Excerpt from upcoming, “Postscript to ‘A Brief Essay Against All Murder, and the Death Penalty'”

Just in case anyone doubts that the essay is precisely that. An excerpt from its upcoming postscript. The postscript is intended both as a defense of the main arguments of the essay, as well as a defense of the essay itself as an essay, au complet.

To the question belongs the time that it interrupts. To the question belongs both the question of its own time, and the timeliness of a someone. This latter, most directly, is what one can say is called into question. The former, the question of the time of the question, would rather be called into the question. How so? Does it emanate from a history, an echo from a paused moment, like slamming on the brakes, or the stinging skull of forcefully coughing with a severely congested cold? We cannot say. The history belongs to the question, and not to the essay itself. Neither does its meta-analysis belong to this postscript. There is always that which escapes the question. Forgotten histories, moments unrecalled or hardly lived in the first place, and tales of violence lost. A cross-examination of these, forced into place by the question as an injunction – that is to say a command – is only prismatic, imperfect as the pure light shone through it, disjointing and refracting, refracted and disjointed outwardly at angles every bit as violent as the violence suffered by the witness. Violence always exposes itself as a history. It is forced to. It is chased into a corner until there is a history given to satisfy the command of the question. A court issues its verdict always as the trial of violences untold.

The one I condemn is always a witness. They are the witness of time, of an entire life and a history. They are its only witness. Without them, time stops. For them, yes, it is true, but this most assuredly does not negate the truth-value of any of the foregoing statements. For they are a light, a unique perspective of truth, of an unfolding delimited by what is opposed to it and therefore shared by me. But the question interrupts this relation, this sharing, lest we forget. And in this interruption one finds, in suspension, a tendency towards (dis)possession. They are a light called into question. A light held in view and perused for shadows, deprivation and lack. We should note that deprivation also bears the connotation of moral depravity, of condemnation under widely accepted norms of justice, whether they be imposed socially, civically or legally. For Aristotle, deprivation (στἑρησιϛ) was deformity: in a human being, fallenness from a rational natural essence and a failure to cultivate a properly virtuous ethical character. Aristotle’s Organon, in this way, is a body of work of Platonic bioluminescence. But I digress. The guilty is a being found wanting of life, which is to their nature. The witness is a light, is all of history. And if she will not speak, cannot speak, or will not or cannot speak correctly (before the court of the question), then the former joins with the latter into a singularity. Without being suspected of the infraction called forth by the question of justice, the witness is the guilty, the guilty is the witness. All lights suffering violence and violently shining out, a reaction to blind us, we who dare to ask the questions, those issued by the justification of the question of justice, and to do violence there either by speaking them aloud or in our heads to ourselves (for we are all the jury, who silently await that we may one day render our verdict). All lights flashing in shadows cast, casting blindness. The only use of the court is that the bodies have left the room. A violence every bit as furious, gross and entangled as if it had been sexual. A hall for negotiating truths from lies, lies from truths, all subsumed by the narrative structure of the question.


“How many of them?”: Thoughts on Quantification and the Political Economy of Refugee Populations

Canada is currently preparing to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees from UN camps in the region, with over 500 staff working in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, helping them – swiftly and securely – to find sanctuary.  If our compassion is quantifiable, we should note that 25,000 marks a higher pledge from our newly elected Liberal government than an earlier commitment, less than half as kind; and also, that our 500 staff in the region has been noted (in a recent broadcast of CBC’s The National) as the largest team ever assembled to take on such a task.

If compassion is quantifiable, so too is crisis.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the numbers accompanying international efforts to provide assistance to Syrian refugees.  More than half of Syria’s population is currently displayed.  Around 220,000 people have been killed, and nearly 13 million are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance inside of Syria.  So far, only just under 105,000 resettlement places have been offered globally since the start of the crisis (numbers are available here from Amnesty International).  More than 4 million refugees await resettlement in just five neighbouring countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt; countries still dearly near the beating heart of conflict in the East, of a war waged between the Assad regime in Syria and the myriad cells of anti-Assad rebels (including Daesh) with all of their puppet strings extending directly back to Western imperialists.

I do not wish to address, which has already been addressed many times, the destabilizing role Western imperialist powers have played, and continue to play as an extension of their economic games, in strategically situated regions of the East.  The advanced stage of technocratic security-state capitalism that we see in many Western countries is characterised by this identification and elimination of both local and foreign security threats (called threats of terrorism) through and by the great weapons of mass surveillance, data collection and secretive foreign intelligence collaborations.  In this sense, the war that the West wages on terror is almost mimetic of the late capitalist game: a war waged through sheer numeracy, intelligence and quantification.  Neoliberal modes of management in technocratic capitalist nations tend towards quantification (we see this not only in the administration of government and social services, but also in the public sector and education); and this evaluative policy, of bare numbers and abstract utility, is profoundly alienating.  For the most part, we are able to circulate in our day-to-day without feeling too much this sense of alienation, but refugees – whom some suggest are being circulated and commodified by Western powers as any other economic “good” – have the abstraction of this sheer numeracy driven in to them by the lived reality of their circulation.

I have heard humanitarian resettlement workers make the claim that stability and opportunity are significant determinants in health outcomes for recently immigrated refugees struggling to cope with PTSD, depression, and other mental health disorders, given the traumatic experiences they have endured.  Perhaps this provides some evidence for the former claim.  Through free self-determination in a just Liberal society, we ought to be able to shed the alienation of abstract numeracy that might be felt when we regard ourselves as only a commodity, a “good” exchanged and for exchange.  We can, for now, suspend judgement on the ideological nature of this reality; if freedom under neoliberal capitalism is only an illusion (concealing the reality of freedom for the ruling class at the expense of the emancipatory freedom of the oppressed), we must all the same recognize it as a convincing illusion to explain the dull ideological force held by Western neoliberalism over its consumer class.  It seems then possible to conceive phenomenologically an alienation admitting of degree felt by those whom we seek to integrate into our society.  It seems to me a philosophical dishonesty to deflect efforts to engage this topic only to push the platform of a revolutionary cause that seeks to overcome completely the alienation that is a necessity under the current global economic system, however worthy that cause is.

We can immediately engage with the effects of this overwhelming numeracy of refugee assistance.  And, to an extent, I believe that Canada already has.  Earlier, we posited as premises the quantification of compassion and crisis.  I would like to suggest now that we are forced to negate these premises, recognizing them as something to be overcome.  Quantification is a given in the technological society, inextricable from its modes of management.  At the same time, my lived experience of myself as only an abstract number is profoundly alienating; I add as a corollary that alienation exists as something to be overcome, as part of an ethical responsibility to self.  ‘Alienation’ also has the sense of dispossession (Latin alienare, “to make another’s”); as such, alienating integration seems inauthentic, a resigned acceptance that is simultaneously a creation of difference (“to make an other”).  This othering amounts to a failure to recognize in the refugee population their authenticity of being.  Abstract numbers cannot suffer.  They are not like ‘I’, who is an individual and who can suffer.  Neither are they thereby the ‘we’, which is just an extension of the sufferable ‘I’.

These hard boundaries between beings ought to be broken down.  The sheer numeracy of the refugee crisis is a quantificative codification of their abstract history, some general notion of a history existing through and dissolved into each individual’s history, taken up as an object and translated into the language of a neoliberal mode of management.  The way to overcome this is by way of a face-to-face recognition of the other.  The codification of an abstract history is essentially an exercise of technocratic power, preserving over the immigrant population an alienation that constricts their existence to the being of a dispossessed abstraction.

Levinas remarks, “The human only lends itself to a relation that is not a power”.  In Totality and Infinity, Levinas explains the subject’s relation to the other in terms of the disabling of the subject’s power, a kind of power not to be able to exercise power over the other: “The expression the face introduces into the world does not defy the feebleness of my powers, but my ability for power [mon pouvoir de pouvoir].”  The face signifies an undoing of the very powers of the subject, the powers of representation and comprehension.  In this context, the ethical comes to mean then a disabling of power and an opening of a relation that does not lend itself to power.[1]

From the Canadian perspective, it seems as if there are genuine efforts to welcome refugees into our communities in such a way that discloses to each the face of the other.  Private citizens’ groups are sponsoring many families, providing assistance with everything from school registration for children to Social Insurance Number applications.  It is true that many such groups are affiliated either with members of refugees’ families who have already immigrated to Canada, or with Churches; however, I do not think that this defies the claim that our efforts to welcome refugees have aimed, in a partial but genuine way, at the undoing of the alienation of abstraction under the exercise of the powers that both displaced and now welcome the refugee population.  For Levinas, the face-to-face relation transcends the historical and factical situatedness in which being finds itself in recognition of what is other to it.  Perhaps our recognition of the face of the other has the capacity to undo (to the extent that is possible given our greater state of alienation under late capitalist society) some of the deleterious effects on the exercise of state power, as a matter of perceived necessity, on a population of the traumatized and needy.  And perhaps this is something to be proud of.

Our history of integrating refugees in Canada has been far from perfect in the past.  But as a country that makes efforts to embrace its multiculturalism, in spite of a checkered past, we can find cause for optimism in the response of Canadians to the Syrian refugee crisis, if only as the site of a face-to-face with the abstract and (can we say?) dehumanizing quantification of entire populations under the rules of the game of post-imperialist Western political economy.  The question of what Canadian culture itself is, is bound to become more stark in periods where the mass integration of a population becomes inevitable; inauthentic appropriation is as harmful, as alienating, perhaps even more so, than inclusion only as an abstraction of “otherness”.  As the question will arise in the current state of crisis, perhaps we can answer that, rather than one that sees its responsibility in the other in their circulation as mere “goods” in need of shelter and organic subsistence, we are one that recognizes its responsibility in the face of the other.  And this, if only so that we may play our small part in undoing the very powers which hold us all in an alienating subjection.

[1] Krzysztof Ziarek, “Which Other, Whose Alterity? The Human after Humanism” in Between Heidegger and Levinas (New York: State University of New York Press, 2014), 230.  Excerpts are from Levinas, Basic Philosophical Writings; and also his Totality and Infinity.

Madness Under Modern Capitalism

Let’s talk about madness. Schizophrenia: from the ancient Greek schizo, meaning ‘split,’ and phrene, meaning ‘mind.’ But of course, in recent history, since around the 19th century, our ways of thinking about ‘schizophrenia’ have become much more complicated: a growing function of social and psychiatric progress. The history of our understanding of this complex manner of madness boomed in around the 1980s, with a neurophysiological descriptive explosion spurred on by new research, resulting in new pharmacological treatments and an eventual explosion in subtypes. This expanding bubble of complications popped somewhat in 2013, when the DSM-5 recommended dropping all subtype classifications, leaving us with alone again with just ‘schizophrenia,’ itself.

Hanging before our psychiatric institutions, our own schizoid selves.
Hanging before its religion, policing morals and condemning to Hell.

Hanging before us, quite intimately, as a reflection on the nature of the self and the possibility of our familiarity with it. Staring at us as a phenomenology of the Other – but, is it also an othering ontology? The majority consensus on schizophrenia since as early as the 19th century has been to regard it primarily as a physical disorder: today, a mental disorder symptomatically contingent upon neurophysiology and specific patterns of neurological decay. However, as Ronny Turner and Charles Edgley argue, “only after behavior is labeled as deviant can it be identified as such & diagnosed as chemically caused.”[1] The specific causal mechanisms of schizophrenia remain elusive. The neurochemicalists put social disorder at only a brain scan away from mental disorder and pharmacological normalization. Their strict materialist conception of the disease downplays or outright denies the significance of sociocultural causes. And this conception is reflected in treatment.

Never mind that recovery outcomes for people suffering from schizophrenia have been shown across a multitude of international studies commissioned by the World Health Organization to be significantly greater for patients in developing countries, where pharmacological intervention is not the standard of care, over developed countries. “Far from being mere incidental cultural music … therapeutic benefits [appear to be] forgone under circumstances of enforced supported dependency.”[2] Never mind that male African Caribbean immigrants to the United Kingdom are as much as ten times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than young Brits, in spite of the orthodox epidemiologist’s taxonomy of environmental and genetic factors predicting deviations of rates of incidence of schizophrenia within only about a single percent across cultures[3] (similar figures exist in studies of immigrants to the Netherlands.) Even differentiation between rates of early onset in males and females, for a time thought to be one robust and well-replicated result in the tome of our largely uncertain knowledge of schizophrenia, has recently been found to be a confounded finding.[4] The data is simply not as secure as we are led to believe by psychiatry and its affiliated institutions. (Perhaps the nice old owners of the pharmaceutical firms responsible for producing antipsychotic drugs have no vested interests in these matters.)

There are many questions: why the better outcomes for sufferers of schizophrenia in developing countries? Why the increased risk for culturally dislocated immigrants? Social causes and socially structured care. Perhaps these questions jointly suggest an answer, pointing to a radical reconceptualization of schizophrenia as a socially constructed disorder. Of course, this does not detract in any way from its reality, simply put. It is just that we should consider both treatments for and causes of the disease to have a fundamentally sociological character. The mental trauma endured by child sufferers of abuse can be tracked in distinct physiological characteristics of the developmental brain later on in life. Why think that the daily traumas experienced in life within the totalizing technosphere of modern capitalism could not equally mark their tracks in the brain?

We will not lapse into full-blown dealings with Deleuze, here. However, our conception of schizophrenia is determined by several of the various institutions within Western medical science, and so it is suitable to seek answers to these questions somewhere in the framework of sociopolitical assumptions that creates the context in which said institutions lay their foundations. From Levins,

The bourgeois atomistic view of society, as applied to science, asserts that progress is made by a few individuals (who just happen to be “us”) … Individualism in science helps create the common belief that the properties of populations are simply derivable from those of the uncharged atoms (genes) of populations or societies…

The specialization of scientific labor and of command functions from research creates a model of scientific organization that is easily seen as the model for the organization of the world. Nature is perceived as following the organization chart of our company or university, with similar phenomena united under a single chairman, distinct but related phenomena united under a common dean. Thus specialization in practice joins with atomistic individualism to reinforce the reductionism that still predominates in the implicit philosophy of scientists.[5]

Individualism and reductionism: sever the individual from society, reduce the cause of the patient’s condition to something entirely material, or physical. Correct neurological imbalances with powerful dopamine reuptake inhibitors, enforcing treatment within the confines of special types of prisons called mental health hospitals. In India, greater health outcomes for schizophrenics have been attributed to a highly attentive family based care model, based on the specific needs of the suffering individual and typically carried out in the home. Pharmacological interventions are significantly less common.  A recent sixteen month ethnographic study on the standards of psychiatric treatment for schizophrenics in ‘developing’ India finds that “a model of medical care that deemphasizes patient autonomy [i.e., individualization] and the rational understanding of pathology [i.e., reductionism] benefits those diagnosed with schizophrenia.”[6]

It is not that all scientists in the West are themselves bourgeois, but they are largely the ideologues of the ruling class. An inter-institutional struggle between the old Enlightenment ideals for science and its unending search for Truth, and the post-positivistic research cartels racing to some finish line just to finally get it right and to get the last word (and more often than not, to patent it as intellectual property) has created a rift between the laborers of science based on their support or repudiation of commoditization. The poor outcomes of Western medical science with respect to schizophrenia points to a point of contradiction, where the values imposed from the top-down through enforced institutional arrangements that benefit the ruling class might be exposed as oppressive. To root out these oppressive values, we must take aim at the commoditization of science. And this, in turn, will lead us squarely to a critique of the great modern romance between science, technology, and capitalism.

[1] See “From Witchcraft to Drugcraft: Biochemistry as Mythology,” in The Social Science Journal 20.4 (1983).

[2] Hopper and Wanderling, “Revisiting the Developed Versus Developing Country Distinction in Course and Outcome in Schizophrenia,” in Schizophrenia Bulletin 26.4 (2000).

[3] Jones and Fung, “Ethnicity and Mental Health: The Example of Schizophrenia in the African Caribbean Population in Europe,” in Ethnicity and Causal Mechanisms (2005), 227-61.

[4] Jablensky and Cole, “Is the earlier age at onset of schizophrenia in males a confounded finding?” in British Journal of Psychiatry 170 (1997).

[5] Levins & Lewontin, “The Commoditization of Science,” in The Dialectical Biologist (1985).

[6] Sousa, “Pragmatic ethics, sensible care: Psychiatry and schizophrenia in north India,” available in Sociological Abstracts.


Frozen Eggs for Working Women

The inspiration for this post comes from two sources.  First – today is International Women’s Day, a day most well suited for the discussion of issues related to gender equality, women’s rights, and the emancipation of women.  Perhaps the emancipatory talk seems radical.  Feminism is not a homogeneous critical stance; some feminists will be more radical than others.  But we must recall that International Women’s Day – actually, International Working Women’s Day – began as a socialist political event, proposed by Clara Zetkin of the International Women’s Conference that was linked to the Second International; and so, the historical roots of this day recall the emancipatory struggle, and the need to overthrow capitalism.  Second – it has been my intention since the recent inception of this blog to eventually discuss within it my thoughts on female egg cryopreservation.  I owe this blog site in part to Dr. Françoise Baylis, of Dalhousie University, who recently gave a talk on the subject at a conference where I spoke at in Toronto – the Ryerson Graduate Philosophy Conference.  Françoise used some of her time to impress upon us in the audience – mostly young graduate students and PhDs – the importance of blogging.  A philosopher must today be a public intellectual, and the public are predominantly engaging with the diverse sea of varying opinions on the Internet.  Ideas are only dangerous in numbers – or perhaps, zebra-like, we come under the protection of a shared formal reality against predation: stripes for zebras, emancipatory political realities for the underclasses (whatever your favoured class dichotomy).

The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

These words, from the Eleven Theses on Feuerbach, are also inscribed on Marx’s grave.  Françoise shares in this view of philosophy.  After her talk, when pushed on the question as to whether the sorts of ethical quandaries which surface on her analysis of egg freezing could be resolved under a neo-liberal Capitalist democracy, she deferred commitment to any particular political ideology, but suggested an avowed belief in the demand placed on us to change the world.

Egg freezing is being sold to women as an instrument of gender equality.  It places itself immediately at the intersection of competing feminist perspectives.  Françoise gives seven arguments against egg freezing, in her original blog post (over here on Impact Ethics), which inspired the talk.  Two of them speak directly to systemic social issues, which – I suggest – represent challenges that can only be met by a revolutionary feminist perspective, that recalls the historical unity of the workers’ and women’s movements.  From this perspective, actual gender equality is possible only on the condition of an emancipatory politics that takes as its aim the struggle for the working class (the majority of whom, after all, are women).  Those arguments are Françoise’s fifth and sixth:

Fifth, normalizing egg freezing does nothing to correct the fundamental social injustice experienced by women in the workplace who are effectively forced to choose between having a career and raising a family. This is not a choice demanded of young men. The working assumption is that they can be fathers and productive employees.

Sixth, providing women with the option of egg freezing does not meaningfully expand women’s choices because it does nothing to ameliorate the context in which they must make decisions. The social context, which does not assume that women can be mothers and productive employees, significantly (and inappropriately) constrains the options they get to choose between.

Dr. Françoise Baylis, “Left Out In The Cold: Seven Reasons Not To Freeze Your Eggs”

Both arguments treat autonomy as (legitimately?) delimited by socio-cultural constraints, echoing a conception of liberty similar to that of John Stuart Mill, and never far from the orthodoxy of political philosophy.  Of course, these constraints are the result of material conditions imposed by the oppressive layers of society.  We shall return to material conditions with the sixth argument; first, we must take up talk of patriarchy, in the fifth.

In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), Engels effectively treats the enslavement of women and the establishment of patriarchal gender-class relations in society as a product of the state and the notion of private property.  He embarks on an ethnography of pre-Statist cultures, pre-exchange economies, and argues that the prototypically bourgeois family unit is the result of a conception of private property, by which the man comes to identify the child (and thus the mother, as its bearer and caretaker) as his property, and through oppressive means (physical or ideological) continues to enforce his right onward throughout the annals of history.  This is not to diminish patriarchy to a mere epiphenomena of the imposition of State and class antagonisms; ideas have a material existence, and insinuate themselves in a very real way into social structures and institutions.  The socialist origins of the struggle for women’s emancipation have been repressed in the official histories; real victories of the women’s movement have been reduced and redescribed as victories in a woman’s right to upward mobility within a patriarchal society – this is the mostly petty bourgeois individualist feminism that focuses today on companies with women as CEOs and strong female Capitalo-parliamentary politicians.  Egg freezing is marketed to women on exactly this platform.  Bourgeois patriarchal ideology is insinuated in the context of the choice being offered, between career and family.  The “working assumption” in the fifth argument is just the patriarchal assumption related to the origin of private property and struggle along class lines in society.  The way to struggle against it is to challenge the assumption of the legitimacy of the authority of the oppressive layers of society; that is, to fight Capitalism.

The sixth argument speaks to the material conditions of production in Capitalist society.  The assumption that women cannot be both mothers and productive employees relates to the contradictions of a class society, whereby one in four are without work, and the remaining three have far too much of it (clearly I generalize).  The historical contribution of Capitalist society has been to elevate the means of production to the point that humankind is able to create surplus; however, the creation of surplus is utterly contingent on profit motive, and so scarcity is manufactured (the only bona fide ‘product’ of the bourgeoisie).  Beyond the point where I can invest further in technology to gain a productive edge on my competition, my only recourse as a boss is to lay off workers.  The Capitalist mythology relates the ever extending work day to the praiseworthiness of a Protestant work ethic – this is the ideology, perpetuated to the benefit of those blessed with work, and fortunate enough to work ever longer and harder.  The ideology decries any deviation from the all-encompassing importance of work.  A woman cannot be both a mother and a productive employee, because productive employees work at least forty hours a week – twice that, if you aspire to become more like the bourgeois feminist icons that remain after the historical reduction and revision of the socialist origins of the women’s movement to its contemporary friendliness to Capitalist ideology.   Those who deviate from this norm are stigmatized as being insufficiently dedicated to their professional lives, and so the mere expression in the professional world of a desire to shift priorities is treated as an affront to the ideological ethic.

Scarcity and surplus are two sides of the same coin, and this particular kind of coin exclusively fills Capitalist coffers – it is foreign currency in these parts.  “Scarcity and surplus” is a false dichotomy imposed on the means of production by free-market Capitalist logic.  A socialist alternative abolishes the distinction.  The productive capacity of the average advanced Western Capitalist state is more than strong enough to support a reduced workweek, even while significantly reducing unemployment.  The assumption that a woman cannot be both a mother and a productive employee is built into the social reality imposed under a Capitalist system – a woman who would like to reduce her working hours in order to become a mother is not sufficiently dedicated to her work to thrive under this Protestant work ethic ideology, and most women who would make this choice would find it places them in an almost impossible financial situation.  The way to struggle against this is to challenge the contradictions of Capitalo-parliamentary logic imposed as social reality on the means of production.

The emancipation of women is central to the struggle for the emancipation of all oppressed layers in society.  The recent introduction of egg-freezing as an instrument of gender equality, endorsed by major tech companies like Facebook and Apple as part of their health insurance packages for female employees, reaffirms the legitimacy of bourgeois Capitalist ideology.  It is congruent with the reactionary and revisionary history of the struggle for women’s emancipation, distilling the movement’s victories into a warped bourgeois-ified neo-liberal feminism, alien to emancipatory politics and inert with respect to true gender equality.  And so, with a final word of thanks to Dr. Françoise Baylis, I conclude my thoughts with a simple imperative (and the title of Françoise’s aforementioned talk at Ryerson): “Ladies, Don’t Freeze Your Eggs!”