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MLA 07 Paper: Sameness or, the Declaration of Futuristic Democracy

Posted in papers, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 24 February 2013 by Ben

Another one from the vaults. Although I am certain that I am making mistakes in my readings of the various thinkers I engage here, I am nevertheless rather proud of this paper, which was easily the most well-received of any paper I have ever given. It is also much more coherent. I must have put a lot more effort into conference papers back then.


My plans for this paper initially included a formulation of a theory of declaration, a means by which to break the Sameness of the endless present, a means of destroying extant relationships, especially those that involve asymmetrical power. In fact, this declaration was to posit a means by which asymmetrical power can become symmetrical, much in the manner that Thoreau claims that a single just man can stand up to the power of the state and disrupt its hegemony. However, what I discovered in my thinking was that, far from interrupting Sameness, declaration, as it is understood historically and in the context of documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, far from being that which interrupts Sameness and inaugurates the future, is that which produces Sameness. It is thus, in my argument, an agent of the futuristic, a false future that is merely an extrapolation from the present. This paper is about this issue.

Throughout his work Giorgio Agamben returns to Aristotle’s conception of the ground, that formulation through which things are categorized. As he puts it in The Open, in reference to a passage from De anima, “Here we see at work that principal of foundation which constitutes the strategic device par excellance of Aristotle’s thought. It consists in reformulating every question concerning ‘what something is’ as a question concerning ‘through what something belongs to another thing’” (14). Following from his attention to the Aristotelian ground, Agamben is concerned in much of his work on biopolitics with the question of inclusion and exclusion and the role it plays in the modern nation-state.

Similarly, Carl Schmitt turns to Aristotle in the preface to the second edition of The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, where he first notes that the notion of government by discussion, parliamentarianism, belongs not to democracy but, rather, to liberalism, a concept that Schmitt distinguishes from democracy. Writes Schmitt, cribbing from Aristotle’s Politics, “Every actual democracy rests on the principal that not only are equals equal but unequals will not be treated equally. Democracy requires, therefore, first homogeneity and second—if the need arises—elimination or eradication of heterogeneity” (9). Building upon his claim, Schmitt populates this equation with what, for Agamben and this paper, are problematic terms when he states that a “democracy demonstrates its political power by knowing how to refuse or keep at bay something foreign and unequal that threatens its homogeneity” (9). Schmitt would elaborate this distinction between the interior that is equal and the exterior that is not in The Concept of the Political, where he claims that the primary political opposition is that between friend and enemy. Agamben’s work marks a decisive turning away from Schmitt’s categories characterized by a reading of Aristotle that demonstrates the primacy of the formulation of the ground rather than the appearance of any particular instantiation of that formula. The significance of this turning away will become evident in the course of this paper.

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MLA 08 paper: Corruption and Sameness in the Twenty-First-Century Oil Narrative

Posted in papers, Writing on 24 February 2013 by Ben

I’m forever bumping into old work that, while interesting to me at the time and even today, simply never went anywhere in terms of publication or as part of  a longer term project. I had been focused for a couple of years on a project called Corruption and Sameness, before I turned my attention to media and science fiction (separately and together. This was to be part of that, but it never got past the conference paper stage.

The first three sections are fairly coherent, even if they do not naturally transition into and out of one another. At the end, as is the case when I write anything, but especially conference papers, there is some miscellaneous stuff that I never had a chance to get into the body (for whatever reason–thanks Agamben). It breaks down a bit at the end of the second section and then again at the end of the third, during which I extemporized a bit–relying on my natural charm to see me through. I added in the two videos for this post.

I can only refer to this as a “paper” in the loosest sense of the term. It’s more a series of ideas. Or perhaps three propositions in search of an argument.

Part I: Technologies of the Same

The present state of affairs with regard to US energy policy/oil dependency, is, to me, untenable. That point is, it seems, unexceptionable in reasonable contexts, as demonstrated in documentaries such as A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash, A History of Oil, An Inconvenient Truth, and Enron: The Smartest Guys in The Room. Of course, those contexts that count are, it seems, hardly reasonable, and, given those contexts, these texts are able to do little more than document problems; that is, they in no way set or even advise energy policy. This issue is not so much tied to this issue of rightness or wrongness, but rather to the fact that these truths are inconvenient.

The means by which these inconveniences are overcome, ignored, reconciled with other truths upon which they can gain no purchase, are what I call technologies of the same. They do nothing but sustain, even in the certain knowledge of, in fact the demonstration, unsustainability. I will discuss shortly Syriana, a film in which these technologies are on full display. Let me first mention an anecdote from the book upon which Syriana is based, ex-CIA field operative Robert Baer’s See No Evil. What’s odd about the fact that the film is based on the book is that the book has almost nothing to do with oil and is only at times about the Middle East. It is, instead, a personal history of time spent as an agent in CIA: recruiting assets and trying to get Washington to pay attention to what is actually happening in the world. Of such a moment, Baer writes: “But the point was that Washington’s fantasy about a nonviolent overthrow of Saddam helped the big thinkers there to sleep at night, and since we had no human resources inside or even near Saddam’s circle—none—there was nothing to bring them back down to earth” (175). Here Baer is not referring to the relatively recent “greetings with flowers” Cheney and Rumsfeld described, but rather to the political climate in 1995. Later, in reference to a coup attempt in Iraq that same year, one that failed largely because of a US refusal of support, Baer writes, “I knew enough about the way Washington worked to know that when it didn’t like some piece of information, it did everything in its power to discredit the messengers, which in this case were Chalabi and the general. So the corporate line in Washington was that nothing had happened in Iraq on March 4, nothing at all. Frankly, at that point, I wondered if Washington was right” (205). Perhaps it is, after postmodernism, too easy to state that these examples demonstrate yet again that representations often trump materiality, that discourse shapes the world. However, it cannot be said often enough that such representations clearly serve the interests of those with power. Most important, what must also be thought is the nature of these interests, which are not interests in the sense that they will pay actual dividends. That is, they are not financial interests, so to speak, just as we are not here discussing energy futures but rather the future of energy. We must think of these interests as something like what Ralph Ellison calls, in one of my favorite lines, “those lies [the] keepers keep their power by” (439). In other words, these present no opportunity for gain, as Washington’s inaction in 1995 demonstrate—whatever you think about outsing Saddam Hussein, you must recognize that such an event would have represented progress of some sort for Washington in 1995; rather than gain, they merely present the opportunity for more of the same, for the powerful to do what they do: congratulate each other for being powerful for the sake of being powerful over cognac and cigars.

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MLA 12 paper: Digital Anamnesis

Posted in papers on 6 January 2012 by Ben

Here is my paper from session 87, Digital Literary Studies: When Will it End?

Thanks to David Golumbia for organizing it and to my co-speaker John Zuern.

The end of this (after the 1st 2 sections of the last section) get a bit “draft-y” or perhaps “notes-y”. I am working on that stuff, having to do with the political economy of academic instruction and production, for the upcoming Marxism and New Media conference at Duke.

Digital Anamnesis


This paper grows out of my ongoing concern with how we produce the future rather than the futuristic, how we produce a to-come that is not merely an extension of the past. I have for the past several years been thinking of this issue in the context of the mashup, a form of sonic collage that remixes the music from one song with the vocals from another. I’ve been thinking about how the logic of mashup, and that of the playlist, changes our relationship to the archive of recorded human knowledge, that knowledge that Bernard Stiegler understands to be stored within what he calls, following Husserl, tertiary retentions. He also refers to this recording as hypomnesis, or memory outside of memory.

This remix logic, creates a new human disposition towards the archive. Instead of historical knowledge, in which information is disposed in its wider synchronic and diachronic contexts, the archive now presents to us what Garageband calls loops, Vilem Flusser calls particles, and Stiegler might call grams: small bits of information whose purpose is not to exist according to historical dispositions, but rather to be disposed in new arrangements without regard for such contexts. I am not sure if these rearrangements do, in fact, break with the past, if they create a future that is not the futuristic no matter how startling the juxtapositions they manifest. Nonetheless, I continue to hope for such a possibility even as I am concerned about what would happen to historical meaning and thereby sanctioned knowledge practices when everything becomes a mashup, playlist, or remix. With regard to a future that is not futuristic I remain in a state of hesitation. If we break with the past, how will we understand the future? Of course, that I even ask this question, that such a question remains my concern, indicates the extent to which I am and likely will remain unable to actually break with the past, indicates the extent of my hesitation.

Thus, I turn to the paper at hand, and shift from the mashup to practices of knowledge production and sanctioning in academia. And to be clear, I do not mean to simply equate mashups with scholarship except insofar as they are both practices of meaning-making and insofar as they both involve, at this present date, new media technologies. So, I will do two things today and point towards a third. First, I will discuss Bernard Stiegler’s engagement with Plato’s concept of anamnesis in order to further elaborate the problem of the new and the manner in which that new threatens knowledge practices, especially for Stiegler. Second, I will tie this discussion to the section in the recent issue of Profession on evaluating digital scholarship. Finally, and most briefly, I will suggest that this discussion might be elaborated by thinking of it as a discussion of a political economy of academic instruction and production.

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