Foucault sweater polo

Rod Macdonald was a brilliant mind, a warm, often generous mentor, and a charming man. One of the things he taught me is that, when you are smart, well-educated, charming in your own way—and, I suppose, if we are to be honest with our typology, when you are a man—avoiding hagiography, and by the same lights, preventing admiration from turning into discipleship, required finding ways to keep people at a distance, ways to compensate for the charm.

It seems to me that Foucault’s strategy was the same as Rod’s: if you want to ensure that the enfant terrible is not appointed under protest as leader of a movement, one can simply be childish. If you want people to take your seriously, but not too seriously, act like a brat. Viz (translation in hover text):

Je voudrais que mes livres soient une sorte de tool-box dans lequel les autres puissent aller fouiller pour y trouver un outil avec lequel ils pourraient faire ce que bon leur semble, dans leur domaine. L’ Histoire de la folie, je l’ai écrite un peu à l’aveuglette, dans une sorte de lyrisme dû à des expériences personnelles. Je suis attaché à ce livre, bien sûr, parce que je l’ai écrit, mais aussi parce qu’il a servi de tool-box à des personnes différentes les unes des autres, comme les psychiatres de l’antipsychiatrie britannique, comme Szasz aux États-Unis, comme les sociologues en France : ils l’ont fouillé, ont trouvé un chapitre, une forme d’analyse, quelque chose qui leur a servi ultérieurement.

Les Mots et les Choses, au fond, est un livre qui est beaucoup lu, mais peu compris. Il s’adressait aux historiens des sciences et aux scientifiques, c’était un livre pour deux mille personnes. Il a été lu par beaucoup plus de gens, tant pis. Mais, à certains scientifiques, comme Jacob, le biologiste prix Nobel, il a servi. Jacob a écrit La Logique du vivant; il y avait des chapitres sur l ‘histoire de la biologie, sur le fonctionnement du discours biologique, sur la pratique biologique, et il m’a dit qu’il s’est servi de mon livre. Le petit volume que je voudrais écrire sur les systèmes disciplinaires, j’aimerais qu’il puisse servir à un éducateur, à un gardien, à un magistrat, à un objecteur de conscience. Je n’écris pas pour un public, j’écris pour des utilisateurs, non pas pour des lecteurs.

This short quotation, of course, provides a delicious example of his strategy (“Il a été lu par beaucoup plus de gens, tant pis”–what an asshole! what a brat!), while demonstrating, if one takes its key thrust about how he hoped his work on discipline and governance might be put to use and holds it up to the light of most the literature that subsequently drew on his work, just how unsuccessful that strategy was.

Neoliberalism in One Image

Now, the interesting question is whether those lines will keep falling, and what might rise in their place.



Update: For those who don’t know about google ngram. And for a more enlightening case study:

and especially:

What we think they should want

TH_Alienation Effect_Brecht glasses

I am informed by a colleague that in 1963, Arthur Laing, then Canada’s minister responsible for Indian policy, asserted that, “The prime condition in the progress of the Indian people … must be the development by themselves of a desire for the goals which we think they should want.”

Which we think they should want.

This is of course awful, an expression of the sentiment that makes it fair to describe the policy of the Canadian state as “cultural genocide.” I am reminded of Brecht’s poem, “The Solution”:

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Also awful, however, is how much pleasure I take in this quote. Not because I agree with it at all, no. Rather, one of the virtues (if it can be called a virtue) that I have cultivated as I gradually come to identify myself as an academic, is this affection for pieces of evidence that provide the perfect example of some process or dynamic or force, even if that process is the name of what is going wrong with the world. Such pristine, self-contained cases. It is hard not to be drawn in by the sense of the universal in the particular (especially when, as here, it is about universalizing one kind of particular, and annihilating another).


  • Why so little attention in conversations about neoliberalism to where this is all happening? What about land and territory? As in, when it came to the VW emissions scandal, what planet exactly did these high-level executives think they were going to move to?

Your point about the role of space and place in neoliberalism is spot on. What is fascinating about the reading I’ve been doing about financial imaginaries, and their slow diffusion into our everyday thought, is that the abstraction required–of the individual, of their desires, and of the income that they earn (and the income they accumulate, because when you put on your finance glasses, all assets [“capital”] become nothing more than future income streams)–also entails a second-order abstraction from place or, more precisely, a conceptual annihilation of place.

“Making,” in this view, is just a combination of income streams to create further income streams, which are then distributed to the participants; consumption, too, happens nowhere, in an existential vaccuum, precisely alone; markets are not made of people or of computers or of actions or of anything at all, but simply exist as universal, ambient calculating devices, receiving and sending inputs and outputs without requiring any actual interface with the consuming, accumulating subject. We cannot learn anything about our wants, which have no where; we can learn only about how to feed them, anywhere, and only through the market, which is everywhere.

Now, this is almost but not quite hyperbole: it is not per se that e.g. the work of economic geographers is irrelevant. There is lip service, in the probabilistic characterization of futures in terms of “states of the world” that will determine the payouts from those assets, to the fact that these states will actually come to occur in a world. But the value of the “state” is in its realized income, not in the world. You can want to watch a Tahitian sunset, but the existence of Tahiti is irrelevant, reproducible, peripheral. The bodies, actions, performance, work, interpretations, decisions–all these, from within the perspective of the system, are obscene. And what is place but a gathering of bodies and actions, a complex of work and implementation, a site of interpretation and decision: an entangled jumble, doubly obscene. An abomination of unpriced value.

If you are a Volkswagen executive, the question is not what planet you will live on. The question is how the risk-weighted discounted future cost of getting caught impacts on the firm’s share value, and how the risk-weighted discounted future impact on share value of doing it anyway impacts on your present net worth. You must think against the planet as place. There is no planet; all states, after all, have their dollar price. When there is no more earth, we will simply plant gold.


Cezanne_HarlequinI am participating in a reading group on neoliberalism, or perhaps on “what we talk about when talk about when we talk about neoliberalism.”

Here is Hayek, within two contiguous pages (50-51) of his most-famous work, The Road to Serfdom:

  • “The intellectual history of the last sixty or eighty years is indeed a perfect illustration of the truth that in social evolution nothing is inevitable but thinking makes it so.
  • “Far from being appropriate only to comparatively simple conditions, it is the very complexity of the division of labour under modern conditions which makes competition the only method by which such co-ordination can be adequately brought about.”

One begins to understand, in reading the neoliberal canon, just what Strauss and his gang were on about when they suggested, given the low likelihood that authors of Hayek’s intelligence might accidentally contradict themselves so starkly, that the only reasonable reading is one that receives such glaring errors as a demand to read between the lines in a search for what the author might really mean.

The unthinkable alternative, of course, would be that Hayek was a fool, and one whose thinking has somehow come to seem inevitable.

Hic Sunt Rhodus

The long-lasting word is the dead word, the long-knowing text a text of dead words, ordered. To arrange the words in ways that do our bidding, we snuff out life so they lay just where we leave them. Wherefore: only ordered words may matter. Therefore: orders issued, to mean just what we bide them mean. All unwanted, crawling, shifting, walking words, lest meanings placed so carefully escape the thoughts in which we place them. And so: dead words, must kill words before placing them. Would texts, dead words in sum, beat other than the march, sound more than pipe and drum? We, pursuant to our bidding, collect words with wide lives in the mouths of others and in the narrow after bide them lie still. Out of the mouths of others, we take them, dead. To make sense of the living world, the living words of living mouths, we march dead words into dead order. The book a burial ground.

This worry: that living words may do our bidding, but seldom will remain. We bide them, and they may abide, but their abiding may not stay. Only dead words will abide, in time. So we know what it must be to say: to say, we muster words then murdered, lest they lay unstill. We learn too to read dead words and reach toward those words, alive. And having reached alive, to rewrite them dead. After all in all we hope our words will sing, in order. To set our world to order, we order dead words march, and hope the order sings. That the order of our dead words will enter mouths and live, long-known and lasting, still. That the world of our words, now dead to do our bidding, will abide in wide time among living mouths. A zombie song, dead words alive.

What is known is well-known only when it lays, abiding.  “The bird is only sleeping,” we may not say. The academic bird no bird at all, no owl. Neither flying nor speaking but lasting, known. The owl that wants to speak, but finds it is not yet dusk. We want to write, to make thoughts fly, birds sing. Yet we lay upon a wire, narrow. Is this knowing, saying, speaking? Must even thirteen birds, black, to be seen, also lie, so marched, so ordered? How can the living dead sing? What dance of birds, abiding? At what place of dusk? And when?

And now a rant from our sponsor

This image does not imply endorsement, it is simply a reminder of what impassioned speech can look like. Please contact for removal for any reason.

A friend writes with his impression of the Dutch:

Amsterdam is lovely, somehow a less offensive variety of gentrification and urban development, some of it quite stunning as with the incorporation of the old harbour to the north into the city. Weather can be a real bitch, but has been unseasonably warm. Going away for a few days to the Frisian Islands tomorrow, walking across the mudflats, biking across the barren landscape of the dunes. … I’m liking the Dutch. They’re very critical, yes, but it’s a positive disposition, not one of resignation. No wallowing in melancholy, so often touted as the hallmark of true interpersonal intimacy down south, but a sober, practical attitude that navigates and negotiates emotions in as far as they ultimately enable us to transform and move forward. Very affirmative. Less intuitive, perhaps, and not such élan and fatalism, but not inert, not shallow, and not cold.

One of the things that I realized, linguistically and philosophically, when I was forced into reading Adorno for three months, is that negation doesn’t have origins with any relation to bad, unfortunate, or miserable. The idea of positivity being associated with fortune and happiness seems to have arrived from the soft-headed, hippy-dippy psychological school of “positive thinking” which presumed (and now preaches the idea) that, if you imagine something in your head, i.e. if you really try to “posit it” (whence positive) and take for granted the premise of its becoming, that this will somehow bring it into real-world existence. I mean look, I’m a social constructivist, I think that wide-scale belief is the very substance of our social world, but shit like The Gift mistakes a sociological insight for a psychological one, and reduces the profound premise of existentialism (“we always have the freedom to act even when there are consequences”) to a patently false pretense of self-help (“you can do anything if you set your mind to it!”). Anyway, in the result, “positivity” became associated with happiness and success and good tidings–and “negativity” with the sense of inviting their opposites.

Of course, this is doubly unfortunate: not only because it universalizes a misreading of “positive” that makes both references to “positive law” and “positive social science” nigh-incomprehensible to anyone who lives outside the university, but stupid also because to negate something need not mean replacing a thing with its opposite–it simply implies putting something else in its place. Thus, ideally, the “negative” encompasses that part of thought and practice that goes beyond the imagining of “what if things were such and such a way” to the more practical, fraught task of thinking “what if the nominally existent was replaced with something else” or the even more charged practice of demanding “this nominally existent thing should be replaced with another.” To negate is simply to deny, to say no to the merely existent.

The critic is not the cynic, but literally one that judges, a person not only capable of saying both “yes” and “no” but also of stopping to say “are you sure” and especially “am I?” There is something sick, I think, about cultural practices rooted in the belief that problems can be solved simply by saying “yes” to any idea, new or old, so long as it is well-packaged and expressed with enthusiasm or certainty. I suppose, compared to the dominant strand of the American zeitgeist, that a country willing to raise a quizzical eyebrow, pause before jumping onto the wagon of every fad that bristles with enthusiasm, and reject the magical thinking of “by believing it, we can make it so” will look like an elephant graveyard of nay-saying Eeyores. But nothing could be further from the truth. For inasmuch as the Russian stereotype of fatalism is anything more than a stereotype, it has nothing to do with being critical and has everything in common with the eager-beaver American disease: whereas in the lands of Slavic stereotype, there is an almost overweening willingness to say yes to everything that already is–no matter how bad–and no to any idea about how things might be better, in the always-on digital Manhattan of Twitter, Entertainment Tonight and BuzzFeed, the almost-laughable but ultimately tragic logic of the TEDtalk circuit doles out gold stars to every nincompoop self-deluded enough to stand in front a crowd and expound breathlessly on an idea that promises everything–everything–and at almost no cost.

What I am getting at here is of course being critical is a constructive disposition, and even a “positive” one, but just not in the insane sense in which that word is batted around the Oprah-bookclub lowlands of North American public discourse. The alternative to critique is a society where everyone is shitting themselves with excitement about a future in which we all get to be the next Steve Jobs, all while 2% of the population is in jail, literacy rates are declining and social mobility is lurching in the direction of the ancien regime. It is almost enough to drive you out of your house and into a bathtub in the street. I’ll take boring, slightly wry, but ultimately well-managed conservatism over that hokum any day.