The Cyborg Future of Enjoyment Part 3/5

(Written 2008)

A cyborg body is not innocent… The Cyborg Beginnings and Phases

…”it was not born in a garden”. Alluding to Eden, Haraway tells us the cyborg does not have the same gendered, male doministic origins as the human (man, and of-man-by-rib). Its roots are (perhaps worse) in “militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism” (151). Since the cyborg “doesn’t depend on human reproduction for its existence” (151) and is above gender, it poses limits on Freudian analysis. Evoking images of Plato’s Symposium the cyborg doesn’t seek completeness in sexual union or desire a nuclear family unit. Its essence is to be found in its environs as much as its own self – perpetuated by biotechnology and communication control loop systems.

For her justification, Haraway looks to biology and evolutionary theory, which has “reduced the border” between humans and animals. No matter how one identifies functioning humanism (the so-called pursuit, freedoms and rights for what it is to be human) – be it in an industrial age where humans use their arms and hands as naturally made tools, or thought without thought-simulation aids such as calculators or computers, or be it an age closer to Rousseau’s dream of humans being at one with their surrounding natures – by comparison the human being functions in a different manner, or rather, the human being has been manipulated by a new technological terrain.

In a lecture by the name of Birth of the Kennel given at the European Graduate School Haraway characterizes humans as in a space of ‘artifactuality’ that is, humans as ‘objects of knowledge’ are both prone to learning and being shaped by companion species – humans are artifacts! Her lecture title appears to come as an ironic critique of the essential hubris of the ego, caging dogs as mutts, denying ourselves a teacher of self-knowledge. Haraway aims to dignify learning from companion species against the overbearing pride of the human, content in the fallacy of completion. The image of the dog is one of tameness due to domesticity, of being a product not just of its evolution, but by its surroundings. Can we not recall ever hearing the (Rousseau for dogs?) argument that it is not fair that dogs should be domesticated but rather should be allowed to run wild and feral? It seems that this is not what Haraway is arguing at all, because she embraces the human-dog companionship. In this sense, evolution has erased the line between human and animal, but humans are also a product of their techno-scientific surroundings. As a means of learning to know ourselves, humans need to embrace this partial ontology. Haraway’s appeal seems to be more directed at the notion that for Woman, in order to escape the reality of an of-man existence, organisms and machines need to share companionship.

What, however, is one to think of techno-scientific responsibility in this context? An infamous picture details Donna Haraway on the steps of her home cuddling her dog Cayenne (see endnote), they both look at each other, she smiling, the dog appearing to flap its ears in glee. This is the imagery of companionship which Haraway aims to construct between organism and machine. She explains “cyborg imagery can help express […] taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology […] reconstructing the boundaries of daily life […] in communication with all our parts” (181). At once this polemic is for responsibility in positive cyborg imagery, standing opposite of Blade Runner’s Rachel who Haraway describes as “the image of a cyborg culture’s fear, love, and confusion” (177-78) which seems not be a reflective picture. Her explanation of a cyborg imagery also expresses the responsibility involved in reorganizing places in everyday life once prohibited, forward into one biotic component (a living organism which exists in a [perhaps communications] system).

These prohibitions apply particularly to females; I will quote at large Haraway as saying

“[u]p till now (once upon a time), female embodiment seemed to be given, organic, necessary […] Only by being out of place could we take intense pleasure in machines, and then with excuses that this was organic activity after all, appropriate to females.”

Also with regards to the economy (although Haraway is keen to show that she is aware that this is not necessarily a progressive statement and can be accommodated for in the White Patriarchal Capitalist circuitry) the ‘homework’ economy – a term borrowed from Richard Gordon who uses it to describe work in electronic assemblage, mainly done by women overseas, and the feminizing of labor in general – has already shaped, to a certain extent, the female cyborg self. For women, Haraway argues, technological advancements were boundaries of daily life, and a given ‘female nature’ had been wrongly ascribed. She calls for this to be a thing of the (Edenic) past.

Indeed, for the future of a cyborg world “what counts as nature – a source of insight and promise of innocence – is undermined, probably fatally”(152-53). To be sure, Haraway does not shy away from exposing the anxieties of some toward a future that embraces the obsoleteness of ‘humanism’.

One key question to this essay is (and indeed is a regular proposal to many written pieces on Haraway’s cyborg theory); if Donna Haraway is so anxious to remind us that a cyborg’s beginnings are far different from a humans, can the cyborg be said to have any Freudian basis at all? Where some might be keen to answer in the negative, I do see an element of Freudian basis to the new cyborg selves. I will stress that a cyborg Freudianism is not inasmuch as a human baby’s drives and desires may be derived from the oral or anal phase. That is to say, when one thinks of Freud, one may be reminded of the baby who as s/he is being breast fed enters into the oral phase, that when being fed, gains an amount of pleasure which emanates from the mouth. When that baby reaches an age where s/he could be fed properly, s/he, even more than before, desires the absent breast – the object of oral pleasure. Or one may be reminded of the baby who is allowed to micturate whenever s/he feels like it, or defecate and enjoy it immensely – a stage known as the anal stage – but as the diaper is replaced for underwear such enjoyable activity must be regulated. As the psychoanalyst Karl Abraham remarked, “instincts, which are allowed free expression in early childhood, are subjected to a considerable measure of repression and sublimation later on” (Abraham 281). The Freudianism applicable to a species which is half organism, half machine will not specifically look like the above description, in short, The American School, or ego psychology. The Freudianism applicable is from the Lacanian School.

Jacques Lacan resumed Freud to the letter, adding a knowledge of semiotics to the mix which Freud himself did not live to see popularize. One of the more important elements to Lacan’s lectures was his rejuvenation of the commonly misunderstood death drive. For Freud, the death drive was not some elementary striving for suicide, but, an act that aimed to go beyond the reality principle. The reality principle is based upon the constitution of society and gender; in the first it is in-keeping with societal expectations, to repress those things which are given free expression in early childhood like living only for bodily satisfaction; in the second it is in-keeping with what is expected of one as a gendered person, for example, since Man carries the phallic signifier of the symbolic order, he dominates over Woman’s so-called ‘lack’. Heterosexual union, necessary to the upkeep of the symbolic order, decrees female pleasure to be at the beck-and-call of male intercourse – this being a component of female ontology. The death drive for Woman, however, is a deviation from her ontological constitution, where her sexual enjoyment is organized in a perfectly self-enclosed auto-eroticism. Lacan has a term for this – jouissance.

The contrast between the pleasure principle and the death drive in Freudian psychoanalysis is formally the same as the contrast between plasir and jouissance – the former can be accommodated within the reality principle, the reality principle allows for a minimum of (phallic) pleasure, but the latter works exactly like a cybernetic machine, as we have mentioned, self-enclosed, along with no consideration of societal expectations or ontological constitution. In other words it is in excess of reality. The reality principle imposes limits on the pleasure principle, whereas the ‘Real’ of jouissance is consequently beyond the pleasure principle. In short, the cyborg is a species of jouissance.

The cyborg may well have bypassed any Oedipallic constitution, but it is still subject to the same principles concerning sexual enjoyment. As I have already mentioned, its cybernetic basis makes it perfectly adaptable to Lacan’s understanding of jouissance. At this stage, I will further explain how.

Part 4 tomorrow


The Cyborg Future of Enjoyment Part 2/5

(Written 2008)

The Construction site of Woman

In a seminar called God and the jouissance of Woman which is published in his influential set of seminars Encore! Jacques Lacan explained of feminine enjoyment that since it requires more than just the phallus – the image definition of the symbolic order – it must exceed being. This excess of being, Lacan designates, is on par with God, for what God represents is the ‘other’ of being (the supreme being). Woman, as positioned in the (paternalized) symbolic order is the ‘other’ of Man’s being.

In light of this, how are we to interpret Haraway’s comments at the end of her manifesto ‘I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess’?

As both Haraway and Lacan would testify Woman is a socially constructed category. For Lacan, male sexual desire is not fulfilled in Woman, but rather she is his objet petit a (cause of his desire), or object a(-utre); the ‘other’ of Man’s being which, in the dominating world of the visual (which assumes the dominance of the phallus over the so-called ‘lack’ of the female genitals), organizes Man’s fantasy. Further, as Teresa Brennan in her book Lacan After History posits “the idealized woman is the anchor of man’s identity and the guarantee of his ‘Truth’ ” (26). Brennan points out in a footnote that Lacan’s complex position of “idealization” is that it “makes the ‘lady’ into something considerably less than a subject” (26, fn. 1).

For Lacan, the idealization and denigration of women, as Brennan puts it, is a transhistorical inevitability; the symbolic order is necessary for sanity though at the same time it gives rise to the world of the visual, in which the phallus dominates. Brennan quite pessimistically expresses that the idealization, that is the psychical fantasy of Woman, of her as, not subject but simply objet petit a, is forever more, or at least for as long as we are sane.

For a contemporary Lacanian insight on gender, Slavoj Zizek in his book The Parallax View concludes that “there is only One, the gap is inherent to the One itself” (36). So in Lacan’s terminology, feminine ontology functions as pastoute (not-all) “as a part which has to be integrated into the whole” (Benvenuto and Kennedy 1986, 186). For this reason, and again to qualify the Lacanese, ‘there is no sexual relationship’ (il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel) – there is only one identity; whole and partial. Donna Haraway recognizes this and in suit asks “[w]hat kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective – and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” (157)

The answer becomes clear.

“There is not even such a state as ‘being’ female” Haraway claims, “itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices” (155). On this point Haraway criticizes much of the US feminism movement for its second-rate response to domination with identity, and not, preferable to her ‘affinity’. Moreover, since, by Haraway’s own admission, ‘there is nothing about being “female” that naturally binds women’; feminism might be best embracing partial identities. This branch of feminism Haraway goes on to call cyborg feminism, partly against Marxian and socialist-feminism which “totalizes” Woman.

The wider world in which the cyborg feminist must struggle to achieve, according to Haraway, “might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (154). For a feminism which accepts the social construction thesis of Lacan – “nature’s discursive constitution” as Haraway specifies in her essay The Promise of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others (para. 4) – that Woman can never fully be a subject due to the visual nature of the symbolic order, and since sanity rests on their being a symbolic order so it remains, the cyborg theory of Donna Haraway issues a new emancipation in partiality, not wholeness.

Whereas the gendered world configures the sense of sight solely for the phallocrats, the cyborg world marks masculinity as partial.

To answer my question on how to interpret Haraway’s comments; though goddesses are superior beings, they are still mediated through masculinity; they are still so to speak of-god. The cyborg is a superior being, mediated not through the (ph)allacy of gender but by the totality of its environment.

Part 3 tomorrow

The Cyborg Future of Enjoyment Part 1/5

(Written July 2008)

Popular culture has created many fictional forms of the cyborg, from Rachel in Ripley Scott’s Blade Runner to The Terminator. But for some, the cyborg is not simply a fictional myth. Foremost cyborg theorist Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto has defined it as a cybernetic creature of both lived society and fiction. Since there are no indicated boundaries between the two, there is a struggle to define and control the cyborg properly, this “border war” being fought vie an “optical illusion” (149).

Modern Medicine, Haraway continues, is already full of cyborgs. Indeed the possibility of a complete scanning of the human body in order to replicate a digitized 3-D figure for digital slicing, an effort known as VHP (Visible Human Project), will be made common medical practice in the near future (for more see Hayles). The cyborg, also, is not defined by gender; “it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis […] or other seductions to organic wholeness [constituted by] all the powers of the parts into a higher unity” (150).

For some who are anxious of those who, like Haraway expresses in her Informatics of Domination, embrace genetic engineering, such as R. Klein who Nadia Mahjouri in her paper on Techno-Maternity quotes as saying “[g]enetic and reproductive engineering is another attempt to end self-determination over our own bodies” (para. 4) Haraway is keen to show that techno-science has already begun the process of such engineering, and the feeling of being mediated by it already exists.

The cyborg also designates new and legitimate forms of sexual enjoyment. In much the same way that a cyborg is a cybernetic organism receiving and transmitting information in a control loop, eroticism is, in Lacan’s terminology, the aim, or the directing of oneself in a pleasurable act. The pleasure is pleasure experienced within oneself, and so therefore ones aim is returned. As Elizabeth Grosz terms it “[a] reintegration into the circuit of a perfectly self-enclosed auto-eroticism” (77).

The cyborg as hybrid of machine and organism takes on the circuitry of both, the control system of the former, and the auto-eroticism of the latter. In terms of sexuality, the cyborg is perfectly created for self-satisfaction. For example, cybersex is an encounter which takes place with an assumed reciprocate. The enjoyment of the incoming messages from the communication technology is self-enclosed, it is not an enjoyment which is obligated simultaneously to satisfy a phallic signifier, a point I will extend later.

Similarly, Slavoj Zizek, in an interview with Flash Art in 1992 talks about the ‘minitel’, a once fashionable mini-computer available in France, which was the preferred medium of instant-messaging sex. Not one to miss a Lacanian reading, Zizek informs that the point of the message exchange is not that it will lead to meeting up, swapping addresses, but rather the “entire satisfaction, the jouissance is that you do not know and will never know who the other is” (para. 18). The satisfaction gained is, as he describes it, wound up in the “purely symbolic exchange.”

Cybersex even has its laws and taboos. A unique case occurred May 16, 2008 when a Texas Minister of a Dallas Megachurch was charged with online solicitation of a minor, the first time a sexual legal case has taken place where the victim and culprit were not in the same room at the scene of the crime.

So since sex mediated by machines has its principles, and these principles can be exceeded (as the above example demonstrates) cyborgs can experience the form of excess, otherwise known as jouissance.

The aim of this article is to marry the cyborg as Donna Haraway theorized it with Lacan’s notion of jouissance in order to get some sense of the future of (sexual) enjoyment in an age of combined bio- and communication-technologies, that is to say, humanity mediated in the domain of science and technology. To do this, I will firstly bring together both Haraway’s and Lacan’s accounts of feminine ontology, then go into a more detailed definition of the cyborg, and round it up by seeing where jouissance fits into the cyborg ontology. With this I will use an example of a chat-room user who engages in the activity I have come to term as cyborg enjoyment.

Part 2 tomorrow

The Unraised Hands and the Emergence of the Neo-Romantics, or Does Nick Cohen caricature the left?

As I do every Sunday morning, I read Nick Cohen’s Observer column, knowing full well that one of two emotions will occur (as is always the case when I read him); that I’ll find myself shouting at the computer with disagreement, cursing and blaspheming, or that my hands and head quiver with agreement, as if to try and convince the screen of how correct this or that assertion is, whilst secretly wishing I’d put it that way myself. There is no middle position, and I know people feel he has lost his way, but if I’m still reduced to either of these states, then who am I to complain.

Today, much the same, but in mini. Cohen, on the subject of Ian McEwan’s new book Solar and the complexities of satire, anti-postmodernism and climate change denialism, notes that:

My colleagues should note that McEwan shows that the ICA rather than the Cape Farewell project has been the true butt of satirists ever since Amis invited its relativist crowd to raise their hands if they thought they were morally superior to the Taliban and only one third did. (“So many?” I hear you gasp. Yes, I was surprised too.)

There are a number of complaints I have about Cohen’s work, that do in part stem from his book What’s Left, which takes a stab at two things which I hold rather dear, namely the left, and  certain current academic philosophy. For a start I enjoy reading the works of Slavoj Zizek, who I feel Cohen would find himself in agreement with if he looked into the reasons why Zizek’s vision of left wing politics is not to follow the liberal-left strain that runs through today. For Zizek, the European left is too far of the ilk that takes arguments like moral relatvism as sound, that is predicated on guilt (Romantic) and not evidence or analysis (reason), instead it is reduced to sentimentalities, and this is why two thirds of the redundent left raised not their hands.

Unfortunately, Cohen in his book did not aim to separate the modes of thinking, instead reduced all postmodernist language as belonging to the same quest – that of folly, not answering questions, or not saying anything at all (he rightly exemplifies Judith Butler for belonging here, but her language is a product of the time, in business-speak her Unique Selling Point that, in spite of what was written about her by Cohen, has something behind all the avant garde language Butler employs – gender is a kind of culturally constructed element that we are enforced to perform, as if it is an acting role that informs our sexual ontology – and it is this I disagree with, the style I just have to accept as what the audience wants. Cohen has no truck with this, but, then, it’s his loss – those who write with the postmodernist language, are not always postmodernist philosophers, and should be seen, in the context of the academic world, as having its equivalent in if a Guardian journalist was to try and win over Mirror-reading voters, a toned down language and subject matter, or any similar equivalent – the same man with the noble message persists behind the language, only it is used differently to suit the audience).

When I read Zizek denigrate the guit-ridden postmodern leftism that persists today, I put my argument in order that it doesn’t echo that most ridiculous form of left wing expression (for I like to think my own politics are not predicated on guilt, nor should I have any truck with politics which does), but when reading Cohen talk about the left, I almost feel as if I’m meant to take on this burden, where I might not raise my hand in the ICA. But let us be clear; the left has not lost its way, the people for whom Cohen talks about, the quaker-vegetarian chatteristas as it were, are not the left. Cohen rightly pours scorn on an expression of left wing politics which is peculiar, but like the example of postmodern language, sometimes expression fails meaning, or meaning is lost in expression. My problem with Cohen, therefore, is not what he says, for which a lot of the time I agree, but to dignify a lot of these romantic cranks – by which is meant politics of emotion not evidence, like those who didn’t raise their hand are – as leftwing is a perversion. I here call for the definitions to be modified; for those who have their politics arranged on merit of an emotional proximity must be the romantics, for those who have, as best they can, removed their emotional proximity to their politics, must be defined by any other name.

Charity, Compassionate Capitalism and the Alms Race

The 7th of March marks the end of fair trade fortnight; and what a noble campaign it is too, not simply serving to allow indifferent middle class westerners to drop a couple of coins in a pot, but actually a way of addressing some of the pitfalls of our trade system in a way that promotes fair remuneration for hard work in the world’s most impoverished countries.

But the sort of indifferent charity that the fair trade campaign seeks to undercut is very much an ongoing, prevalent part of our society that despite all of its pretences must be challenged in a very particular way.

A rather simplified version of its history is as follows; somewhere in the middle of the yuppie revolution and the bursting of the housing bubble/financial meltdown of September 2008, began a trend within cohorts of very wealthy white men that pursued philanthropy rather than fast cars and girls (perhaps, given the type of the people these were, it had something to do with their age).

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek, whose book Violence (2008) mentions a great deal the new age philanthropists or, as they are most ill-fittingly called in some circles the “liberal communists”. Proponents include Bill Gates and George Soros the Chief Executives of Google, IBM, Intel and eBay. What is so unique about these characters is that they perceive themselves as philanthropists first and businessmen second, who advocate social responsibility and the breakdown of bureaucratisation, set up humanitarian programs and wax lyrical about the environment, and, sure, if they make a little money in the running what is the harm (in the words of Ted Turner, the largest individual landowner in North America, “its how you use [wealth]. So you have to say I can do better, and I will feel better by giving this up, than I’ll do if I just keep it”).

We can see Žižek’s logic here; of course these billionaires can give up their cash for world hunger, it’s no skin off their backs. But Žižek’s particular critique is much more than that. Whether certain figureheads for capitalism have a conscience or not is quite beside the point, what is important here, for Žižek, is that capitalism still has its underlying logic, and that is the ruthless pursuit of profit. The charity element is a way to conceal the truth, a way to appease guilt, or at least to be perceived as appeasing guilt.

No way is Žižek the first to notice such a peculiar function of the logic of charity, the English utilitarian philosopher Henry Sidgwick also had a sneaky suspicion about the ego massaging, smug co-ordinates of charity when he mentioned “the old and eminent virtue of charity”, which, as freelance historian journalist Jonathan Rée has recently pointed out, ‘he thought, encouraged “indiscriminate almsgiving” of a kind that did more to cheer the giver than to alleviate inequality or help the poor’.

The phenomenon has not been lost on our literary canon either. The 1897 novel Captains Courageous by Rudyard Kipling follows the fifteen-year-old, rich-kid son of a railroad tycoon, Harvey Cheyne Jr. whose perversions take him to regain vitality by brief periods of intimacy with poor folk in what, at first, seems like compassion but is really a kind of “vampiric exploitation”.

Michael Edwards, who is the distinguished senior fellow at Demos in New York, and the author of Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World also worries about what effect the new “philanthro-capitalists” will have on future modes of mass movements against poverty. He said on CiF recently:

The philanthro-capitalists’ desire for data and control also directs the lion’s share of resources to the biggest and most accessible NGOs that can absorb large amounts of foreign funding, not the social movements that can pressure their own governments to perform in the public interest and mobilise large numbers of people to defend their rights

Though cynically we can take a sound guess that charity is often used as a way of deflecting guilt, it also maintains the existing systematic gap between rich nations and poor nations. Though fair trade operates at roughly the same logic (rich corporations paying a poor producer an arbitrary sum now known as a fair wage) it is a way of taking farmers out of their poverty that relies on the mobilisation of interest groups and people, not the guilt-ridden exploration by fat cats, engaged in what we can safely say is now an alms race.

Charity may well be the means by which the rich West pretends to do something in order to sleep at night, but that doesn’t mean it should stop because as a consequence some change is made. Simply giving money isn’t enough, so until the systemic inequality between nations has ended (no date has yet been decided), people-motivated initiatives like fair trade are the only means we have, just let us not get too surprised when odious corporations like Nestle jump on the bandwagon (it’s called compassionate capitalism now).

Death, Alexander McQueen, Judas and Martin Luther King

Was Judas a friend or foe of Jesus Chris?

Such is an ongoing theological debate: that those who attended – in Christ’s presence – the gospel passover, must do what Christ says, is it not therefore telling that Christ tells Judas that he is the one who must betray him. What is revealing in Judas’ subservient answer “Master, is it I? He said unto him, Thou hast said” (Matthew 26:25)?

What exactly are the co-ordinates of doing betrayal to someone who has asked, and that you follow their every command? A peculiar anomaly.

Slavoj Zizek has used this as an example of the vanishing mediator in his book The Puppet and the Dwarf precisely because Judas – rather than being any sort of anti-Christ, worse than the other disciples – is the invisible debtor to Christianity’s history, success. For Christianity to follow on as usual, Christ needed to have a follower do betrayal of him.

Zizek explains that Freud did this with Judaism, but also a weird Freudian slip informed us of the vanishing mediator at work in the case of Martin Luther King. At an event set to commemorate King, the people of Lauderville, Florida, invited actor James Earl Jones to do a speech in 2002, even going as far as presenting Jones with a plaque as a way of thanks. Unfortunately however they presented him with a plaque which stated the name James Earl Ray – the man who shot and killed Martin Luther King – and thanked him for keeping the dream alive.

Zizek in his inimitable way calls this a Freudian slip, but surely it is just a fuck-up. Not so, a Freudian slip implies there is an element of truth, kept under wraps so to speak, about a statement. Zizek goes on to explain that Martin Luther King, weeks before he was shot, engaged in workers rallies and championed the proletarian cause with both white and black workers. If this had been any more established King would’ve been written in history as a activist of workers rights, and not part of the civil rights movement – a position that is fully congruent with American ideology – proven today by the presidency of Barack Obama.

So in this sense, James Earl Ray having killed King at the right time has meant that the dream has been kept alive – and not obscured in the ether of workers’ movements in America.

Love, in the case of Judas, is betrayal. With James Earl Ray, he is the man with whom to thank for Martin Luther King’s dream being woven in to the fabric of the American soul.

Unfortunately, with our proximity to the situation – with our fixedness in time – we are unable to prescribe what a vanishing mediator will be to a certain situation. As with all notions of cause and effect, who can tell what the effect will be when we are situationally only a part of the cause, and who can tell what the cause is of ourselves – ourselves being, itself, a cause. Maybe this is why Alexander McQueen has died? Perhaps the death of his Mother provided the grounds with whichn to pursue another new fashion epoch? Or better still, can this model show that fashion has “glimpse[d its …] own mortality” – to misquote the wisdom of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Linlithgow and Falkirk East in the 2005 General Election.

Maybe not.

Cornel West: The Modern day Griot (Part 2)

Cornel Ronald West was born June 2nd 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was in his teenage years when his activism started to develop, caught up in the middle of civil rights demonstrations in which he helped organise and march on. His Harvard years would see him being taught by the libertarian influenced Robert Nozick, most famous for his work on epistemology and his contribution to the brain-in-a-vat thought experiment. His militancy also started here, pushing for his political agenda’s to be met by the education hierarchies and creating a platform for his own “African, Christian and de-colonized outlooks.”


West’s academic life has been truly prolific since the completion of his doctoral thesis on Marxist ethics, which he earned from Princeton in 1980. He is currently the class of 1943 Professor of Princeton University in the centre for African American Studies and the department of Religion. He holds 20 honorary degrees and is the author of 19 books that examine subjects as wide-ranging as racism, the Black Baptist Church, philosophy of religion and jazz. As well as writing books, he helped develop the philosophically charged storyline for the Wachowski brothers’ film The Matrix (1999) doubling up as the film’s official spokesperson and appearing in the final 2 films as Councillor West.


Unheard of for most intellectuals, when he is not working on anything academic or in film, West works on his musical career. He has recorded 3 music albums to date. His last album Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations featured some eminent names such as Prince, Outkast, Talib Kweli and KRS-ONE and took a stand against homophobic rap culture and lyrics that are considered derogatory to women.


Along with the recording of CD’s, advising Rev. Al Sharpton on his 2004 presidential campaign, and several lecture post cancellations, West drew some rather strident criticism from several other professors, who began questioning West’s intellectual rigour. One criticism in particular came from the Conservative professor of Comparative Literature John McWhorter who in April 2002 had written an impassioned article in the Wall Street Journal criticising West for replacing scholarly output with personal gain. McWhorter, who felt that it was inappropriate to keep West on as one of only 14 professors at Harvard, also speculated on West’s recent “decamp to Princeton” which began with a high-profile dispute with Lawrence H. Summers, the former president of Harvard.


The dispute started with Summers’ concern that West had started to neglect serious scholarly activity, and that West’s recent work had only consisted of edited volumes. Summers claims that West had cancelled three weeks worth of classes to endorse Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign which led to West responding that he’d cancelled only one class to deliver an address at a “Harvard-sponsored conference on AIDS.” West felt that an academic should be specialised and faithful to her/his field but should not be limited to it, which encroached upon Summers’ very strict view of an academics’ duty and, according to West, is the totality of the disagreement.


But the disagreement went further still when West was taken ill with prostate cancer, he became disappointed that Summers had taken so long to send a get-well message (according to Pam Belluck and Jacques Steinberg for the New York Times in 2002) when by contrast new Princeton president, Shirley M. Tilghman “had called him almost weekly.” West ended up calling Summers the “Ariel Sharon of American Higher Education” and accepted an extended job offer made by Princeton, where he remains.


West’s public intellectual status began with the 1993 release of Race Matters, which has sold half a million copies to date. At the start of his book writing career his political orientation was leaning more towards Marxism, with releases such as Prophecy Deliverance! (1982) and Prophetic Fragments (1988) that contended that class plays a far heavier significance than race in determining who is able to possess and who is lacking in societal power. But it was at the time of West’s release The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989) where his intellectual attitudes began to modify, in which he took up more existential concerns.


For West, to be a left-winger today, one has to be concerned at the level of both the institutional and the existential. In an interview with Democracy Now West claimed that the left today must target “the catastrophic … [so] often concealed in the deodorised and manicured discourses of the mainstream.” This bears many significant parallels to the new project taken up by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, admired by West who chaired an event in November 2005 at Princeton for him, in his 2008 book Violence. The book aims to describe the differences between the violence we see on the news in the form of thuggery and the violence incurred by the workings of the rogue bankers tweaking the economy. The difference, for Žižek, is the difference between “subjective” and “objective” violence. That is to say, “subjective” violence is the perceptibly obvious violence seen on the streets in the form of “crime and terror, civil unrest, international conflict” whereas “objective” violence is the unseen form of violence that takes the form of either the “symbolic” (bound in language and its forms), or the “systemic” (the catastrophic consequences of our economy when it is functioning as normal). The very notion that this objective violence is unseen sustains the level with which we perceive something as subjectively violent.


Žižek readily points to the likes of Bill Gates and George Soros as figureheads of a new type of business ethic that implicitly incorporates objective violence. They create a philanthropic standard for themselves at which they desire to be perceived, when in fact the more appropriate standard to which one should perceive them is at the concealed level of their function in the economy, an economy that determines the fate of individuals and whole nations. For instance when their philanthropy is contrasted to a street robber it might seem obvious who the violent criminal is, but when we start to analyse that which may not be readily perceptible – objective violence – we start to understand their violence at another level, which the philanthropy has been used to camouflage.


The notion of objective violence is precisely analogous to what West meant when he called on “sleepwalkers”, during a debate at the 2007 Left Forum in New York, to “wake up from indifference to other people’s suffering.” Market-driven culture, as West would put it, has made people very complacent with their attitudes towards their fellow beings, precisely because of the so-called philanthropic standard, which the capitalist class promotes. West here is calling on an “institutional” solution – like West’s wish that Obama had said something before his inauguration about the Israeli-Palestine conflict – and also, more importantly, an existential one in which we wake up and put the pressure on the government to stop the suffering.


West’s insistence on political existentialism emanates from his views on race. For him the birth of American racism and what he identified in Race Matters as black “existential angst” – which he believes still persists – originated in 1619, when America received shiploads of slaves. At this point, says West, America had both white and black slaves, and slavery itself was not yet “racialised”, but come 1621, white slaves had been named, whereas black slaves were identified simply by reference to their skin colour. West attributes this event as advancing the “black problematic of namelessness.” The black struggle that began with the abolitionist movement, all the way through to the civil rights movement, and to the present day is an expression of the fight against this “namelessness.” And it is an issue that West has always felt himself inextricably linked to. (Part 3 tomorrow)