Archive for March, 2006

AJ el Memorioso

March 25th, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized

Let me step back, for a moment, from the abstract contemplation of concrete phenomena in the world, to consider how it is that we think abstractly at all. I’ve been fascinated, for a few years now, by the possibility of historicizing epistemology by connecting abstract thinking with processes of abstraction that operate in everyday life in capitalism; the path-breaking work here is that of Alfred Sohn-Rethel and his theory of the “real abstraction”.

I was provoked to return to this line of thought by a news story about a remarkable medical case, a woman with perfect memory:

James McGaugh is one of the world’s leading experts on how the human memory system works. But these days, he admits he’s stumped.

McGaugh’s journey through an intellectual purgatory began six years ago when a woman now known only as AJ wrote him a letter detailing her astonishing ability to remember with remarkable clarity even trivial events that happened decades ago.

Give her any date, she said, and she could recall the day of the week, usually what the weather was like on that day, personal details of her life at that time, and major news events that occurred on that date.

. . .

McGaugh has spent decades studying how such things as stress hormones and emotions affect memory, and at first he thought AJ’s memories were of such emotional power that she couldn’t forget them.

But that hypothesis fell short of the mark when it became obvious that “the woman who can’t forget” remembers trivial details as clearly as major events. Asked what happened on Aug 16, 1977, she knew that Elvis Presley had died, but she also knew that a California tax initiative passed on June 6 of the following year, and a plane crashed in Chicago on May 25 of the next year, and so forth. Some may have had a personal meaning for her, but some did not.

This remarkable case, if it is indeed as described, is a real life version of Ireneo Funes, the protagonist of the Jorge Luis Borges story “Funes the Memorious” (or, in the 1998 Hurley translation, “Funes, His Memory”). Here is Borges’ narrator describing Funes:

With one quick look, you and I perceive three wineglasses on a table; Funes perceived every grape that had been pressed into the wine and all the stalks and tendrils of its vineyard. He knew the forms of the clouds in the southern sky on the morning of April 30, 1882, and he could compare them in his memory with the veins in the marbled binding of a book he had seen only once, or with the feathers of spray lifted by an oar on the Rio Negro on the eve of the Battle of Quebracho. Nor were those memories simple–every visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, and so on. He was able to reconstruct every dream, every daydream he had ever had. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day; he had never once erred or faltered, but each reconstruction had itself taken an entire day. “I, myself, alone, have more memories than all mankind since the world began,” he said to me. And also: “My dreams are like other people’s waking hours.” And again, toward dawn: “My memory, sir, is like a garbage heap.” A circle drawn on a blackboard, a right triangle, a rhombus–all these are forms we can fully intuit; Ireneo could do the same with the stormy mane of a young colt, a small herd of cattle on a mountainside, a flickering fire and its uncountable ashes, and the many faces of a dead man at a wake. I had no idea how many stars he saw in the sky.

But for Funes, perfect memory is not an asset–it is a curse:

I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very good at thinking. To think is to ignore (or forget) differences, to generalize, to abstract. In the teeming world of Ireneo Funes there was nothing but particulars–and they were virtually immediate particulars.

One wonders, then, what sort of thinker is AJ, our real life Funes? In the story, Funes is physically crippled; Borges implies that he is also intellectually crippled by his “gift”. AJ is not, as one might expect, incapacitated by her prodigious memory–she has lived a fairly normal, functional life. Yet it does seem that she is subject to some of the same limitations as Funes, according to the original press release about her:

There are limits to AJ’s memory. While she has nearly perfect recall of what she was doing on any given date and instantly can identify the date and day of the week when an important historical event in her lifetime occurred, she has difficulty with rote memorization and did not always do well in school. She scored perfectly on a formal neuropsychological test to measure her autobiographical memory, but during the testing had difficulty organizing and categorizing information. She refers to her ongoing remembering of her life’s experiences as “a movie in her mind that never stops”.

So it is true, as Borges supposed, that perfect memory is at odds with the actual process of thinking. This has implications for social theory, for it demonstrates the complex relationship between empirical sense-data and conceptual abstraction–and it supports the type of dialectical thought recommended by Marxists like Bertell Ollman:

Dialectics restructures our thinking about reality by replacing the common sense notion of “thing” (as something that has a history and has external connections with other things) with notions of “process” (which contains its history and possible futures) and “relation” (which contains as part of what it is its ties with other relations). Nothing that didn’t already exist has been added here. Rather, it is a matter of where and how one draws boundaries and establishes units (the dialectical term is “abstracts”) in which to think about the world. The assumption is that while the qualities we perceive with our five senses actually exist as parts of nature, the conceptual distinctions that tell us where one thing ends and the next one begins both in space and across time are social and mental constructs. However great the influence of what the world is on how we draw these boundaries, it is ultimately we who draw the boundaries, and people coming from different cultures and from different philosophical traditions can and do draw them differently.

Ollman’s methodology, Borges’s narrative, and AJ’s example all militate against the misconception that we can arrive at truth through a mere accumulation of information; to Ollman’s principle of drawing boundaries between sensory qualities, we can add the importance of excluding some sense-data while retaining others. These examples are therefore a defense of the usefulness of social theory, both for understanding the world and for changing it. But I think the discussion of memory and abstraction also has something to say about a little discussion I had with Geoff recently, about the new types of subjectivity that are encouraged by the Internet. In a way, the Internet is a cyborg appendage which gives us all Funesian memory: a machine which preserves every random bit of information, and every comment on that information, eternally. The argument I have sketched so far suggests that this is as likely to imped e our ability to think, as it is to facilitate it.

So perhaps the question facing us is: in an environment where every memory is preserved, how do we devise new principles for forgetting?

The Black Room

March 19th, 2006  |  Published in Imperialism, Politics

The sign at left was posted at Camp Nama, an Iraqi military installation which was commandeered by U.S. special forces. There they turned one interrogation room into a ghoulish torture chamber called the Black Room:

“In the windowless, jet-black garage-size room, some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball. Their intention was to extract information to help hunt down Iraq’s most-wanted terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, according to Defense Department personnel who served with the unit or were briefed on its operations.”

What is most disturbing about this episode of detainee abuse is, as with Abu Ghraib, its seeming pointlessness, relative to extracting any actual information, and its ostentatious sadism. Torture for any reason is horrifying; but torture for its own sake is the most chilling because it calls to mind the worst of the historical atrocities perpetrated by humans on their fellow humans.

But at least the “Black Room” of Camp Nama has been brought to light by the diligent work of the New York Times, and at least we still live in a society which retains enough humaneness and dignity to execrate such acts when they occur. Yet there are other “black rooms”, whose existence cannot be revealed because they are not hidden–they are the “dark places” hidden in plain sight, from which we avert our eyes out of habit or despair.

In Florida, a young man was sent to boot camp for stealing his grandmother’s car, then beaten to death for talking back to his jailers. The ensuing scandal has given everyone from Jeb Bush to the county medical examiner a stage on which to do their utmost to come across as depraved, racist monsters. Bush spoke against closing the boot camps since they have “yielded a good result”. And Bay county medical examiner Charles Siebert, who initially found that the young man had died, not from being beaten and suffocated, but from sickle cell anemia, said he was “appalled”. Not appalled, mind you, at the senseless death of a 14-year-old boy, but at the “baseless and mean-spirited accusations from special interest groups” who impugned and embarassed him by questioning his nonsensical medical verdict.

Young Martin Lee Anderson was evidently not the first person to be beaten at one of these boot camps. It was only his accidental death which forced the “black room” of the boot camps into the light; had he merely been maimed as intended, the routine physical brutalization of young black men by the state of Florida might have continued unchecked, indefinitely.

Meanwhile, something completely different, only not: the Indonesian army moved to quell riots by taking control of a provincial capital in Papua. The “riots” are in fact protests, directed against an American mining company, Freeport McMoran. In so many ways it is a typical story, of corrupt governments in the global South acting as enforcers for American capital. The sort of open class violence that is tolerated in the periphery would be outlandish and unacceptable in the core–except, as we saw in the previous case, when the violence is directed at the most oppressed “internal colonies” within the homeland.

Among the more despicable specifics of the situation in Indonesia is the following:

The senior Papuan at Freeport, Thom Beanal, who is a leader of one of Papua’s biggest tribal groups, the Amungme, and a director of the Indonesian unit of Freeport, said the company was concerned about maintaining its daily operations in the current atmosphere.

Mr. Beanal said in a telephone interview from his home in Timika, near the mine, that he advised Freeport this week that to reduce hostilities, the company needed to deal more effectively with the more than 700,000 tons of mine waste that is generated every day.

Much of it hurtles directly down the Aghawagon River, and protests began last month when villagers were told by the security forces that they could no longer pan in the waste for scraps of gold. “I suggested they put the waste in a pipe and put it far away,” Mr. Beanal said.

Environmentalists and some mining engineers have made similar suggestions, but the company has rejected them, saying they would be too expensive to carry out.

It is hard to know what is more appalling in these four paragraphs. Is it the abject figure of Mr. Beanal, attempting an impossible reconciliation between loyalty to his people, and loyalty to his company? Is it the casual reference to the company’s profligate desecration of the local environment? Or is it that, after insisting that it has no choice but to deluge the local residents with toxic waste, Freeport McMoran now reproaches them for having the temerity to steal scraps of gold from the company’s proprietary sludge?

Faced with such scenarios, those of political good will often throw our hands up in despair, helpless in the face of what seem to be horrors without end. And this is not only a reflex of rationalization and denial; our powerless to restrain our government or “our” capitalists is in many ways real. But I fear that those generations which follow us, if any, will not judge us kindly for our “black rooms”.

Left Forum Notes

March 12th, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized

This weekend was the 2006 Left Forum, the conference of anti-capitalist academics and activists from around the world, held in NYC. The Left Forum is a successor to the Socialist Scholars Conference, which ended two years ago under acrimonious circumstances that are utterly not worth going into. The Left Forum is almost identical in structure to the SSC, although somewhat different in its political scope: it encompasses a wider array of anarchist and autonomist currents of the non-parliamentary left, while leaving out some of the social democratic and liberal currents on the “right” of the old SSC.

I was surprised to find myself somewhat dissatisfied with this political shift. While I have no particular use for the political positions of people like Michael Walzer and Ian Williams, they do represent a real segment of the left, and having them around led to some real sparks flying at past conferences. In contrast, the anarchoid left tends to uphold individualistic and disorganized kinds of activism; rather than criticizing the approach of more state-oriented leftists, their general attitude is something like: “hey man, do your own thing!” This tends to cut off debate rather than sharpen it, which can lead to an efflorescence of empty platitudes.

Still, there were good things happening at the forum. What follows is a recap of the panels I attended.

Imperialism and its Future
Chair: Jomo K.S.
Panelists: Eric Reinert, Anwar Shaikh, Vivek Chibber
I don’t really know much about Jomo K.S., and I’ve never read his work–but his name is just amazing, and it always makes me want to go to his panels. How does one get a surname that is only initials? Can I have one? In any event, the panel was pretty good, if a bit unfocused–one of the problems with the Left Forum format is that you often get panels of people who know nothing except the title of the panel, and have to make their own guesses about what will be a relevant contribution. In this case, Professor Reinert (who teaches in Estonia) decided to use his time to criticize the left and right for basing their economic thought on David Ricardo. Huh? Fortunately, things improved rapidly, as Anwar Shaikh and Vivek Chibber gave solid takes on the meaning of imperialism. Shaikh’s big take-away point was that international inequalities are not the result of monopoly or some other deformation of perfect competition–a view associated with both neoliberalism and with much Leninist anti-imperialism–but in fact a predictable result of even the most perfectly free market. Chibber, meanwhile, made many great points, but the big one was the claim that capitals are still regional in nature–almost all of the Fortune 500 companies make most of their sales within their own geographical region. Thus, the idea of inter-imperialist rivalry based on the rivalry of different regional capitals is still very much operative. (But for a contrary view, see below.)

Crisis in Auto or Crisis in Health? Crisis in Capital or Crisis in Labor?
Chair: Leo Panitch
Panel: Doug Henwood, Thomas Sablowski, Frances Fox Piven, Sam Gindin, Marsha Niemeijer
Sometimes, panels at this conference will just have too many people on them for a space of two hours. Other times, the panel will be made up of people who all seem to be friends, cronies, and co-thinkers. This panel managed to unite both tendencies, but was nevertheless pretty good. With the recent struggles over job, wage and benefit cuts at the major U.S. automakers as a starting point, the panelists debated the future of the auto industry, its role in the capitalist economy, and the strategic choices facing auto workers unions. Sablowski, a German researcher, and Gindin, a former research director of the Canadian Autoworkers, were probably the most interesting of the bunch. Gindin argued that auto unions had to get beyond fighting concessions and talk about three big issues: instituting national health care in the U.S., managing over-capacity by regulating investment in new auto plants, and reducing working hours in order to preserve jobs. Sablowski drew attention to the political difficulties inherent in reconciling the particular intersts of auto workers with the general needs of the working class and the environment. The other panelists all had something to contribute to these general themes, although Niemeijer, a writer for Labor Notes, mostly just gave that publication’s typical answer to every problem in the labor movement: more militancy and more union democracy. She didn’t really grapple with the arguments of the rest of the panel, which showed pretty effectively why that’s not enough.

Marxist Views of China ‘s Contemporary Development
Chair/Panelist: David Kotz
Panelists: Cheng En Fu, Minqi Li, Richard Smith
I like to go to panels on China at the Left Forum, because they offer something you don’t get many other places: analysis of China’s political economy from a Marxist viewpoint, which is not sectarian or dogmatic in either a pro- or anti-China way. This panel had the added attraction of Mr. Cheng, from the “Marxism Research Institute” of the University of Shanghai. It so happened that the New York Times had just run a story that morning about Marxist factions in the Chinese Communist Party, which probably boosted turnout for the panel. Mainstream Chinese “Marxism”, it turns out, amounts to introducing some tepid social democratic reforms to ameliorate the worst effects of marketizing and privatizing the Chinese “socialist market economy”. Mr. Cheng did not criticize either markets or capital accumulation as a growth strategy. But the other panelists pointed out what’s wrong with this approach: Kotz argued that markets inevitably give rise to a new wealthy class that pursues its own class interests; Minqi argued that the cycle of accumulation makes recession and crisis inevitable, and Richard Smith–in the most devastating of the presentations–made it clear that it will be ecologically impossible for the mass of Chinese to achieve Western levels of resource use. It was clear that capitalism is not sustainable for China even in the medium run–unfortunately, it was far from clear where an alternative to the present strategy of rapacious development is going to come from.

China, India and Capitalism in the Long Run
Chair: Vamsi Vakulabharanam
Panelists: Giovanni Arrighi, Beverly Silver, Leo Panitch, Gilbert Achcar
Since I’m a political mas ochist, the apocalyptic scenarios of the previous panel impelled me to attend another panel on China. This time, the general theme was one that is becoming a leftist perennial: is China in the process of displacing the United States as the hegemonic power in the world? Arrighi and Silver come from the World Systems Theory tradition, which has pioneered the sinocentric take on this question. So it was no surprise that Arrighi played up the significance of China in the world system, and Silver spent a lot of time talking about the political problem of make sure that the U.S. is “graceful” in its apparently inevitable decline from great power status. Leo Panitch then went to bat for his own trademark claim (with Sam Gindin) that “imperialism” is no longer a valid analysis of the relations between capitalist states. This is an intentionally provocative way of putting the issue, actually, since Panitch pretty clearly believes in something that you would have to call imperialism–that is, unequal and exploitative relations between core and peripheral countries. What he objects to is the idea of inter-imperialist rivalry; he claims that the interpenetration of first-world (North American, European and Japanese) capitals has made major schisms between those powers unlikely to impossible. Essentially, he’s reviving Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism”. I didn’t used to think much of this line of thinking, but as I listened to Panitch, I started to think he was on to something important. His insights have to be integrated with some of the facts about the dollar economy and the disarticulation of state and nation which I’ve addressed in earlier posts. But I’m not ready to make that synthesis yet. I do, however, hope Panitch gets on a panel with Vivek Chibber at a future Left Forum, since they are both very sharp and yet have apparently irreconcilable views about the nature of contemporary imperialism.

A Soldier’s Movement Against the Iraq War: Prospects and Challenges
Chair: Tod Ensign
Panel: Aiden Delgado, Jose Vasquez, Geoffrey Millard
After all the high-falutin’ theory, I needed some activist grit, and I was really curious to hear about Iraq veterans organizing against the war. This panel was sponsored by the amazing Citizen Soldier, and all of the panelists were Iraq vets. They were also, to a man, more organized and articulate than most of the academics; military discipline applied to public speaking, or something. There were some moving stories about the process by which these very different people came to their political radicalization; there was also some discussion of the culture class which prevents anti-war veterans from being incorporated into the peace movement. But perhaps the most interesting analysis came from Delgado, who broke down the process that a recruit goes through–from recruitment to training to deployment to homecoming to (maybe) radicalization. He identified the points of vulnerability where a soldier can be politically won over, and he noted that while a lot of energy is going into the small (2-300) core of actively anti-war veterans on one end, and counter-recruitment activism on the other end, there needs to be more attention paid to the training phase. That’s the point where a recruit is first introduced to the realities of military life, before they have been fully socialized into the culture of the military; Delgado argues that this is where soldiers are most amenable to anti-war politics. The trick, of course, is reaching them. He noted that all soldiers have government-provided email accounts, which are one way to get at them. Jose Vasquez also drew our attention to a new film which needs to get into the hands of as many recruits and soldiers as possible.

Those were the only panels I saw–I’ve learned by now that it’s best not to try to go to a panel in every session. I was also not that excited by most of the panels. Some of my favorite Socialist Scholars/Left Forum regulars, like Mahmood Mamdani and David Harvey, weren’t on panels (or weren’t on interesting ones). And there seemed to be a lot of panels that were kind of vague and pointless-sounding. But I was pleasantly surprised at the panels I saw. And of course, there’s always the book shopping. I got this and this, plus I subscribed to New Left Review at their special conference rate, mostly on the strength of this guy’s writing.

1961-2006

March 7th, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized


Kirby Puckett wasn’t from Minnesota; he grew up in the projects on the south side of Chicago. I haven’t lived in Minnesota since I was 18, and may never live there again. Yet I feel like I’m part of a tremendous collective grief at the death of this man, who is undoubtedly the most-loved figure in the history of Minnesota sports.

My love for the Minnesota Twins, and for Kirby Puckett in particular, were what finally allowed me to understand the emotional appeal of nationalism. In the symbol of that team, and in the image of this one man, there is a glorious imagined community that will follow me wherever I go. And through the adulation of a man like Puckett, through the communion with other Minnesotans–including many who are not even baseball fans–I can affirm and define a Minnesotanness that might otherwise slip away.

And in all of the tributes from Puckett’s friends and teammates, we receive an image of a joyous, selfless, warmhearted man–yet one also troubled and ultimately destroyed by his personal demons. In that we find, not our Minnesotanness, but our humanity. Out of the particularism of baseball and baseball heroes, a universalism emerges.