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Friday, July 25, 2014

I'd like to get something off my chest

So here it is, I'm going to say what's been brewing in my mind for the past several weeks. I no longer support my own government in any capacity. I quit. 'Freedom', 'liberty', and all the other opiates our rightist, violent, inhumane, and cleptocratic government offers up as reasons to continue our flag-waving support, are not worth the embarrassment. It is time for me to take the position openly that I have been not so directly advocating before, namely as an open dissenter to the entire governmental apparatus as it exists in current history. This does not mean that I am advocating any kind of violence or retribution. To the contrary, I am taking this individual action as a way of not being implicated in the violence my country perpetrates. It simply means that I, both as an academic and as an individual citizen, will no longer play along.
I am joining the increasing ranks of thoughtful citizens who will boycott the next federal election, and will instead focus my civic duties toward only local elections, and only candidates that stand for something real. I don't care what the political effect is of my unwillingness to participate. I've seen the effects of my participation and that was enough.
So as my country continues its blatantly obvious quest for the next world war, as it has been dreaming of for quite some time, they can do it knowing I am an open sympathizer with those we bomb, rape, pillage, and displace. I don't blame Putin. I don't blame Hamas. I don't blame "the terrorists". I blame the United States of America and its sycophantic capitalistic "allies." Maybe at some point in my lifetime I will be able to re-join the process, but until there is massive global change that involves kicking the bums out on their ass, through revolution, I am out. I know too much about history at this point to think otherwise.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Facebook and I are Taking Some Time Away from Each Other

Okay, let's not mince words.  Facebook and I broke up last night.  A combination of the normal digital codependent relationship we have, and the intelligent commentary of some of my fellow professional leftists (yeah, I have those) caused me to have a rare moment of clarity:  I have been spending approximately two hours a day (at least) sending my thoughts out to the world at large, sharing important news stories, and engaging in many high level debates about very important subjects.  On the surface, this seems like a great thing.  After all, as the name of my blog implies, I live for presenting news stories that the corporate media refuse to acknowledge, and for advocating for radical causes.  In other words, I am what they used to call a 'muckraker'.  Nevertheless, my moment of clarity also included another bit.  That is, while on Facebook I am not communicating face to face with anyone.  Other than my wife, my mother (who lives with us as well), my dog, my cat, my academic advisor, and the somewhat irregular meetings I have with friends and fellow academics, I don't really go out and have conversations with anyone anymore.  At least, that's what it feels like.

You see, the rest of my time is spent reading, thinking, and writing.  I am in the midst of finishing my MS in political science at Portland State University, and in the fall I will begin my PhD in geography at University of Washington.  People like me don't need the digital universe to feel connected, but of course, that is precisely what the digitized establishment (read Facebook, Twitter, etc.) would have people like me believe.  I spend at least two hours or more a day intensively writing on the computer.  Unlike many of my younger colleagues - and I have a lot of them because I am older than the average graduate student - before I begin writing on the computer, I have usually spent a great amount of time ACTUALLY WRITING, using a pen and paper, attempting to compose my thoughts before putting tapping them out on a keyboard.  I don't say this to show that I am somehow more dedicated to my studies than my young friends who hardly ever put pen to paper. to be honest, it is kind of a handicap.  I cannot remember a single damn thing when I read it on a computer screen first, unless I write down some thoughts about it in a notebook, or write about it immediately on the same computer.

The problem I am having with Facebook, the problem that has led to our breakup, is that while I am in front of the computer, attempting to compose all my thoughts into a coherent master's thesis, Facebook constantly knocks at my door.  It is mostly my fault, for I did not realize until recently that I could just turn off all notifications, so that when I log out it actually feels like I logged out. That said, Facebook - like a clingy girlfriend - has ingratiated itself into the regular daily lives of so many people, many of them friends of mine all over the world, that it becomes increasingly difficult to control my natural urge to 'comment', to 'share', to 'post'.  And I am forced to ask the question, does it really matter?  I mean, if I didn't share all of this great information that I am finding out, both through my academic pursuits and through my regular online research on political and economic issues, is anyone - including myself - any worse off?  The answer is no.  It's as simple as that. Nobody is worse off as a result of my decision to live more actively in the analog universe than in the digital universe.  After all, most of my professional and academic communication is already done through the digital universe anyway.

Am I human, or am I extra-human?  Am I analog or am I digital?  These are real questions man! Think about it for a moment.  How much time do you spend in each of these realities?  Call them spatial realities if you like.  How much time do you spend in the analog and how much in the digital?  And for that matter, how much time do you spend engaged in both at the same time?  Well, I guess one could argue we can exist only in the analog, but not only in the digital, unless of course you think of your 'self' as your digital person, the entity that Facebook communicates with.  For me, I can honestly say that I am spending way too much time in that digital space.  I am longing for the wonderful feeling of not knowing what is going on in the Facebook world.

I am forty-two years old.  What that means is that for all of my life, until about the age of thirty-five, I did not participate in the digital universe.  And before that, I only started using a cell phone at the age of twenty-five.  I remember, like it was yesterday, when there just wasn't any way to know what was going on in the world unless you were in front of TV, on a hardline phone calling friends, reading a newspaper, or through having real conversations.

It's not as though I want to return to the days of looking for a pay phone and having to memorize hundreds of phone numbers, but I do very much want to return to a period of sanity in regard to the analog-digital interface, if you will.  It is in that sense that Facebook and I have broken up.  Well, I broke up with Facebook, because Facebook is, by design, can't break up with anyone, unless of course its corporate handlers decide they don't like you.  That's a discussion for another time.  The point is that I broke up with Facebook as my digital mistress.  For at least the next several days, I am not going to look at it, pay attention to it, post, share, or comment on anything.  I have logged out.  For real logged out, you dig?

During this little break, I plan to do two things: First, I am going to get an amazing amount of writing done.  Second, I am going to create a plan for how to take control of the amount of time Facebook takes from my life.  I remember when I quit smoking.  It was time that did it.  I was a pack and a half a day smoker for the better part of ten years.  One day I sat down and added up the amount of time I spent just standing around smoking cigarettes, looking cool, or whatever.  It added up to about 1,775 minutes per week.  That's about 28 hours.  I thought to myself, if I just spent half that time sitting down and writing in my journal, I might actually figure out what I want to do with my life, what's going wrong, what's going right, and where to go from here.

That was about eleven years ago.  Since then I have done a tremendous amount with my life.  I feel very fortunate.  Facebook adds up, for me, to about 14-20 hours per week,  most of which is - while entertaining and interesting - ultimately pointless.  More accurately, I'd say I could get the useful stuff out of Facebook in about 20-30 minutes per day.  I do have a very impressive set of friends, many of whom I consider truly great critical thinkers, writers, activists, musicians, and so on, so I don't want to just completely leave everyone hanging, but I must look out for my own social-psychological health.  I know that I can't just drop from 2 hours+ per day to 30 minutes.  So I am going to drop to nothing for several days as a preparation for training myself to spend no more than 30 minutes on Facebook on any given day.

For all I know, I might just not come back.  So, with all of this in mind, perhaps it is not a breakup after all, but a kind of separation of indefinite length.  I don't know who reads this blog, except a few folks, but maybe someone will post this for me.  I don't want the digital universe to think I died or something.  I am still very alive, just existing in the analog world, where I belong.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The University as Workshop: Transcending the Activist/Academic Binary

In light of the recent news that the Earth system has now reached a concentration of carbon dioxide of 400 ppm, added to the never-ending societal drip of mass extinction evidence and the seeming inability for anti-systemic movements to gain true traction against the vulgar capitalist counter-revolutionary forces in postmodern society, I am forced to begin to contemplate how to incorporate the inevitability of the increasing intensity of ecological crises and the connected climatic cycles of chaos that come with it, into my own research.  However, the admonition of unavoidable climatic chaos and the connected ecosystemic destruction that is its evidence in motion, is anything but welcomed in the world of academic research.

Passing the 400 mark reminds me that we are on an inexorable march to 450 ppm and much higher levels. These were the targets for 'stabilization' suggested not too long ago. The world is quickening the rate of accumulation of CO2, and has shown no signs of slowing this down. It should be a psychological tripwire for everyone.
– Dr. Michael Gunson

As a theorist who works within the social scientific paradigms of political science/ecology, world-systems analysis, and geophilosophy, and as a man who happens to think that the university setting is the most exciting, and potentially revolutionary space known to all humanity, I have to come to grips with the duality of activist/academic binary.  A recent blog post entitled Theory and the Left: A Nighttime Reflection, by Matthijs Krul, a PhD student at Brunel University in the UK, focuses upon the "‘academic turn’ within Marxism – and radical thought more widely – as a corollary of the decline of a radical workers’ movement."(1)  The undeniable negativity toward Marxists in the academic setting that is palpable at any street-level protest gathering is perhaps the best example of what we might call the alienation of the intellectual in American society.  

I am an older student, at 42, finishing a Master's degree and headed to PhD studies next year, but I have arrived at this point after more than a decade of political and otherwise activism.  Like all diehards I have spent some time in jail, been depressed by the lackluster turnouts at important events, and had long, painful debates with twenty-somethings about the supposedly "elitist" academic community. During the initial actions of the Occupy movement, I was told more than one time that my thoughts and suggestions (whether I was offering them or not) about more efficient ways of voting and/or deciding upon actions and goals within the movement, and not repeating the mistakes of earlier attempts in history, were unwelcome.  "Just go back to the comfort of the institution, professor," I was once told by a kid of no more than 18, who seemed to already know all of the possible applications of Marxist theory to the Occupy Movement.  Krul states: "it is often questioned whether academia itself is a worthwhile thing for Marxists to pursue and to engage with, and more strongly, whether Marxism today does not suffer from an excess of theory compared to a paucity of practice. The academic left is easily blamed for this perceived state of affairs; not just individually as Marxists, but especially as those responsible for perpetuating Marxism’s academic turn in the first place. Everyone is probably familiar with the exasperated activist’s complaint that all these supposed Marxists are just writing abstract stuff in the ivory tower and that they should come down to join the streets for a picket or a placard instead."  The key phrase there is "perceived state of affairs," in that this perception is about as wrong as wrong gets.  

So there it is, this massive frustration; this epistemic rift, if you will, between the "academy" and "society," or as I have suggested the activist/academic divide.  This is where the problem of binary thinking is displayed in its full glory.  Something is either 'A' or 'not-A', and therefore 'White' or 'not-White', 'Man or 'not-Man', etc., making for a dangerously simplistic logic that leads to what Foucault called 'dominant regimes of truth'.  In other words, the activist/academic divide is never going to be transcended, as I argue it should be, if there must be a winner in this binary competition.  It is a systemic problem, not an individualized human problem.  

The ongoing systemic cycle of accumulation, as Giovanni Arrighi calls it, that has been underway since the dawn of modernity is at fault here. Simply put, theories don't turn a profit unless they are theories about how to turn a profit.  Money does in fact grow on trees.  Capital has been systematically extracted from the Earth and from human beings for as long as humanity has been active outside of roving bands of hunter-gatherers.  The university, be it public or private, has been slowly engulfed by the lords of capital since the 1970s, and the last death-breathing challenge left is found in the hauls of geography, sociology, history, and critical theory programs all over the world.  It should also be pointed out that this activist/academic divide is not a uniquely American phenomenon, though it might be argued that America exported the problem to the rest of the world, at least in regard to the commodification of the academic experience. 

Returning to my issue at hand.  I will be, if all goes to plan, beginning my PhD work in the Fall, during a time when it is widely acknowledged among climate scientists that we are now in a period of not only impending decline, but in the midst of a "mass extinction event," that will include tens of millions of humans.  I believe there is light in this otherwise dark narrative.  If the problem that the proverbial anti-academic activist, particularly the ecologically motivated, is that the university setting is one too divorced from actually existing political and otherwise reality, might the problem not lie with the academics at all, and instead lie in the question of society's valuation of the university?  Might it also lie in the realization that in fact the university is the last wall of defense against the onslaught of vulgar capitalist accumulation?  I argue yes on both accounts.  The university should be seen as the direct location for the collective rebellion of humanity against the monster that is the capitalist world-system in decline.  We know it is in decline partly because it is going after the university, a place previously relatively untouched by core capitalism.  

I leave you with this, a different view of the university in society, the view of the university as the people's workshop.  Take Detroit as an example.  It is the first major American city to completely give out under the pressure of the neoliberal capitalistic development program.  Meanwhile, not far away, in the wonderful little enclave of elitist education, lies Ann Arbor, where also lies the University of Michigan. Everything seems just great there.  The grants keep coming in.  That university, regardless of one's animosity towards it, is, under the surface, a budding workshop in the service of remaking society in the aftermath a hurricane of capital accumulation.  My suggestion here is obvious: the 'university as workshop' is, in my opinion, the ONLY way to challenge and ultimately transcend the phenomenon of the activist/academic divide.  Only then will the academic and the activist see their collective worth.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Beyond Capitalism?

It is a common assumption in American ecopolitical discourse, it seems, that those who claim to be either critical of, or indeed steadfastly against capitalism are therefore, by apparent technicality, promoting socialism, anarchism, or some other non-capitalist ism.  I seek to destroy that concept in this short essay.

Capitalism is not just an economic system, nor a socially constructed dogma, or an evil system created by greedy men bent on hoarding the Earth's sources of capital accumulation.  It is far more powerful than that, and I use that term power in the Foucauldian sense.  That is, power is a product of knowledge, just as surplus profit (capital) is a product of the capitalist mode of production.  Jason W. Moore (1) tells us capitalism is a system for organizing all of nature; it is a world-ecological paradigm unto itself.  Power is organized knowledge.  Capitalism informs nearly every decision the modern urban (and to a large extent exurban, suburban and rural) human makes every day, from the decision of whether or not to buy the local eggs or the cheap eggs, to whether or not a person should pursue their dream of higher education.  Much of it is conscious and arguably most of it is a mix of subconscious and completely unintentional, with no rectifying in sight.

Professors Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins (2) remind us that the human species is "obviously not in equilibrium with its environment.  We are a young species, a scant 5,000 generations out from the savannas where we took shape, some 500 generations into agriculture and a mere twenty generations or so afflicted by capitalism."  One does not have to have a PhD in biology, ecology, bioethics, or environmental science to say that most of the degradation visited by humanity upon the Earth has in fact happened during that span of time that saw twenty generations of agriculture.  Karl Marx was already deep into this realization toward the end of his life.  The point here is that capitalism, as a world-system, or to stay with Moore's perspective, a world-ecology, is so vastly much more than the economic arrangement that "capitalists" have worked out among themselves.  It is scarcely possible to make the choice to be anything but capitalist in the post-modern world.  Even individual nation-states that have resisted capitalism have themselves either had to become willingly dominated by it as a world-ecology or forced to live in a self-imposed exile from the global market, like a North Korea.  Capitalism organizes knowledge, because it actually is the system that decides by way of its dominant knowledge framework, for better or for worse, what research projects get funded, what university programs get cut or extended, how many homes get built, how many schools get closed, how much to pay people who clean bathrooms AND the people who's job it is to profit off of the low hourly wage they get, and on and on the list goes.

All one has to do is attempt to think of one thing in your daily life that is not directly or indirectly related to the system of capitalism.  I wish you luck.  But that's not it.  There's more to this story.  If we are to move forward with this logic, namely capitalism as more then an economic system for the delivery of commodities; capitalism as world-ecology, we can then state that some alternative massive meta-system is probably not going to be any better.  Even if socialism or anarchism were better, the chance of shutting down the omnipotence of the capitalist world-ecology at the humanity level is about as likely as engaging in an ethical conversation with the director of labor relations for Tommy Hillfiger.  What is much more logical, and indeed practical, is to engage in a humanity-level re-examination of the underlying assumptions we have as animals on this planet; re-examining the binary understanding of the human-nature nexus that has been force-fed to us by the captains of industry; re-examining how knowledge is organized to suit the system's needs over those of humanity and the Earth system we all depend upon.

What is being argued here is that capitalism has been, for the bulk of world-history since the long sixteenth century (roughly late 1590s-1700) the dominant knowledge framework of the increasingly urban human.  Taking it down is not an option.  Reforming it is not an option either, in my opinion;  not enough, at least, to adequately deal with the global problematics of humanity.  Therefore, socialism, anarchism, or whatever other ism one may want to suggest, I argue is of no consequence.  Beyond capitalism?  I'm not sure we can get there until humanity is on board.

(2) Lewontin, Richard and Richard Levins. Biology Under the Influence: Dialectical Essays on Ecology, Agriculture, and Health. (New York: MRP: 2007), 162

Friday, May 3, 2013

Some Thoughts on Materialism

In the past month I have engaged the work of Karl Marx at a deeper level than ever before, reading most of Capital, Volume 3 and big pieces of Volume 1 again, as well as his doctoral dissertation, his early Economic Manuscripts, the German Ideology, and several other essays that really brought to light for me both my disagreements with Marx, as well as the areas of the Marxian framework that I feel are virtually undeniably accurate, such as the fetishism of commodities, the alienation and exploitation of the worker within the capitalist mode of production, and the constant reification of the capitalist system by way of its inherent cycles of crisis; this last bit can even be pointed to as a lifting off point for postmodern analysis of social-cultural phenomena.

While it is primarily Marx's analysis of the capitalist mode of production and its obvious affect upon the ordering of human society, perhaps more now than ever before, that I utilize his theoretical framework for, it is his early interest in natural materialism that has really sparked further readings. Marx takes as a basic truth of humanity, or the extant universe in general, that humans cannot create matter, but merely shape it.  This may sound like an overly simplistic, and undoubtedly obvious sentiment, but if we dig a little deeper into what that means, entire new levels of analysis develop.

Marx was particularly influenced by the natural materialism of the Greek philosopher and physiologist Epicurus.  Most of what Marx knew, and what we today know of Epicurus is from the very few letters that were uncovered and the unfolding philosophical school of thought derived from them, Epicureanism.  His most important pieces of knowledge, and what Marx took through all his work, is that the universe is infinite and eternal, that nothing can dissolve into nothing, nor be born of nothing, and that all events in the extant universe are based on the interactions and motions of atoms moving through empty space.  The debate between Epicurus and Democritus about whether or not atoms moved in only one direction in space, straight down, or in a myriad directions based more on chaos than anything else, was what Marx actually wrote his dissertation on.  He agreed with Epicurus that if atoms only moved down, never touching one another, no matter could in fact be formed.  Sure, basic stuff today, but this was ancient Greece, long before electron microscopes and the like.

The point here is this.  All that is, is based on matter interacting with matter.  There is no non-matter.  What used to be referred to the in early periods of physiology as "the void" we now know, thanks to post-Neutonian theoretical physics, as dark matter and dark energy, which together makes up 84% of the known universe.  I am a materialist, but only to the extent that I accept this basic foundational assumption that matter is the basis of what we like think of as reality.  Only after accepting that can I begin to address the ecopolitical reality that I, as a theorist, am attuned to.

But this admonition that I am indeed a materialist is not enough.  As long as materialism is a school of thought, there are those who think of materialism as only that early mechanistic understanding of scientific materialism that we see in the work of the liberal individualist philosophers, classical and neoliberal economists, and physicalists in general.  That is, the simplistic linear logic of A causes B and C is a reaction to B, and so on.  This mechanistic materialism was just the early throws of humanity's understanding of the concept of matter and humanity's interaction with it.  We now know it is infinitely deeper than that, and it is often some of our earliest philosophers who are educating us on such subjects.

What is sometimes codified as postmodern materialism tends to challenge this basic idea that if one is a materialist, he or she must also be determinist and absolutist.  This certainly stems from the mechanistic period, which frankly extended to just a few decades ago and still persists today, as I have already mentioned.  Just because I believe that all of what we assume is originated in matter; that all will eventually return to being nothing but matter; that matter is in fact the basis of all reality, does not mean that I must also believe that those interactions are predictable, inevitable, or even identifiable.

I will venture to say that consciousness itself is a product of the interactions of matters.  Human matter interacting with nonhuman matter.  Sentient matter interacting with its negation.  Atomic matter interacting with subatomic matter.  Reality interacting with its own negation, if you will.  We know that the brain is a big mess of neuro-regulatory process points, but we still don't really know why it does what it does, nor why we have such things as dream states, sleep, and imagination.  Are all those things not also matter?

Here is my main point:  If matter is the basis of all physicality, and physicality is the basis of all non-physicality, i.e. thinking, imagination, emotion, etc., is not the negation of matter an impossibility?  In other words, conceptual frameworks like spirituality, imagination, and thought itself, all arise with the use of our brain and its processing of physical stimuli into emotional and sensory response.  If we negate matter, we negate reality, and if we negate reality, we are negating our existence.  If we negate our existence, as some have, we enter a new realm of anti-consciousness that is not likely to provide much in the way of humanistic enlightenment or understanding.  Therefore, we again return to matter.  In the framework I have just eluded to, matter is clearly not mechanistic, nor predictable, nor even identifiable.  Furthermore, even mainstream physics tells us that matter is energy, so the computer screen I am looking at right now, is both a physical material entity and a vast array of energetic particles dancing in chaotic patterns, forming 1's and the 0's.  Or are they?

I am suggesting that by embracing the idea that we are made of matter and that we interact, all of the time, with matter, we may better understand the human condition, but that we do not need to wall ourselves off into some naive mechanistic view of materialist science in understanding humanity.  Thought is ultimately a production of human-material interaction.  Perhaps if we close the divide between the tangible and the intangible, by recognizing their commingling with matter, we may eventually learn to see in multiple dimensions; to exist in frameworks of knowledge that do not depend upon vulgar causal mechanisms.  And maybe, just maybe, through that realization, the ignorant systemic problems we have developed, like that of capitalism, will cease to be of use.