March 28, 2011

New Music: the Liptonians, Flying Fox and the Hunter Gatherers

Two bands visiting Edmonton this week happen to include friends of mine from Winnipeg. First, Flying Fox and the Hunter Gatherers ("operatic indie jazz") will be in town Wednesday night in support of their new album, Hans my Lion. Then on Friday, the Liptonians ("piano groove folky noise"), who are currently touring in support of Let's All March Back into the Sea, will be stopping in and playing a show with Edmonton's Whitsundays.

I should also point out that you can stream most of the new Flying Fox album and a few tracks from the Liptonians album through their respective websites.

March 15, 2011

Common time: Benjamin, Agamben and the Messianic

While the historicist finds satisfaction with the establishment of causal connections between various events, suggests Walter Benjamin, the materialist historian “establishes a conception of the present as the ‘time of the now’ which is shot through with chips of Messianic time." Such a view of the past is inevitably bound up with redemption, and the Messianic promise of revolutionary act will, according to Benjamin, retroactively redeem and realize the muffled longings of the past—it will make good on the utopian promise of its failed revolutionary attempts. Therefore, our attempts to understand the past must take this negated longing into account. “Like every generation that preceded us,” writes Benjamin in his second of his Theses on the Philosophy of History, “we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that."

In The Time That Remains, a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, Agamben attempts “rescue” Messianic time from its common misconception as eschatology; this distinction, he argues, is essential to Paul’s letters. A Messianic conception of history does not wait for the Messiah to come (i.e., for the end of history), but is instead a paradigm of historical time in which we act as though the Messiah is already here. As Agamben has pointed out, this is not an apocalyptic vision of history; “the Messianic is not the end of time, but the time of the end.” Such time does not wait for a decisive moment but instead sees the present as "now-time." Another word for this is kairos (often translated as occasion, but in Paul’s sense, properly Messianic), which is traditionally opposed to chronos (chronological or secular time). Both concepts, Agamben points out, are necessarily interlaced such that “kairos is nothing more than seized chronos, a time remaining.” Messianic time, says Agamben, rather enigmatically, is the relation itself. The difference is minute, but it is also decisive. 

For Paul, this means that we will retain out distinctions (callings, vocations), but they will cease to divide us—such categories (circumcision, for example) become “nothing.” For Paul, the divisions of law are not forgotten or annihilated, but are rendered "inoperative." The community that Paul is attempting to assemble is both inside and outside the law.

Benjamin’s “real state of exception” coincides with the messianic interruption. As Agamben points out in Homo Sacer, “from the juridico-political perspective, messianism is . . . a theory of the state of exception—except for the fact that in messianism there is no authority to proclaim the state of exception; instead, there is the Messiah to subvert its power.” Benjamin emphasizes that a connection to the Messiah is not to be created from this side of history.

Benjamin's conception of messianic time (now-time) shows us that we have something in common with the past, and lives in the faith that we will have something in common with the future.

March 7, 2011

Introduction to the Forest: As You Like It and the Pastoral

As You Like It is peppered with pastoral ballads that characterize the forest as a sanctuary of subsistence and justice and a passing reference to "old Robin Hood of England" marks off the Forest of Arden as a potentially dangerous space of economic redistribution. While Shakespeare was busy writing the play, the actual forest of Arden was experiencing acute demographic problems, as timber was cleared for mining, industry, and convertible farming, and squatters vied with commoners for land.

With the Forest of Arden, Shakespeare also draws on a longstanding cultural tradition that dates back to the Norman invasion. Indeed, forest law goes back to the Norman conquest, indicated, as I’m sure many of us are aware, in the "Rhyme of King William." Not only a space of animal refuge, forests also became an asylum for English noblemen dispossessed of their lands and rights: many who could not accept subjugation or work the land as labourers, and who were too proud to beg, took to the forests and lived their as they could, hunting animals and harassing the Normans. Originally a juridical term for land that had been placed off limits by royal decree, the forest lies “outside the common juridical sphere." In his book on forests, Robert Harrison draws our attention to a treatise on forest law composed in 1592 by John Manwood. During this time of environmental degradation and enclosure, Manwood’s treatise set out to define the forest, in contrast to other natural habitats and explain the ancient laws that had seemingly been forgotten. For Manwood, writes Harrison, "a forest is a natural sanctuary [granted by the king]. The royal forests [gave] wildlife the same sort of asylum that the Church granted criminals or fugitives who entered its precincts. Forests and churches thus become equivalent in their authority to offer asylum, one to men or outlaws and the other to beasts of pleasure." From the external perspective of the forest (and, we might add, the fool!), "the institutional world reveals its absurdity, or corruption, or contradictions, or arbitrariness, or even its virtues." In this way, the outlaws of the forest, such as Robin Hood, were more interested in reformation than revolution. According to Harrison, the inverted world of the forest, as well as the ruses of deception its outlaws employ have an instrumental purpose in that they expose the deception and unlawfulness of society: "As a guardian of the law’s ideal justice, he takes to the forest to wage his war, but his happy ending lies in vindication—his repatriation within the system." 
In The Magna Carta Manifesto Peter Lindebaugh notes that the Magna Carta defined the limits of privatization and spoke to the customs that defined the commons. Citing Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, Lindebaugh argues that, “Enclosures were not the only force in the creation of the land market but they destroyed the spiritual claim on the soil and prepared for the proletarianization of the common people, subjecting them to multifaceted labor discipline” (51). As You Like It emerges from this milieu of transition; a crisis between old and new forms of production, and with them the emergence of a new noble class. 

"Application" (from Kant to Schmitt) in Measure for Measure

In his introduction to Valences of the Dialectic, the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson uses the word "application" ironically (if not dialectically). This is because in the context of his system, such a term presumes an agency that is abstracted from the matter at hand, thereby distinguishing a unified inside from from a fragmentary outside (the common sense appearance of the separation of essence and appearance, which the classic dialectical operation upsets). But he goes on to show that this view itself belongs to an untroubled (undialectical) dialectic. For this reason, the properly dialectical (the dialectic as operation) can only name "application" insofar as it prefigures its negation.

The underlying logic of the dialect as a system that is "applicable to everything" (a mode of the dialectic which Jameson aims to dismantle) can perhaps be traced back to the Kant and his attempt to unite universal ideals and rational necessity. In his Metaphysics of Morals, Kant approaches moral law in much the same way that he did knowledge in the first critique: such laws "must be valid not merely for men, but for all rational creatures generally, not merely under certain contingent conditions or with exceptions, but with absolute necessity." Here we see Kant as a precursor to (or, getting a bit ahead of ourselves, an instrument within) Carl Schmitt's conception of the sovereign, whose power rests his ability to decide the state of exception and, consequently, to be "in force without signification." In Homo Sacer, Agamben quotes Kant from the Critique of Practical Reason: "Now if we abstract every content, that is, every object of the will (as determining motive) from the law . . . there is nothing left but the simple form of universal legislation." Because the pure will is unaffected by questions of freedom and self-interest, the law can be totally binding (as with Kant's other faculties). Here, law becomes indistinguishable from life, for individual motivation is shown to be "nothing other than the law itself through the respect that it inspires. . . . For once the content of free will is eliminated, the law is the only thing left in relation to the formal element of the free will."

In Measure for Measure, Angelo is the clear expression of this sort of moral necessity. Indeed, our "common sense" impression is that the Duke's moral laxity is what occasions the law's application in the figure of Angelo: in the interest of government, the Duke has "Lent [Angelo] our terror, dress’d him with our love” (1.1.20). Angelo first appears to embody pure identity (the unity of appearance and essence, application and law) with his role, while the Duke (along with the audience) is aware of the discrepancy that exists appearance and reality. In other words, the true sovereign has laid out a space of exception by giving over the pretense of the law to Angelo: the Duke does not transfer his sovereignty but its appearance. Thus while the Duke is able to negotiate between both spaces, Angelo is consigned to the realm of appearances (which makes his Kantian bent all the more fitting) and deals with subjects through a rigid logic of exchange value. For this reason, Angelo cannot even consider mercy or forgiveness but, instead, easily slips into the law's perverse underside (by trading Claudio's crime against wedlock in for Isabel's chastity). Angelo's rule can thus be characterized by a series of ultimately incomplete (that is, suspended) applications, which lay the groundwork for the sovereignty of the Duke to be reestablished and the bodies of his subjects redistributed.

Like Angelo for the Duke, Kant is merely a stepping stone for the true exercise of Schmittian sovereignty. As Agamben writes in State of Exception,
The concept of application is certainly one of the most problematic categories of legal (and non-legal) theory. The question was put on a false track by being related to Kant's theory of judgment as a faculty of thinking the particular as contained in the general. The application of the norm would thus be a case of determinate judgment, which the general (the rule) is given, and the particular case is to be subsumed in it.
Kant's mistake, suggests Agamben, "is that the relation between the particular case and the norm appears as a merely logical operation." Rather the passage of generic to particular always contains the practical activity of mediation: "Just as between language and world, so between the norm and its application there exists no internal nexus that allows one to be derived immediately from the other." Thus we might think of Angelo (as the Duke's instrument for enacting the state of exception and emergency, of applying the law by suspending his own authority) when Agamben writes, "the state of exception is the opening of a space in which application and norm reveal their separation and a pure force-of-law realizes (that is, applies by ceasing to apply) a norm whose application has been suspended."

The state of exception separates norm and application to the utmost limit in order to make its application possible. This is the only way that the Duke can hold Vienna's reality together with the appearance of governance; he therefore effectively suspends his own application of the norm by installing Angelo, whose "pure violence without logos claims to realize an enuciation without any real reference."