The Death of Comrade Camilo

This weekend, a young brilliant mind and dedicated revolutionary was lost.  Camilo Cahis succumbed to mental illness on the night of Saturday, April 25th.  Comrade Alex has shared this moving tribute to Camilo.  My heart goes out to Camilo’s family, and to all others who knew him.

Below is a passage from my journal, written on Monday afternoon.

April 27th afternoon.

Camilo was found dead yesterday: a Sunday.

Through construction sounds, I faintly hear the gentle discourse of a radio interview on in the background. Saskatchewan farmers incensed that their land sovereignty is being sold off to the highest bidders of multinational conglomerates, in exchange for foreign capital. A Monday: in beautiful British Columbia on the Southernmost tip of Vancouver Island, techno-mechanical construction noise encases me on all sides – encloses me. Enframes. Altering landscapes. Destroying; pillaging; parasitizing; re-appropriating.

Camilo destroyed himself in his apartment: found on Sunday, the day of rest. A comrade found him in his apartment after Camilo didn’t appear to a meeting with two new contacts, a rare if ever lapse in professional demeanor and dedication. Sudden but suggested, Camilo’s suicide was necessity expressed through tragic accident…

An earthquake which struck in Nepal this weekend has laid temples to dust which for centuries, stood; has made our planet’s richest resources our rarest commodities; has killed 4,000. Magnitude 7.8, the aftershocks still continue. Poor Nepalese are afraid to return to (what remains of) their homes, if they are so lucky so as still to have them. Foreign humanitarian aid – conspicuously hitherto absent in adequate supply – spills over the wound. Cut my finger that night, drinking. Reid Longphee suggested pouring Krazy Glue into the wound (pour unique products in it – make sure it’s our brand!) Earthquakes, events expressed by fault lines. The Southern tip of Vancouver Island lies near a major fault line, so we are keenly aware. So we are generous, the radio says. We see necessity, as it awaits us, proximate and distant, but because it is accidental we persist in the delusion. No – fault lines are the ‘accidents’ in this traditional sense. And they are blind who do not see.

… but these things are impossible to discuss. They elude us. We build ourselves into tiny individual boxes (often stacked like containers: Camilo found dead in his apartment.) The type of society we build charts the landscape of the layers we build up around ourselves, and into ourselves. Social beings determine society; we are material, but ideas are strong. We are deeply entrenched in oppressive ideas. Let the ‘trench’ suggest that we are fighting. We must fight. Camilo lived this. We are always already born into struggle. This is the most certain reality one needs to countenance.

I met Camilo a few times. I know several who knew him well. Let him be but once my Virgil, for I know we’ve walked similar Hells. I’ve stood on my balcony (my apartment), wrong side, staring down the idea that I was ready to die: distant, but proximate; the accident that I could cause…

We create natural laws, social (dis)order, the walls of the house of the Lord which we worship. We draw fault lines on social structures like acid splashed through the veil over the face of mother Earth: we are scarring ourselves, killing ourselves. But fighting to better ourselves. We will organize, we will teach, we will talk, we will help, we will continue to struggle from bondage against slavery and murder. Camilo lived this. I live this. We are all living in this – whatever it is – and it kills us. It is killing us. And hands tied we hope against hope that we will just peacefully fade away, sailing safely passed the accident that awaits us: like tokens at Cerberus’ gate, a passage paid by privilege. The death of a friend echoes through you, hits you in the chest and sinks you. Living, breathing: as a species, we live or die as a whole. Thousands dead in Nepal – the earth quakes. Dozens of us – perhaps hundreds – mourn the loss of a brilliant young revolutionary in Toronto.

Proximate but distant, we have fault lines for foundations, too. It mustn’t continue to take accidents to see what necessity unfurls into.


To Pimp a Parasite

The caterpillar is a prisoner to the streets that conceived it
Its only job is to eat or consume everything around it, in order to protect itself from this mad city
While consuming its environment the caterpillar begins to notice ways to survive
One thing it noticed is how much the world shuns him, but praises the butterfly
The butterfly represents the talent, the thoughtfulness, and the beauty within the caterpillar
But having a harsh outlook on life the caterpillar sees the butterfly as weak
And figures out a way to pimp it to his own benefits
Already surrounded by this mad city
The caterpillar goes to work on the cocoon which institutionalizes him
He can no longer see past his own thoughts
He’s trapped When trapped inside these walls certain ideas start to take roots
Such as going home, and bringing back new concepts to this mad city
The result? Wings begin to emerge, breaking the cycle of feeling stagnant
Finally free, the butterfly sheds light on situations
That the caterpillar never considered, ending the eternal struggle
Although the butterfly and caterpillar are completely different
They are one and the same.

Some of you may recognize this excerpt.  It is the final monologue, from the final skit – the post script to the final song – of Kendrick Lamar’s recent release, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015).  I’ve heard the album receive praises so high that they call it ‘the Great American Hip Hop album’; so high as to say that it marks Kendrick’s completed ascendancy towards becoming ‘hip hop’s Miles Davis.’  And they aren’t hyperbolic.  If you haven’t listened to the album, go and do that now.  Or, you can read this excellent piece by Vice on the conceit of the caterpillar and the butterfly that underwrites the narrative structure of the whole record.

The caterpillar is the icon.  He is the center of his world.  But at once, the world closes in around and constricts him – it is his cocoon.  The track King Kunta evokes the image of Kunta Kinte, the 18-19th century plantation worker who had his foot cut off to prevent his escape: “… where you when I was walkin’? / Now I run the game got the whole world talkin’, King Kunta / Everybody wanna cut the legs off him.”  Kendrick’s success is counterposed to his freedom.  His rise to fame shot him “straight from the bottom …” not to the top, but to “this the belly of the beast.”  The belly of the beast suggests the digestive; the caterpillar is also consumed, digested, parasitized by the cocoon.  The belly of the beast corrupts – it consumes and excretes only bile.  In keeping with the album’s conceit, it pimps. It consumes the host and excretes an endless audiovisual static noise of advertising and iconography attached to generic club beats and mind-numbing soulless pop music.  I am reminded of a quote from the protagonist of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Rob Gordon: “Do I listen to pop music because I’m depressed, or am I depressed because I listen to pop music?” – even the title of Hornby’s book suggests the constant intrusion of such noise.  It is depressing because – as Kendrick describes – this noise is the excrement of a parasite.  We are wading in shit like souls of sinners in Malebolge, the 8th circle of Dante’s Inferno, where (among other horrific punishments) we see those guilty of excessive flattery – surely a close conceptual cousin to ‘pimping’ – plunged endlessly into an eternally flowing river of human excrement.

Kendrick’s journey in some ways resembles the first book of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The poet cum hip hop artist journeys through the depths of Hell, and the experience resonates in his verse.  Dante’s itinerary takes him safely through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven as a tourist, an observer.  But of course there is no such thing as pure detached observation.  The Dantes of Kendrick’s world are just spectators and first-wave agents of gentrification.  Kendrick’s story is one of escape from circumstance; the caterpillar escapes the cocoon as a butterfly.  He is consumed, transfigured, and released from bondage.  But is the butterfly free – any more so than the caterpillar?

In The Parasite (1980), Michel Serres describes a primordial theory of human and natural relations set upon the foundational chain of a ‘parasitic cascade.’

The chain of parasitism is a simple relation of order, irreversible like the flow of the river.  One feeds on another and gives nothing in return.  Asymmetry is local on a chain and is propagated globally the length of a series, through transitivity.  They make a line … For parasitism is an elementary relation; it is, in fact, the elements of a relation (Parasite, 182).

Parasite.  The prefix para- means “near,” “next to,” measures a distance.  The sitos is the food.  In this open mouth that speaks and eats, what is next to eating, its neighboring function, is what emits sound. Para measures a difference between a reception and, on the contrary, an expansion.  The latter makes one’s own what is common and what will soon be even more one’s own, the living body (Parasite, 144).

Noise is the sum of parasitic relations.  The elementary factor of the parasitic relation is that the host receives nothing in return.  Jacques Derrida might call the hospitality the host shows towards this always uninvited guest as a trace of the gift, aneconomic and non-reciprocal.  Thus, all of the gifts bestowed on the pimped caterpillar only cover it in shit: flashy cars, gold chains, and all the regular trappings of the big-shot recording artist du siècle. There is no reciprocity.  Only consumption.

Understanding the thematic transfiguration of To Pimp a Butterfly as a parasitic relation in the sense that Serres describes shows that the butterfly hasn’t any more freedom than the caterpillar.  The butterfly represents only a temporarily removed terminus on the chain of parasitizing relations.  There is no outside of history, and history is the dimensionality of time added to the topology of parasitisms.  In effect, what Serres argues for is a Deleuzian understanding of our situatedness in history.  The butterfly who thinks himself free is a self-deceiver.  He is the result of a totality of parasitizing relations, and we – receivers of the message, of a wavelength or frequency or particular fidelity articulated out of this noise – are parasites in turn, consuming as uninvited guests the body of the host.  The careers of illustrious celebrities are just so much noise to us, and we cannot but consume it (for it is forced down our throats.)

Of course the break from bondage, the escape of a man confined and institutionalized by his cultural and socioeconomic context, the transfiguration of the caterpillar strikes us as something to behold.  This is symbolized by the figure of the butterfly; the butterfly is beautiful, a creature of grace, every part a naturalized metaphor for spiritual ascent.  It is the grace of the creature that enchants us, and its struggle is implicit in its figure, its form and telos (in a loosely Aristotelian sense.)  Like Dante, Kendrick’s verse rides on the back of a nearly religious elevation or realization.  But the verse of Kendrick’s album, like the verse of Dante’s Divine Comedy, lacks the aspect of the eternal which it approaches in its characterization; the last track on Kendrick’s album, Mortal Man, also signifies this.  We are, in the last analysis, confined by mortality.  All of our creations, our artefacts are temporary in view of the infinite beauty and eternity of the divine, the cosmos, or the realm of the idea.  The butterfly is a passerby, a temporary visitor fluttering past in time.  It does not escape decomposition, and reintegration into the chain of consumption – none do.  The transfiguration of the caterpillar, the escape of the butterfly from the cocoon, the temporary break and flight from the parasitic cascade must also thereby approach the infinite, the eternal, constantly breaking and returning and then breaking free again.  The detachment of the host from its uninvited guest (Serres would remind us that the French hôte signifies doubly both ‘host’ and ‘guest’) is a recurring chain; the butterfly’s new cocoon is simply a larger world, where the illusion of freedom is perhaps the most insidious danger – his new environment still conspires to consume him, to parasitize the butterfly.  And his escape can again be expected as a transfiguration.

Perhaps the circularity of this escape from bondage defines the only meaningful sense of freedom in eternity, as the constancy of consumption and flight through transformation.  If nothing else, the enduring renewal of the conceit might promise us another intensive and deeply reflective album from Kendrick Lamar, hopefully in the not too distant future.  The caterpillar and the butterfly are indeed one in the same – just as the ‘guest’ and the ‘host’ – but the ‘endless struggle’ is as incontrovertible as it is interminable.

Dialectical Biology // Cognitive Maoism

Modified from my forthcoming, ‘Epistemic Dynamics of a Revolutionary Science.’

Of course the speed of light is the same under socialism and capitalism, and the apple that was said to have fallen on the Master of the Mint in 1664 would have struck his Labor Party successor three-hundred years later with equal force. But whether the cause of tuberculosis is said to be a bacilus or the capitalist exploitation of workers, whether the death rate from cancer is best reduced by studying oncogenes or by seizing control of factories – these questions can be decided objectively only within the framework of certain sociopolitical assumptions (Levins & Lewontin 1985, 4-5).

By ‘science,’ we speak of variously many things.  There are scientific theories – explanatory hypotheses about the natural world – and even technological commodities, which are the products of science.  Then, there is a network of social actors, orthodoxically thought to consist primarily or even exclusively of ‘scientists,’ the fruits of whose collective efforts constitute the social production of these products.  Finally, there is a third respect in which we speak of science; in this sense, there is a worldview, approximately but not exclusively defined by the socially productive modes and products of science, which presents the manifest image of reality as the scientific image (see Bas Van Fraassen, The Scientific Image (1980) on the distinction between the manifest vs. the scientific image of reality.)  I do not mean to suggest that there is a single ‘worldview’ that is consistent across the endless spectrum of scientific disciplines and subdisciplines; worldviews differ significantly between Mendelian and molecular genetics, between Newtonian mechanics and relativity theory; indeed, historical cases abound in which some such cases of collisions between worlds had significant sociopolitical consequences.  Here, I mean only to articulate the relation between the historically contingent social worldview and the productive modes of science.  The mode of this scientific worldview is primarily ideological; by understanding this ideological mode in an Althusserian vain, we see that social relations of knowledge production in science are both materially and ideologically productive; in this sense, both the theoretical products of the first, and the scientific worldview of the third senses in which we speak of science are essentially ideological.  The dominant Western scientific ideology operating in and between each of these layers has been variously critiqued by philosophers of the Left: for its deeply methodologically entrenched oppressive patriarchal values, exposed by feminist philosophers of science; for its bourgeois Capitalist values and culturally imperialistic violence, decried by epistemological anarchists and Marxist scientists alike.  Arguments for the value-ladenness at each of these levels abound.  The Mertonian myth of value-free objectivity of the early twentieth-century has only served to engender a certain disinclination among interested parties of scientists and stakeholders to challenge (or even to see) the framework of sociopolitical assumptions in which these social and material relations of knowledge production are arranged.

The scientific worldview sets epistemological boundary conditions that narrow and define our conception of ‘truth.’  When this feedback loop is allowed to continue, the result is a paradigmatic period of Kuhnian ‘normal science’; for many, this is not a vicious circle, but rather a precondition of scientific progress.  I hardly need to state that the story of stable progress along the lines projected by the status quo characteristically fails to convince those who detect oppression in the orthodoxy.  Epistemic features of theories are designed to aim at ‘truth’; however, minimally insofar as our conception of ‘truth’ is refined by ideological production and for the sake of ideological reproduction (a further Althusserian notion), we should expect that the idea has a material existence that exerts its force on the social means of knowledge production.  The ‘framework of sociopolitical assumptions’ raised by Levins and Lewontin is an idea which directly challenges the question of ‘truth,’ by challenging the proper construal of standard epistemic features in biological theories.  They reject Cartesian reductionism as a manifestation of oppressive ruling class values being insinuated into scientific methodology as a guiding epistemic principle, presenting work from across the fields of evolutionary and population sciences, molecular biology and zoology, to demonstrate the value in adopting a dialectical ‘truth-concept’ as an epistemic aim in the sciences.  The selection of truth-concept is established with express political motivation.

An epigraph is set in the beginning of The Dialectical Biologist (1985); it reads,

To Frederick Engels,

who got it wrong a lot of the time

but who got it right where it counted

So too did Levins and Lewontin get ‘it right where it counted.’  The form of ideological revolution presupposed by dialectical biology amounts to scientific or cognitive Maoism; it is thereby ill-equipped to fulfil its mandate, to be an ideologically emancipatory science, counterposed to the dominantly Cartesian orthodoxy.  We can conceive of an alternative view – with a Trotskyist spirit – in Longino’s contextual empiricist approach to the study of the social relations of knowledge production.  Longino’s view pushes for greater diversification among practitioners of science, to maximally widen the array of background beliefs employed in the production of knowledge; however, diversification within the constraints of Western science is effective only up to a point.  Barring the revolutionary abolition of class antagonisms, the material reality of Western science is such that oppressed beliefs remain alienated from the centralized, sanctioned body of permissible bourgeois-ified background beliefs.  Thus, the ideological erosion of the scientific worldview on a material basis must serve as a precondition for ideological emancipation; furthermore, this erosion must proceed from the bottom-up, under the unity of an educational program, rather than from the top-down, under the forcible instilment of dialectics.  As is so often seen in the realpolitik of emancipation, spontaneous solidarity builds between sectarian pockets of the revolutionary Left.  Likewise, my predominantly Marxist analysis benefits here from the groundwork laid by Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism.

The question may arise as to what sorts of concrete results we might be entitled to expect as a result of the program of ideological erosion, and of the transitional program of a subsequent dialectic reconstitution of science in society.  Feyerabend argues that separate and distinct traditions of knowledge are likely to be mutually enriched as a result of open theoretical discourse.  If correct, then epistemic enrichment is a beneficial consequence of the ideological erosion of the scientific worldview on the material basis of the elevation of the intellectual and cultural authority of non-scientific worldviews.  But however serendipitous, the matter quite misses the point.  My argument proceeds on the basis of the view of sociopolitical emancipation as historical necessity, in a Hegelian sense.  What would it mean, say, to have one’s body of theories epistemically enriched in the sense that they now more reliably produce justified true beliefs, when epistemological reliabilism is fed back into science methodologically as an epistemic aim inspired by evolutionary biology and psychology? – only that we have successfully reinforced the status quo, ‘progressing’ in a dull Lakatosian vain.  While I do consider enrichment of this sort to be likely, it is merely a coincident to the final emancipatory cause.