The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Month: November, 2015

Roy Bhaskar: The Possibility of Naturalism

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Two years ago, after finishing my required course in philosophy for undergrad, the professor encouraged me to join the department because he believed I had an aptitude for the material. I did not do so, largely because I was committed to studying history and found the philosophy department at the university I attended somewhat distasteful. Philosophy has formed a significant part of my reading diet ever since that class, but I’ve never found philosophical reasoning––contrasted with putting philosophical concepts to work in historical study––to be one of my strong suits.

After reading through The Possibility of Naturalism almost entirely on long commutes to and from work, I feel vindicated in sticking to historical research and rejecting the siren call of my college’s “analytic” philosophy department. I do not mean to denigrate the book by saying as much; I found it an enlightening defence of the human sciences and their distinct programs and objects. Still, the experience of reading the work was like dropping into the middle of a long conversation without knowing the speakers or the subject of discussion.

Bhaskar’s argument for a critical realist philosophy of human science, as opposed to a positivist or hermeneutical one, develops throughout the book in dialogue with those two opposing positions. Having only a rudimentary grasp of positivism––I had studied followers of hermeneutical traditions in university courses on cultural history––more of my attention had to be dedicated to deciphering what Bhaskar was rejecting. Without doing so, I would not be able to understand the significance or, at least, the novelty of what he proposed. Though the book is relatively short at under 200 pages, its prose has a density characteristic of philosophical writing. As philosophy’s object of study is purely conceptual, the book is concerned with drawing lines and marking territories in an abstract space, employing a liberal quantity of jargon and foreign language phrases in the meantime.

With some diligent re-reading, however, I discovered that Bhaskar’s critical realism settles fairly closely to the structural Marxist tradition founded by Althusser. Althusser comes up several times in the text, as does Marx. I first heard of Bhaskar through an exposition of Althusser’s structural causality, so this was not surprising. While I’m familiar with Althusser and his historical milieu, however, Bhaskar’s was, as mentioned, much more elusive. As a consequence, The Possibility of Naturalism felt as though it was explaining points I had already assimilated elsewhere but in a different language. It shows how important context and antagonists play in shaping any research or argument; Althusser’s primary opponents were humanists and more traditional “orthodox” French Marxists, while Bhaskar is more interested in the philosophy of science as such. 

As for the argument of the book itself, I find myself at pains to reproduce it accurately. At its basis, however, it maintains that all of the social sciences can be just as scientific as natural sciences. That is, they can be self-critical and progressive bodies of knowledge that possess explanatory  power. In contrast to natural science, of course, human sciences do not have controlled testing situations and intervene into spheres of which they are themselves a part. Put another way, while a physicist studies basic universal forces as an outside observer, the sociologist attempting to define laws of social behaviour is within his subject matter. Bhaskar argues that this internal status and lack of decisive tests and experiments limits human sciences in important ways––they lack the power of prediction, for instance––but does not disqualify them as sciences. Alongside this core assertion, Bhaskar argues that reality is a “structured and differentiated” entity, one where different layers of reality emerge from lower ones, depending on the latter without being entirely explained by them. Mind emerges from the body but has “emergent” powers of its own. Hence, psychology has a proper subject matter separate from neurobiology. Societies depend on the existence of individual persons to exist, but also include structures and laws that exist outside of those persons, governing them at times without their knowledge or consent.

Marxists who are interested in developing politically might not find the philosophical arcana and presentation style palatable. I certainly had a difficult time acclimating myself to Bhaskar’s method of exposition, which liberally uses abbreviations and attends closely to logical minutia because, well, that’s what has to be done in a philosophical work for it to hold water. However, anyone who is working in the human sciences or is interested in, say, the status of a “scientific” historiography, should consider this essential reading. Practitioners of human sciences need to ask whether the knowledge we are creating can contribute to human emancipation and articulate a strong, irresistible answer in the positive. Without a strong theoretical foundation, such ap project would founder, and I appreciate The Possibility of Naturalism as an attempt to give us that foundation, despite being unused to its curious customs and style.

 

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Challenges in Running a Small Reading Group

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Before late this year, all of my small reading groups had tottered over for one reason or another. When saddled with a full work and study schedule, it can be difficult for one person to maintain a reading discipline unless they are already used to reading for fun. Coordinating reading with more than one person, even just one more, magnifies the difficulty. Even if both people live in the same house and are in near-constant communication, the same basic set of problems remains:

  1. What to read:Deciding on a list of books that satisfies every group member is the first major obstacle to clear. In my case, I took charge of this process because I was the most politically experienced and wanted to help the rest of the group catch up. I consulted everyone for input, but I had final veto over the list. Generally, in each of the failed reading groups, we simply set a weekly meeting time and agreed to discuss our experiences with the book section or article assigned. However, it became obvious that people’s interest wandered between meetings because they were more interested in other books or felt they couldn’t contribute much to a discussion of what was assigned.
  2. Meeting Times: Fairly obvious issues that most of you will be familiar with.
  3. Discussion Structure: One of the most persistent problems I encountered was the problem of discussion structure. This also connects to problem 1 because some of our problems stemmed directly from the difficulty of sustaining interest in a single book over a medium period. At first, we tried to discuss one book that we had all read, sometimes basing our conversations on a set of pre-written study questions. After awhile, however, we began to read books separately and report our impressions and summarize the contents of our personal reading. After a failed attempt to explain the intricacies of Anti-Oedipus to a bewildered gathering of people who had never read Deleuze, we decided to abandon this structure and return to our simpler approach of co-reading the texts. This eventually worked once we figured out a solution to problem 1. That solution was simply yo dedicate more time for choosing a book that was both relevant and intriguing enough to keep the entire group riveted.

Our current attempt at a reading group is going swimmingly, focusing on the works of Louis Althusser, Lenin, and Robert Biel. Education, both of oneself and in a group context, is an essential part of becoming more politically effective and also forges stronger bonds between participants if the matter is handled effectively. The key is to maintain communication, find a book that everyone can understand and discuss, and to ensure that less advanced members can also contribute while learning from the rest of the group. It’s effective small-group pedagogy, at least as far as I’ve discovered.

Nissim Kadosh Otmazgin: Regionalizing Culture

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At the end of my brief review of Koichi Iwabuchi’s book Recentering Globalization, an examination of how Japanese culture industries had insinuated themselves in the East Asian region, I noted my disappointment that it scarcely mentioned the cultural relations between China and Japan. Its overwhelming focus was more general, focused on the energetic ascent of Japanese culture in East Asian countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea. Unfortunately, I must reiterate that disappointment here, as Otmazgin’s book, while it does lay the foundations for an understand of the political economy aspects of Japan’s cultural industries in East Asia, discusses China only a handful of times and never in any detail.

Because of this, the book was a fascinating but not especially useful read for me, an excellent complement to Iwabuchi’s book, which came out a decade before this one. Where Recentering Globalization focused squarely on the distribution and consumption of Japanese popular culture in East Asia, exploring the more subjective and cultural sides of this territory, Regionalizing Culture argues for the centrality of production. In particular, he emphasizes the productive capacities and experience of the Japanese cultural manufacturers and the importance of the vast and sophisticated consumer base in Japan to their export capabilities.

Uneven and contradictory development is the key here. Japan had a twenty-year head-start in the formation of a domestic market capable of buying into its popular culture output, whereas the legacy of underdevelopment and, often, neocolonial exploitation (neither named as such in the book itself) limited or prevented the creation of middle-class urban strata in most of the other countries in Southeast and Northeast Asia.

By far the most valuable contribution the book makes to own research it its conception of East Asia as a “region.” If Japanese popular culture is the subject of the book, the “protagonist,” the geographical concept of region is its setting. Uneven geographical development occurs within capitalism as a world system on all levels simultaneously. Obvious disparities between affluent and destitute countries aside, capitalist economic regimes also exacerbate the divisions between urban and rural regions within each country. China is a perfect example of this, as cities like Shanghai have become wealthier and more cosmopolitan while rural areas remain fairly stagnant, and the situation is far worse in countries like The Philippines, where domestic economic development plays second fiddle to the exploitation of its natural resources and people. Otmazgin’s region, therefore, is much more a network of city-islands than a united territory comprising whole nation-states. Tokyo and Hong Kong have much more in common than Shanghai and a tiny village in Sichuan in regard to their proximity Otmazgin’s cultural region, despite the latter two sharing a national territory and language.

Within those “city limits” Otmazgin finds that Japanese culture has found a large niche across the region, exporting popular music idols, animated characters, and even whole media formats and genres to other countries. Countries with less-developed cultural industries often import whole structures and repurpose them for local production. A good example of that is the creation of manhwa, Korean comics, almost entirely on the basis of Japanese manga tropes and style. Over time, the Korean product has become more distinctive, but the format is clearly derived from a Japanese import. Otmazgin rejects the idea that this constitutes a form of imperialism, reasoning that to say as much would endorse a conspiracy theory. Rather, he advances the idea that Japanese cultural industries have had an overall positive impact on the region that he has defined, creating new possibilities and ways of thinking that draw different countries with often antagonistic histories closer together despite any official state policies to the contrary. Piracy also played a key role in dodging cultural embargoes in countries like South Korea and Taiwan that had official bans on Japanese cultural imports for much of the postwar period.

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An example of manhwa.

I wonder, however, if such a conclusion could be maintained if one took a more holistic look at relations between countries rather than confining one’s view to interlinked urban areas. Sure, there is a homogenization evident across the world within the wealthier areas of large cities. On the other hand, Otmazgin dismisses outright the notion that the proliferation of Japanese modes of popular culture have had the effect of squelching native cultures, arguing that the process of “nativizing” manga in South Korea is an example of autonomous borrowing rather than any kind of imposition. While that might be true, Otmazgin does not consider the implications of the separation he identifies between those who have access to this “cosmopolitan” urban culture and those who do not, and whether that might inflame intra-national tensions or feed reactionary movements, as it has to some extent in Europe.

For its relatively slender length, however, the book includes some invaluable chapters, particularly a wonderful examination of the domestic Japanese culture industry and the ways in which it develops its products. In particular, it leans on its own consumers and enthusiasts as a pool of energy and talent on which to draw. Otaku and other culture fanatics are important not just for market research but for cultivating a broad swathe of consumers who also produce their own amateur manga (doujinshi) or other materials. The most talented amateurs are often offered jobs in the mainstream industry, which is notoriously difficult to work in and pays poorly for rank-and-file workers in animation and comics. These flexible and decentralized regimes remind me of Robert Biel’s conception of neoliberalism “parasitizing” on human initiative in order to more efficiently commoditize products and ensure a higher return without the rigidity of centralized control.

While its theoretical insights and usefulness for my own needs are both limited, Regionalizing Culture is a fantastic introduction to the Japanese popular culture industry and its ambivalent relationship to East Asia. It’s probably stronger and more well-developed than Iwabuchi’s book, so if anything I would read this first and, if it sparks your interest enough, move on to Iwabuchi afterward.

The Midwestern Chill of Charlie Brown

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Peanuts, like nearly all media aimed at children, did not spring from the mind of children themselves. As a matter of fact, I doubt that most children, at least ones I knew growing up, would be interested in writing stories about short young people. Contrary to the assumptions of TV hacks and toy promoters, particularly in the late 1970s and 80s, I would assert that children find it much easier to get invested in characters who are adults or at least act more like adults than they do.

Without a doubt, Charlie Brown and company appeal to children. For me, that affection started with A Charlie Brown Christmas and wound its way through the feature films, comics, and The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show, the last of which was fairly hard for my younger self to obtain and watch. Even though the entire cast of Peanuts is either human-spawn or animal, they don’t talk like children, and one of the reasons why their low-key escapades connected with me is that the characters are able to voice common childhood concerns in a much more articulate way than my language skills could muster at that age. Infused with a love of pop psychology and attentive to the fact that children have all the anxieties associated with being a small, weak being in a frightening world, the strip has an uncommon ability to communicate these ideas without being either condescending or complicated.

Partly that’s an advantage of the stock characters and situations which are the basic components of the newspaper comic strip. This strength is not just internal to the paper and ink drawings of the medium, but involves the way that comics form and maintain audiences. Comics were, at one point, integral to selling newspapers, offering light entertainment as comfort in the midst (or at the back) of a newspaper often full of disquieting stories. Reporting of the real world, no matter how affected by ideology or smoothed out by the censors, has to react to a changing modern world. In an unsettled, cutthroat capitalist world, the comic strips are little idylls, mildly amusing islands of comfort. Since reading a newspaper was a nearly universal activity for much of the 20th century, comic strips that could get established had an almost guaranteed audience that would rapidly grow comfortable with repetitive situations, able to predict each move a character would make.

In this way, Peanuts is no different. the opening panel of a Peanuts strip, no matter how esoteric or depressing the subject matter, sets up a situation using characters and cues that immediately suggest a conclusion to the reader. Lucy, Charlie, and the football. Snoopy and the typewriter. Schroeder and Lucy. Their internal struggles and relationships are so fixed––if they shifted, they moved like glaciers or tectonic plates––that the characters are often more like stand-ins for abstract concepts than actual living characters. One character could embody multiple, perhaps contradictory ideas, of course. Linus is both the incisive thinker of the cast and the most juvenile and credulous. Being the smartest one in class…who still slept with a blanket was a very familiar experience to this blogger.

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What distinguished Peanuts as a comic was that it used its comfy arrangement with its readers to present characters who, although not realistic children, were capable of entering troubling territory. The reassuring Midwestern milieu of the show swarmed with insecurity and antagonism. Which is not to say that Schulz was anything like David Lynch, but, for me, growing up in the Midwest as a child aspiring to grow up as quickly as possible, reading Peanuts and watching the specials and films helped me realize that sadness and failure are universal, and that sometimes an escape into a surreal flight of fancy, as Snoopy often did, is a rational response to a world so hard and simple.

Though the new Peanuts movie might fall anywhere on the spectrum of quality, I will be watching it. Peanuts might be the only bit of mass-produced media I feel true, old school nostalgia for. I feel this nostalgia as a kind of sickness or homesickness, a longing to be small and loudmouthed and philosophical again. Despite the loopy deviance of the later decades of the strip, the uneven episodic films, and the gross commercialization of the entire Schulz enterprise, I still feel that Schulz and his collaborators did find ways to bring the sad affects of childhood to light in a way that so little Western culture does. And they did it in the comfort of a Midwestern living room.

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