Thursday, January 13, 2011

Liberal Humanist Zombies: Why We Need Post-Kantian Thought Post-Tucson

The following reflection on the Tucson Shooting will be deeply and intentionally polemical.  And necessarily so, as the philosophical foundations of not only the act itself, but America’s reaction(s) to it will bear out. I aim to be polemical for another related, yet, deeper reason. We are not merely told to refrain from “partisan” politics at such moments of national tragedy, but, more fundamentally, inclined towards such restraint. What I want to get at is this implicit sense of restraint. We are supposed to see such moments not as political moments, but as moments of unification in remorse and healing. Fine. And I fully agree that this is an American tragedy -- that is precisely what animates this post! Except that such implicit demands do little more than shore up the status quo of an ideological (meant in the Althusserian sense) system repeatedly shown (the gulf oil spill, the financial meltdown of ’08) as being utterly bankrupt and yet, as this latest tragedy shows, ghoulishly functioning. In other words, a Liberal Humanist zombie lurks about not only in the raving and murderous desires of a lone gunman, or in the infantile political discourse of the far-right, but also in the very sentiments of a purportedly “leftist” president’s call for national healing. All of these things are, ultimately and fundamentally, the same. (Reminder: Liberal does not mean leftist. I will always use "liberal" in its proper, philosophical meaning as a system based, amongst other things, upon the cult of autonomous subjects who are constituted through a subject-object dialectic; i.e. all that boot-strap jargon about the efficacy of the individual over and against the contingencies of any system. Hence liberal means conservative!)
            Let us commence with the link between the shooter and the far right’s neoliberal/libertarian discourse. As Tim Morton recently expressed, it only tacitly matters that the shooter was a borderline personality – that he is “crazy.” Tim’s reasoning is profoundly spot-on. The right’s role in the shooting is that of an enabler. Far from providing an excuse as to why the Palins of the world are not responsible, the argument of singular insanity in fact places more responsibility on their discourse. What the instance of insanity brings forth is multiformed. First, according to an illogical logic, such an argument claims that this shooter is an autonomous individual acting independently and who should accordingly be held individually responsible. The philosophico-juridico basis of such an argument is clear: the cult of the liberal subject asserting that everyman is, insofar as he is free-thinking individual, autonomous and hence a subject fit for all the rights offered to members of a democratic society.
            So from one perspective, Palin and others' argument that they are not responsible in any way for the shooting rest on such logic. The shooter is a liberal subject and hence should be able to read the right’s discourse and iconography critically.
            But, the lynchpin of such a defense is the shooter’s insanity. The right is ultimately not responsible because an autonomous yet crazed man misread their discourse. The right is having their cake and eating it too. The shooter is to be held responsible, not their discourse, because he is a liberal subject; yet the shooter is also responsible, not the right’s discourse, because he is crazy and cannot read critically. Yet, clearly, the later defense cancels the first. If the shooter is insane and hence not in control of his mental-faculties, he cannot be a liberal subject. Precisely because of this contradictory logic, the right is ultimately responsible for the shooting. According to their own paradigmatic model of thought (liberal humanism, no matter how bastardized it may have become in neo-liberal formations – formations that pathetically pay lip service to the rich philosophical tradition of liberalism, i.e. Kant), the shooter is not a subject and thus not juridically responsible; instead, those who are (or claim to be) liberal subjects are responsible because they are, purportedly, in control of their critical, language-producing faculties. Palin et al, as liberal subjects, are directly responsible for the shootings. No ethical firewall separates them from the shooting – according to their own logic.
            As for the shooter himself? We can say, according to a liberal humanist model, that he is simply parroting the ideological blather of the right, merely carrying out uncritically their inane discursive threats (those cross hairs targeting Representative Giffords). However, assume for a moment that he was not troubled with a clinically diagnosed illness. Assume for a second he was Timothy McVeigh or the man who recently flew his airplane into a Texas tax office. While such persons have been stigmatized as insane according to the same excepting-machine that produces our conceptions of Islamic radicals, they were, at least clinically, sane. Likewise, let us rule out “temporary insanity.” No, what we have here, hypothetically, is a person by all means fit for liberal subjecthood that has, nevertheless, been controlled and possessed by radical political discourse.
            One of two avenues of thought opens up for us here. First, we can make such individuals into the exception figures who prove the paradigm of liberal subjecthood’s rule, therein demanding more rigorous liberal education. In other words, their uncritical, interested, and possessed comportment towards radical discourse proves the necessity of a liberal education that, had such individuals only listened more in school, would have trained them to reflect critically, disinterestedly, and self-possessedly on radical discourse.
            Yet, here is where both the president’s call for national unity and our own implicit desire for non-partisanship undermine such a call for liberal education. (And even deeper and more terrifying: the philosophical ground from which the president petitions for national consolation and that out of which the shooter emerged are the same) Because, under all the liberal ideology (and again: liberal does not in any way mean leftist politics) there is a presupposition of man’s innate potential to be radically influenced – his/her actions, discourse, thoughts being little more than socially constructed. Kant, the great liberal himself, was very much aware of this. His definition of freedom was, after all, rule-bound. Hence all the liberal apparatuses (broadly construed: education, discourse, etc) and their stress on critical separation and disinterestedness. To be a fully actualized subject one must be fully self-divorced. Or, in Kantian speak: that which is most subjectively my own (freedom) is what is most radically universal and thusly not my own.
            But that presupposed flux of powerfully influential goop (in the shooter’s case, the right’s discourse and iconography) remains in force despite any critical disinterestedness. Liberal humanism and the subject its logic produces is, in the end, a passive observer. He or she is simply a “beautiful soul,” to steal a phrase from Tim Morton.
            So what happens in tragedies like this is painfully obvious. We construct the shooter as a lone agent, crazed or not. We critically sever him from the historical, social, material, and ideological contingencies out of which his actions arise. Why? Because we have been taught (explicitly, sure, but more powerfully, implicitly) to perform such critical divorcing, but also and ultimately, because it does not demand a rethinking of our political and ideological ground – how we form a collective and what it means to be an singularity in that collective.
            That is the other path opened up by such “lone” murderers. Their heinous acts momentarily tear asunder the fabric of liberal political and subjective belonging. And our reactions to such acts model and repeat that torn fabric, tearing it further apart even as we attempt to patch it back together.
           While now may seem be the time for "non-partisanship" and the avoidance of "polemics," it is, in reality, the time for a philosophical (and hence polemical) inquiry that refuses unequivocally the liberal framework of politics, subjectivity, and critique. Without such a wager in the seeming abyss opened by moments of tragedy, we will have repeated Tucson shootings, oil spills, financial collapses.  
So far, 2011 looks just like 2010, and 2009, and 2008, and . . . 

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