Saturday, December 31, 2011

God Against The Maelstrom: Fundamentalism and Modernity.

Fundamentalism is a term that originated in the United States. Early in the 20th century, Protestant groups adopted the designation to differentiate themselves from forms of liberal Protestantism and secularists (Jones, 2010). The recent coinage of fundamentalism suggests that its development is related to modernity, and while fundamentalist movements are characterized by their commitment to traditional belief-systems, they are often highly innovative adaptations to the modern experience. In this paper, the relationship between fundamentalism and modernity will be analysed; first by elaborating the concept of modernity and then reviewing the theoretical literature on the defining characteristics of religious fundamentalism, which will be tied together with two specific case studies: Protestant fundamentalism and Islamic fundamentalism. It will be shown that religious fundamentalism is a defensive strategy employed in response to the uncertainties and rapid shifts of modernity.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Henry Miller Asleep and Awake

Tom Schiller's documentary on Henry Miller, the author of The Tropic of Cancer, and the intricacies of his bathroom walls.

Sunday, August 14, 2011


And then the day came,
When the risk to remain tight
In a bud
Was more painful
Than the risk
it took
to blossom.

- Anaïs Nin.

Monday, May 30, 2011

E.P. Thompson's 'Queen of The Humanities': Class Theory and Historical Materialism.

E.P. Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory is a critique of Louis Althusser’s structuralist interpretation of Marxism and it’s relation to discipline of history. In this critique, Thompson defended his formulation of the materialist conception of history, the importance of historical analysis and an outline for the proper use of conceptual abstractions. Thompson’s theoretical framework, that favoured the “empirical idiom”, underpinned his historical work on the English working class. His discussion of working class experience between the 1780s to the early 1830s became a crucial reference point in the class theory of the Marxian tradition and generated much contention and debate with his assertion that class is neither a “structure” or “category”, but a “historical relationship” that is not reducible to economic relations. Thompson attempted to reintroduce human agency into the study of class and redress the failings of economic reductionism that stemmed from the base-superstructure model. Thus, Thompson’s work is at odds with ‘orthodox’ Marxism and draws attention to the difference between class as “structure” and class as “lived experience”. That is, the conflict between structural accounts of class that emphasises the political economy of capitalism and those that conceptualize class in terms of social and cultural formations. However, this tension in class theory needn’t be irresolvable as these two modes of analysis and conceptualization of class are not mutually exclusive. Structural accounts of class, properly employed, are a useful tool for understanding historical processes and historical accounts of class cannot proceed without invoking conceptual frameworks of what constitutes class. Class theory, both with regards to structural approaches and historical analysis, has validity when engaging with both the political economy of class and the historical experiences of class. Insofar as each methodology is applied appropriately and their respective limitations understood.

Class is both a theoretical construct and lived experience. Analytical categories are legitimate to the extent that they are approximations of empirical data and attempt to elucidate actual experience. Thompson’s critique of Orthodox Marxism is based around its perceived processes of sociological reification and economic reductionism that rendered historical hypotheses from the vantage point of overriding economic determination either false or trivial. Class experience cannot be reduced to economic dynamics alone and more comprehensive understandings require a conception of the “dialectical intercourse of social being and social consciousness”. Thus, for Thompson:

“Classes do not exist as abstract, platonic categories, but only as men come to act in roles determined by class objectives, to feel themselves to belong to classes, to define their interests as between themselves as against other classes.”

Thompson’s definition of class quoted above aligns with concept of “class-for-itself” and eschews the category of “class-in-itself” often derived from Marx’s discussion of class in The Poverty of Philosophy and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, though not explicitly categorized as such by Marx it is nevertheless an analytically fertile distinction. The category of class-in-itself refers to a common social position within the relations of production, while class-for-itself denotes a consciousness of this common experience and recognition of the antagonistic interests of opposed classes. However, despite this clear distinction between class-in-itself and class-for-itself the former is never fully explicated within Marx’s overture. In fact, the manuscript of Marx’s final volume of Capital breaks off before answering the question, “What constitutes a class?” Having just defined wage-labours, capitalists and landowners as the three great classes of modern capitalism, Marx identifies the source of each class in their source of income: wages, profits and rents. He then argues that with this division of classes into sources of income, stratification and differentiation can be identified within these social groups. Marx’s truncated discussion of class in Capital does not render class theory invalid, but introduces the complexities of intermediate strata and class fragments not acknowledged in standard accounts of class found in orthodox Marxism. However, Marx maintained that the “continual tendency and law of development of the capitalist mode of production” was ever forming the opposition of labour and capital. And this relation between capital and labour constitutes a structural feature of the capitalist system.

Marx’s account of the political economy of capitalism is based around the opposition of two classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He acknowledged the existence of other classes and in later writings noted the increase in a middle stratum between labour and capital, but considered these two social groups and their relationship to be of central importance to defining the modern mode of production that developed in Western Europe after the collapse of feudalism. Moreover, Marx argues the intermediate classes between proletariat and bourgeoisie contributed to the “social security and power of the upper ten thousand”. Thus, while Marx recognized the empirical reality of complex stratification both between and within the classes of 19th century Britain, he still affirmed the dichotomous two-class model as representing the most salient and important features of the economic system.

Marx’s simplification of class relations is based on the observation that the mode of production that prevailed at the time was predicated upon the concentration of the means of production within a concentrated social group and the alienation of the means of production from the majority of the population that formed the ranks of free labour. That is, the relations of production that prevailed at the time were largely divided between the class of individuals who owned the means of production and those who lived by selling their labour power, while the middle stratum occupied a marginal position in the mode of production. Marx’s analytical categories of labour and capital were used to represent the economic dynamics of capitalist social relations, with the production and appropriation of surplus-value that constitutes the “absolute law” of capitalist production. Of course, the historical experience of class cannot be reduced to relations of production and economic categories alone, such an attempt to theorize along those lines would lead to crude economic determinism and neglect the agency of class actors.In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx offers an account of the social position and political role of the peasantry during the tumultuous birth of the second French empire, which illuminates the distinction between class in and for itself alongside the interplay of economic and cultural dynamics. Marx argues:

“In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class”

Though, he continues:

“In so far as there is merely local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interest begets no community…no political organization among them, they do not form a class.”

Thus, in the latter case, while not a class-for-itself the peasantry is not capable of “enforcing their class interest” which is distinct from the proposition that that such a group of individual would not constitute a class. In the historical experience of the French peasantry of the mid-19th century, the peasantry was split into class fractions and the conservative fraction of this class supported the regime of Louis Bonaparte. This historical eventuality was the result of a unique confluence of events and part of any explanation of these events must involve the memory of Napoleon and the glory bestowed on the nation from his military victories. Class consciousness and the dynamic of class conflict are not reducible to economic determinates and relations of production alone, but are always a unique cultural and social formation. In this vein, Thompson argued:

“Class is a social and cultural formation (often finding institutional expression) which cannot be defined abstractly, or in isolation, but only in terms of relationships with other classes; and, ultimately, the definition can only be made in the medium of time – that is, action and reaction, change and conflict”

For Thompson, the experience of class is embedded in historical time and can only be understood as a diachronic phenomenon and that reduction to set of ‘laws’ cannot but be a process of reification that obscures and misconstrues actually historical processes. Therefore, Thompson’s conception of class is centred on the historical experience of individuals and their consciousness of this experience as class consciousness. In Thompson’s formulation, class involves the dialectical interplay of both social being and social consciousness. Contrary to accounts of class in political economy, Thompson does not assign an undialectical determinism to the relations of production in his historically grounded conception of class formation. He argues that relations of production have a determining influence on the lived experience of individuals, but this determining influence does not determine class consciousness. Prior to class consciousness, historical relationships can exhibit “class logics” and “ways”, but this does not represent class in the “full sense”. Moreover Thompson argued, the manifestation of class patterns through the historical continuum cannot be rendered into absolute “laws”, commonalities of experience are discernable, however, these never manifest in exactly same fashion in each historical period. In this view, the formulations of structural theories of class perpetuate sociological reification and incorrectly impose class models on ill-suited historical data.

In The Peculiarities of the English, Thompson criticises Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn historical work on the English class system for imposing class models on inappropriate historical data. Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn in a series of New Left Review articles had advanced a thesis regarding the “symbiosis” of the English bourgeoisie and the landed aristocracy in the Glorious Revolution and again with the Parliamentary Reform Act of 1832 that extended political representation to men of property. In these pieces, Anderson and Nairn criticised the conciliatory temperament of the English bourgeoisie and the effect of this on the English intelligentsia and working class movement. Thompson criticized the authors on multiple points, particularly for their importation of models derived from the French experience of revolution to evaluate and rebuke the English bourgeoisie for their lack of “courage” and the subsequent impact on the working class movement, which was said to have inherited an improvised revolutionary ideology. He objected to Anderson and Nairn’s thesis on the basis that it neglected the unique experience of the English bourgeoisie that militated against the wholesale overthrow of the aristocracy. Throughout this critique, Thompson’s explicit point is that the experience of class constitutes a unique historical, social and cultural formation that cannot be reduced to an a priori model. Of course, Thompson did regard conceptualization to be an important part of historical analysis. He stated: “without the (elastic) category of class – an expectation justified by evidence – I could not have practiced at all”. However, models crafted on a particular historical episode and extrapolated beyond its original realm often produce gross mistakes of historical analysis.

Thompson noted “concepts are approximations”, and this does not render them “fictions”. Conceptualization is vital to the facilitation of understanding, the extent to which actual historical processes deviate from logical schema can be ascertained from empirical observation. Class is both a theoretical construct and lived experience; the concept of class is useful, only in so far as it pertains to the experience of class. Moreover, the political economy of class is not without its usefulness; class relations constitute an important structural feature of the capitalist system. However, class experience cannot be reduced to economic relations and to apprehend class in its full sense requires an understanding of the unique social and cultural formation of each historical episode. The historical outcomes of class-conflict cannot be understood from economic factors alone and the importation of a model from one historical episode to another without sufficient elasticity to accommodate important differences is often inappropriate and can lead to sociological reification. Thompson’s claim that history is the “queen of the humanities” and that political economy must be “superseded” by historical materialism is not without merit when approaching the experience of class. Class-in-itself is an important economic category, but class-for-itself viewed from the unitary perspective of historical materialism centred on the dialectical interplay of social being and social consciousness renders a more nuanced understanding of class.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Andrew, E. (1983), “Class in Itself and Class against Capital: Karl Marx and His Classifiers”, Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue canadienne de science politique, Vol. 16, No. 3., pp. 577-584.

Johnston, J. and Dolowitz, D.P. (1999), “Marxism and Social Class”, Marxism and Social Science, ed. A. Gaulile, D. Marsh and T. Tant, Basingstoke, Macmilam, pp.129-151.

Kaye, Harvey J. (1984), The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Marx, K. (1919), Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 3. , ed. F. Engels, Translated E. Untermann, Chicago; Charles H. Herr and Company.

Marx, K. (1950), “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte”, Selected Works, Moscow; Foreign Languages Publishing House, pp. 225-311.

Marx, K. (1986), Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1, Trans Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling, Ed. Frederick Engels, Moscow; Progress Publishers.

Thompson, E.P. (1968), The Making of the English Working Class, London; Penguin Books.

Thompson, E.P. (1979), The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, London; Merlin Press.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


From an essay written quite some time ago, but I thought i'd draw attention to it:

"The punk sub-cultural style developed in a social malaise of urban youth suffering from unemployment and marginalisation, they reacted by exercising their power to offend and disrupt the social order (Hebdige, 1988, p. 18). "Fuck" and "Cunt", words eschewed by mainstream culture as highly offensive obscenities were a stock standard of punk lyrics and publications (Triggs, 2006, p. 73). This represented an affront to the cultural norms and practices of the mainstream culture and legitimate language used by the respectable classes."

The lecturer had ticked all the way down the side, somtimes twice - no ticks for this part, but still....

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hemingway on Writers.

From Hemingway's 'Death in the Afternoon':

"If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. A writer who appreciates the seriousness of writing so little that he is anxious to make people see he is formally educated, cultured, or well-bred, is merely a popinjay. And this too, remember: a serious writer is not to be confounded with a solemn writer. A serious writer may be a hawk or a buzzard or even a popinjay, but a solemn writer is always a bloody owl."

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Human Rights and Cultural Relativism.

The modern view of human rights is the result of successive struggles within Western society. Hence, in historical terms, human rights are a ‘Western’ construct. However this does not undermine the claim of cross-cultural validity, but merely problematizes the issue of cultural rights and their relation to the universal claims of the human rights tradition. This tension and the normative variety of cultural relativism have been crucial points of contestation in human rights theory. Thus, the extent to which human rights are inherently ‘Western’ in character is of vital importance to their practical implantation across cultural divisions. To address this issue, the historical origins of human rights will be briefly sketched and their cross-cultural legitimacy will be evaluated to determine the appropriate cultural designation of human rights.

The question of historical origin, Micheline Ishay argues, is complicated because selection of this point ipso facto “privileges a specific status quo or value-system” and can be used to legitimize and delegitimize historical actors. Following this, the cultural antecedents of human rights and their compatibility with previous value-systems both within and outside Europe has caused considerable contention. However, the intellectual crystallization of both human rights and cultural relativism originate in Europe. The human rights tradition developed out of the intellectual, socio-economic and political transformations of the Enlightenment period and the antecedents of normative cultural relativism can be partially sourced from the birth of cultural nationalism with the consolidation of Germany and Italy in the early 1870s. In this sense, both human rights and cultural relativism are ‘Western’ constructs. However, Jack Donnelly contends that modern human rights are the product of and reaction to abuses prevalent in modernity.Ergo, the development capitalism and bureaucratic nation-state is the vital fulcrum in the evolution of human rights and not the special qualities inherent in pre-modern ‘Western’ value-systems. Furthermore, the spread of both capitalism and nation-states throughout the globe generalises a similar set of abuses that gave rise to the human rights tradition in Europe. Donnelly’s argument is an attempt to firmly ground universal human rights without reference to universal anthropological or ontological claims that he finds empirically indefensible.

The weakness of such universalisms can give credence to normative cultural relativism that is diametrically opposed to the modern conception of human rights. He argues, given a unique historical confluence, that human rights represent the best means to combat threats to human dignity, despite the fact of cultural relativity. In defence of universal human rights claims, Donnelly offers several criticisms of cultural relativism and empirical arguments that attempt to demonstrate the “relative universality” of human rights.

Cultural relativism can be conceptualized in two broad forms. The term cultural relativism was first employed within the discipline of anthropology and referred to a methodological approach to the problem of cultural relativity and ethnocentric biases that undermined objective analysis of different cultures and value systems. Thus, from this methodological approach cultural systems can be analysed in their own terms to ascertain the functional interplay of social practices. From a normative perspective, cultural relativity is given moral force and cross-cultural moral evaluation is reduced to the status of reproducing ethnocentrism. Moreover, claims to universal human right would represent a form of cultural imperialism and signpost the hegemony of the West. From a pragmatic standpoint, cultural relativism provides no means to arbitrate between competing rights claims in a cross-cultural international system. However, this does not imply that cultural relativism is false, per se, but empirically grounded arguments can demonstrate the widespread appeal of human rights and historical tendencies that propel universal human rights claims across cultural divisions.

There is prima facie evidence for the cross-cultural validity of human rights in the widespread adoption of human rights language throughout the globe and the development of non-western human rights organizations. In view of this, Michael Goodhart has argued that human rights need not be grounded in a conception of universality, the continued proliferation of human right’s influenced discourse and organizations testify to its cross-cultural validly beyond its origin in Western Europe. Donnelly moves beyond this prima facie evidence and attempts to ground human right in a “relative universality” that leaves space for “second order claims of relativism”.

Unlike traditional Enlightenment philosophy, that often based rights claims on an a priori conception of the autonomous individual, Donnelly’s appeal to universality is circumscribed by historical contingencies. With the development of capitalism, the nation-state and the rise of the bourgeoisie class rights claims were advanced to counter the traditional authority of the aristocracy and monarchy. The success of these initial claims to rights propagated further rights claims for the advancement of marginalized groups. Karl Marx noted that universal suffrage, a political right, was essentially a “socialistic” measure, so much more than political events on the continent. Thus, with the spread of capitalism and nation-states a case can be made for what Donnelly called “functional universality”, human rights amounting to the best functional response to these transformations. Moreover, the universalism of human rights allowed for the critique of existing conditions relative to normative standards. In fact, human rights discourse has been invoked to redress the excess of power exercised by Western powers in the international system.

The process of decolonization that occurred in the aftermath of the Second World War was often lead by figures educated in the Western tradition of rights. Thus, as Ishay notes, human rights has often been adopted as the language of resistance to power and cultural relativism is adopted to redress marginal groups inability to gain access to social, political and economic rights. In this sense, cultural relativism is one strategy to redress the failure to extend human rights to marginalized groups. Both the human rights tradition and cultural relativism are of European origin. However, both are adapted and adopted by non-western societies and therefore cannot be considered exclusively western.

The European origin of human rights is a historical fact, from the intellectual fervor of the Enlightenment and the socio-economic and political transformation that brought forth the capitalist market system and the nation-state, the human rights tradition developed to combat threats to human dignity and curb excesses of arbitrary power. However, as Donnelly argued, “cultures are immensely malleable” and the development of human rights stemmed more from the problems inherent in modernity than the uniqueness of pre-modern Western culture. The spread of capitalism and nation-state has led to similar threats to human dignity worldwide, in light of this, human rights as conceived of in the Western world have developed a level of functional universality and need not be grounded in universal anthropological and ontological claims. The fact of cultural relativity need not necessarily attain normative power; cultural relativism is often the maladaptive response to failures to extend human rights. Moreover, the use of human rights discourse to resist Western power and the spread of non-Western human rights organization further bolster the argument that human rights are not an inherently Western construct, despite their historical origins.

Written by Mathew Toll.


Donnelly, Jack. (2007), “The Relative Universality of Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 281-306.

Cmiel, Kenneth. (2004), “The Recent History of Human Rights”, American Historical Review, Vol. 109, No. 1, pp.117-135.

Goodhart, Michael. (2008), “Neither Relative nor Universal: A Response to Donnelly”, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 30, No.1, pp. 183-193.

Ishay, Micheline. (2004), “What Are Human Rights? Six Historical Controversies”, Journal of Human Rights, Vol. 3. No. 3, pp.359-371.

Pegram, Thomas. (2010), “Diffusion Across Political Systems: The Global Spread of National Human Rights Institutions”, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 3., pp. 729-760.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

“No Maps for These Territories”

Traversing through cyberspace today, I came across a little gem “No Maps for These Territories” featuring the man who coined the term cyberspace, cyberpunk novelist William Gibson. It’s a meditation on our nature as ‘mediated’ human-beings, the extent of technological saturation in our quotidian lives and our desire to produce extended networks of prosthetics. Not to mention, he delves into the process of writing and the nature of fiction, of the relationship between our conscious self and the unconsciousness. Well worth the watch, enjoy.

EDIT: The youtube user who had hosted this removed it. However, here is the trailer:

Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Should The Bible Be Taught To Children?"

I saw this one on PZ Myers’s blog and I had to share it around. Wonderful to see someone so young engage in some critical thinking. It warms my heart.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Tortoise Meandering Around on a Balcony.

What’s the Aesopian insight of this little clip? It's perhaps the greatest film on YouTube. Except perhaps for this clip, which is essentially Vice magazine in motion.

My channel: Subjectivity101.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Michael Hudson on Reagan.

Michael Hudson delivers a brilliant cutting analysis of Reagan’s economics, reform of the tax system and post-Reagan class war in the United States. If you haven’t seen or heard of “The Real News Network”, you should most definitely take a look. They provide a hardnosed and progressive take on contemporary events, vastly removed from the flippancy of much cable news analysis.

-Previously on “A Night of Dostoevskian Smiles and Sadean excesses”, take a look at “Minsky and The Financial Crisis”.

The picture is of a pro-Wikileaks protest in Sydney. I don’t know who took the photo. The angle of the shot,the interplay of foreground and background, and the fact that everyone seems to be animated and smiling endear this picture to me.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Tariq Ali on The History of Pakistan.

"Harry Kreisler welcomes writer and journalist Tariq Ali for a discussion of Pakistan and its relations with the United States. He places the present crisis in its historical context exploring the origins of the Pakistani state, the failure to forge a national identity, the inability and unwillingness of Pakistani leaders to address the country's poverty and inequality, and the role of the military in the country's spiral toward violence and disunity. Tariq Ali highlights the significance of the U.S. relationship throughout Pakistan's history and analyzes current US policy and its implications for stability in the region."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Incitement to Murder

Given the Tucson assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner, we should all be aware that political discourse tinged with violent innuendo and subtle suggestions have consequences. In the case of Julian Assange many U.S. commentators have openly called for his assassination. This site here catalogues many individuals who have called for, or suggested, violence against Assange (sourced) and it makes for an interesting read.

Here’s a couple of the quotes:

“"A dead man can't leak stuff...This guy's a traitor, he's treasonous, and he has broken every law of the United States. And I'm not for the death penalty, so...there's only one way to do it: illegally shoot the son of a bitch."
– Bob Beckel.

"Julian Assange is a cyber terrorist in wartime, he's guilty of sabotage, espionage, crimes against humanity -- he should be killed, but we won't do that."
– Ralph Peters.

"Why can't we act forcefully against WikiLeaks? Why can't we use our various assets to harass, snatch or neutralize Julian Assange and his collaborators, wherever they are?" - William Kristol

I wonder: who should be prosecuted?