"In the academy we ask these questions about US traditions of political belief and practice; we consider various forms of socialism critically and openly; and we consider in a wide variety of contexts the problematic nexus of religion and nationalism. What does it mean to paralyze our capacities for critical scrutiny and historical inquiry when this topic becomes the issue, fearing that we will become exposed to the charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ if we utter our worries, our heartache, our objection, our outrage in a public form? To say, effectively, that anyone who utters their heartache and outrage out loud will be considered (belatedly, and by powerful ‘listeners’) as anti-Semitic, is to seek to control the kind of speech that circulates in the public sphere, to terrorize with the charge of anti-Semitism, and to produce a climate of fear through the tactical use of a heinous judgment with which no progressive person would want to identify. If we bury our criticism for fear of being labeled anti-Semitic, we give power to those who want to curtail the free expression of political beliefs. To live with the charge is, of course, terrible, but it is less terrible when you know that it is untrue, and one can only have this knowledge if there are others who are speaking with you, and who can help to support the sense of what you know."

     —Judith Butler, Precarious Life, ch. 4 (pp. 120-21) in ISBN 978-1844675449)

“Billionaires are draining our economy, running our govt. Help outlaw them w/ a 100% tax on wealth over $999,999,999”
“History is therefore the experience of Necessity, and it is this alone which can forestall its thematization or reification as a mere object of representation or as one master code among many others. Necessity is not in that sense a type of content, but rather the inexorable /form/ of events; it is therefore a narrative category in the enlarged sense of some properly narrative political unconscious which has been argued here, a retextualization of History which does not propose the latter as some new representation or “vision,” some new content, but as the formal effects of what Althusser, following Spinoza, calls an “absent cause.” Conceived in this sense, History is what hurts, it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis, which its “ruses” turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their overt intention. But this History can be apprehended only through its effects, and never directly as some reified force. This is indeed the ultimate sense in which History as ground and untranscendable horizon needs no particular theoretical justification: we may be sure that its alienating necessities will not forget us, however much we may prefer to ignore them.”
— Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (last paragraph of ch. 1; p. 102 in ISBN 978-0801492228)
“The true soothsayers of our time are not hairy, howling outcasts luridly foretelling the death of capitalism, but the experts hired by the transnational corporations to peer into the entrails of the system and assure its rulers that their profits are safe for another ten years.”
— Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, ch. 4 (p. 66 in ISBN 978-0-300-18153-1)


On the run from the Nazis in 1940, the philosopher, literary critic and essayist Walter Benjamin committed suicide in the Spanish border town of Portbou. In 2011, over 70 years later, his writings enter the public domain in many countries around the world.

The article includes an interesting history of Benjamin’s work and links to where you can find the newly released material.

(via dwellingmaps)

“I caught glimpses of the great, the rich, the fortunate ones of all the earth living supinely upon the very best of everything and taking the very best for granted as their right. I saw them enjoying a special privilege which had been theirs so long that it had become a vested interest: they seemed to think it was a law ordained by nature that they should be forever life’s favorite sons. At the same time I began to be conscious of the submerged and forgotten Helots down below, who with their toil and sweat and blood and suffering unutterable supported and nourished the mighty princelings at the top.”
— Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again, ch. 46 (p. 560 in ISBN 0-06-080986-8)
“'You sink it is so bad here now?—ze vay sings are wiz ze Party and zese stupid people? You sink it vould be better if zere vas anozzer party, like in America? Zen,' he said, not waiting for an answer, 'I sink you are mistaken, It /is/ bad here, of gourse, but I sink it vill be soon no better wiz you. Zese bloody fools—you find zem everyvhere. Zey are ze same wiz you, only in a different vay.' Suddenly he looked at George earnestly and searchingly. 'You sink zat you are free in America—no?' He shook his head and went on: 'I do not sink so. Ze only free ones are zese dret-ful people. Here, zey are free to tell you vhat you must read, vhat you must believe, and I sink zat is also true in America. You must sink and feel ze vay zey do—you must say ze sings ze vant you to say—or zey kill you. Ze only difference is zat here zey haf ze power to do it. In America zey do not haf it yet, but just vait—zey vill get it. Ve Chermans haf shown zem ze vay. … Zese people here—zey say zat zey are Nazis. I sink zat zey are more honest. In New York, zey call zemselves by some fine name. Zey are ze /Salon-Kommunisten/. Zey are ze Daughters of ze Revolution . Zey are ze American Legion. Zey are ze business men, ze Chamber of Commerce. Zey are one sing and anozzer, but zey are all ze same, and I sink zat zey are Nazis, too. You vill find everyvhere zese bloody people.”
— Franz Heilig in Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, ch. 39 (p. 504 in ISBN 0-06-080986-8)
“These words, which probably no one else, at least not in that precise form, would ever have said before, had the good fortune not to have lost each other, they had someone to bring them together, and who knows, perhaps the world would be a slightly better place if we were able to gather up a few of the words that are out there wandering around alone.”
— José Saramago, Seeing (tr. Margaret Jull Costa), ch. 18, p. 269 in ISBN 978-0-15-603273-5
“[Not] only are the people in government never put off by what we judge to be absurd, they make use of absurdities to dull consciences and to destroy reason.”
— José Saramago, Seeing (tr. Margaret Jull Costa), ch. 18, p. 268 in ISBN 978-0-15-603273-5

Labor Day

The single day of the year when we grudgingly acknowledge that the country was built by people who do actual work and not those who pay less for the work than the work is worth.

The Itsy-Bitsy Spider

From an Internet conversation with an online friend last month:

As an on-again, off-again semi- (or perhaps post-) Marxist, I find your question about the nursery rhyme intriguing.

First, why is the spider crawling up the water spout? The question of motivation doesn’t get covered in the rhyme’s text, but we can hypothesize with a fair degree of certitude. Either the spider is using the spout to climb to a water reservoir of some type, or s/he is using it as a convenient mode of transportation without regard to its (human-) intended purpose. Either possibility is revealing. If the spider is after water, then why is the water not simply available to the spider in its natural form, as rivers, lakes, puddles, etc.? Clearly, if the spider has to crawl through a mechanical contrivance in order to obtain such a basic necessity as water, then the resource, naturally the common property of all creatures, has been appropriated by capitalists in order to squeeze an illegitimate profit out of it. Once again, what appropriately belongs to everyone has been taken by those who are already powerful in order to increase their power still more.

On the other hand, if the spider is not after water, then we should look for a metaphorical interpretation. Most likely, the story then becomes a fable: The spider is climbing the spout in order to “raise” him-/herself in the world, probably in an economic and/or class sense. By struggling up the water spout, society tells the spider (who is a figure of you and I, as people pursuing our own educations), we will achieve the reward of upper-class comfort, finally able to indulge the desires and wishes we’ve been repressing while we get to the top. By holding off now, the story goes, we prepare ourselves to receive much more later. It’s like the Christian fable in which Jesus advises his followers to castrate themselves so that they can go to heaven.

In either case, what happens to the spider? Its journey ultimately proves futile: the natural behavior of the water flow becomes unpredictable and violent when channeled into a mechanical contrivance for the convenience and profit of the capitalist exploiters. The spider has been making a good-faith effort to improve its position, but the water (which is capital, based on the symbolic association of water with both renewal and wisdom, both of which map directly onto money in capitalist discourse) is channeled in order to be convenient for the ultra-rich proprietor of the spout. This proprietor directs the flows of money in such a way as to increase his own share, not based on any sense of what is objectively fair to the “little” wo/man. The spider, then, in making its good-faith effort to improve its lot by playing by the accepted rules, finds that the rules have been changed in the middle of the game. Note that, according to a rather interesting dialectic, the capitalist at the top “weaves his web” and directs the effects of his actions from behind the scenes — much more a metaphorical figure of a “spider” than the title character of the rhyme.

Finding itself back at the bottom, one would expect that the spider would develop a sense of class consciousness and join in a struggle for economic justice, abandoning its journey toward personal economic improvement in favor of broader class interests. Indeed, I theorize that this is what happened in early versions of the rhyme, or perhaps that the spider’s drowned body was taken as an object of veneration, igniting a broader consciousness of social justice and a struggle against the exploitative, plutocratic operator(s) of the spout, as in Victorian realist novels. I believe that the current second half is a later interpolation meant to obscure the poignant political message and turn it into a piece of propaganda to keep the working classes hopeful: If the sun is bound to come out (eventually, cyclically, without revolution or other intervention) and dry up all the rain, and no long-term ill effects are to be observed to the spider, than we can justify the spout’s structure by claiming that periodic flushes are a necessary (though distantly regrettable to the plutocrats not personally and directly affected by them) operational feature of the economy, however inconvenient they may (unfortunately) be to whatever spiders happen to be trying to “climb” at the moment.

At the very end, of course, the rhyme encourages us to miss the same lesson that the spider has just missed: unfazed, and no better informed, the spider sets out once again to try to make that same Sisiphyan climb to the top. Children, you may have noticed, intuitively understand the lesson — that the spider never does reach the top — and demonstrate this by singing it over and over, as a round, thereby subverting its sunny assurance to the listener that THIS time the spider has a shot at making it. Once they get older, though, they start missing the point; this is the effect on their thinking of indoctrination in the capitalist ideology, and is evidenced by the fact that they practically never sing the rhyme any more, and never more than once. By unwrapping its round structure, they re-assert the common interpretation that the mutilated song was originally designed to advance: a keep-at-it stick-to-it-iveness that it behooves the idle rich to inculcate in people doing the actual labor.

At least, that’s my reading.

(This originally posted on 6 December 2010, and migrated to Tumblr as part of my conceptual reorganization of my web presence.)