of pretence where you tell people you believe it.

The strange thing is that when I say that the US committed war crimes, I still have that feeling. And I don’t think there’s any amount of evidence that would get rid of it. Without actually seeing it first-hand, I will always feel like the authorities of Western countries can’t really be murderers.

It produces a pattern of feelings typical of such pretence. When I read about some horrific thing, I get angry, and I feel frustrated – at my actual powerlessness, but also that I don’t really believe it. I want to believe it, and what do you do when you want to believe something but know you really don’t? You express it more strongly – you search desperately for words you can say that will have enough force to make you believe them. Like, “Bush is Hitler”, or “Bush eats babies.”

Maybe it works at first, but later when you look back at it, it only reinforces the problem, because here you are were just pretending. Bush is not Hitler, and doesn’t eat babies. You picked those words because they were emotive, not because they were true. And that just reinforces the feeling that the whole thing is that kind of rhetorical pretence.

What underlies this phenomenon? I think it’s about social relations. If you think someone is guilty of massive and egregious crimes,  you have to act like it – you can’t just meet them and make small talk, shake their hand and make polite eye contact, on pain of implicitly normalising them.

That’s what the ‘moralised’ notion of criminal I’m using here means – not that they broke some specific human law, but that they broke the basic requirements for human interaction. They put themselves outside of the human community. They are a ‘public enemy’, and hence your enemy, so you should treat them like one.

But in the case of Western political leaders, I’m socially required to treat them, not as enemies, but as authorities. Of course I don’t interact with them directly, but I interact with a sort of ‘collective agent’ of which they are an influential part. I interact, for instance, with US border guards, and with US laws, and institutions funded by the US government, etc. I can’t treat them as enemies, and at some level of my mind that behaviour determines what I can genuinely believe.

So even if I try to tell you that I regard all capitalist governments as public enemies and hence my own enemies, no evidence or argument will make me actually believe that – subconsciously I still look at these figures as authorities, and so it seems like a fantasy that I might judge them murderous criminals.

So I end up in the bizarre position of pretending to believe what I honestly believe I ought to believe.

As Marx said “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

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Communism and Community

Is there a link between the meanings of ‘communism’ and ‘community’? My interest here is partly etymological, partly analysis of concepts, and partly pragmatic clarification of how words might best be used. I know this whole area is a quagmire, but then quagmires are often very interesting areas for a wildlife enthusiast.

Anyway, I think there is a link, but it’s indirect. The more direct links are between ‘communism’ and two other words, ‘commune’ and ‘common’.

If we confine our attention to the economic ‘nuts and bolts’ of what these words mean, these links become quite simple. A commune is a group of people who ‘hold things in common’, or who have ‘common property’, or ‘common ownership’. Communism is the belief that all things should be owned in common (or, ambiguously, the form of society in which they are). Thus communism is also the belief that society should be organised as either a single commune or a network of communes. A nice, tight triangle of perspicuous definitional links.

‘Community’ is left outside of this triangle because it has no definite economic meaning. But of course it too is closely connected with these terms, because they all have a robust penumbra of non-economic meanings, connotations, and associations.

One thread to pick out would be: what is ‘common’ among people is what they share or have ‘together’. Members of a community are people who ‘live together’, so that their ‘living’ is somehow ‘shared’ or ‘common’. But ‘live’ here is shorthand for something much broader than ‘be alive in a place’, as we see when we consider that two opposing armies might ‘be alive together’ on a battlefield without ‘living together’, even if their campaign lasts for months.

What is the relevant sense of ‘living together’? I could go into a long analysis of how different people have used the word ‘community’, since I was recently working on the topic, but instead I’ll just report the conclusion I came to: the core meaning of ‘community’ in this sense is a group of people who 1) benefit each other in various ways, and 2) value each in some non-instrumental fashion.

That ‘valuing’ could involve spontaneous feelings of affection, or it might involve shared dedication to a cause or ideal or activity, or it might involve formulating and following a set of rules which are meant to promote everybody’s welfare.

That’s the core meaning – there are other derived meanings, that somehow relate to the core one. But if that’s the sense of ‘living’ which is ‘shared’ and hence ‘common’ in a ‘community’, what does that have to do with ‘communism’?

That becomes clearer if we consider that the market is to a great extent a paradigm non-community. That claim needs certain qualifications, but the basic point is simple: in a market, people will often benefit each other but not because they mean to, or because they care. It is a characteristically self-interested way of securing co-operation.

That doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad, though it might establish a suspicion that it’s likely to have a number of quite pernicious outcomes. Communists think that suspicion turns out to be amply justified. They think that, as it turns out, the only way to secure optimal, or even acceptable, outcomes for everyone is if that goal is incorporated directly into the way the economy is run: that’s at least part of what is meant by ‘rational planning’.

If I’m right about the core meaning of ‘community’, then it follows that communism stands for the control of the economy by ‘minimally communal institutions’, i.e. those run on the basis of explicitly seeking everyone’s good. So that gives us a link between ‘community’ and ‘communism’.

(Note that the way I’m using these words, ‘communism’ is by definition anti-market, whereas ‘socialism’ need not be, as long as capital is owned collectively)

What about ‘commune’? This word can have different sorts of meaning; above I said that in an economic sense it means people with common property. But contrasted with ‘community’, its major connotation is intention – a commune is a group who ‘live together’ (a ‘community’) by choice, as part of a deliberate plan. This implies that they had some reason for such a choice, but that reason might be many things – a desire for closeness, a desire for fairness, a desire for freedom, or a desire for discipline.

In this sense, ‘commune’ again links together ‘community’ with ‘communism’, but in two ways. Firstly, ‘communism’ as a term emerged (according to my somewhat shallow research) in the context of many attempts to establish new utopian communes, such as Robert Owen’s “New Harmony”. So communes like that might be models of, or means of developing, communism.

But there’s also been a strain of criticism of such communal experiments, expressed here by Kropotkin. And, after all, much of the motive for founding one is disagreement with present society, so why would you still want to if you had succeeded in reforming society? So maybe communism shouldn’t be burdened by too close a connection with such communes.

An alternative semantic link is that both movements share the goal of creating deliberate, intentional, ‘communal’ institutions – but that in the one case this may be global, or otherwise filled with many more people than the average hippy camp. That is, communism need not be interested in ‘tight-knit’ communities, but just in having co-ordinating economic institutions which are ‘communal’ (in the sense of organising and expressing collective concern for each individual’s good) and not just accepting or strengthening existing communities.

This distinction might be phrased in terms of ‘communal self-awareness’ (individuals feeling strongly identified with and involved in a concrete network of people) and ‘self-aware community’ (groups ruling themselves deliberately and directly for their collective benefit). One need not imply the other, at least not directly.

In this respect, the ‘commune’ to look to would be the ‘Paris Commune’ of 1871, which is clearly not a ‘small, tight-knit community’, given how big Paris was even then – my superficial researches suggest that just the executions that followed its defeat involved many times the total population of New Harmony.

So in summary: a collection of semantic links connect ‘communism’, ‘community’, ‘commune’, and ‘common’, generally involving the idea of ‘sharing’ something, either economically or in a more robust sense of sharing (either directly or via. institutions) a concern for each others good.

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Broken Britain

[Edit: On re-reading, I realised this post might be a little confusing. It’s meant as a sort of parody-by-reversal of the usual style of writing about riots and repression, in which the tropes usually employed for talking about poor communities (‘it’s so sad that they do this, but we must remember the context’ etc.) are employed for talking about the state apparatus. I’m not sure how successful it is.]

Most of us will by now have noticed the growing wave of mindless, destructive violence that is sweeping the country in response to last week’s riots. Hundreds or thousands of people are being locked into the same set of dangerous, unfair, dehumanising cages that we have become all too familiar with.

Of course, all right-thinking people will condemn this orgy of state violence, but we should not rush to judgement. Those who denounce this as ‘bigoted’, ‘obscene’, or ‘fascistic’ are missing the crucial context of these events. We can’t understand these moves to indiscriminately victimise and incarcerate people without understanding the events that preceded them.

Similarly, the constant refrain that “there can be no excuse for using violent punishment against mere expropriation” serves simply to salve the consciences of those public figures who want to avoid taking a long hard look at the causes of this sudden outbreak of repression.

The people who are carrying out these acts, who are master-minding them or cheering them on from the sidelines, have very real greivances. Many of them have a history of being harassed, humiliated, or intimidated by poor youths, or have seen their families languish in poverty due to constant petty thefts or vandalism.

All of this came to head last week, when the irresponsible actions of poor youths went from merely humiliating to actively lethal. The handling of these events, especially the lies that were told by various individuals and groups to obscure their own role in those deaths, further exacerbated widespread anger and resentment.

But it’s more than that. This explosion has been brewing for a long time. The persistent, outrageous poverty of our political class’s discourse, the endless spirals of expressing and pandering to ignorance and prejudice, together with a steady growth in inequality that leaves far too many wealthy people completely out of touch with the realities of national life, makes outbreaks like this inevitable.

And there have always been too many working class people who would make excuses for these people, or endorse their views, out of a misplaced feeling of guilt.

Now, let there be no mistake: understanding is not the same as justifying. There can be no excuse for snatching up relatives of rioters, or shoplifters, or people who just took home valuable goods lying in the street, and subjecting them to prison, or homelessness, or destitution. Such actions are completely inconsistent with the principles of a civilised society, and they can have crushing effects on the lives of their victims.

Especially in the present economic climate, to give already-struggling people the stigma of a criminal record, or of homelessness, or to remove them from education or from their social support network, and put them somewhere known to be psychologically harmful in addition to its evident humiliations and deprivations, amounts to little more than pushing them to the edge of a self-sustaining cycle of imprisonment, homelessness, joblessness, or drug addiction, and then pretending to hope that they don’t fall in.

Perhaps the saddest thing of all is how pointless this violence is. These people are ruining their own communities,  further ripping up the social fabric whose frayed, ragged character originally provoked them. The people lashing out like this won’t even benefit from the cathartic outburst of aggression, because by their own actions they guarantee a backlash, more riots, more clashes with the police. Their actions are not just destructive, but self-destructive.

Ultimately, what this reflects is a problem of culture. A certain section of our society has been allowed to develop a victim mentality, where everyone but them is responsible for their problems. Rather than looking at themselves and how they can change, they blame the media, they blame immigration, they blame political correctness, they blame women’s rights, they blame muslims or the nanny state or liberalism or the BBC.

This attitude generates a toxic cycle, whereby people lash out at any symbol of non-authority, strengthening their own conviction of persecution while also breeding hostility in their own victims that just leads to more trouble down the line. Of course, we must never allow ourselves to slip into the easy conflation of culture with race. It is not white people who are the problem, but we should be able to criticise a culture without being accused of racism.

Britain is broken. How can we get it back on track?

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The Absence of Anarchy in the UK

So apparently my home-town is on fire. It’s all too easy to find people explaining how these events show their personal theories to have been right all along, so I’m going to do the opposite: explain why these events pose problems for my personal theories.

In particular, I want to talk about how riots relate to ‘consent-based politics’ – a broad collection of theories and movements including various forms of democracy, various sorts of ‘social contract theories’, and various forms of anarchism at the extreme. What unites them is the idea that legitimate political authority derives from people’s free, voluntary choices to grant that authority, that consent is in some respect central to what justice means.

What happens when people withdraw consent? Some consent-based theories don’t bother with this question, because they say that people can’t withdraw consent, that actual consent is not required. For example, both Kant’s hyper-moralistic version, and Hobbes’ hyper-egoistic version, of social contract theory, say that people’s consent to be governed can be presumed. But that’s less widely accepted nowadays.

Other theories, like liberal representative democracy, institutionalise mechanisms to allow for controlled forms of such consent-withdrawl, in particular emigration and election. Most people accept that there are conditions under which these mechanisms are inadequate – if the countries you might emigrate to are either equally bad, or refuse to admit you, if elections are dominated by the influence of plutocrats or elected leaders tear up their manifestos. Some people even think that they’re inherently inadequate; typically, anarchists think that they’re inherently inadequate, and that adequate institutions are possible.

But if we don’t live in a society with adequate mechanisms for people’s free choices to determine political outcomes, what do people do when they no longer consent to the terms which the law proposes? The natural consequence of anarchism is that in such a case, people are perfectly within their rights to ignore the law, and obey it only so far as is advantageous to them.

Now, I’m not going to say that watching these riots poses a problem for that view, that “this is what happens” when people stop respecting the law. Theoretically speaking, I can easily say that this is not anarchy, and that anarchists can be outraged and disgusted at indiscriminate destruction, burning of homes, physical violence and robbing people of their personal possessions. They can be outraged not because such things are against the particular laws of one society but because they are against the straightforward principles that would have to be respected in any decent society.

(That said, I don’t think looting itself is inherently wrong; changes in the distribution of wealth are to be judged in utilitarian terms, and are often beneficial)

The problem is the way that the riots illustrate the social constitution of consent and non-consent. This august line of criticism says that you can’t base society on people’s choices, because what people choose largely reflects their socialisation, and thus their society.

That’s a rather abstract-sounding point, but I feel it somewhat more concretely after reflecting on the competing explanations I saw people exchanging for these events.

Those explanations tend to fall on a spectrum between two extremes. One extreme is that this is “pure” criminality, committed by “mindless” thugs; the other extreme is sees this as just a long extension of the protest march on Saturday – people were making a political point about police violence, economic inequality, or something like that, and it spread into a riot, and then more joined in because of how angry they were about poverty and racism and whatnot.

Obviously not everyone involved will have had the same motives. But the difficult thing is that I’m not sure it’s possible to distinguish these two explanations even in principle. Even when people aren’t consciously focused on a political sense of greivance, the content of their peripheral consciousness can be political.

For instance, even if you’re not rioting because you disapprove of economic policies that fail to prioritise employment, you probably wouldn’t be rioting if you had, or anticipated having, a brilliant job that a brush with the cops would imperil.

And even if you’re not rioting because you’re angry about the killing of Mark Duggan, you may be rioting because you want some new stuff, and you’re not the sort of person who refrains from things out of ‘moral scruples’ or ‘respect for others’, and you may see yourself in that way partly because you feel that fairness is an empty concept in a society where the police can get away with murder.

But the fact that I can extract some political content from a set of motivations doesn’t mean they really are political, just in disguise. What it means is that factors which should be expressed politically are being expressed in egoistic, or self-destructive, or otherwise anti-social ways.

That’s the opposite of what’s meant to happen for a consent-based political theory.What’s meant to happen is that when people lose faith in the moral trustworthiness of their rulers, and/or come to feel that society’s terms of co-operation offer them nothing of value, they express this in an articulate, consistent way, by withdrawing from the terms of their particular society, seeking to establish better terms for an alternative society, and therefore necessarily respecting the basic rules that are presupposed in any attempt at dialogue (e.g. don’t set fire to someone’s house).

Moreover, this is meant to happen at both the individual level and the social level – people who withdraw consent should be able to communicate this to each other and associate together on the terms they prefer.

But none of that happens automatically. Indeed, it’s very difficult, and certainly not made easier when processes of that sort are usually either repressed or ineffective. And it’s dependent on the pre-existing social conditions, in all their complexity.

That is, people’s ability to coherently express political dissent from their social structure, even to themselves, is dependent on features of that social structure itself. So in some settings, huge quantities of anger and defiance appear, not as a political revolt, but mingled with greater quantities of machismo, spite, and stupidity.

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Foucault and Breivik

Is Rubert Murdoch responsible for actions carried out by his employees?

Do murders by Anders Breivik reflect on islamophobic commentators?

Are feminists, egalitarians and liberals advancing a Europe-wide grand plan to actively undermine the basic structures of Western civilisation?

All of these questions reflect an underlying theoretical difficulty: how to understand unities in human society. When is it appropriate to see distinct actions by distinct agents as parts of a larger pattern, and when is it misleading?

The pertinence of the question is brought out by considering the sort of people who seem to do badly on this score, who we might call ‘paranoid’ or ‘conspiracy theorists’ – people who have no compunction against attributing apparently unrelated events to a single ‘plan’ or shadowy ‘power behind the scenes’. To the unconvinced, a lot of ‘radical’ theory might look rather like this: A does X, B does Y, and C does Z, all in different contexts, but they can all be explained as expressions of capitalist hegemony or whatever.

But it’s clearly also possible to err in the opposite direction: to treat a consistent series of events as a collection of uninformative coincidences, to ‘miss the forest for the trees’ and thus fail to learn from evident facts.

So the question is worth considering in the abstract. It’s really a version of a broader question, of how to understand unity in any domain – given that we need to ‘carve things up’, which scheme of division is most illuminating?

In relation to that broad question, I want to suggest that there are two different ways of thinking, separated by the question: must a principle of unity be itself unified? That is, when several things compose a (relatively) unified whole, will this be explained by citing some single thing, which they are all related to, or which they all share, or which otherwise unifies them? Or might they be unified by multiple links which are not themselves unified?

I think this issue runs through a number of philosophical topics. Here are some examples:

  • Wittgenstein is famous for arguing that sometimes, a word can apply (non-ambiguously) to many things, without any single definition applying to all of them. Instead, there might be several different similarities which overlap, so that each item will have several relevant traits, but no trait is universal. These are often called ‘family resemblance’ terms.


  • John Locke argued with Descartes over what it means for a person to remain the same individual over time; Descartes position was that a single, inherently unified entity, their ‘soul’, persists throughout someone’s life, even as their body and personality change. Locke argued, on the contrary, that they were the same person as long as enough threads of memory bound the different stages of their life together: even if the 80-year-old can’t remember the experiences of the 5-year-old, they can remember the experiences of the 30-year-old who can.


  • Part of the goal of Spinoza’s theory of physical objects is to reject the Aristotelian idea of ‘form’ – that for an object to be really a single object it must have a single ‘form’ which is inherently a unity and which causally explains how it operates and what its properties are. Spinoza argues that, on the contrary, all that’s needed for an object to be a single object is that each of its parts be related in a stabilising way to some of its other parts, even if those relations are of irreducibly various kinds.

This photo shows the reanimated corpse of Michel Foucault at a party

Wittgenstein, Locke, and Spinoza are here making similar moves – explaining unity by reference something not itself unified – in different domains. I originally raised this topic in relation to a different domain – human society. The person I most associate with making the same move in this domain is Michel Foucault.

Foucault (at one stage in the orgy of re-invention, neologisms and orgies that was his life) uses the term ‘apparatus’ (French ‘dispositif’) for the sort of social unity he sought to study, a “system of relations… established between… a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble” of elements. The aim of this concept, he says, is to both show the role of “a dominant strategic function”, and avoid positing “any kind of strategic ruse on the part of some meta- or trans-historical subject”.

On my reading, the development of an apparatus involves two processes, one in which a “strategic objective” is addressed by some person or group, using the sort of deliberate, conscious intent that people display, and one in which, passively and without planning, “each effect…enters into resonance or contradiction with the others and thereby calls for a re-adjustment…of the heterogeneous elements”. But each element is also open to being “re-utilised” by some other personal project, which in turn would estblish further ‘resonances’ in society at large.

Consider how picture might apply to ‘islamophobia’. At various times, various people and groups have found some perceived utility in formulating and expressing the existential threat posed to ‘the West’ by ‘Islam’.

These might have been largely independent of each other at first – one president finds it fitting into his vision of re-asserting American power and values in Asia, one commentator finds it gets them readers, one angry conservative finds it a neat explanation and focus for their anxieties about cultural change, one angry young man finds it a satisfying target for their ambient feelings of persecution and frustration. Each of these situations is the product of previous ‘narratives’, previous ‘apparatuses’.

But each of these individual ‘strategic elaborations’ enters into ‘resonance’ with the others: the president’s speeches reinforce the columnist’s plausibility to readers, those columns in turn encourage the angry conservative’s anger, which leads them to vote for that president on account of his ‘tough stance’. The independent strategies connect via. a sort of feedback that tends to make them more coherent, producing a systematic social phenomenon which can easily appear planned.

Obviously this leaves a lot of questions unanswered, including the ones I began with. I’m really just trying to draw together certain threads of my own thoughts, unified by the idea of unification without a unified principle of unity.

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Philosophy and Masturbation: Anatomy of a Metaphor

Marx famously claimed that “philosophy stands in the same relation to the study of the actual world as masturbation to sexual love.” People have occasionally made similar remarks to me in the past, usually disparaging a particular type of philosophy, or the philosophy done by certain people, as ‘just mutual masturbation’.

I was reminded of this recently by reading this post about this response to this article, which don’t use the motif of masturbation at all, but do centre around the question of whether philosophy ‘matters’, whether it has any relevance to or effect on the rest of the world, or is merely, shall we say, a ‘solitary pleasure’. I was also reading this paper, about the role that metaphors play in our everyday thinking (turns out that role is: ‘big’). The disparagement of philosophy as ‘masturbatory’ is a metaphor, and I found myself wondering what exactly it was saying, and what exactly it was leaving unsaid.

The disparagement:

The disparagement of masturbation is actually a very complex thing. There are different definitions of masturbation, contrasting it with different things, and then different rationales for disparaging it.

On the definition issue, we might first assume that ‘masturbation’ essentially means solitary sexual acts, and is thus contrasted with any kind of sexual act with another person: hence it would be disparaged for failing to ‘make contact with’ other people.

But there is this phrase ‘mutual masturbation’, which primarily means two people ‘masturbating each other’, i.e. a form of sexual contact. Not all sexual activities are ‘sex’, whatever that means.  This suggests that masturbation has a wider meaning, not confined to solitary acts, which would imply that it must be disparaged for some other reason.

One possibility is that it’s disparaged as ‘sterile’, i.e. non-procreative; another possibility is that it’s disparaged as non-penetrative – it’s all very well to rub someone’s genitals but unless there’s a penis in a vagina you’re not having ‘real’ sex or ‘proper’ sex.

Then there’s the question of why any of this is disparaged. One possibility is that it’s morally objectionable – masturbating is wicked and wrong. Alternatively, it might be just less valuable or worthwhile than sex, in a non-moral sense: masturbating is not wrong but just sad, pointless, or pathetic. Thirdly, it might be the more nuanced view that masturbation is inferior to sex because you normally masturbate while thinking about sex, or at least about other people: the act itself posits (penetrative?) sex as more desirable.

The Analogy:

Then there’s more choices to make when drawing a link with philosophy. For one, what is the contrast with? For Marx it’s “study of the actual world”, whatever that is; for Fish it’s implicitly “energy policy, trade policy, debt reduction, military strategy, domestic life” and more or less everything else. Sometimes it’s just ‘better’ philosophy. Sometimes its politics, or science.

And the way that ‘masturbation’ is understood forces further questions: if masturbation is contrasted with procreation, what are the ‘babies’ – technological advances? Revolutions? If it’s contrasted with ‘making contact’, who is a philosopher trying to make contact with – other people? Other disciplines? ‘The actual world’? And what plays the privileged role of ‘penetration’ in each of those relationships?

The big question, next, is why philosophy is to be disparaged. If masturbation is disparaged as a moral failure to use the sexual organs in the right way, then philosophy might be a moral failure to use our intellectual faculties for their ‘proper purpose’. In a less moral tone, this failure might just be sad and embarassing.

Or, if masturbation is disparaged because it involves fantasising about something else, philosophy likewise might be disparaged for fantasising about something else – perhaps fantasies of radicalism and social ‘deconstruction’, perhaps fantasies of being able to learn meaningful things.


Suppose you wanted to dispute this disparagement of philosophy. One way would be to accept the disparagement of masturbation, but deny the analogy, claiming that philosophy really is ‘penetrative’, or ‘procreative’, or whatever: it does what the disparaging analogy says it doesn’t do.

On the other hand, you might instead reject the disparagement of masturbation: sure, maybe philosophy is like masturbation, but that’s good! This, I think, will often reflect a different view of what philosophy is and what it’s for.

For instance, one might defend masturbation on the grounds that it allows us to have better sex, by making us more in touch with our bodies and feelings. The analogous defence of philosophy would be that by ‘conceptual analysis’, it puts us more in touch with (or more in command of, if that’s different) the concepts we use, the intuitions we rely on, the values we act on, etc. when we’re doing other things, like science or politics.

That, of course, still accepts that masturbation/philosophy needs to be justified by reference to something else. An alternative would be to say ‘I enjoy it, and that’s enough for it to be worthwhile, and I don’t need to justify it any further’. This makes sense on one level; but then, you might still wonder, if it’s fine to just do it just for enjoyment, why do I do so by filling my mind with thoughts that go beyond enjoyment – thoughts of the universe, the human soul, the human body, etc.

A fourth option is what we might call the ‘cynical’ view, in both its classical and its colloquial meanings. This view says that yes, masturbation/philosophy is delusional and impotent and stupid, but actually so is what it’s contrasted with. Most or all sex with other people is really you projecting your personal fantasy images onto a willing accomplice in exchange for letting them project theirs onto you. Most politics is ineffective or counter-productive posturing, and science never actually teaches us anything about how reality is.

On this view, philosophy/masturbation is the wisest activity, because at leasts it can be open about being just fantasy. The noblest thing that a person can achieve is to shout at everybody else for being hypocrites and masturbate in public.

So there’s five possible views of philosophy:

  1. Philosophy is stupid and pointless, like masturbation is
  2. Philosophy is potent and pregnant, unlike masturbation
  3. Philosophy is an useful auxiliary activity to science/politics/life, as masturbation is to sex
  4. Philosophy is just an idle, innocent amusement, like masturbation, and none the worse for it
  5. Philosophy is no more pointless or empty than any other discipline, but (potentially) more able to understand its own emptiness, just as masturbation is sex without the bullshit.

I leave it up to the reader to decide which they prefer.

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