By Any Means Necessary

Laws will not save the oppressed. Only power. Pompeo’s statements on Israeli settlements remind us once again that laws without power are toothless. The liberal delusion is that if we submit ourselves to the law, we will arrive at a neutral, self-correcting system. What liberals don’t tell you is that in order to assert the rule of law, it must be enforced by a powerful entity — the state. This entity must be more powerful than you and me. It surveils and confines our dissent to that which is least threatening to the liberal state and its laws. This is why MLK Jr, Malcolm X, leftists, and feminists were sabotaged by the FBI (COINTELPRO), but capitalists and white supremacists were allowed to have an outsized influence.

COINTELPRO is a great example of the priorities of the liberal state, because around the same time another famous scandal occurred: Watergate. Most people have heard of Watergate, but not COINTELPRO. Watergate is basically one half of business elites spying on the other half of business elites. What a scandal! On the other hand, the world’s most powerful government spies on its own citizens, wrongfully imprisons them, smears individuals and groups by planting false reports, arms fascists militia groups to suppress them, and resorts to violence including assassinations? Most people have never heard of it. This is COINTELPRO, and many of these tactics are still used and practiced today. Inarguably, this is much more serious than Watergate. However, the victims of COINTELPRO did not have the state or the law on its side. It doesn’t matter that the FBI broke the law in many cases. The law doesn’t come from nowhere; it comes from the state — and states have interests. Under capitalism, states are run by business elites and their servants. There is no disinterested state or party in politics. Centrism just means the interests of certain business elites.

If we look at politics in this way, Trump’s statements on Israeli settlements is quite revealing. Liberalism’s conceit is over. The right has long abandoned the pretensions of liberals politics. Liberals who follow the law, rather than create them; liberals who decry Trump’s illegal gestures, but ignore the much larger cost of his legal wrongdoings; liberals who believe in compromise with capitalists and fascists; are toothless in facing a foe that plays outside the rules. How are liberals going to check Trump’s brazen disregard of international law with regards to Israeli settlements? Shame him? Convince the US government that has been largely complicit with Israeli violence to suddenly change its mind? Liberals have no answer. The same can be said about virtually every significant issue. We cannot compromise on climate change. There is no time. You cannot be pro-immigrant, if you follow the law and deport millions like Obama. The laws need to change, and our perspectives must be challenged — transformed.

In order to do so, we must come together and exercise our power. Agendas must be set by us, the people, not passed down to us by lawmakers and their donors. These agendas will be unfamiliar and uncertain. This is just the nature of life. Those with a future have multiple paths and embrace the uncertainty that accompanies change. In contrast, the certainty of death is what awaits us under capitalism. Everything always appears so certain and measurable, because capitalism rejects radical transformation. It rejects futurity altogether. There are always cracks of potential and movement within the illusion, of course. For example, the rise of Bernie Sanders and the supposed certainty of Hillary’s victory. Instead of treating these cracks as aberrant, we must regard the illusion itself as pathological. These cracks are opportunities, and we better catch onto ‘em quick, because the certainty of death is looming larger than ever. If liberals get in our way, we must confront them with everything we have. We must gather the power to transform the world. Do not be hampered by liberal sensibilities in your quest for power. As Malcolm X often said, “by any means necessary.”

To be violated by the other

Multiculturalism, as practiced by liberals, is like diet coke. Liberals want to have tolerance without disturbance. They want to embrace the other without risk. They want love without uncertainty. They yearn for capitalism with a human face, without inequality and exploitation.
Love is predicated upon the negativity of the other. Love begins with the act of falling, which entails negativity — the other, the unknown. By the same token, embracing immigrants must be a painful act. It requires confrontation with a different notion of human, economy, gender, and history. You cannot understand immigrants without understanding terrorism. You cannot embrace immigrants without embracing their violence.
To live together is to cope with each other. In the end, you may not “agree” with some of their violence. Nonetheless, there is a difference between living with the other and choosing to be next to the other when convenient. Liberals always choose the latter. I will accept immigrants, but I won’t live next to them or speak their language. I will pick and choose which aspects to embrace.
Living together requires violence. It must hurt both physically and psychologically. You do not pick and choose your family. Living together under democracy requires a familial bond, rather than a group of disjointed, self-interested consumers. A good fight with a family member transforms your understanding of them and yourself. In this way, multiculturalism must be a transformative act.
Co-habitation is a radical gesture that transforms all parties. For example, the re-unification of Korea would fundamentally transform both Korea’s. Too often, many argue for re-unification along economic lines. That a re-unified Korea will become a major economic power. However, this argument misses the radical potential of re-unification. Re-unification means that we, Koreans, now live outside the shadow of major powers. It means that we get to forge a new path as new people. We will need to change our language, history, and politics. Everyone needs to change in a re-unified Korea. It will be a painful process, and it won’t always be pretty. Nevertheless, it is worthy, because it is a radical and transformative step forward. Instead of repeating the history of division and conflict, we have a chance to create a history of re-conciliation.
In the same vein, diversity in America is not an act of charity. It is a leap towards the future. It is an act of transformation for both Americans and immigrants. Unfortunately, diversity is, nowadays, understood by liberal capitalist terms. Under such terms, diversity is an act of charity or a consumer good. The immigrant will always be judged by the liberal human: do you understand our manners? are you non-violent? Anything that disturbs the liberal capitalist norm will be re-packaged into a consumer good. Various acts of violence will be sold as terrorism or “consequences of american interventions.” Islam will be reduced to either “barbarism” or “just like Christianity.” The complexities of violence or religion are lost, only memes and sound-bites remain. We will not be challenged by different conceptions of religion or violence. Instead, we will merely judge them on our terms. This is a society without love. It is a pornographic society that produces sameness. There is no future for such a society. Time does not flow; it lingers. Perhaps, it is time for us to restart the flow of time. To embark on a future that is essentially unknown, uncharted, and unexplored.

Scientists are not skeptics; they are theologians.

As Thomas Kuhn famously remarked in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “Perhaps the most striking feature of [normal science] is how little they aim to produce major novelties, conceptual, or phenomenal.” (Kuhn, 35) In fact, an extensive study by Bernard Barber reveals that scientists are intolerant of new discoveries.[1] Priestly never accepted Lavoisier’s oxygen theory. Kelvin never accepted Maxwell’s electro-magnetic theory. It took more than a century to convert scientists to Copernicus’ heliocentrism. Newton was not accepted for half a century on the Continent. There were good reasons for such resistance. Lavoisier’s theory could not cope with the proliferation of new gases. For a while, the phlogiston theory could legitimately claim that it solved many older problems better. For example, the phlogiston theory explained why bodies burned and why metals had so many more properties in common than their ores unlike Lavoisier’s. Copernicus’ theory was not more accurate than Ptolemy’s and it did not lead directly to any improvement in the calendar. It took time for the wave theory of light to be more successful than the corpuscular theory in resolving the polarization effects which were the principal cause of optical crisis. Throughout the 18th century, scientists failed to derive the motion of moon from Newton’s law of motion.

From reading the paragraph above, it is easy to assume that scientists were hesitant due to reasonable doubt. That is certainly a part of it. But, Kuhn’s book reveals a deeper truth about science: that it cannot function with deliberate skepticism. Normal science is an activity of puzzle-solving. After accepting a paradigm, normal science tries to articulate the theory through observation and research. Paradigm “forces scientists to investigate some part of nature in detail and depth that would otherwise be unimaginable.” (Kuhn, 25) Paradigms in their early states are always insufficient, as evident from the examples above. It requires faith from the first followers of the new paradigm to carry on the torch, until a generation of scientists verify through research and evidence that the new paradigm is better than the older paradigm. However, it is crucial to note that until that moment of total conversion, there is no way to resolve the conflicts between the two paradigms. They are both legitimate ways of making sense of the world, and, for a while, it is often the case that the older paradigm corresponds to facts better than the new one. The new paradigm might explain the anomalies that led the older paradigm to crisis, but it is not necessarily equipped with the means to explain many of the phenomena the older paradigm spent centuries researching.

In other words, verification or determination of theory by evidence is not a doctrine. Evidence only gets you so far. Imagine a person who keeps doubting their world view every time their sense data (evidence) contradicted it. That person would have rejected Newtonian mechanics altogether. Astronomers in the 18th century failed to derive the motion of planets from Newton’s law of motion. The evidence falsified the Newtonian world view, but these astronomers did not reject their theory. Instead, they hypothesized that, perhaps, there existed another planet that caused the mismatch of data with calculations. In other words, they postulated a non-observable entity to fit their calculations — an ad hoc hypothesis. Eventually, their telescopes detected the hypothesized planet and that is how they discovered Neptune. Evidence is not the only factor, and this makes convincing a scientist a difficult task.

Max Planck, surveying his own career in his Scientific Autobiography, sadly remarked that:

“a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

A similar sentiment is echoed by Darin at the end of his Origin of Species:

“Although I am fully convinced of the truth of the views given in this volume…., I by no means expect to convince experienced naturalists whose minds are stocked with a multitude of facts all views, during a long course of years, from a point of view directly opposite to mind…[B]ut I look with confidence to the future, — to young and rising naturalists, who will be able to view both sides of the question with impartiality.”

Why is this the case? Kuhn explains this by pointing out that paradigms essentially determine the world view of an individual. Before Einstein’s theory of relativity, space was an absolute, immovable aspect of nature — and the world. In order to accept Einstein’s theory, one must begin to live in a world with curved space. Priestly regarded oxygen as dephlogisticated air, whereas Lavoisier called it oxygen. It is only in hindsight that we square these two incompatible world views. Can Newtonian dynamics really be derived from relativistic dynamics? With certain restrictions, it can resemble relativity, but we interpret that resemblance only because we know Einstein’s theory. Before Einstein, Newton’s theory was never interpreted it that way. In a Newtonian world, mass is conserved; in an Einsteinian one, mass is convertible with energy “Only at low relative velocities may the two be measured in the same way, and even then they must not be conceived to be the same.” (Kuhn, 102) It is not an easy task to convince a person who lives in a completely different world. This is why both Planck and Darwin believe that one can only convince the youth en masse, since they can be indoctrinated into looking at the world differently.

So far, we have seen that faith in theory and paradigm are large factors in the development of science. There are also other factors at play that might surprise some readers. For example, Copernicus’ work was influenced by social pressures like calendar reform. Medieval Philosophers’ criticisms of Aristotle, which led to the rise of Renaissance Neoplatonism, and other significant historical elements certainly had a part in the work of Copernicus as well. (Kuhn, 69) Many historians and philosophers argue that aesthetics played a role in Einstein formulating his theory of relativity.[2] It is certainly naïve then to conclude that science is a discipline full of skeptics, constantly challenging their most fundamental assumptions based on contradictory evidence. Science’s efficiency is based on its narrow scope of research and inquiry. In this way, science is structurally closer to theology than other disciplines.

Unlike other disciplines like art or psychology, research scientists are not concerned with the opinions of the public. Due to the importance of preserving the paradigm, scientists also approach their education ahistorically. Students are not taught to read primary sources like Newton’s Principia and its critics in a historical lens. This would allow the student to doubt the paradigm and experience the world from the viewpoint of a different paradigm. Science cannot exist or function without a paradigm; therefore, it is more important to indoctrinate the students into accepting the paradigm first. This is why science textbooks are treated like doctrine, whereas in philosophy textbooks are of secondary importance. In science, key figures and their texts are interpreted in an ahistorical lens; in other words, from the viewpoint of the current paradigm with cherry-picked excerpts in text books.

“Many scientific curricula do not ask even grad students to read works not written specifically for students. The few that do assign supplementary reading in research papers and monographs restrict such assignments to the most advanced courses and to materials that take up more or less where the available texts leave off. Until the very last stages in the education of a scientist, textbooks are systematically substituted for the creative scientific literature that made them possible. Given the confidence in their paradigms, which makes this educational technique possible, few scientists would wish to change it.” (Kuhn, 164)

The Bible is similarly interpreted by theologians as their primary source of indoctrination. Like scientists, theologians operate within the paradigm of trying to understand divinity. Despite their structural similarities, there exist stark differences between theology and science. Their methods of research, equipment, and fundamental assumptions are all drastically different. But, it is interesting to note their structural similarity, given the recent attack on religion from New Atheists and popular scientists.

For the perceptive reader, this question might dawn upon them: “why do science popularizers perpetuate the lie that scientists are skeptics?” or that “science is an accumulation of theories and evidence.” I believe the reason is political. New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, and Sam Harris are trying to spread a secular version of neoliberalism. Their outdated enlightenment thinking naturally leads to accepting a neoliberal, imperialist, and colonial narrative that deems feminism, Islam, and activism for social justice as “anti-science.” They disguise their patriarchal, capitalist, and imperialist politics in the name of Reason and Science. This is precisely what happened in the 19th century. Another reason is that science needs to regard itself as cumulative. It cannot anticipate an upcoming revolution. That would be unhealthy for the narrow and efficient practices of normal science. In order to proliferate puzzle-solving, they must approach their discipline in an ahistorical manner: as if they had always been operating under this paradigm. God cannot be questioned, even if the definition of God had changed. It is essential that you never reject God. Every conflict, therefore, is regarded as happening under the same umbrella.

Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

[1] Bernard Barber, “Resistance by Scientists to Scientific Discovery,” Scienc, CXXXIV (1961), 597-602.

[2] Engler, Gideon. “Einstein, His Theories, and His Aesthetic Considerations.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 19, no. 1, 2005, pp. 21–30., doi:10.1080/02698590500051068.




After Virtue

We are in a moral crisis. The unending arguments over abortion, health care, and gun control are symptoms of the flaws of modernity according to the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre. Modernity is a fragmented version of Aristotelian ethics; it demands an individualist worldview, despite the fact that our culture and vocabulary reflect a communitarian heritage. What this means is that our endless arguments stem from the fact that we lack a shared conception of the good; in other words, our moral systems are incommensurable. For instance, the central conflict between Kantianism and Utilitarianism is not that either is logically inconsistent; rather, it stems from the fact that each theory has a different conception of the good.

Both theories, in their best versions, follow logically from their stated premises; the problem is that these premises are merely stated. After realizing the heterogeneity of pleasures, the great utilitarian Henry Sidgwick concluded that moral beliefs couldn’t be argued and must be merely accepted —just trust your intuitions! Immanuel Kant argued that a rational agent is logically committed to the rules of morality in virtue of their rationality; in order to practice reason, one must possess the freedom and well being necessary for rational agency. This led Kant to the conclusion that one is entitled to such freedom and well being. Although it is logically necessary to possess such freedom and well being to practice reason, it does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that one is entitled to them. This is merely asserted by Kant. According to MacIntyre, Utilitarianism and Kantianism’s fundamental premises are merely stated in this way. This is why the arguments between the two are endless: they are fundamentally incommensurable.

After Virtue is primarily a diagnosis of this moral crisis. It analyzes various aspects of our culture, language, and society to demonstrate that modernity is indeed a fragmented version of Aristotelian ethics; furthermore, it argues that the inventions of modernity such as emotivism and individualism are the root causes of our moral predicament. One of the most striking features of the book is its analysis of modern social roles. The defining character of modernity is that of a bureaucratic manager. A manager pretends to be effective and morally neutral; a manager adjusts the means to ends in the most economically efficient manner. Plus, managerial expertise requires a set of law-like generalizations to justify the manager. Unsurprisingly, one can easily spot the manager: Liberalism pretends to be effective and morally neutral, Liberalism privileges economic methodologies and conceptions, and the Enlightenment fetishizes law-like generalizations. The most interesting aspect of the manager, in my opinion, is McIntyre’s discussion on the fetishization of law-like generalizations.

This fetish is particularly apparent in the social sciences; they present themselves as providing law-like generalizations, despite the lack of evidence and predictability that is characteristic of those fields. Unlike most scientists who follow the Enlightenment, McIntyre contends that the worth of a scientific discipline is not determined by its predictive power. He believes that this is the wrong criterion by which to judge the success of the social sciences, because their subject is vastly more complicated and unpredictable: language, groups of persons, entire nations, and the global market. They cannot make predictions and generalizations that are nearly as strong as those made by Physics or Biology; even the strongest arguments have counter-examples.

For example, two of the most famous studies in sociology do not follow the Popperian model of falsification. First, James C. Davies’s famous thesis in 1962 generalizes Tocqueville’s observation that the French Revolution occurred when a period of rising and, to some degree, gratified expectations was followed by a period of set-back when expectations continued to rise and were sharply disappointed.  Second, Rosalind and Ivo Feierabend (1966) generalized that the most and least modernized societies are the most stable and least violent, whereas those at midpoint in the approach to modernity are most liable to instability and political violence. There exist many counter-examples to both: Russian and Chinese Revolutions to Davies, and Political Violence in Latin America to Feierabend’s. Nonetheless, such counter-examples do not refute their status as salient generalizations in Sociology. There exist no counter-factuals that ultimately refute a generalization.

This is not a fact that cheapens these disciplines. It merely reflects just how complicated human beings are. We are intentional beings that can choose one act over another. Choice creates unpredictability. All of this is then further complicated by the fact that we are social and linguistic beings. We have to figure out how complex beings interact with each other unpredictably in complex structures like the market, the state, and language. It would be impudent of Social Scientists to expect the law-like generalizations one encounters in Science. This is why McIntyre argues that it is wrong to expect law-like generalizations regarding sociology, politics, and so on.

Why is it then that we fetishize such law-like generalizations? As I briefly mentioned above, it is tied to the philosophical framework assumed by modernity; that is, modernity’s attachment to the ideal of the bureaucratic manager. Under the bureaucracy of modernity, moral beliefs are treated as inconvenient features of persons that function far better when they are managed by an “efficient” and “economically practical” bureaucracy. The manager justifies their position by insisting that they have law-like generalizations regarding human nature and social institutions; furthermore, they boast that they can provide an efficient governing of a pluralist society without privileging one good over another. However, modernity does, in fact, assume a set of goods that are disguised as morally neutral; the philosopher Michael Sandel lays out a number of such goods in his great book, What Money Can’t Buy.

Modernity cannot make law-like generalizations, yet we obey its tenets without much argument; we argue within the confines of modernity that were designed to be endless. McIntyre suggests that we look to the past for answers to our problems. Across several chapters, McIntyre sketches the moral framework of past societies ranging from the Greeks to Medieval Christians. What they all had in common was a shared conception of the good. Such goods like prudence, justice, and courage were achieved through the virtues that are human qualities acquired through practice. Furthermore, they recognized that a person is embedded in a social context: I am a son, a citizen, and a musician. Personal identity is a narrative that unifies one’s life from past to present, and my narrative is embedded in other narrative such as family, school, and friendship.

The problem of modernity is not only that it brings about endless arguments, but also that it is incompatible with our ordinary intuitions. We come from a past, in which our obligations and personal identity are constituted by the social context to which we belong. My community consumes most of my actions and thoughts; I act and think as a student and a family member, rather than a rational agent with his or her individual interests. When we judge a person’s character, we judge them by, more or less, a table of virtues, rather than whether they follow the categorical imperative or whether they pass the utilitarian calculus. The project of modernity is doomed to fail, because it cannot dissipate our communitarian past with its endless arguments and managerial fetish.

After Virtue turned out to be far more damning in its criticism than I anticipated. For the numerous Kantians and Utilitarians out there, this will be a group of pointed criticisms; one will not only find attacks on Kant and Sidgwick, but also criticisms of Rawls and Nozick. Indeed, this book is highly political; it analyzes Marx and Weber within the framework of the book’s communitarian argument. For my Marxist friends, this is not an easy read. Despite McIntyre’s admiration of Marx, he believes that Marx and his followers ultimately fall under the same moral framework that he takes down in this book. This is very much true in my own experience. Marxists have great criticisms of the managerial and bureaucratic aspects of Capitalism and Liberalism; yet, their solutions to Capitalism always end up Kantian or Utilitarian. It is either to follow an abstract principle of universality, or “to achieve communism by any means necessary.” What this suggests is that the faults of Capitalism and Liberalism are not merely economic and political: the error is modernity itself. By rejecting the Aristotelian system of virtues, any project is destined to fail no matter what social or economic structure they adopt. Undoubtedly, this is McIntyre’s deadliest gesture, because it indicates a deep pessimism about the project of modernity as a whole. As he discusses Trotsky’s later writings and his pessimism towards a communist future, McIntyre asks us to not fall into pessimism —it does not logically follow that we have no way out! But, the reader comes away with a dreadful feeling that we might never resolve the moral crisis; Aristotle has been dead for thousands of years.


John Cage and the philosophy of music

The aesthetician Susan Sontag claims that Cage’s attempt to erase authorial intent, in one sense, allowed him to erase meaning altogether. This is also reflected in Cage’s writings:

“New music: new listening. Not an attemp to understand something that is being said, for if something were being said, the sounds would be given the shapes of words. ust attention to the activity of sounds.” 

— Cage, Experimental Music: Doctrine, p. 10

But, I don’t believe this to be case. The cultural and historical context of Cage’s works show that they are trying to dissolve the distinction between art and sound. Such contexts allow sounds to refer to themselves, thereby giving them meaning and intentionality.

Plus, one could consider Heidegger’s argument that we do not hear pure sounds:

“What we first hear is never noises or complexes of sounds, but the creaking wagon, the motor-cycle. We hear the column on the march, the north wind, the woodpecker tapping, the fire crackling. It requires a very artificial and complicated frame of mind to hear a pure noise…Likewise, when we are explicitly hearing the discourse of another, we proximally understand what is said, or — to put it more exactly — we’re already with him, in advance alongside the entity which the discourse is about… Even in cases where the speech is indistinct or in a foreign language, what we proximally hear is unintelligible words, and not a multiplicity of tone-date.”

— Being and Time, 163

This means that even the sounds we encounter in ordinary life are never meaningless, pure sounds.

All in all, I admire Cage’s attempt to bring ordinary sounds to the forefront of Western music. I think he exemplifies Heidegger’s claim that art makes the conflict between World and Earth conspicuous. For Heidegger, World is the human environment in which we lead our lives. It includes our tools, houses, values, and so on; in other words, it is the habitat of Dasein. On the other hand, Earth is the natural setting of World; the ground on which it stands and the sources of raw materials for our artefacts. Through his illustration of ordinary sounds, Cage makes apparent the rift between World and Earth: musical sounds vs. pure noise. Interestingly, Cage’s take on this conflict uncovers a naked truth, i.e., the attempt to erase intentionality paves the way for a deeper unconcealment of intentionality and Dasein. 

Being and Time, Martin Heidegger

The Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger

Cage and Philosophy, Noël Carroll

Donald Trump is not a liar

Donald Trump is not a liar; he’s a bullshitter. There is a fine difference. The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt believed the difference between lies and bullshit is that lies are necessarily false; on the other hand, bullshit may happen to be true or false. In essence, a lie is a conscious act of deception, whereas a bullshit entails an indifference to how things really are. In order to lie, one has to implicitly acknowledge the existence of the truth — and then deceive another of not believing in such truth. However, a bullshitter does not care whether there exists a truth or a falsity. For example, I can bullshit a test by writing a bullshit answer. It doesn’t matter to me whether the answer is true or false. I just need to write some bullshit. If it happens to be true, I get a good grade. If it happens to be false, it doesn’t matter because I never bothered studying for the test to begin with.

Nietzsche believed that foregoing objective truth would be life-affirming. JL Mackie argued that disbelief in objective truth regarding morality would not be catastrophic. Some, however, worried that it could be very dangerous. If there is no objective morality, then why be moral? If there is no objective truth, then how do I make sense of things? In general, I think it is not so dangerous for people to not believe in objective truth regarding morality or the external world. We are hard-wired to care about certain values and facts; and I doubt that we would stop caring about them even if it turned out to be the case that they were not objective. I think this is especially true regarding morality. For instance, Foucault or Nietzsche still argued for certain virtues despite their skepticism of objectivity. The problem isn’t anti-realism. The problem is bullshit — antipathy towards objectivity. Trump is, in this sense, a bullshitter. He doesn’t care whether what he says is true or false. He spouts a ton of lies, but they are not calculated. They are not conscious acts of deception. It doesn’t matter to him whether his statements are true or false. A liar would try to show how his lie is the truth; Trump doesn’t provide any evidence. As we have seen, such bullshit has been extremely pernicious. Lies require effort and responsibility; one has to support them. Bullshit does not, and it can easily destroy a society when wielded by the powerful. Bullshit is worse than the nightmares of a postmodern world reigned by Nietzsche and Foucault, once feared by many. Anti-realism is not the problem; bullshit is.

Cultural Appropriation: Motoko Kusanagi is White?

In a recent article from the New Republic, Ryu Spaeth makes the case that it is fine to cast Scarlett Johansson, a white female, as Motoko Kusanagi, a robot detective in future Tokyo.

Cultural appropriation, as described by the cultural and racial theorist George Lipsitz, can exist for both the majority and the minority. It does not necessarily yield negative results as we often assume. Rather, it is a concept that reminds us to be cautious when the majority appropriates the minority’s culture, because it can often happen in a way that enforces negative stereotypes against minorities — e.g., that they are violent or servile or that they do not have a voice to represent their own culture — and entrenches existing power relations.

However, I think our usage of the term has evolved to mean only such negative instances — partly, because theorists have primarily focused on such usages. If you talk to someone about cultural appropriation, they are not going to mention Japanese animation, which often appropriates American culture; they will most likely mention black face or casting a white actor to play Mulan. So this is why I define cultural appropriation as an instance in which a dominant culture appropriates a minority culture; and this is why I use cultural cross-pollination to describe instances in which a culture benefits from using elements from another culture. In other words, cultural appropriation describes power relations; cultural cross-pollination describes fruitful interactions between cultures. I think such a demarcation will clear up our conceptual space and prevent unnecessary confusions.

One may object that the distinction between cultural cross-pollination and cultural appropriation is often blurry — samba and bossa nova are played by those who trace their ancestral roots back to European colonialists, Native Americans, and African slaves. So if such a person is a few percentages more European and plays samba, they are cultural appropriators? There is no clear way to tell whether this is an instance of cultural apporpriation. But we can tell that this is an instance of cultural cross-pollination. The purpose of the demarcation isn’t to sufficiently describe every exchange between cultures; rather, it is to clear up the conceptual space and prevent unnecessary confusions. The demarcation allows us to make sense of a cultural product that is both cultural cross-pollination and cultural appropriation — for example, the Rolling Stones. We celebrate their music, yet recognize the fact that they appropriated black artists like Muddy Waters. This is quite an intuitive answer, but the debate we often see on cultural appropriation prevents us from validating such intuitions. It, instead, insists that it is either cultural appropriation or cultural cross-pollination. Why not both? Clarifying such intuitions and preventing such unnecessary conflicts is the purpose of such a demarcation — and I believe that it is successful.

Meruem: a Hegelian Odyssey

Meruem is one of my favorite characters from Hunter x Hunter. He was powerful, cunning, brutal, sympathetic, and all so human as Nietzsche once exclaimed. I would love to write at length about how great of a character he is, but this is not what I will be doing in this essay. Instead, I will be writing an analysis of the Hegelian aspects of Meruem. Why Hegel one might ask? I chose to do a Hegelian analysis of Meruem, because I found an unmistakable parallel between the character development of Meruem and Hegel’s thoughts on self-consciousness.

Let’s begin with Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness. For Hegel, the most primitive form of consciousness is certainty at the level of sense experience. It is the experience of “this” or “here” rather than classifications like red or round. Such sense-certainty’s utterance, Hegel argues, is incoherent. For example, suppose I uttered the sentence “here is nighttime,” wrote it down, woke up the next day, and read it aloud. How is here nighttime? This is indeed very peculiar. Why does the truth of sense-certainty disappear when written down? Hegel explains that sense-certainty cannot be expressed because it is knowledge of the particular, and language expresses knowledge of the general or universal. (71) Here, there, and now cannot express sense-certainty, because there is more than one here or now – it is a universal. Wait! How do we then make sense of proper names one might ask? Aren’t they particular? Hegel’s answer to this question was that proper names are meaningless because they only refer to the name itself. One could push further on this issue; but I won’t pursue it anymore since this essay’s aim is to draw a parallel between Hegel’s theory and Meruem’s character rather than to criticize Hegel’s philosophy.

At the next level of perception, consciousness classifies objects according to their universal properties; this proves inadequate and so at the level of understanding, consciousness imposes its own laws on reality. Such laws include Newton’s laws. They classify raw sense data under concepts like gravity and force. They “are not things we see existing in reality, but constructs made by our understanding to help us grasp reality.” (74) Beyond this level of perception is the level of understanding in which consciousness begins to reflect upon itself. However, Hegel noted that, “self-consciousness…cannot exist in isolation. If a consciousness is to form a proper picture of itself, it needs some contrast.” (75) This means that we must be aware of something other than ourselves. Hegel explains that we have a desire to possess that other entity of which we are aware. We want to “transform it into something that is [ours], and thus strip it of its [sovereignty].” (76)

This all sounds similar to those who have witnessed Meruem’s character arc, as he first began as a being that merely satisfied his basic desires – sense-certainty and the particular rather than the universal. This is evident in the way he forcibly ripped himself out of his mother’s womb and immediately embarked on a search for food. According to Hegel, Meruem would be in the first stage of self-consciousness at this point. It is interesting to take note of the fact that Meruem did not speak very much during the first few days after his birth. He was simply performing whatever action seemed to satisfy his desires rather than reflect upon his actions or himself through language, which Hegel believes is juxtaposed with desires – desires are subjective and language is universal.

Sure enough, when we begin to see more of Meruem’s inner dialogue and conversations with other people he isn’t merely focused on his primal desires anymore. He has arrived at the next stage of self-consciousness. This is when we see him classifying human beings and chimera ants according to their properties. He is now interested in the differences between those who possess Nen and those who do not. Such contemplation eventually leads him to impose universal laws unto the world as we can witness from his rather extreme form of social darwinism – power is the only thing that matters. He tries to organize his underlings and the food he eats according to this philosophy. However, it is quite obvious that this mode of thinking is immature. It resembles a caricature of Nietzsche’s übermensch that people often tout as profound and enlightening. Such immaturity begins to be expressed through the desire to possess and destroy another entity. This can be seen in Meruem’s battles against chess masters and Komugi. But even such relationships are unstable as we see Meruem destroy the chess masters and grow agitated by the fact that he cannot best Komugi.

Hegel argued that, at this stage of self-consciousness, one needs to observe another self-conscious entity to grow. He believes that this allows one to see what self-consciousness is like. He believed that social interaction was crucial, for an isolated child would never develop mentally beyond the level of mere consciousness without social interaction. (77) We can observe such growth from Meruem as he interacts with Komugi. He begins to notice the majesty and complexity of other self-conscious beings. He wishes to be recognized as a worthy adversary and he becomes angered when he mistakenly believes that she does not consider him as one. Hegel explained it could destroy one’s identity if others fail to recognize his or her self-consciousness. Like nations that need to be acknowledged by other nations to be a full-fledged state, self-consciousness needs to be recognized for what it is, which peculiarly makes it what it is. A nation was already there, but recognition makes it more complete. (78)

Nonetheless, even such interactions can be toxic. Hegel believed that self-consciousness tries to be pure – detached from material objects – yet it is very attached to its body and others’ bodies. In order to show that they are not attached to such bodies, they try to kill each other. (79) One can observe this from Meruem’s bid to wager his arm and Komugi’s life over a game of gungi. Surely, such violence is pointless. If the loser dies, then the victor kills the person by whom they need to be recognized. Such insight led Hegel to write his famous master-slave dialectic. The victor keeps the loser alive so that he can have someone by whom he can be recognized – the master is dependent on the slave. This concept is quite revolutionary as it turns the usual thoughts regarding this relationship upside down – the master is the one who needs the slave, but the slave does not need the master. The slave shapes her ideas into objects and labor. Through this process, she becomes more aware of her own consciousness that is poured into her labor and the objects of her labor. Through such labor, she learns that she has a mind of her own. (80) On the other hand, the master sees the slave as a thing; therefore, he doesn’t get the recognition he needs.

Analogous to Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, Komugi the slave is confident in her own identity through her labor: gungi. We see her crying over the product of her own labor – her original gungi move– for it represents her essence. Meruem is destabilized by such confidence, since he had seen her as a mere thing rather than a self-conscious being. And once he begins to treat her as a self-conscious being he begins to contemplate his own identity – What is his name? What does it mean to be a King? In other words, he becomes more self-conscious.

Unlike Hegel’s odyssey, Meruem’s journey doesn’t end with the recognition that Mind or Geist is the essence of all reality and that our individual minds are parts of a whole that shapes and constitutes reality. His journey ends with the recognition that he can choose to be human, that he wishes to spend the rest of his life with Komugi. This decision isn’t so surprising if one realizes that Komugi herself is an existentialist figure. She embodies Heidegger’s argument that a worker who is absorbed in their work is more in touch with their Being. Komugi, as we have surveyed, is very in touch with her Being. She looks ahead to her death and believes her life to be finite, which Heidegger insisted was the essential nature of our relationship with Time. She sees her life as a series of choices that she makes for herself rather than what they tell her; hence, she sets up her own principles for her own life as we see from her vow to take her life if she loses a gungi match. It is all the more meaningful to take this into account and witness Meruem’s choice to be with Komugi rather than fulfill his genetic and socio-cultural destiny as a Chimera Ant King who must procreate with another female to continue the prosperity of his race. Instead, he chooses the person who is dearest and this very choice itself is a lesson she taught him – that life is a choice rather than what they tell you to do.

Peter Singer, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction

Michael Inwood, Heidegger: A Very Short Introduction

BBC’s the Global Philosopher and Brietbart

So Breitbart just criticized the show I was on. It spews nonsense like Climate Change is not an urgent issue and that the Maldives are fine. I don’t think I need to say anything about the former. Let’s move onto the latter point about the Maldives. So the Guardian wrote a piece on the Maldives and it reported that “not only is the tide of sea level lapping at the shallow islands, but sea temperatures are rising as is the acidity of the ocean: both kill the corals.” This is not the description of a place that’s doing “just fine.”

Also, the author of this article makes fun of the quasi-hippie claim of one of the participants. Sure, it’s not dressed up fancily. It can be interpreted as a hippie comment if taken out of context. But if you actually watched the show, you will realize that her worry over our relationship with nature is a philosophical one. Professor Michael Sandel, whom this article ridiculed, is one of the leading political philosophers of our time. He challenged in his works and even on this show the utilitarian and capitalistic solutions to climate change. I think his criticism of capitalistic values is sound. We do give capitalistic solutions to such problems unassumingly –without realizing that by doing so we are replacing ordinary morality with market values. If you think he’s wrong, you have to offer arguments rather than mock a man who is far more qualified to speak on the nature of such values than you are.

He also challenged the utilitarian imperative to primarily care about the survival of sentient beings and whether that ignored certain values such as our relationship with nature that are just as important. I happen to disagree with Michael on this. I believe an improved relationship with nature would be a good but I do not think this is a good that supersedes the good of protecting the species and other sentient beings. Nonetheless, I would not mock his views the way this author did, because he helped me re-examine my views and this was manifestly the purpose of this show. Of course, Breitbart doesn’t mention any of this. Instead, it labels this show as leftist and sneers at a man whose philosophical depth makes a laughing stock out of the dull-minded trash they call journalism.

P.S. It’s funny how they label anything that challenges capitalism as leftist. Sandel is coming from the neo-Aristotelian tradition when he criticizes market values. He is not criticizing them as a traditional leftist would –workers need to own the means to production. He is criticizing them as a neo-Aristotelian: it corrodes goods such as our relationship with nature or our relationship with education. These are not leftist values. These are communitarian values. I doubt these philosophically illiterate barbarians know the difference.

Breitbart’s article

The Global Philosopher’s episode on Climate Change

On Free Will

I think many people are thoroughly confused by the problem of free will. I think the easiest way to understand is this: there is a metaphysical definition of free will and there is an ethical definition of free will. The metaphysical definition is that there exists a will that is uncaused and undetermined. The metaphysical debate is concerned with whether this is true or not. Now, the ethical definition of free will is an uncoerced, self-controlled will. This doesn’t mean that such wills are neceessarily undetermined. It is rather that one isn’t coerced by others or that one has the ability of self-control –”essentially a means by which one consciously decides to overrule subconsciously delivered impulses—an exercise of free will if you wish.” (Patricia Churchland) Not every animal is able to override their subconscious impulses through reason. Yes, even this rational process is determined by bio-chemical processes and physical constraints. So what? Like I mentioned already, this is something of which only rational animals seem to be capable, and it profoundly influences our ethical intuitions. Hence, the name– the ethical defintion of free will.

These two definitions do not necessarily conflict with each other. Even if one were a determinist, one could still acknowledge that human beings do have this peculiar ability to not eat ice cream when we’re on a diet. Of course, these two definitions do conflict if one believed in libertarian free will –the belief that the will is uncaused and undetermined. However, this is not where most of the conflict in the free will debate comes from –most thinkers are not libertarians! The debate actually mostly takes place between determinists.

So what is causing those on the same side to feud so much? Well, the contention is whether or not we ought to replace the metaphysical definition with the ethical definition of free will. Let’s call these two sides Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. Sam Harris believes that the metaphysical definition is the one many people care about; therefore, it needs to be the one we use. This might ring a bell with those who grew up religious –particularly, the abrahamic religions. They do claim that free will is libertarian. We also see some manifestations of such definitions of free will from existentialists and even popular shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This seems to be a very plausible posotion, because it does indeed seem to be the case that the metaphysical definition of free will is the one we truly care about. So why does Daniel Dennet keep insisting that we must replace it?

Well, Dennet has a case. First, he believes that the metaphysical definition of free will –a will that is uncaused and undetermined– is meaningless. Why? Because it obviously doesn’t exist. It’s like arguing about whether unicorns exist or not. There is nothing to argue. The case is closed. Let’s move on. Let’s replace this stupid definition with an ethical definition of free will. Second, Dennett makes the claim that, if we probe deeper into our psychology, the one we truly care about is the ethical definition. Often the positions in which we claim to believe do not necessarily coincide with what we actually believe. For example, many pro-lifers believe that abortion is murder. Yet, when you ask them if the mother is a murderer for having aborted the baby, many of them believe that it is wrong to call the mother a murderer. When you probe deeper into one’s belief system, you often find more than what they seem to suggest in the surface. This just might be the case with free will. People might claim to be concerned with the metaphysical definition, but when we probe deeper they might actually care more about the ethical definition. There are clever ways to devise experiments to see if one truly cares about the latter or the former definition of free will. Rather than asking, straight ahead, do you believe in the metaphysical or ethical free will, we could ask them whether the consequences of either are troublesome or not. It’s better to do this because these terms are so loaded with biases and tribalism –like abortion– it gets in the way of seeing what people truly care about.

So who’s right? I lean more towards compabilism –also known as Daniel Dennett’s position. I think the metaphysical debate is fruitless. There is no God, there is no will outside the constraints of the physical world. Let’s move on. I know that this may sound deflationary, and that Sam Harris might be right in that people do truly care about the libertarian definition of free will even if it were false. Well, I wouldn’t be so hasty. Such claims ultimately are determined by empirical data. If it turns out that people care more about the metaphysical definition of free will, then we might just have to stick with it. If it turns out that we, in fact, care more about the ethical definition of free will, then Dennett is right –we should replace the metaphysical with the ethical.

Addendum: I forgot to mention the fact that the ethical definition of free will is used quite often in ordinary language. When one claims: “did you go  with him of your own free will?” This person is obviously not asking whether their friend was free from the laws of physics. They’re asking whether their friend wasn’t coerced by another person. I’m sure you can think of many other examples and that is evidence for the fact that the metaphysical definition of free will isn’t as overwhelmingly dominant as Sam Harris often makes it out to be. I don’t think such thought experiments are sufficient to conclude that the ethical definition means more to us. But they do hint at the unwarranted assumption that the metaphysical definition is overwhelmingly used – we actually use the ethical definition quite a lot.