well articulated, unacknowledged, ubiquitous problem, to be furthered:
It took me a long time to see through the myth of meritocracy, that no learning field is created equal. The ability to train and gain a foreign tongue, like many other prized possessions in life, is often reliant on privilege.
I’m reminded of that episode each time I hear the debate in professional circles and on social media over the thorny issue of whether one needs to know Chinese to be an “expert” on China. Some claim it as a prerequisite. Others point out that language is but one skill among many. The exchange quickly devolves from the professional to the personal, with a good dose of envy and insecurity in the mix.
My first impulse is to laugh, immediately followed by a feeling of sadness as I recognise that on the other side of the seemingly absurd question is a painful reality – that one needs to know English to know China. English-language publications in China are accorded more leniency from censorship (even if that space is shrinking). It’s only from foreign shores and through a foreign tongue that I’ve been able to access the forbidden archives of my native land. English, the language of privilege and exclusion, can also be the language of mobility and emancipation.
As China develops from an impoverished backwater into the world’s second largest economy, many in the west have looked to it as fertile ground for promising careers. Their passion is not in Chinese history or culture, at least not as a priority. To the corporate elite, China is a market to be mined. To the security expert, China is a threat to be addressed. To the politicians and pundits, China is a “problem” to be solved. The lives and wellbeing of Chinese people, affected by policies, rhetoric and business deals, barely register in these discussions. Knowledge of the local language becomes irrelevant when the natives are presumed silent.
‘China-watching’ is a lucrative business. But whose language do the experts speak?
note: Cheng before the ellipsis is spot on; after, naive. not that she’s wrong, but her own nationalism, or is her US otherness, creeps in and supposes that the way non-Chinese experts see China is any different than the way they see their fellow citizens… US or British protesters, protesters across the world, are seen merely as problems of the all the same types as those she mentions, and not as people with lives. the irony in this case is that Cheng might have applied more of what i assume, perhaps erroneously, was her marxist education.
she is in line with but could use some tips from Derrida’s Monolingualism.
but this is relatively small criticism – her lucidity is powerful, even is expressing well plied linguistic territory.
as here, in another, more recent Guardian article:
In the prevalent narratives about China, the central government is an almighty monster embarking on world domination, imbued with ancient foresight and effortlessly expressing its will through the vast bureaucracy of government. Public expression in China is either protest or propaganda, and the people are either helpless victims or mindless foot-soldiers of state oppression.
Cheng’s analysis, again, in kind and in terms of the last sentence’s specifics, is a description of the complete aporia between the Republican and Democratic parties, and of both party’s description of the ‘left’, and even, of ‘liberal progressives’ like the stupidly named, Squad. [Were it true they had superhero powers… rather than easy to assimilate ones…]
Cheng’s writing’s move me to write her brief letter with a suggestion/request/plea:
dear doc yangyang,
i’ve had the pleasure of reading several of your articles, most recently in the Guardian. I appreciate the lucity of your arguments, and the undercurrent of genuine concern and care, for people.di
In particular of late, I love the ironies you described about the privilege of languages, “that one needs to know English to know China.”
I would say the principles of my politics, not the same as the pragmatics of my politics, align with Marxism. Pragmatically, honestly, as a 64 years old, white American male currently living in Mexico, I’m not sure.
I’m still guided by Benjamin, I suppose; by his rather dire long term historical view that, to paraphrase, ‘just because things have been bad for a 1000 years doesn’t mean they will improve anytime soon…’
I completely concur that US and other western powers have long, simplistically and absurdly, demonized China. Oversimplification is what the US does as a power strategy, in part because much of its critique of ‘non-democratic’ powers, particularly of the ‘communist’ kind, leave it wide open to charges of hypocrisy, even complicity. yet, these charges are rarely ever brought. Power can only survive when there is struggle, when there is a perceived enemy, and which allows the principles of democracy to forever be deferred, a lesson the Romans learned and kept the military in charge because of real and imagined threats, for more than 200 years.
So China and the US need each other as enemies and choose to dance agonistically together in public to maintain control over their subjected subjects, and their respective portions of the economic pie.
All to say, why is it that a comparative analysis of applied policies of oppression of their own peoples never sees the light of day? How difficult would it be to draw up the list of all the reasons the US cites to demonize China, and match it with all the same reasons to demonstrate how the US oppresses it’s own people?
As it was during the Cold War period, the US and the USSR were mirror reflections of each other. Today, Putin would like that to be true, and to a degree it is, but geopolitics has shifted East, as you know better than I.
But… the agonistic dance, and the comparative list of equally dastardly deeds on both sides, needs desperately I think, to be exposed publicly, in the pages and data streams of the newspapers you write for with such persuasion.
The mystification that the US is a democracy, free of human rights abuses, a land of equal opportunity, where free speech is unfettered, free of censorship and propaganda, free of oppression of its own citizens, free of reeducation camps, etc… That mythology needs to be punctured. Just as does the mythology that China is a communist country that is only authoritarian with no interest in furthering it’s on internal domestic wellbeing.
That binary must be exposed as the simplistic strategy of propaganda used to maintain the power elite, that it is.
You have the authority and the platform, the expertise and the sensibility, to do that. As far as I know, no book length work of scholarship exists that does that. Such a book would be a great contribution to the future. But more importantly, to be pragmatically effective, the comparison needs to reach the public, persuasively.
The last humanist: how Paul Gilroy became the most vital guide to our age of crisis, Yohann Koshy
It was after a conversation with a musician, David Hinds, of the reggae band Steel Pulse, that Gilroy grew the dreadlocks that he keeps to this day. Interviewing him for a music zine during his Birmingham days, Gilroy spoke with Hinds late into the night, debating black power and music, and discussing Rastafarianism, a socio-political religion that connected people across the black Atlantic world. Growing out dreadlocks was a way of signifying one’s ethical commitment to the “sufferers” of the world. In the Britain of the 70s and 80s, it was also a dangerous way to stand out.
When I asked him about this, more than four decades later, Gilroy resisted divulging what in particular prompted the decision to grow dreadlocks. I could tell that I was encroaching on personal territory. Instead, he answered by way of analogy. He talked about George Orwell, a figure whom he admires in all his contradictory complexity. In his essay A Hanging, set in Burma where he was a colonial officer, Orwell describes accompanying a colonial subject to the gallows. During this short journey, a dog runs up to the condemned and tries to lick his face. Moments like these humanise the prisoner, which horrifies Orwell, as it makes the injustice of what is happening inescapable.
In Burma, Orwell decided to tattoo his hands. “He did this to make sure he would never be comfortable in polite society,” Gilroy said. “He marked his body in a way that said to them: I am not one of you.”
Anti-racism has changed since Gilroy’s youth, its edge blunted. For much of the 20th century, being against racism meant being for a radically different political and economic settlement, such as socialism or communism. Today it can mean little more than doing what Gilroy mockingly calls “McKinsey multiculturalism”: keeping unjust societies as they are, except with a few “black and brown bodies” in the corporate boardrooms. (“I’m not very interested in decolonising the 1%”, he told me.) What is left is a more individualistic anti-racist culture, which is keen on checking privilege and affirming the validity of other people’s experiences, but has trouble creating durable institutions or political programmes.
(“Bringing the word identity together with the word politics,” Gilroy once told me, “makes politics impossible, actually, for me, in any meaningful sense. Politics requires the abandonment of identity in a personal sense.”)
Gilroy doesn’t endorse a colour-blind politics that pretends the idea of race can be wished away. The post-racial world has to be fought for, against the odds. When Haider asked if Gilroy would provide a quote for his book, which he did, Gilroy sent him a favoured photograph of his, taken at the Manchester Pan-African Congress of 1945. The scene features placards with slogans like “Arabs and Jews united against British imperialism!” and “Labour with a white skin cannot emancipate itself while labour with a black skin is branded”.
Opinion by Meghan Kruger, Associate opinions editor July 13, 2021|
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Browse the masterpieces of this remarkable new artist online, or visit us in our New York gallery this fall.
i post excerpts here from a long essay the title of which has never been settled.”
Speak the Middle Tongue – Take the Forked Road: A Theory of the Voice
The voice is the sign of pain and pleasure…
Aristotle, Politics, 123a, 10-18.
right. aristotle that is.
way ahead of his time, needless and greatly needed, to say to say what has sill never been said – when ever anyone speaks, their voice conveys BOTH pleasure and pain.
do note though, those in the poststructuralist ken, that, the voice is a sign. expected. unexpected is what it’s a sign of in derridian terms. and, with nietzsche, we should, now, at least expect that pleasure and pain necessarily have NOTHING, as Gevirtz assumes, to do with some sort of californian new ageist fantasy she ultimately, believes in. gevirtz believes in the myths, not as metaphors, but as some kind of personal mythology in her own world, as though she were a greek seer in contemporary times. that’s a bit hubristic to say the least. she even hates peter sellars. i’ve not always thought that. i use to think she offered more. i’ve made attempts at that, thus what follows. and thought i was successful. but of late, i think she’s what she’s always thought she’s has always been – good at convincing others through persuasion of her own ‘significance’, but in the end, it’s a montecito fantasy as she has always known.
The grain of the voice, Barthes tell us, “is… the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue; perhaps the letter, almost certainly significance.”  To comprehend this definition, we must rigorously avoid a misunderstanding easily succumbed to; that to signify something is to communicate it. To ward off that misapprehension we must answer the following questions: How are we to understand materiality and significance, and their relation? What does the italicization of significance connote? Barthes’ use of materiality is straightforward; it refers to “the sonic effects of the tongue, the glottis, the teeth, the mucous membranes, the nose;”  to the “body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.”  These embodied forces determine the diction of enunciation, which constitutes its ‘grain,’ that allows us to recognize the identity of a speaker when he/she speaks. We recognize voices as we recognize faces – through their embodiments. Barthes theoretically allies the grain with the geno-song, a biological, materialist concept he transposes to music from Kristeva’s linguistic analog – the geno-text – individual works of pheno- or species-text exemplified by genres like romance or science fiction texts. The geno-song is defined thus:
[it] is the volume of the singing and speaking voice, the space where significations germinate ‘from within language and in its very materiality’; it forms a signifying play having nothing to do with communication, representation (of feelings), expression; it is that apex (or that depth) of production where the melody really works at the language – not at what it says, but the voluptuousness of its sound-signifiers, or its letters – where melody explores how the language works and identifies with that work. 
Significance, then, is italicized to warn us against mistaking it for communication, representation, or expression. It is what works at language but not at its meaning. Meaning, for Barthes, is a product of the reductive forces of the pheno-text by which culture enforces limits to understanding, to significance, by “reconcil[ing] the subject to what in music can be said: what is said about it, predicatively, by Institution, Criticism, Opinion,” by which he means the codes of langue that always precede and police the voice.  Significance of the grain, Barthes acknowledges in a passing parenthetical allusion to another of his foundational texts, derives its value when the text emerges in the work.
In order for a voice to have grain, to have non-communicative significance, it must break the codes of works, of pheno-songs and pheno-texts, and emerge into the text of the geno-song through listening to the relation of the body of the speaker, singer, or player. The relation, he tells us, also transcends individualistic subjectivity because it is erotic and physiological – it is not a psychological subject who sings or listens, the voice is not an expression of any subject, but it’s dissolution, produced outside of the laws of culture, beyond the valuations of ‘I like’ or ‘I don’t like.’ 
i’ve been thinking about my history of ‘work’ lately. as opposed to ‘labor.’
i remember a famous quip by roland barths: dare to be bored. one of his great anti-labor comments, no doubt. and yes, very ‘french’ raised to the level of universal critique of capital.
Labor is the activity one does for pay alone, typically when one has no social/personal investment in the products or outcomes of that labor.
Work, contrarily, is the activity one does regardless of pay, typically when one does in fact have strong social/personal reasons to do it.
obviously, capitalism has very strong motives for suppressing this difference, in order to, paradoxically, co-opt and suppress it to it’s own profit, literally and figuratively. high tech labor [htl] is the current model for this soul-slaying arrangement – it, htl, co-opted the fashion of various counter cultures, the laid back look of skate boarders, hippies, hip hop, and the like, to make the job rhetorically project Cool. T-shirts, denim, runners. Mark Zuckerberg clones incarnate. hacker chic. the way Gap co-opted the baggy pants/trouser look of black sons of prisoners forced to wear pants/trousers without belts.
i was trained, literally, to work by a depression era father who was also nominally, a ‘ New England protestant’, thus raised in the quintessential weberian habitus [to mix sociological paradigm metaphors] of the work ethic. he worked us hard, not as individuals, but as social members of that deeply problematic social structure, ‘the family’, to which, he trained us, to be ethically responsible. not bad, reasonable, though far from perfect method of raising animals, which humans are turning out to be more and more, that go by the names of, tory and republican and bolzonarians… and… .
I have 3 siblings, and to this day, whenever we get together, in twos or all together, we ‘work’ synchronously without even having to speak to each other. we all simply ‘pitch in’ to get done what needs doing. like setting up a camp for the night, one of the 10 year long vacationing ‘work’ experiences my father, brilliantly, i have to say, used to ‘train’ his children to work together toward a singular goal – happy camping… !! pleasure together as a social unit. and we were, for those 10 years, very ‘happy campers.’
freud might have learned from this new england, ‘goy’ tradition. subtext here… [goy = ? what? nigger? or, ‘wasp’? ]
i must say, that was late 60s to mid-70s.
after that, to compress the historical timeline, my relation to work/labor was seriously scrubbed by taxi driving in santa fe, NM, airport shuttle driving and courier driving in san francisco, CA, and, being in CA generally. but the profession i had chosen since i left high school, teaching students at the college/university level, my ultimate goal in life back then, and which i achieved, was, i can now say in retrospect, has been a life long disappointment for which i can only except the blame of being a naive kid from maine who was taught to expect that if you ‘work’ hard, you will be rewarded. and therein, lies, the paradox and the confusion and capitalism’s demonic control over the personal, the individual, the family, the ‘social’ in its entirety – perverting the salubrious ‘natural’ instincts of humans to ‘work’, for family and community, into, labor, for no one, for bosses, including academic bosses, for the managers at the top who stand by and don’t work or labor, at all, ever. all they ever do is, invest in crimes against humanity, everywhere, everyday, globally now, without stop.
so power… is, in the Foulcauldian sense, shared, never top down. and i believe that, wholeheartedly. IF, the mythic ‘people’ of the constitution were in fact protected… then they would rise up with that constitution’s protection. the great, WE THE PEOPLE, would rise up and take ‘work’ back from ‘labor’.
but, that brilliant rhetoric was just that, a ruse, against WE THE PEOPLE.
this mediation, so far, was begun by the fact that beginning in early april, i cleared, by hand, a large track of land of weeds, bushes, roots, vines, volunteer upstarts of many herbacious genres, that took me a couple of weeks of daily ‘work’. then i rototilled this large site. then i left it fallow until the soil temperature increased to +60F degrees so i could plant seed, grass, wildflowers, sun hemp, etc. then, i waited, and watched sundry species of weeds grow back because climate change in maine is serious, like everywhere else, and temperatures did not comply as predicted. so i had to wait longer than expected, and watched the weeds takeover helplessly. so, when the temps did rise again, and the soil temps too, then i had to rototill all over again… which wasn’t all bad. this sort of work is far better than going to a fucking gym where i have to encounter the type of humans i’m not fond of, mostly.
and, while i was tending to scattering grass seed, then covering it with straw, which took two full days, so large was the swath of wildness i’d tamed – at the point before i’d finished that ‘work’, my brother shows up, on schedule as expected, to help me paint the house. and i still had to continually move the single sprinkler around every hour or so to properly germinate the almost 100 lbs of grass seed plus… [the house water is not city derived, but, ushers up from a well, so the pressure is shit].
and yes, to cut the story short, we got the house, as of today, mostly, painted. and to rely in info above, it was my brother, so, we worked in snyc, mostly, brothers being brothers of the same work ethic driven father, we forgave each other a number of times, and got on with it. and in the end, the job is professional and gives us both pride in our ‘work’, because its for the ‘family.’
deep roots, that work ethic. it makes us, my brother and i, feel good about ourselves, together in some primal way, and somehow, whole. like we’re doing what are genes tell us to do, that deep, that ‘natural’, though of course, it’s deeply ingrained learned, socialized behavior.
that foreword is meant to introduce a perhaps odd divigation, or not, perhaps, a spot on digression… that is not that all but to the point. it came up as part of my pattern of reading… and syncs with past research, that suddenly bridges various lines of enquiry: cyborgism, technology studies, aesthetics, science fiction, art, critique of all that, when i came across the work of MIT computer scientist joseph weisenburg, who created the first program to simulate the turing test – an interactive program that pretended to be a psychologist that a patient could consult, called Eliza. the concept being, that if the ‘patient’ didn’t realize that the ‘program’ was non-human, thought it was truly human, then it would have passed the Turning test.
of course, it failed. as Weisenburg knew it would. his test was to demonstrate how the then Minsky driven goal of Artifical Intelligence was flawed and impossible, or, if not, misguided and threatening and should be stopped.
Wiesenburg, as a founder of AI, became AI’s first critic.
[for those in the know, it was around my study of cyborgism, early art/technology/developments, that brought me simultaneously to Wiesenburg and VanDerBeek… just sayin’… they must have met since they were there at the same time.]
anyway, another thread in the bartlett paradoxical universe once, long ago, had to do with studying mysticicm a la, rudolf steiner. that was when i was a high school student and on the cusp of aetheism. i’d rejected the religiosity of protestantism i’d been raised with, though not its work ethic, or its community sense of ethics, but still pursued as any intellectually inquisitive seeker would, other quasi, non-organized religious options: buddism, particularly zen, judism, zoorastranism, and, steinerism… forms of clairvoyance, in his language.
so i read a lot of steiner, and even visited steiner based schools and communities [communes], in New Zealand. I was then and still am, impressed by the Steiner schools i saw then. they were profound, pragmatically successful. providing very rich educational experiences. even though i’m a committed atheist and eschew all forms of mysticism, i’d sign off on steiner’s educational systems. [though i love mystical thought, including theology of all sorts, as forms of often brilliant human thought and creativity – even when it’s self-destructive, it’s interesting. right, that will sound patronizing, i suppose… but i don’t mean it that way… ]
so, today, somehow surreptitiously, perhaps fate intervened through mystical agency… lines of inquiry converged…
Weisenburg plus Steiner and AI and Work vs Labor….
the following excerpt if from the former’s introduction to a publication of the latter’s essays… a surprise find:
[note: Wiesenburg was German born, raised in the US after the family escaped Nazism, ‘worked’ at MIT as a seminal computer scientist, and returned to berlin, in 1996.]
The Renewal of the Social Organism
The proper separation of the three activities of society-economics, law, and culture-would make it possible for economic life to keep its focus on human needs and maintain its true brotherly character. Steiner envisioned this coming about through the working of motivational forces different from those to which we are accustomed. Self interest, profit, and personal gain could be replaced by the satisfaction of knowing one is working for the community good. Steiner argued that this is not a utopian dream; rather it is a motivation suitable to true human dignity. He also described new ways of working with wages, capital, and credit that would aid the advent of this new motivation. The key to its possibility and practicality is again the proper separation of the three activities.
He explains in the essay “Ability to Work, Will to Work, and the Threefold Social Order” that this socially responsible motivation would not arise from the economic life at all, because purely economic work has become inherently uninteresting since the division of labor became the norm. This was not the case for the medieval craftsman who produced his product in its entirety and then, taking pride in it, received thanks from his customer. The modern worker is confined to a task that, taken by itself, i.e., out of the macroeconomic context into which it fits, is meaningless. The existing economic motivation, money, leads people to do whatever is necessary to get paid. But it does not activate their interest in a task that is inherently uninteresting, with the consequence that absenteeism, alienation, and poor performance have reached alarming levels. Steiner recognized that socially responsible motivation could arise only from an independent cultural and political life. In the above mentioned essay he says that within the cultura1life the individual
“learns in a living way to understand this human society for which one is called upon to work; a realm where one learns to see what each single piece of work means for the combined fabric of the social order, to see it in such a light that one will learn to love it because of its value for the whole. It aims at creating in this free life of spirit the profounder principles that can replace the motive of personal gain. Only in a free spiritual life can a love for the human social order spring up that is comparable to the love an artist has for the creation of his works.”
From a separate democratically ordered life of law there would also arise motives to work for society.
“Real relationships will grow up between people united in a social organism where each adult has a voice in government and is co-equal with every other adult: it is relationships such as these that are able to enkindle the will to work ‘for community.’ One must reflect that a truly communal feeling can grow only from such relationships, and that from this feeling the will to work can grow. For in actual practice the consequence of such a state founded on democratic rights will be that each human being will take his place with vitality and full consciousness in the common field of work. Each will know what he is working for; and each will want to work within the working community, of which he knows himself a member through his will.”
If we attempt to fInd examples of this type of motivation operative in contemporary society, we often fInd negative instances. This is nowhere better exemplified than at the highest levels of computer research at MIT. This research is paid for almost entirely by the military. While it is possible to view it, if one wears just the right kind of glasses, as a pure science and as “value free,” it is, in fact, in the service of the military. Scientific results are swiftly converted to the improvement of implements of mass destruction and of death. Young men and women work in these fields trying to maintain the illusion that they are doing abstract science, a “value free” science. They ultimately have to come to believe that they are not in any way responsible for the end use of their labor. It is often said that the computer is a tool having no moral dimension. Clearly this position can be maintained only if one thinks of human society in abstract terms, i.e. if one denies the concrete historical and social circumstances in which one lives and works.”
The effect of this situation on the researcher needs emphasis. It takes enormous energy to shield one’s eyes from seeing what one is actually doing. The expenditure of this energy on the part of individuals is expensive in emotional terms. Ultimately this is the real tragedy, for it reduces the person to a machine.
There is a sort of irony involved, a chilling irony. A fear is often expressed about computers, namely that we will create a machine that is very nearly like a human being. The irony is that we are making human beings, men and women, become more and more like machines. For it is human to find the motive for work, consciously and with conscience and compassion, in the concrete historical and social context in which one lives. When this is not possible human beings are robbed of essential humanity.
I don’t think Foucault deserves all the ‘credit’ for the failure of ‘confessional politics’ the authors claim in the article below; though, he shares in it to a degree, perhaps. Mostly as is typical of foucault interpreters who rely overly much on only one aspect of his work – in this case – through his ‘care of the self’ analyses in his late work. There was, though not addressed by Dean and Zamora, a critical element to his views of confession and care of the self. Not considered here, as another example, is how care of the self squares or doesn’t, with another of his main concerns – the death of the subject. OR, how that interest pares or doesn’t with his concern for the systems and processes of subjectivication. Or, with his commitment to ‘systems of thought’, [the title for he requested for his position when enrolled at the College de France], that include such supra-self issues like biopolitics, clearly still misunderstoond today as more than a simplistic account of capital’s control of genomes. With foucault, it is dangerous to cleave to a single area of his analysis, with the result that there has now been decades of often insufficient and misleading claims about his work.
That said, i agree wholeheartedly with the author’s rejection of confessional ID politics as framed by their citation of Cedric Johnson:
“White guilt and black outrage,” as Cedric Johnson, professor of [Political Science and] African American studies, has recently pointed out, “have limited political currency, and neither has ever been a sustainable basis for building the kind of popular and legislative majorities needed to actually contest entrenched power in any meaningful way.”
In fact, he added, this “militant expression of racial liberalism” will “continue to defer the kind of public goods that might actually help” all those who are “routinely surveilled, harassed, arrested, convicted, incarcerated and condemned as failures”
a key term here being, “racial liberalism”; for liberalism is still liberalism, even when it’s anti-racist in intent. as Johnson, in an article in the Jacobin criticizing Ta-Nesisi Coates, argues:
“… scores of others would have found themselves quite at odds with Coates’s liberal antiracist viewpoint that working-class-centered, anticapitalist political projects are patently inadequate for addressing the concerns of black voters.
The claim that social democracy and socialism are always and everywhere at odds with racial progress is simply false. It is not supported by the actual history of progressive struggles and the substantive ways they transformed black life.
Ultimately, Coates’s views about class and race — and this nation’s complex and tortured historical development — are well-meaning and at times poetic, but wrongheaded. The reparations argument is rooted in black nationalist politics, which traditionally elides class and neglects the way that race-first politics are often the means for advancing discrete, bourgeois class interests.”
To underscore a position i’ve suggested several time below, ID politics is profoundly joined with liberalism in many ways, but a central one is the ways in which it vehemently adheres to individualistic hegemony, is even libertarian in this regard, and anti-social, and anti universalistic.
why, then, do MF interpreters go wrong?
it’s simple: they have never understood his reading of nietzsche and rousell in combo.
which translates as: ‘power’ is NOT a top down force; it’s a shared force.
no foucault interpreter has understand the significance of that aspect of F’s systems thought.
Today, the self is the battlefield of politics. Blame Michel Foucault
Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora
The rise of confessional politics has its origins in the left’s post-60s turn away from structures and towards the individual
‘Confession today is performed in the street, in art galleries, in workplaces and on social media.’ Photograph: Michael Reynolds/EPATue 15 Jun 2021 06.23 EDT
Guardian/US Tue 15 Jun 2021 07.26 EDT
“We are perhaps living at the end of politics,” Michel Foucault wrote in the late 1970s. With the exhaustion of utopias and radical alternatives to capitalism, what was now at stake, he memorably wrote, was to develop “new types, new kinds of relations to ourselves”. Political advancement is not delivered through “parties, trade unions, bureaucracy and politics any more”, he wrote. Instead, politics has become “an individual, moral concern”.
In this new definition of politics – in which “everything is political” and “the personal is political” – the self was thought to have become the battlefield of contemporary politics. At that time, many intellectuals, including Foucault, announced the “end of the age of revolution”, opening an era where transforming oneself became the most popular conception of social change. With the collapse of collective “grand narratives”, they argued, we had now to look inwards. Beginning in the late 60s, political change would be reframed as a struggle against oneself, against our “inner enemy”. One had to confront the “fascist within”.
This shift made the self just another market to conquer, with self-help coaches, new age gurus, energy healers, food counsellors, alternative therapists and lifestyle brands all trying to profit off of this turn inwards. Politics, as Christopher Lasch would write, would “degenerate into a struggle not for social change but for self-realization”. But, contrary to what Lasch thought, the rising “therapeutic sensibility” he observed didn’t become an “anti-religion”, based on “rational explanation” and “scientific methods of healing”, but would deploy its own confessional techniques, endlessly re-presenting social questions as personal ones.
Much like with Christianity’s focus on the soul, this new politics of the self produced a confessional culture, in which the battles and struggles playing out within, had to be discussed, confessed and shared with those outside. “Consciousness raising”, “self-examination” or “self-empowerment” became key techniques. This trend was accelerated by self-help literature and consultants, who helped bring confessional culture come to the fore in our contemporary political practice.
Today, this shift has been notably visible in the confessional tone of many forms of contemporary anti-racism. Discussing racism in America in one of her training courses on “white fragility”, the diversity consultant Robin DiAngelo avowed to her audience that she had been herself “colluding” with it “every moment of [her] life”.
“I try, as hard as I can, to counter it,” she added, “but we can never be free of it.”
In a similar vein, the bestselling anti-racist educator Ibram X Kendi argued that “being an anti-racist” is “always ongoing”; it “requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination”. Anti-racism becomes, then, a practice of endless work on the self, made of constant self-examination whether on the streets or the training spaces of corporations and universities.
A visual representation of what this kind of politics looks like was captured in the viral photo of senior Democratic leaders, including Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, kneeling on the floor in Ghanaian kente silk stoles after the police murder of George Floyd, and the subsequent passing of the Justice in Policing bill. Similar ceremonies have been undertaken by professional sports teams, celebrities or wealthy chief executives such as Jamie Dimon taking a knee in front of his Chase bank vault.
Similarly, it is reflected in the pledges against racism posted by several Hollywood stars on social media. In an openly confessional tone they filmed themselves “taking responsibility” for “every unchecked moment”, every “stereotype”, every time they “remain silent” or “turn a blind eye”. Rather than simply looking inward, however, this confessional politics is played out in public. Unlike either the private confessional booth or the sanctity of the ballot box, confession today is performed in the street, in art galleries, in workplaces and on social media.
Despite what Foucault had hoped for, we have not seen a retreat from confession but an intensification and multiplication of it in the public domain. Today’s secular confessionals increasingly resemble the loud and public forms of penitence of the early Christian communities where the penitents had to “publish themselves” (publicatio sui, as the church father Tertullian put it) through rituals of humiliation to choose the path to purity.
This new kind of confessional politics takes today shape through posts and challenges on social media, viral hashtags made by influencers, companies such as Coca-Cola or Disney training their staff to “be less white” and “work through feelings of guilt, shame, and defensiveness” or CIA running ads of operatives speaking out against “internalized patriarchy”.
This phenomenon is reinforced by corporations and self-help industries that march ever deeper into our psyches
It is a confession taken not under the priestly “vow of silence” but in the full gaze of publicity. It inaugurates a “lifelong work”, as DiAngelo put it, fighting the evil within and joining with other penitents. It is a world in which the abandonment of the struggle against social and economic exploitation shifted politics towards a contest between competing confessional groups each publicly affirming the righteousness of their own true path to salvation.
This political phenomenon is echoed and reinforced by corporations and self-help industries that march ever deeper into our psyches, encouraging us to practise “mindfulness techniques” at work, for example. It’s mirrored in everything from the management guru Peter Drucker’s call to “manage oneself” to the best sellers of the billion dollars industry of personal development or the Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s “rules for life”.
Despite the ever-growing presence of this politics, its shortcomings are growing clear. “White guilt and black outrage,” as Cedric Johnson, professor of African American studies, has recently pointed out, “have limited political currency, and neither has ever been a sustainable basis for building the kind of popular and legislative majorities needed to actually contest entrenched power in any meaningful way.”
In fact, he added, this “militant expression of racial liberalism” will “continue to defer the kind of public goods that might actually help” all those who are “routinely surveilled, harassed, arrested, convicted, incarcerated and condemned as failures”. With material stakes of politics growing ever more urgent many in the liberal center would much prefer us to busy ourselves with loud rituals announcing our inner battles. In this way, they reveal the failure of a politics based on the thesis, advanced by Foucault 40 years ago, that struggles around the self are becoming more and more important in our world relative to those of exploitation and inequality.
Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora are the authors of The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution
wow! the brilliance of the paradoxical contradictions here are truly epic!
What should people know about how AI products are made? We aren’t used to thinking about these systems in terms of the environmental costs. But saying, “Hey, Alexa, order me some toilet rolls,” invokes into being this chain of extraction, which goes all around the planet… We’ve got a long way to go before this is green technology. Also, systems might seem automated but when we pull away the curtain we see large amounts of low paid labour, everything from crowd work categorising data to the never-ending toil of shuffling Amazon boxes. AI is neither artificial nor intelligent. It is made from natural resources and it is people who are performing the tasks to make the systems appear autonomous.
Problems of bias have been well documented in AI technology. Can more data solve that? Bias is too narrow a term for the sorts of problems we’re talking about. Time and again, we see these systems producing errors – women offered less credit by credit-worthiness algorithms, black faces mislabelled – and the response has been: “We just need more data.” But I’ve tried to look at these deeper logics of classification and you start to see forms of discrimination, not just when systems are applied, but in how they are built and trained to see the world. Training datasets used for machine learning software thatcasually categorise people into just one of two genders; that label people according to their skin colour into one of five racial categories, and which attempt, based on how people look, to assign moral or ethical character. The idea that you can make these determinations based on appearance has a dark past and unfortunately the politics of classification has become baked into the substrates of AI.
as with ‘climate change’ – the false liberal scenario is that ‘technology’ will safe us. but, ‘technology’ is massively a cause of human, and non-human, natural world, demise.
capitalism and ‘save the planet’ are fundamentally, opposed. it’s not possible to have both. period.
therefore: the planet, and humans, are doomed. period.
so, facebook away, world!
while you still have time.
add more confessional crap that no one cares about except alexa to the pile of detritus like plastic at the bottom of the mariana trench and the top of everest! to, in fact, the sperm and ovum banks. to our very pores – we sweat plastic…
oh… and how the image/word worlds are absolutely complicit in producing our sweaty plastic labor…
You single out ImageNet, a large, publicly available training dataset for object recognition… Consisting of around 14m images in more than 20,000 categories, ImageNet is one of the most significant training datasets in the history of machine learning. It is used to test the efficiency of object recognition algorithms. It was launched in 2009 by a set of Stanford researchers who scraped enormous amounts of images from the web and had crowd workers label them according to the nouns from WordNet, a lexical database that was created in the 1980s.
Beginning in 2017, I did a project with artist Trevor Paglen to look at how people were being labelled. We found horrifying classificatory terms that were misogynist, racist, ableist, and judgmental in the extreme. Pictures of people were being matched to words like kleptomaniac, alcoholic, bad person, closet queen, call girl, slut, drug addict and far more I cannot say here. ImageNet has now removed many of the obviously problematic people categories – certainly an improvement – however, the problem persists because these training sets still circulate on torrent sites [where files are shared between peers].
And we could only study ImageNet because it is public. There are huge training datasets held by tech companies that are completely secret. They have pillaged images we have uploaded to photo-sharing services and social media platforms and turned them into private systems.
the political response should be: shut down ALL social media, now.
but that’s not happening, is it?
What do you mean when you say we need to focus less on the ethics of AI and more on power? Ethics are necessary, but not sufficient. More helpful are questions such as, who benefits and who is harmed by this AI system? And does it put power in the hands of the already powerful? What we see time and again, from facial recognition to tracking and surveillance in workplaces, is these systems are empowering already powerful institutions – corporations, militaries and police.
so, even this critic is hopelessly, hopeful…
What’s needed to make things better? Much stronger regulatory regimes and greater rigour and responsibility around how training datasets are constructed. We also need different voices in these debates – including people who are seeing and living with the downsides of these systems. And we need a renewed politics of refusal that challenges the narrative that just because a technology can be built it should be deployed.
And giving me as much optimism as the progress on regulation is the work of activists agitating for change.
that can’t happen, will not happen, because ‘facebook addicts’ will not become anti-liberal = anti-themselves.