In times of plague and riots, a personal update.

Today is peaceful here in SLC, and I have work today to finish off my courses for my students. I have been reflecting though that even here things broke out. We have had police violence, mostly against the homeless and protestors, but mostly what we have here is police apathy. People have disappeared here in SLC–people my friends know–the police did almost nothing. Every Dine nation person I have met here has lost someone in the COVID crash, and many have lost several elders. It also really hit me how bad a lot of the reservations are in terms of services. We are talking infrastructure-for-indigenous-people-of-rural-southern-Mexico kind of bad. Settler colonialism, under-autonomy, and needing the approval of US Congress means it’s hard to get appropriations and jurisdiction to do much on those lands. Most of the US apparatus has been governed by the states quietly and increasingly since the 1970s; in a way this is the way it was designed to run, but almost no business exists within one state’s line.
But every Dine person I know has lost someone–every single one. Probably not that different for Ute and Paiute people either, but I don’t know as many of them. Since re-opening for business two weeks ago, we have had a spike and cases and in death, but compared to other cities, SLC death rates are mild compared to our infection rates. Yet more Latinos have the disease than whites now in raw numbers in a state that is about 14% Latino. Everyone is angry and grieving about something. My mother has cancer back in GA and my step-father is living in a trailer in the backyard as to not infect her. They are both over sixty. My mom is an ex-nurse, one of my brothers is an unemployed roadie living with them, and my step-dad a mechanic. Now, I am not particularly close to my family. I left GA ten years ago, but only two of my brothers turned things around from themselves after the last economic downturn. The reasons for that are complicated and frankly I am not going to blame it all on society, but I have seen the “Hillbilly Elegy” shit a lot in my real life. I know we may disagree with the reasoning of that author’s solutions, but his description of the world is apt and I am kind of tired of people from more privileged backgrounds arguing with me about it.
I never much believed in Bernie salvation. I thought it MIGHT be a release valve. But Bernie would not be able to get his party in line because the donors wouldn’t be in line. I was skeptical that he had support in the black official Democrat circles in the South. Most black men in my state don’t vote and something like 40-50% percent of them can’t because of felon charges. That also affects a ton of poor and working-class whites. For all the talk about how reactionary the South is, and it is, people know their interests there. My step-dad is not a racial progressive and was opposed to Democrats most of his life, but voted for Obama and opposed Trump, even though I am pretty sure the man hates Hilary Clinton. He is not a liberal, and he is mad as hell at them too. He was a mechanic with three medically compromised kids, and retirement is more difficult for him because he kept us alive. It is as simple as that. If you dig into most people, you can get to the story.
Now, I realize I am normally Mr. History and Mr. Theory. Here are some things you are going to have to look at for a moment. I am explaining why I think this happened. People are angry and the police are the arm of the state. Yes, people are particularly angry at the way black people are disproportionately killed by the police for often minor offenses. But the support POC are getting is only ideological and from activists and liberals, but poor white people are also threatened by the cops. Fuck, increasingly middle-class white people are. That is the shift and I suspect I could find stats to back it up.
However, let me talk about the steam-with-no-piston-box problem, and the people without the skills or ideological vision to do anything. I am not Marx-shaming the rioters and the revolt. I am glad people finally fight the boot on their neck. It also exposes that even when trying to protect the POC protestors, Liberals spin narratives that play right into 100-year-old conservative tropes and doubt the threat that cops pose to even middle-class white people. The term “shitlib” gets thrown around a lot. That said, leftists don’t have places for this to go other than back into the streets and into uncontrollable destructive spasms. That does lead to reaction and scares people. Historically, for that not to happen, natural and spontaneous militancy has to have a place to go.
I am also seeing the same tired tropes about diversifying the police. While data may unreliable, almost no data or even anecdotal support tells you that a police force representing you is less likely to kill you. Even in the major events that caused riots, the outlier was Ferguson, which had a mostly white police force: the other three cops involved in killing George Floyd were of color. Most of the cops in the Maryland instance that provoked riots were of color. Liberals’ misunderstandings don’t fix structures of power and overpoliced neighborhoods. For all the talk of structural racism, many of the solutions proposed, for police reform and diversification, don’t understand the problem. The same is true of cops supporting the protests–tactically that may be good for both sides, but it misses the point.
However, let me go back to that lack of piston box. Unleashing the people’s power without goals, aims, and discipline leads to the power often being diffused into the air. It was good for people to remember they have power, but it’s got to go somewhere. Furthermore, for all the bad actors, black looters, and outside agitator talk, and for all the talk of boogaloos and proud boys–who are real but are so tiny as to be insignificant in this–that is nonsense. But steam with no piston box attracts the energy of lumpen and despised folks without giving them anything other than their legitimate rage. So the two days of targets were strategic, but then whatever is at hand. Places that find and start having piston boxes will in better shape than those who don’t.
Insurrections normally and historically end in a bloodbath. Liberals mucking this up are, in their own dumbass way, kind of trying to avoid it, but politicians are trying to save their own asses. That is what I mean when I say riots are a force of nature when they get moving. There are so many different groups and actions and no direct call. Demands, if made at all, are often moral and inchoate.
So I have understood why people are breaking things and I think a lot of the calls for them to be “more organized” are trying to control a force that can’t be. But we should have had something for these forces to organize towards that didn’t try to subordinate them to whatever ideology or NGO agenda was at hand.
So in the next few days and months, we will see if the shift is towards something new or if they will go from Watts riots into Nixonland, except that we are already in farce version of Nixonland, so where are social forces to go? When all institutions seemed bankrupt, what institutions emerge?

A few observations on US politics

Back to politics as baseball: Outside from Bernie people who think their influence is larger than it was. Biden odds seem to be kind of based on your demographics as anything else: a lot of people in blue-state urban areas seem to still think he’s going to win, a lot of people in red-state urban areas (which can be just as liberal) think he is likely to lose. Objectively, it’s a wash: Biden does complicate Trump’s map uniquely, but Biden still isn’t doing as well as you think and while progressives seem to think the average person blames Trump for the pandemic–the average apolitical voter seems to see it as natural disaster and the average conservative voter as maybe China’s fault. This does mitigate against the effect of a massive recession from an external shock. Incumbency advantage in the US is also extremely high even in periods of low approval ratings. I suppose that is why Biden polls marginally better than Trump but prediction markets give Trump a slight edge.

Notice in both scenarios the popular vote or a general mandate isn’t even in the picture. Voter turn-out is likely to be low in November due to what is being predicted as a possible second wave of the pandemic. Also given who actually follows social distancing guidelines, this probably helps the GOP in general. While people voting against Trump will be high amongst Dems, people truly voting for Biden as a positive motivator will be low. We know this because if it were not the case: there would not have been so many challenges for so long. This has historically been a deal-breaker for the establishment choice of Democrat candidates regardless of mid-term. I am not calling this one, but I am urging people to really look at the game being played.

A lot of radicals really mistook their endorsement of Sanders and grow of faith for Sanders among themselves as the growth of faith for Sanders in the general. This was a mistake and Sanders had less of the vote than he did in 2016 despite more media organs and clearer early victories than before. There were also more splits amongst moderates.

Since 2000, so most of my adult life, American politics seems to be about how tribes of the commentariat can delude themselves. Maybe it has been than way since JFK, who knows.

Pandemic Reflection

Another day, another low magnitude earthquake.  They have peppered my day for over a month since we had 5.7 erupt out of  Magna from a faultline, no one suspected exists.  So this morning, I shot up from my bed wondering, yet again, if someone hit the build with a car or if the earth was burping up frakking pressure or the afterbirth of the giant volcano nearby in Wyoming.

Forcing me up for the day to drag myself to my computer to grade reflections on A Raisin in the Sun and Macbeth.  While I feel somewhat privileged to have a job right now–in fact, two of them that I can do from home, the screentime gets exhausting and one starts to take pleasure in small things.   Rye toast with good Irish butter and lavender jelly.  Finding a good transfer of Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia to watch for free so I return a favor to a friend on their podcast.

While grading this morning and talking to my partner I realized that podcasting culture has replaced blogging culture the way Tik-Tok has replaced actually socializing for high school students.  My partner has set up a barbell in the living room among my shelves of poetry and history books, giving my small city apartment the feel of terrible 90s boutique business: gym plus library and cafe.  Despite the watch-word of social distancing, this would be a strange vision even in normal times.

Dropping that digression for a second, however, brings me back to blog culture. One of the things had haunts teachers write now is dropping literacy scores:  students can read but without extended executive function and not particularly well.   While literacy rates have been largely stagnant for a few decades–the gains have been largely in at-risk populations such as racial minority groups and “free and reduced” lunch populations–they actually declined in the years since 2014.  People rush to blame political decisions, but the relaxing of reforms didn’t work but neither did either Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” nor Obama’s “Race to the Top.”   “Innovations” in charter schools didn’t fix it either. Technology, which even I used to think was going to be a key to increasing access and capacity, seems to have been neutral or even damaging to gains.

What does that have to do with blog culture?  The blogging culture of the aughts was interesting, seemingly developing out of a mixture of journaling and early social media, there was a kind of brief renaissance in journaling.  Facebook entered in and so did Myspace, but the writing was largely shared through notes and through sharing links.   This lead to a boom in writing but the bust came fast.   The monetization of link-sharing algorithms, the rise of Instagram and Snapchat, and micro-blogging really seemed to suck the life out of things.  Still, ideas and news were spreading faster and faster right?

Apparently not.  While millennials in America read more than their last generational processors, who watched a lot more television, that has shifted down to the next cohort.  Youtube dominates.  While youtube seems infinitely useful to education, it also contains its opposite: charismatic misinformation served up by math-gods. One wonders if the entire media landscape was not a sprint for current social distancing.

Podcasting culture seems to be a stop-gap between blogging and Youtube.  Podcasting requires more executive function and you don’t have to be physically charismatic to do it.  It’s dialogical, but also leads to the strange obsession of this age, commentary. Commentary culture was, of course, a major part of blogging culture too.  Hell, even Whit Stillman in the 1980s, mocked upper-class tendency to be obsessed with commentary and not what was being commented on: It comes up in Metropolitan as well upper-middle-class obsessions with obscure utopian socialist figures.  This gets accelerated in podcasting as well as textual commentary.  It becomes a kind of secular version of the shared bible-study group for whatever text is being commented upon.

It’s a good substitute for alienation in ways that blogging, which entails the far more lonely act of writing is not.

Waking up in an apartment, teaching to screen, and moving on, however, shows the real limits this has for relieving alienation.  Furthermore, while I think it is far to easy to blame the technology, the declines in literacy in the developed world seem paired with an overreliance on these technologies.  As the old and oft-repeated saying goes, correlation is not causation, but as the statistician retorts, “correlation does imply there may be causation there somewhere.”


Hindsight is 2020: Reflections from an Unfolding Difficult Time

Prose by C. Derick Varn 

In the late aughts, in the slow humidity of Macon, Georgia, I used to keep a new hardcover copy of Joan Didion’s We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live by bed.  I was living in up-stairs of a run-down old house parceled into cheap apartments near Mercer University aimed, I believe, to capture some of the law student loan cash in the form of rents.  It’s didn’t.  I was a teacher and my wife-at-the-time—a phrase rightly linked with dubious men adjacent to patriarchy-or-whatever-ism one would use for male narcissism—was an auto-pawn manager.  The apartment was full of books in milk cartoons and cheap laminate, press wood bookshelves.   We are in the crawling muck of class aspiration and I was a poet who had published more in my teens than I had since getting MFA.   The whole reek of was mild—although not exactly quiet—desperation.

Flash forward nine years and I am speaking to my co-editor over a shitty internet skype connection on an I-pad for a podcast/youtube video on Joan Didion.  My voice is strained and if you can find the recording on Youtube still, brassy and higher pitched than my voice is on most recording. I have defensive of Didion—against the cultural turn against her and her privilege that was inevitable after three books of essays on her grief. I was going through my own grief and at the time not talking about it. 

I lived across from an Egyptian prison in Maadi.  I was not allowed to take photographs out of my window and post them on social media.   I had lost my working visa in a dispute between my employer and government in an attempt to reconcile a political promise without losing labor was allowed to stay in the country.   My partner, whom I had secretly married priorly, was alone in Wyoming, driving through the snow into Salt Lake City, to get treatment for stage-four melanoma.  She did not know much of my plight and I was literally two continents and an ocean away from hers.  I had supplemented my time with podcasts—something that I did for free at this point in my life even if it is a side gig now—but I had no real equipment and was on the internet that was often unable to consistently play videos from youtube.  Like the old Soviet and Italian cars I saw as Taxis in the Cairo streets, it felt strange back in time.  Yet I was clearly privileged to have these problems:  the Egyptian authorities would sometimes check my passport and let me be.  Even after the church bombing in Maadi and the visit of Pope Francis to Egypt, I was largely left alone.

My apartment was cheap by American standards and after the crashing of the local currency, I paid a few hundred dollars for it.  It has four beds and a master bedroom, tacky furniture and decor out of a particular faux-rich style of the 1980s and a few wall-hangings for clearly Muslim families.  The four beds were because this was a small apartment—Egyptian families were often large and middle-class families could have a two-or-even-three wives taking caring six-to-eight kids.  I felt alone because I was one man with a partner in America, teaching in my partner’s old position, in a politically tense country.  At night, sometimes, I would have someone drive me alone to edge of the desert and I would drink local beer and watch nothing the sands until the particulate dust made it too hard for me to see.

So I don’t know if my voice was brittle for worry for my then-partner or a particularly terrible internet connection and speaking at odd hours, probably after drinking too much and in pain in stomach from complications from a typhoid bout I had in Mexico.  But I defended Didion against charges of her “problematic nature” perhaps too hard. 

What I have always loved about writers like Didion—even in her old age—was an ice-cold hostility to the way we lie to ourselves.  As a person constantly ask to parse the finer points of history and ideology—a poet who studied philosophy and anthropology and, once or twice, taught critical theory—I also distrusted those eschatological narratives and models we are given to spin to make our lives make sense or to limit the damage that contingency or grief or give us. 

It’s not as ironic that these two contradictory impulses emerge in the same person.  Indeed, the Marxist jargon that would emerge imminently to the occasion, is it is dialectical: the urge to construct grand theories of history and economics, to speak generalizations that can start to clarify but if reduce to simple slide-of-hand of language and abstractions can say less than nothing.  In “Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.),” Didion writes that she is comfortable “with the Michael Laski’s of this world, with those who live outside rather than in, those in whom the sense of dread is so acute that they turn to extreme and doomed commitments; I know something about dread myself and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.” I both recoil and identify with Laski, despite my sectarian affiliations having never been exactly in the same ideological checkbox, and with Didion’s skepticism of his faith.  I have been the weaver of opiates to the people, the voice that helps people find hope in the fetishization and abstractions of life, to clear out the painstaking ideology to replace with it a new one, but I have also been the perpetual skeptic.  The person who trusts relationships over ideas—because people betray you but ideas can have you betray ourself. 

I have spent years mimicking the turgid and tedious writing style of theorists. I remember in 2005, my MFA advisor telling me, “I don’t normally tell students this but read more fiction and poetry and less theory.” When I set to eat with him four years later, on the precipice of my first divorce and leaving, for what I thought was forever but what turned out to be a little under a decade, teaching in the United States, and heading to South Korea to teach a university there. He said, “You seem so much more together now.  Your desperation seems to have matured.”  He was right about the second part but utterly wrong about the first.

This is the beginning of reopening my writing. I mostly write poetry and talk theory and history.  Lately, more history. I teach high school literature, which is something that I won’t say much on, except that I understand why almost as many writers had contempt for their English teachers as loved them.   Reading Didion a decade-and-half-ago, I lost a lot of my will to write prose that wasn’t highly theoretical or political.   Debunking this or that trend in education, writing about religious inanity, then shifting to socialism and graduate school misuse of socialist and post-social theory, then critique “the left” from the perspective of “the left.”   What amazes me about this, despite reams of turgid and sometimes inchoate prose I produced, is that I actually don’t know that these coherence models of the universe tell as much as we think, even if they are true.   That yearning to be correct, to have an answer, to say something that makes the details and facts and interpretation, and the sad errata of human understanding seem redeemable is a good impulse, but it is often the impulse for individuals to weave stories, to lie, and for collectives of people to believe lies.

To make the stories we tell about yourselves true: to be honest about why we are pained when speaking about aging mid-20th century American writer when we are in the desert or to admit that we were very lucky to turn the frustration with public school education into a way to travel the world. To admit that our politics come from our social class backgrounds, our regional interests, and the accumulated history of family and ethnic heritage, more than anything like a rational decision.  To admit that our systems of exploring this are often fraught, not as coherent as their commentary, and obtuse. To look into the eyes of our notions of history and admit that maybe there is no brain behind the eyes.  This is hard.  Didion, whatever her faults and there are probably many, inspired me to write honestly about it.

Ultimately, we all know that the cost of drinking your own kool-aid is dying from the poison you put in it.

End Transmission from this outpost

In the coarse of my life, I have been sporadically blogging for over a decade-and-a-half: first personal blogs–where I focused on art and religious history as topics as well as just a personal daybook–on the infant social media like Live Journal, then around 2007 I began writing about critical theories and empirical variation of pedagogical theories on a forerunner to this blog, and after I left the country, I began writing about my ad hoc understanding of politics and anthropology, which increasingly became concerned with critical theory.

It is clear to me, however, that my loves have always been history of religion, the history and philosophy of science, and the overlap with politics.  I have decided that my dyslexia and aphasia means that I need to focus on my poetry, my podcasts, and possible articles/book length material with a co-author on those topics instead of an vaguely unfocused political blog.   As such, this blog really doesn’t have the same purpose it once did–I need to work with editors and do slower writing that blogging generally requires.

This will remain here for archives, and I may pick this up again. For now, however, it’s time to end transmission.

Attempt: Some observations about Marxism as it currently seems to exist

Part of the removal of doubt in my life involves clarifying why those doubts emerge in theories in which I am seen as a subscriber.  In the last year, I have been amazed at the word games many socialists have used to avoid the hard work of actually clarifying their research project. The problem, it seems to me, mostly consists of terminology that has degenerated as the history that the jargon assumed has not played out the way that it was predicted.  This gap means that the even harder task of working to build the movements and organizational party to dealt with these political realities–realities that were not completely imagined 100 years ago.

Let me point out a few things:

  • The number of word games that Marxists I know use to hide that most fundamental prediction of theory–the politicization of proletariat as the revolutionary subject of history–has not yet happened is pretty good ammo for enemies of socialism. The left-communist critique is often infantile, but they are not wrong that “actually existing socialism” came about mostly through class collaborations in areas where the proletariat was not the majority of the population nor the majority of cadres in the communist movement.
  • Every single Trotskyist stage theory of revolution has an idealist typology behind it, and every single explanation the different groups had for the “revolutionary spirit” returning to the Soviet Union, regardless of their theories about how the Soviet Union did not live up to being a truely revolutionary proletariat state–be it Cliff’s state capitalism, Grant’s version of the “deformed worker’s state,” or the theories of Bonapartism–were, frankly, disproven by the way 1991 went down. No trotskyist group predicted the kind of disillusion the Soviet Union actually had–although the Orthodox Trotskyists did seem come closest. The fact that these groups still exist despite this failure is an indication of a morbidity of thought and inertia in micro-institutions.
  • Theories of labor aristocracy as an explanation for this generally ignore that peek of Maoist victories were also in places where the proletariat was not the dominant class, and, while labor aristocracies clearly exist, the idea that somehow the national bourgeoisie has conspired to over-pay a nation’s worth of workers is a conspiracy theory that has less of a chance of being true, or even consciously considered, than some of the more grandiose conspiracy theories of the past. So they aren’t answers to the “why hasn’t proletariat actually done why it was classically predicted to do” either.

Furthermore, we have to deal with the class nature of the people making these claims:

  • While there is actual “working class” membership in Marxist organizations, most of them are not in the main full of people out of their 20s and in the “working class” full time.  The largest groups consist mainly of students or in organizations like the DSA which do not have significant costs to entry and frankly do not require large commitments of time.   This increase is explicitly not true for most Marxists “parties” which require more commitment but do not have the numbers to make such commitment effective beyond a small business model.
  • The organizations I have known that are not highly historically like the IWW, which have large working-class membership are not Marxist. The most successful organizations either provide lots of mutual aid services and are slow but steady growth (but still require LARGE commitments of time), or have low cost and low commitment like the D.S.A., but are basically little more than local orgs with a national lobbying branch.  Most of the other orgs with high proletariat membership don’t last, the membership does not have the skills or the time to maintain such an organization.
  • The other successful organizations that are large consist mostly of students, often have funds from University student organizations, or run or collaborate with academic presses.  The produce scholarly or semi-scholarly work.  They also help to provide a niche section of semi-academic political writers exposure in party organs or editorial panels for socialist magazines. The student mass of the organization has lots more leisure time than the average worker to invest in the organization.
  • That so many of who talk this about the proletariat are graduate students even when they are attacking academics has NEVER been lost on me.


This does not say the hypothesis of the politicization of the proletariat is wrong.  Indeed, when Marx and Engels were writing, the proletariat, even though it was a smaller proportion of the population than now, was more politicized.  It led to Engels and Kautsky both predicting significant socialist wins in the democratic polities because the size and politicization of the working class were growing, and they felt certain the socialists would have the vote.  Answering what happened in an honest manner that deals with the Soviet Union, with some of the Maoist legitimate points about labor aristocracy, with the real conflicts of interest within the working class itself, becomes necessary.

I also don’t have good answers for these questions nor do I think even if we did, we would have all answers to all political questions.  The questions of national tensions are not solved solely by economic questions nor is the tension between a universal political project and particularist identities which class solitary ameliorates but does not completely end.

We cannot construct new nebulous categories to get out this, such notions that are hidden in neologism like ‘precariat,’ ‘salaried bourgeoisie,’ and ‘the multitude’ or even classics like ‘the popular front’ and the “mass line’ do not get really get around the failure.  Nor do ideas that somehow “class consciousness” or “false consciousness” explains conflicts in short interests between working-class groups pass muster.

We have to be honest with ourselves most of all.

Attempt: On “Emotional Labor”

Back in the hey-days of October, Haley Swenson wrote a piece called “Please Stop Calling Everything That Frustrates You Emotional Labor.” I missed it because I have found Slate’s contrarianism gradually turn into knee-jerk left-liberalism as Jamelle Bouie became its political editor.  Bouie represents a millennial Democratic politics that often use far more radical social justice language than it’s actual policy advocacy.  It was as if Slate wanted to run in the other direction from the time before his death when Christopher Hitchens was a primary voice of the political end of the magazine.  Regardless, Swenson describes the internet “political discourse” diluting a term to near meaningless.  She explains the history of the “emotional labor” here:

In her 1983 book The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Hochschild first coined the phrase emotional labor to describe the work of flight attendants and bill collectors to consciously regulate their own feelings and attempt to shape the emotions of others to get their jobs done. Women and low-income workers were being asked to very subtly (and very deftly) fix up people’s feelings without being recognized or compensated for that very tricky part of their labor.

It is interesting how much of the critical theory that was Marxist-adjacent was adopted by bloggers in the late aughts.  In particular, the language around these theorists from the 80s and 90s made it into blog and social media talk: Crenshaw’s “intersectionality,” McIntosh’s specific use of privilege, and Hochschild’s “emotional labor.”  I suspect this is because a generation of people in sociology and critical studies courses in undergraduate core requirements were superficially exposed to these neologisms and/or compound concepts and the ideas expressed in them by over-worked graduate assistants and young adjuncts who teach most undergraduates.  So the treatment was superficial.  Combine that with the deadlines around think pieces and the brevity required for engagement on most social media, the hollowing out of political theory happens particularly quickly when these concepts are weaponized.

So what has happened to “emotional labor”?  Before I go into Swenson’s analysis, let’s look at the limits of the term.  Emotional labor was not the same as “doing things that are emotionally draining without being paid.”  It was not a theory that encouraged one to commodify one’s personal distress.   It was specifically limited to emotional distress in the service sector and female employment that was largely uncompensated and which does have a personal and interpersonal health cost.    Swenson then goes on to point out how at the end of the aughts, the term became far broader:

So what exactly is emotional labor? Emotional labor is simply the management of feelings (your own or someone else’s) to accomplish some goal—to leave a customer satisfied or to get someone to do something they might not otherwise want to, or to keep your household functioning. Note that there are many other kinds of labor that can produce these outcomes too (simply providing information to someone, for instance), but emotional labor concerns the work of emotion management—say, delivering bad news about a flight cancellation in a comforting way, so that disgruntled passengers hardly notice the news is bad.

One notes, again, the expanded definition includes transactions that are not specifically commodified transactions but do have end-specific goals.  So we move from the purely economic sphere in areas which are, to use a Marxist way of phrasing, part of “the production or reproduction of social relations.”   To speak like a normal person, when one has to manipulate displays of emotion to make something work between people–personal or economic.

Swensen notes that this expansion of emotional labor can be a form of gatekeeping, which ultimately actually reinforces some pretty traditional gender roles under the guise of progressive or feminist politics:

The anxiety women feel about it shouldn’t be confused as proof that their way of doing things is right and the men in their lives are incompetent or wrong. Sociologists have a word for the tendency of women to set the terms for how parenting or housework should take place and then policing that line in such a way that men are effectively shut out of doing it. It’s called maternal gatekeeping. It’s a problem that’s bad for fathers, kids, and the mothers who end up stressed and overworked because of it. If we chalk up every dispute over how and when something should be done to emotional labor, we might bulldoze our way past the possibility that our own expectations can be our worst enemy.

This may be particularly pernicious. Other forms of pernicious uses of the concept that she does not note are demands to further commodify activism or relationship “labor.”  For example, the pain of activists who are constantly asked to “educate” others on topics of their own experience is labeled “emotional labor” that is entitled to compensation.  There has been a recent backlash against this “we have no responsibility to educate you” sentiment often justified in “emotional labor,” but the backlash is on tactical grounds.  After all, there are plenty of people who are opposed or ignorant of someone’s experience perfectly willing to offer a counter-narrative for free.  Yet, beyond that, I think we should be honest that commodification of our own experiences probably increases our own alienation in regards to that experience. Instead of normalizing our traumas through exposure and helping others see our points of view, we set it off as a trauma that too much to bear without specific compensation.

I personally find these kinds of expansions of terms fascinating as it proves that our specific jargon, like even someone like George Carlin pointed out about euphemisms, that the expansion of the term weakens its use and can often lead to the opposite point.  Like the euphemism that becomes a coded slur itself, the expanded logic of a sociological term like “emotional labor” can actually lead to some practices that have nothing to do, or maybe in some ways are subtly opposed, to the original coiner of the neologism or phrases’ point.  Sometimes, in the realm of politics and language, victory in terms of ubiquity is defeat in terms of clarity.  Or, you can lose for winning.

Review: A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist by Michel Onfray, trans. Joseph McClellan (Columbia UP, 2000)

Onfray’s A Hedonist Manifesto: The Power to Exist calls for an embodied philosophy and ethics, and a profoundly anti-Platonic turn in philosophy.  Onfray’s call for such a philosophy is a call to reinvest in hedonism in a developed way against not only Platonic idealism and Christian morality, but also against lingering Christian atheism which refuses to truly break into a new episteme and thus turns profoundly negative and nihilistic.  The counter-traditions that Onfray valorizes is the pragmatic, the utilitarian, the Nietzschean, and the epicurean.  Onfray is versed in all these traditions, but I must admit that I am not fully convinced that all of them are compatible.

Onfray’s power as a philosopher is partly in the fact that he is a good writer, which Joseph McClellan’s translation maintains.  He roots much of his philosophy in his own biography and while he does not substitute the anecdotal for an argument, he does make a good argument for the context of a philosopher to always be part of the consideration.   Sometimes, however, when is not proposing his own ideas he can have bouts of lyricism that do distract from his meanings.  His historical examples and narrative work ground him, and when the grounds get away from him, he can be little hard to follow.

For an American reader, there will be a few frustrations:  Onfray’s context is French and his references assume a casual familiarity with French philosophical traditions and French cultural and legal developments.  Furthermore, modern liberalism (or, as Americans often call it, neoliberalism) is treated almost solely as an American imperial philosophy, downplaying the European role its theorization and development. Onfray does not linger on any of this long enough for it truly to be a distraction, but it must be taken into account when reading him.

This brings me to Onfray’s inclusion into the “new atheist” milieu.  Perhaps it is of its time, Onfray does not read like a New Atheist despite his love of the late and radical Enlightenment.  He sees reason as contextual and doesn’t use it in the un-defined and ahistorical way many New Atheists do.  He also believes in a heroic and Promethean science but sees all of these developments historically.  While he does have some contempt for wilder aspects of Deleuze, he has a profound respect for the French Nietzschean tradition that would strike all of the “four horsemen,” even the philosophically astute Dennet, as too continental and borderline irrationalist.

Furthermore, his calling most of the atheistic and secular cultures lingering Christian habits and morality would actually seem aimed at “cultural Christians” like Richard Dawkins.  Sam Harris’s increasing conservatism seems lacking in Onfray despite his celebration of the Enlightenment.  If this were Anglo-American “New Atheism,” it would be a much less dreary movement.

This is not mean his book is without problems: the attempts to reconcile a left Nietzscheanism with a kind of pragmaticism and utilitarianism seem to be impossible.  Yes, Onfray sees things in Bentham that both  Foucault and Marx ignored, but the selfless selfishness of J.S. Mill creates an tension with Onfray’s coalition of mutual egoism. The writings on sexuality are increasing, but this is where the lyricism seems to lose clarity the most.

While not a perfect book, it is so refreshing an approach to philosophy while being properly ambitious enough to be called a manifesto that its flaws do not diminish its excellence.

Attempt: Embodied Philosophy

Ideological fluttering as like knots in the stomach; sometimes they cause us to move forward and other times we purge ourselves into convulsing wrecks.  Today, amidst more arguing about Hegel–and since I have Phenomenology of Spirit and the shorter Logic under the guidance of a conservative  Calvinist Professor who saw the history of philosophy as purely pathological, intense debates over Hegel punctuate my philosophical life–I finished Michel Onfray’s A Hedonist Manifesto.  I read it quickly, devouring the 120-some-odd pages while at a salon academy waiting for my wife to dye her hair.  At risk of over-sharing, my wife’s hair has turned partially white from her treatments: not gray, white.   No melanin left. Her own cells attacked it when it attacked her cancer.

I will review Onfray’s manifesto more completely later.  His calls for embodied philosophy speak to me, obviously.  This is not mean his book is without problems: the attempts to reconcile a left Nietzscheanism with a kind of pragmaticism and utilitarianism seem to be impossible.  Yes, Onfray sees things in Bentham that both  Foucault and Marx ignored, but the selfless selfishness of J.S. Mill creates a tension with Onfray’s coalition of mutual egoism.

Yet, I cannot speak to how refreshing his approach is despite Onfray’s penchant for lyricism when he moves away from the narrative approach.  It brings me back to my love of Hellenistic philosophy, aside from the suspiciously de-theologized Stoicism, stripped of its metaphysics, that is the vogue right now,  particularly the classical Cynic, Epicurean, and Skeptic.

I admit that I distrust the way these philosophies are used now, as purely ethical palliatives cut off from their physics, metaphysics, and whatnot.  Like the way, many people reduce Buddhism to a few meditation techniques and some hip “deepities” or some guru worshiping.  Or the way people turn their politics in the make-shift religion.  In lieu of an episteme and an ethos, the will of a group’s portrayals are often substituted superficially.

When I was a teenager, I saw my own step-father, a man I love as much as any I may share DNA with, struggle with his “law-and-order” stances and his own son going to prison.  For all his tough talk, he was not an economically conservative man as he believes in things like government health insurance, but he was a shot-em all and let God sort of out type when it came to perceived criminality.  What drove this?  I suspect fear for his family.  Yet when his own family came into the contact with the law, he had a tendency to be most lenient and forgiving.  In a way, he was the most Christian, although he was never particularly religious.  For a while, as a child, he took us all to Episocal church.  In graduate school, conflicted about communal identity and discovering the depths of a hidden relationship to Judaism that had been buried, I even tried to go back to that parish. The rituals were comforting but no belief came with them. I currently am undergoing Jewish religious education to try to understand parts of my own family history, but not beliefs come there either.

So the temptation for politics as religion makes sense to me.  I mean, most definitions of religion are pathetically inconsistent and often assume Christian and Islamic focus on belief as the standard for what the term means.  I have said that if Confucianism is a religion then Epicureanism counts too.  Indeed, I have been convinced that the idea of religion as a separate sphere of life–an ersatz anthropology, ontology, and ritual community rolled into one–is an accident of the secular sphere being delineated. This makes me at an odd fit with “secularism” or “historical materialism.”  While I absolutely accept that there are material limits to an idea being able to be manifested, and the opposition between systemic logics actually tend to push “ways of life” into being.  Indeed, this historicism of conflicting ideas and ways of organizing society is the one element of Hegel I am willing to defend. Yet I am not willing to say we can easily predict the way these conflicts work out.  Therefore, it makes sense to me that even the nominally religious and Christian often have a superficial alliance to biblical values but a profound alliance to the politics that pay them lip service.  God, for most people, looks like themselves.  Yet, this hollowing out of the religious impulse shows how much religious institutions have been secularized themselves. I mean, evangelicals support Trump disproportionately to even other figures whose religiosity are more sincere?  Why?  A secularization of their own ethos and politics as the real tribal identifier explains this.

In my field of the “extreme left,” despite my hesitation to linked to most of the ideas circulating under that directional orientation, this is doubly true.  The amount of “materialists” who talk about Orthodox and Heterodox as if this focus on belief makes sense to a material philosophy astounds me.  The confusion of dualism of our perception with an ontological dualism has led people to talk about “materialist dualism” as if this could make any sense metaphysically.  What can be dual about the unitary metaphysics implied in materialism?

I find myself digressing constantly. This is why I am a poet trained in philosophy, English literature, and anthropology to varying degrees.  The concision of poetry allows me to focus, and its elliptical nature forgives subtle digressions. Everyone loves Montaigne, Nietzsche, and Leopardi these days, but few tolerate people who write like them.  I understand though at a time when I speak to even college educated people who think an assertion is an argument.  That just stating a belief is self-evident for it.  This is a laziness in thinking that would cause one to favor the rigorously systemic. I tend to favor nearly absolute analytic precision on social media because it plays against the nature of medium, whose brevity encourages arguments by authority and wit.