Pluralist Universalism is an original and daring book that prompts us to re-think the politics of difference within and across national boundaries. Literary scholar Wen Jin has developed an innovative approach to the study of multicultural narratives that emerge from two distinct and yet intertwined national contexts – namely, China and United States after the Cold War. Rigorously researched with meticulous attention to both national histories and transnational linkages, Jin’s work has offered a great model for critical, comparative scholarship that challenges nation- or state- based frameworks.
Author Archives: politics
Review of Wen Jin’s “Pluralist Universalism: An Asian Americanist Critique of U.S. and Chinese Multiculturalisms” by Fan Yang
I stand by the ‘politics of prescription’ that I outlined back in 2005, and that Timothy Kaposy has kindly taken the time to consider in his article above. I think the general emphasis on universalisable and egalitarian principle, on subjective commitment and resolve, on the logic of consequence and anticipation, on an engagement with the strategic constraints of a specific situation, etc., remain pertinent to any conception of emancipatory politics worthy of the name. If anything, the last few years (2011-2014) have shown that these themes deserve more systematic attention, and appreciation, both in the domain of practical politics and in the domains of philosophy and political theory.
“Philosophy is first and foremost this: the invention of new problems.”
Published in 2004 with South Atlantic Quarterly, Peter Hallward’s essay “The Politics of Prescription,” is one of the most instructive responses to the philosophy of Alain Badiou to date. The essay breaks from the usual commentary about Badiou to explain a decrease of politically engaging philosophy across national contexts since 1973. Comprised of twelve theses, Hallward’s essay focuses on prescription as the “concrete transformation of those relations that sustain inequality, exploitation, or oppression” in the present.  Prescription is by no means exclusive to philosophy (re: medicine); nevertheless, the term helps Hallward for “a way out of an impasse” via a critique of philosophy’s underwriting of liberal statecraft. Where liberal political discourses of “communication, community, consensus, toleration, recognition, and so on” metastasize fantasies of social progress today, any reader of the daily news realizes these terms legitimate inaction amid systemic injustices. Prescription, by contrast, is a theoretical problem that Hallward makes explicit to seek an end to philosophy’s growing complicity with political orthodoxies.
The philosophical injunction to grasp one’s time in thought is beset today by an oscillation between disorienting anxiety and a renascent enthusiasm. The anxiety is determined by the objective temporality of crisis, understood, in keeping with the medical derivation of the term from Hippocratic medicine, as that phase “in which a decision is due but has not yet been rendered” (Koselleck 361); when decisions are looking for their subjects. It is an anxiety that is also shadowed by a catastrophic tonality; in the absence of sublime visions of final collapse, there is a deep-seated sense that social stagnation or regression will continue to shadow any possible ‘recovery’, and that the only events punctuating an otherwise featureless future will be starkly negative.
Applied to education, Alain Badiou’s work on ethics fundamentally challenges a dominant contemporary vision of education as a sophist’s affair (Bartlett, 2011; and as detailed in the North American context, see den Heyer, 2009a). This is a kind of education marked, first, by what A. J Bartlett explores as the ‘sophistic end (of preparing the youth with ‘skills’ to make their way in the state),’ second by ‘sophistic practice (which treats education as a commodity to be exchanged for other goods)’ and, finally, by sophistical ‘theory […] exemplified in the “democratic” relativism of Protagoras’s maxim that “man is the measure of all things”’ (Bartlett, 2011, p. 37). In contrast, Badiou affirms a life and an education by “truths” born of our ontological relationship to the “void”-set axiomatically contained, as Badiou applies set-theory, to all humanly constructed situations or set ups. Regardless of one’s social position, reputation, or usefulness to the state, we are all equidistance to the void. Encountering the void, ripping our tissues of knowledge or “opinion,” we encounter an “event” as that opportunity for “truth procedures” to articulate what will have been absurd not to have believed (an ethics in the tense of the future anterior, see den Heyer, 2009b; Gibson, 2006): “[A]s with anything that constitutes an event, worlds are turned upside down, neuroses engendered, terrible beauties are born and education departments are forced to confront something that they are professionally required to find incomprehensible, namely, the desire to be educated, as something over and above the development of a specialist-knowledge, vocational competence, or the vague promotion of currently venerated ‘values’ “(Cooke, 2013, p. 3).
“Philosophy, which requires the deployment of four conditions, cannot specialize in any one of them.” -Alain Badiou, Metapolitics.
“[…] la détermination de l’essence de la politique, ne pouvant s’assurer ni de la structure (inconsistance des ensembles, dé-liaison) ni du sens (l’Histoire ne fait pas tout), n’a d’autre repère que l’événement.” -Alain Badiou, Peut-on penser la politique?
In “Politics in the Wake of Actually Existing Zeal,” after trying to explain some of the reasons for the urgency and necessity of Alain Badiou’s interventions in the current debate over philosophy and politics, Andrew Pendakis in his inimitable style—just look at the devastating sarcasm of the title alone—raises a set of “irritating questions” with which my book Badiou and Politics left him flush and unsettled. Though I may have provoked them, these questions seem less aimed at my work than at the thought of Badiou, so that it may seem presumptuous and out of place for me to try to answer them here. Badiou is certainly capable of speaking for himself, and I am less and less inclined to accept to be put in the position of having to defend or represent him. Nevertheless, insofar as several of the questions before us expand on doubts, criticisms, and polemical objections that I myself raise in Badiou and Politics, perhaps this is a good moment to reflect and comment on where I stand now and what I would do or am doing differently today.
“Politics in the Wake of Actually Existing Zeal: Badiou, Bosteels, and the Question of Political Affect” by Andrew Pendakis
Today’s first impressions leave us little room for doubt that between philosophy and politics there is nothing more to be said. Insofar as the former names a beleaguered, culturally peripheral disciplinary practice, it shares with stenography and bowling that dusty sense of lost necessity proper to all extinct, but once glowingly actual life-forms and habits. When it is not simply outright forgotten philosophy, like military history or Sudoku, fulfills the role of an involving cultural ‘pastime’. Obama famously huddled over Seneca at midnight: our moment’s dominant conception of the relationship between politics and philosophy defaults onto the grimly literal image of a presidential reading list. Such anecdotes, of course, consign philosophy to the same space reserved for religion and yoga, a marginal zone of leisured reflection where the vigorous actuality of politics can be regenerated by healing slowness and spirit. However bureaucratized its imperatives, however automated its contemporary forms, politics remains symptomatically attached to the Romantic particularity of the lawgiver, a mind and body that must periodically exit the bustle of policy to later return refreshed from discourse in the sober fora of the ancients. Such is seemingly the best possible destiny of the philosopher: court whisperer, scratchy voice of reason, high-flown ancient wisdom on the margins of actually existing power.
Last Stop of the Academy: Teaching Gender in the Men’s Prison by Jane Chin Davidson and Shreerekha Subramanian
The American penal system is perhaps the world’s greatest example of neoliberal reform wherein prisoners’ access to university education is posited as the means to transform “criminal” into “citizen.” As female professors teaching all-male students in a particular MA Humanities course in the Texas state penitentiary, we have the opportunity to address the problematic assumptions that relate to the “authentic” work of a reconstituted materialist feminism – our project adopts an empirical strategy for teaching issues of gender, “race” and relations of power, which complicates the question of the materialist “real” in the context of the academy and the prison. This particular prison institution in Texas was built upon the oldest cotton plantation in the state, emphasizing an American system of punishment that appears to pick up where slavery left off. Feminist activists such as Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have advocated against the prison industrial complex based on the growing understanding that the prison is an institution of sexual and racial injustice. Davis looks to communal and educational remedies outside state rehabilitation, a solution that would seem compatible to her role as a university professor. However, as Davis is aware, the academic system can itself be viewed as another type of industrial complex. In the current budgetary crises for higher education, business and occupational fields of study become the “useful” educational investments since they can prove their monetary worth. The subsequent erosion of fields such as ethnic studies, women’s studies, and the humanities in general renders impotent the idea that the university’s imperative is to generate dynamic cultural consciousness.
The aim of this paper is to problematize the taken-for-granted understandings of “poverty” within “feminization of poverty” discourse. Proposed here is an alternative research frame focused on ascertaining how poverty governance produces feminized subjectivities, a lens that would focus on feminization through poverty. The phrase “feminization of poverty” entered scholarly discourse in 1978 when Diana Pearce (1978), a researcher at the Catholic University of America used the phrase to describe the growing preponderance of poverty among Black women and children in urban United States. Since then, poverty’s feminization has become a predominant discourse within feminist scholarship, denoting the manifold ways in which poverty’s feminized character surfaces, persists, and transforms. The feminization of poverty frame has also been productively included in theorizing democracy and the state. (Agathangelou 2004; Bakker 2007; Brodie 1996; Brodie 2008; Dobrowlosky and Jenson 2004; Little 2001; Porter 2003). Critiques of the feminization of poverty frame have focused inter alia on the fallacies and omissions of the focus on feminization processes or on its ideological function. In short, the phrase has been said to lack analytical clarity . In some cases, the feminization of poverty refers to trends concerning the growing number of women living in disadvantage. In other cases, it is used to highlight disparities between male and female poverty rates. Still in other cases, it emphasizes qualitative understandings of poverty whereby women’s poverty is regarded as the most severe. From a different angle, the feminization of poverty discourse hinges upon essentialized notions of femininity and masculinity that shroud from view, for instance, the transgendered elements of poverty or the racialized character of poverty. Joanna Brenner has stressed how the feminization of poverty frame has often advanced a liberal political agenda and hindered a more radical politics that “challenges the hierarchical organization of work and the privatization of care giving,” in a manner that would “generate[…] a more inclusive set of claims.” Wendy McKeen (2009) has made a similar point in the Canadian setting, arguing that feminist advocacy centred on the “feminization of poverty re-affirm[s] an orientation that privilege[s] the strategy of targeting” through means tested programs. In this way, the frame of feminized poverty undermines claims to universal entitlements based upon need and erodes “opportunities for more radical, social justice, oriented forms of political action“(53).