July 7th, 2010

S.C. Hickman

It tastes like victory - Anthony Bourdain's culinary journey

     "What the fuck am I doing here?"
                 - Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World and the People Who Cook

You got a love the guy. Raw, meaty, real. Whether he's sitting among the giants of the industry eating ortolon - a rare black-market delicacy from France; or, cooking in a cheap dive in New York; or, roaming Asia in search of the next unknown feast Bourdain is the kind of guy who makes you aware of your own intellectual and emotional need to know and understand what makes life tick. Not that he's some kind of existential gourmand, no he's just a guy from New Jersey who drifted into an age of fantasy chefs with enough chutzpah to channel its frenetic energy into some cynical yet humorous takes on the everyday life of a down and out chef as globe trotting connoisseur of the miracle of taste and inquisitiveness. 

His no nonsense style and earthy metaphors, quick wit and crass humor become his only defensive posture, his way of defining himself against the desperate absurdity of existence: "Life was clearly a cruel joke. A place with no guarantees, built on a foundation of false assumptions if not outright untruths. You think everything's going okay... Then they shoot your fucking dog."

His Travel Channel journeys became more and more about the strange absurdity of our late capitalism and its effects on the actual lives of everyday people around the globe. Yet, with each new entry in the tabloid of places his moral vision became more acute and troubled by the dark contours of our civilization's broken promises. With the crash of his marriage, alone and drunk in the Caribbean he listens to the offbeat anomalies of an ex pat DJ: "...when I tried to imagine who the DJ might be and what his story was I'd always picture the kid from Almost Famous, holed up, like me in the Caribbean for reasons he'd probably rather not discuss; only in his case, he'd brought his older sister's record collection circa 1972. I like to imagine him out there in the dark studio, smoking weed and spinning records, seemingly at random - or, like me, according to his own, seemingly aimless, barely under control, and very dark agenda."

As long as that "dark agenda" keeps him energized and running the gamut between our faded American Dream and the promise of a better tomorrow, where the culinary gods still hold a place of honor, we salute this curmudgeon of the frying pans and templar of exotic feasts both foreign and domestic. At the end of the day you ask yourself as he does his old compatriots from the good old days: "What I do miss, I tell them, and will always miss, is that first pull on a cold beer after work. That is irreplaceable. Nothing approaches that. That's the kind of satisfaction no bestseller can ever beat - no television show, no crowd, no nothing. That single moment after a long and very busy night, sitting down at the bar with your colleagues, wiping the sweat off your neck, taking a deep breath, with unspoken congratulations all around - and then that first sip of cold, cold beer. It tastes like victory."
S.C. Hickman

The Idea of Communism - Part II

    "...it is not enough to simply remain faithful to the communist Idea; one has to locate within historical reality antagonisms which give this Idea a practical urgency."
        - Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy then as Farce

Zizek continues a thought experiment with a question: "...do we endorse the predominant naturalization of capitalism, or does today's global capitalism contain antagonisms which are sufficiently strong to prevent its indefinite reproduction?" What is this "naturalization of capitalism"? Zizek tells us that the term "capitalism" has become invisible within the discourse intellectuals: "Marco Cicala, a Leftist Italian journalist, told me about his recent weird experience: when, in an article, he once used the word "capitalism," the editor asked him if the use of this term is really necessary - could he not replace it by a synonymous one, like "economy"? What better proof of the total triumph of capitalism than the virtual disappearance of the very term in the last 2 or 3 decades?" read more... In the second part of the question he nudges us toward and understanding that "capitalism" is no longer just a singular phenomenon, something to be understood as part of a national system of social and economic forces, but has become a world-system: global in its inclusion of the former socialist states of Russian and China and respective satellite states. Yet will it repeat itself within every lesser state and become the grand form of a totalistic system? Or, are there forces at work within this system, contradictions which are working below the surface of current materiality that might nudge it into some alternative system?

As I've explored in previous entries Zizek offers for such anatagonisms: (1) the threat of ecological catastrophe; (2) private property ("as concerning the so called "intellectual property rights" agenda); (3) the post-humanist agenda; and, (4) apartheid - what Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, terms the "permanently redundant mass" the "reserve army waiting to be incorporated into the labor process" is seen now as the excluded surplus, or as Zygmut Bauman describes it succinctly as "human waste", or "more precisely, wasted lives, the ‘superfluous’ populations of migrants, refugees and other outcasts – is an inevitable outcome of modernization. It is an unavoidable side-effect of economic progress and the quest for order which is characteristic of modernity." Zizek's main thrust is that there is a qualitative difference between the first three antagonisms and fourth, apartheid. That each of the first three deal with the idea of a global commons: (1) the commons of culture; (2) the commons of external nature; and, (3) the commons of internal nature. While the fourth deals with the realm of the Excluded/Included. This ideology of enclosing the global commons within the capitalist world-system the "potential for destruction. up to and including the self-annihilation of humanity itself, if the capitalist logic of enclosing the commons be allowed a free run." The Excluded become in this scenario the new radicalized subject, the "cogito", of a new proletariat. His idea is that the new proletariat becomes no longer the a particularized "social agent" but the very challenge of what Hardt and Negri term the "multitude" a "combination of different agents." The political and ethical challenge we face in this new era of global catastrophe is that we have all become alienated from nature and our own symbolic substance, we are all homo sacer.

That all this sounds a little apocalyptic is Zizek's point exactly. Each of the first three goals of the global capitalist system lead toward "an apocalyptic end point: ecological breakdown, the biogenetic reduction of humans to manipulable machines, total digital control over our lives..." As he tells us everything is moving toward some dark and dangerous zero-point of no return. This whole concept of a coming apocalypse, the "time of the end time", the great "state of emergency", the "state of the exception" is being portrayed within public discourse by four versions: (1) Christian Fundamentalism; (2) New Age spirituality; (3) Posthumanism; and, (4) Secular Ecologism. Each of these share a common notion that humanity is moving toward a singularity a zero-point of no return, yet each differs in its approach to the ontological ground of this great transmutation. The Posthumanist vision of a singularity is sponsored by the scientific naturalism of evolutionary theory and sees the human transformation into a post-human subject as a natural extension of these scientific explanations. The New Age spiritualty sees it as a process cosmic transformation(see such new age prophets as Jose Arguelles). And, of course, the Christian Fundamentalist reading of this zero-point of no return is literalized as a final battle between god and satan( I would add also the Mahdism). Finally, the secular ecologism perspective, which shares in the post-humanist ideology a sense of human transformation into machine, but adds a negative twist to this movement as the self-destruction of humanity rather than its final transformation.

His final conclusion is that a new emancipitory logic for political and social transformation, a return to the truth of the original communistic Idea is to combine the radical "millenarian" vision of the Christian Fundamentlist vision with secular ecologism  "thereby conceiving the threat of annihilation as the chance for a radical emancipatory renewal". As he states it:

"Perhaps the solution resides in an eschatological apocalyptism which does not involve the fantasy of the symbolic Last Judgment in which all past accounts will be settled; to refer to another of Benjamin’s metaphors, the task is “merely” to stop the train of history which, left to its own course, leads to a precipice. (Communism is thus not the light at the end of the tunnel, that is, the happy final outcome of a long and arduous struggle – if anything, the light at the end of the tunnel is rather that of another train approaching us at full speed.)  This is what a proper political act would be today: not so much to unleash a new movement, as to interrupt the present predominant movement. An act of “divine violence” would then mean pulling the emergency cord on the train of Historical Progress. In other words, one has to learn fully to accept that there is no big Other … (pp. 148–9)"

Whether one agrees or disagrees with this apocalyptic vision of an end times scenario, this road of emancipitory logic through "divine violence" or not Zizek's discourse must become for us a challenge and a call toward this dangerous future that seems day by day moving us all toward some definite zero-point of no return. How we handle the next few years will be up to each and every one of us. I question this "divine violence" with its strange and dangerous logic. Yet, I do understand it. In a recent essay Zizek lays out the full logic of his discourse:

"When politics is reduced to the "private" domain, it takes the form of the politics of FEAR - fear of losing one's particular identity, of being overwhelmed. Today's predominant mode of politics is post-political bio-politics - an awesome example of theoretical jargon which, however, can easily be unpacked: "post-political" is a politics which claims to leave behind old ideological struggles and, instead, focus on expert management and administration, while "bio-politics" designates the regulation of the security and welfare of human lives as its primal goal. It is clear how these two dimensions overlap: once one renounces big ideological causes, what remains is only the efficient administration of life... almost only that. That is to say, with the depoliticized, socially objective, expert administration and coordination of interests as the zero-level of politics, the only way to introduce passion into this field, to actively mobilize people, is through fear, a basic constituent of today's subjectivity.

No wonder, then, that the by far predominant version of ecology is the ecology of fear, fear of a catastrophe - human-made or natural - that may deeply perturb, destroy even, the human civilization, fear that pushes us to plan measures that would protect our safety. This ecology of fear has all the chances of developing into the predominant form of ideology of global capitalism, a new opium for the masses replacing the declining religion: it takes over the old religion's fundamental function, that of putting on an unquestionable authority which can impose limits. The lesson this ecology is constantly hammering is our finitude: we are not Cartesian subjects extracted from reality, we are finite beings embedded in a bio-sphere which vastly transgresses our horizon. In our exploitation of natural resources, we are borrowing from the future, so one should treat our Earth with respect, as something ultimately Sacred, something that should not be unveiled totally, that should and will forever remain a Mystery, a power we should trust, not dominate. While we cannot gain full mastery over our bio-sphere, it is unfortunately in our power to derail it, to disturb its balance so that it will run amok, swiping us away in the process. This is why, although ecologists are all the time demanding that we change radically our way of life, underlying this demand is its opposite, a deep distrust of change, of development, of progress: every radical change can have the unintended consequence of triggering a catastrophe.

It is this distrust which makes ecology the ideal candidate for hegemonic ideology, since it echoes the anti-totalitarian post-political distrust of large collective acts. This distrust unites religious leaders and environmentalists - for both, there is something of a transgression, of entering a prohibited domain, in this idea of creating a new form of life from scratch, from the zero-point. And this brings us back to the notion of ecology as the new opium for the masses; the underlying message is again a deeply conservative one - any change can only be the change for the worst - here is a nice quote from the TIME magazine on this topic:

Behind much of the resistance to the notion of synthetic life is the intuition that nature (or God) created the best of possible worlds. Charles Darwin believed that the myriad designs of nature's creations are perfectly honed to do whatever they are meant to do - be it animals that see, hear, sing, swim or fly, or plants that feed on the sun's rays, exuding bright floral colours to attract pollinators.

This reference to Darwin is deeply misleading: the ultimate lesson of Darwinism is the exact opposite, namely that nature tinkers and improvises, with great losses and catastrophes accompanying every limited success - is the fact that 90 percent of the human genome is 'junk DNA' with no clear function not the ultimate proof of it? Consequently, the first lesson to be drawn is the one repeatedly made by Stephen Jay Gould: the utter contingency of our existence. There is no Evolution: catastrophes, broken equilibriums, are part of natural history; at numerous points in the past, life could have turned into an entirely different direction. The main source of our energy (oil) is the result of a past catastrophe of unimaginable dimensions. One should thus learn to accept the utter groundlessness of our existence: there is no firm foundation, a place of retreat, on which one can safely count. "Nature doesn't exist": "nature" qua the domain of balanced reproduction, of organic deployment into which humanity intervenes with its hubris, brutally throwing off the rails its circular motion, is man's fantasy; nature is already in itself "second nature," its balance is always secondary, an attempt to negotiate a "habit" that would restore some order after catastrophic interruptions.

With regard to this inherent instability of nature, the most consequent was the proposal of a German ecological scientist back in 1970s: since nature is changing constantly and the conditions on Earth will render the survival of humanity impossible in a couple of centuries, the collective goal of humanity should be not to adapt itself to nature, but to intervene into the Earth ecology even more forcefully with the aim to freeze the Earth's change, so that its ecology will remain basically the same, thus enabling humanity's survival. This extreme proposal renders visible the truth of ecology."


S.C. Hickman

Clarifying my stance on freedom

My friend recently helped me clarify my stance toward the concept of Freedom.

I think you misunderstand my view of freedom. I do not believe that freedom is defined as the removal of all limitations, rules, boundaries, etc: "that freedom consists in a total removal of all limitations, all boundaries, all preconditioning, all governance either by self or other; that "truth is a pathless land."

My first quote admits our boundedness to our own selfishness, our egoistic and animalistic limits... as stated by Jiddu Krishnamurti: "Freedom comes into being only when we understand, not intellectually but actually, our every day life, our activity, our way of thought, the fact of our brutality, our callousness and indifference; it is to be actually in contact with our colossal selfishness." I'm more a firm believer in such concepts as Michael Certeau affirms in The Practice of Everyday Life: "ordinary life is depicted as a constant, subconscious struggle against the institutions competing to assimilate the everyday man [person]. The chief aim of Practice is to compile a vocabulary of concepts, questions, and perspectives that would make possible the formal discussion of the everyday "tactical" activities which lie hidden behind the cloak of conformity." It's against this conformity, this realm of unfreedom, imposed by the cultural imperialism of our social, economic, cultural, and religious ideologies and systems that is at the heart of a libertarian praxeology (individual action of freedom based on creativity and inventiveness).

What I am defining by "negation" is a need to break free from many of the imposed imperial and cultural colonizations of our minds and lives through coercive acts of control and power. Freedom is not some abstract concept but a definite material object of human action which is - as Chomsky has iterated over and over in his life and writings centered on human creativity and inventiveness. It is individuals, of flesh and blood, who create freedom, not some abstract collectivist entity.
S.C. Hickman

The Idea of Communism - Part III

     I claim here that the communist Idea persists: it survives the failures of its realization as a specter which returns again and again...
     - Slavoj Žižek

Zizek tells us that what the Left needs today is a return to the "Jacobin-Leninist" paradigm of centralist dictatorial power. That along with Badiou we should enact the "four fundamental concepts" at "work from Platon through the medieval millenarian revolts and on to Jacobinism, Leninism and Maoism: strict egalitarian justice, disciplinarian terror, political voluntarism, and trust in the people."

Zizek sees communism as an idea somewhat like the many heresies that have arisen from time to time in the Christianized west. He tempts us with the idea of a moment when the heresy arises but it not defeated, not renormalized within the global world-system, but becomes itself the exception. He asks if we should except this solution as the only alternative, of a takeover of the state mechanism of global capitalism, or is it more radical that "we should aim at a subtraction from the hegemonic field which, simultaneously, violently intervenes into this field, reducing it to its occluded minimal difference..."

He tells us that what is needed for an emancipatory-project is a breakaway from the hegemonic field, that communism being not some end point reached, a final solution, but a a problematic - "a name for the difficult task of breaking out of the confines of the market-and-state framework, a task for which no quick formula is at hand." He tells us that the problem/solution dynamic is formulated already in Hegel but "not in the simple or direct sense that capitalism is already in itself communism, and that only a purely formal reversal is needed..." (but) rather this: "what if today's global capitalism, precisely insofar as it is "world-less," involving a constant disruption of all fixed order, opens up the space for a revolution which will break the vicious cycle of revolt and reinscription... (and) assume the task of a new "ordering" against the global capitalist disorder?" He goes on to tell us that the State is no longer the enemy to be undermined, that the new enemy is the self-revolutionizing global capitalist world-system itself.

He offers two axioms concerning the relationship between State and Politics that will allow us to follow Lenin in his State and Revolution: "the goal is not to take over state power, but to transform it, radically changing its functioning, its relationship to its base, and so on." He tells us only then will we attain a truly revolutionary enactment of a participatory democracy as envisioned in Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat." The two axioms help us understand this task: "(1) The failure of the communist state-party politics is above all and primarily the failure of anti-state politics, of the endeavor to break out of the constraints of the state, to replace statal forms of organization with "direct" non-representative forms of self-organization ("councils"); (2) If you have no clear idea of what you want to replace the State with, you have no right to subtract/withdraw from the state." He asks the difficult question that if the "dictatorship of the proletariat" is a possibility then "how are we to achieve such a "dictatorship"?"

In my final installment I will explore his answer to this question.