Cycles of Retributive Violence

My sympathies are with France, the residents of Paris, and with everyone who suffered loss after yesterday’s horrible violence.

On 9/11, I was a graduate student at Drew University teaching my first section of Freshman Composition there. Drew is located in Madison, New Jersey, about 30 miles due west of downtown Manhattan. Since it has a train direct into Penn Station it’s a commuter town for people who work in the financial district. Some of my students knew people who had died in the attacks, and because of our geographic proximity to NYC, we could see the smoke rising from ground zero for weeks afterwards. We had a constant visual reminder of what had happened if the news wasn’t enough.

My students’ reactions were palpable and intense. Grief and rage. So I want to say that I write the following having experienced the loss and rage that understandably follow these events. I feel it too. I understood attacks on NYC and DC. I don’t understand attacking Paris.

Aristotle taught in Book II, paragraph 5 of the Rhetoric that “those who can do us wrong are terrible to us when we are liable to be wronged; for as a rule men do wrong to others whenever they have the power to do it.” According to this thinking, the mere fact that someone has the power to hurt us means that they will, or at least that we can believe that they will. Victims, Aristotle goes on to say, sometimes become victims because those who commit wrong target “those who have been wronged by many and have not prosecuted, since these are, as the saying goes,’Mysian spoil'” (Book I, ch. 12).

These two points are very important. Not so much because they are unquestioned truths, but because they have shaped the way we think about retributive violence. They mean that we will tend to expect those who can hurt us to do so, and that people think that if they don’t punish people who do them wrong they will become targets for everyone. Our governments think this way, and they probably have good reason to do so. So now I’m thinking about the inevitable retributive violence that will come as a result of yesterday’s attacks. A military response is a forgone conclusion.

This leads me to think about our major twentieth-century myths, even something as banal as Star Wars, that teach that sometimes the war itself is the point: it’s not that one side or the other is bad, but that the real bad guys are manipulating both sides into war, and that evil takes charge not when one side or the other wins, but when the war itself starts.

I’m also reminded of another recent death — that of René Girard, whose voice in France was perhaps lost a couple of weeks too soon — who taught us about retributive violence and where it leads: to more retributive violence until some third party intervenes to bear the brunt of the cycle of retributive violence. His most honest answer to previous acts of terrorism was that he couldn’t understand it, and that he didn’t have the conceptual apparatus to understand it. But in his description of terrorism as an attack on western technology, I think he has brought us one or two steps closer to understanding it:

Of course, there is resentment in its [Islamic terrorism’s] attitude to Judeo-Christianity and the West, but it is also a new religion. This cannot be denied. Historians of religion, and even anthropologists, have to show how and why it emerged. Indeed, some aspects of this religion contain a relationship to violence that we do not understand and that are all the more worrying for that reason. For us, it makes no sense to be ready to pay with one’s life for the pleasure of seeing the other die. We do not know whether such phenomena belong to a special psychology or not. We are thus facing complete failure; we cannot talk about it and also we cannot document the situation because terrorism is something new that exploits Islamic codes, but does not at all belong to classical Islamic theory. Today’s terrorism is new, even from an Islamic point of view. It is a modern effort to counter the most powerful and refined tool of the Western world: technology. It counters technology in a way that we do not understand, and that classical Islam may not understand either.

And I’m asking myself if there’s maybe another solution. I’m not talking about bargaining with or somehow making peace with ISIS. That will never happen. I’m talking about being smart enough to not make the predictable response — to throw this cycle of retributive violence off center by doing the unexpected somehow.

The problem is that the unexpected cannot be immediately conceived. But I hope we will at least think before acting, and be willing to consider less than obvious responses.

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Yes there are good economists: Ha-Joon Chang author of “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism”

You might want to read this one…

Punkonomics (@DearBalak)

Check out Ha-Joon Chang’s RSA talk about his “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism.”  It’s an excellent book that manages to be entertaining while preserving analytical depth and should be read by anybody interested in economics:

Ha-Joon Chang: Economics Is A Political Argument

Posted: 04/09/2014 3:51 pm EDT Updated: 04/10/2014 2:59 pm EDT

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Ha-Joon Chang teaches economics at Cambridge University. He is the author of “23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism.” His new book,“Economics: The User’s Guide,” will be released on May 1, 2014 in the U.K. He spoke recently with The WorldPost South Korea editor and former Oxford Union President Seung-Yoon Lee.

Seung-Yoon Lee: You have said that “economics is a political argument,” that you cannot really separate economics from politics. Even the concept of “free market” is determined by politics. “What is free” is determined by society and…

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Update on Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety

Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety

Great news: I happened to visit WorldCat for another reason today and, while there, checked the status of my book Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety. According to Worldcat, as of January 17th, 2015 my book has been purchased by 732 libraries/locations around the world. It’s currently available at (mostly university) libraries in the following countries or territories:

Bosnia and Herzegovina
Costa Rica
Hong Kong
New Zealand
Russian Federation
South Africa
United Arab Emirates
United Kingdom
United States
Virgin Islands

That’s 60 countries on six continents. Someone needs to set up a library in Antarctica. If there is one down there, hey guys — would you buy a copy of my book? Ha.

Needless to say, I’m very pleased. If you’re not familiar with academic publishing in the humanities, over 700 libraries isn’t an academic bestseller, but it isn’t bad at all either. The predictable minimum sales for an academic book is around 200-300 copies, and very low-end publishers like Mellen set royalty payouts at around 500 copies over the first five years to almost ensure that no author will ever get royalties for their book — because most academic books don’t sell that many copies. By the way, after five years full ownership reverts to Mellen, so the author will never see royalties after that — don’t publish with Mellen unless you’re willing to give up ownership of your work forever. I highly recommend working with Bloomsbury/Continuum.

I’m very grateful to the faculty (both library and humanities) who supported the purchase of my book. I think I know who made the recommendations in Singapore and Croatia: thank you both, especially since it seems to be in most or all of the major libraries in Croatia. I was fortunate that Continuum/Bloomsbury published it, because they’re one of the better publishers. An academic publisher who actually backs their own product is a rare thing these days, and publishing with Continuum was a great experience. Excellent editorial process despite a few glitches, which were my own.

I’m especially grateful to Michael Phillips, Sherry Truffin, and Sheridan Lorraine for being my book’s first readers and for their valuable insight and editorial assistance.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to have had the book reviewed four times, so I’m very grateful to the reviewers for their work reviewing my book and for helping to spread the word, and I need to extend that gratitude to the journals that published these reviews. You can read excerpts of these reviews and find links to them on my book page.

I’ve added an errata page. Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety is currently available in paperback, hardcover, and eBook edition on both and the publisher’s website.

Walter Benjamin on Writing

Walter BenjaminGreat stuff from Walter Benjamin on writing.

Progressive Geographies

This is wonderful – Walter Benjamin’s writing rules, taken from Sean Sturm’s blog. I’ve read this before, but only now does it really resonate. I may say more about why in a bit.

I. Anyone intending to embark on a major work should be lenient with themselves and, having completed a stint, deny themselves nothing that will not prejudice the next.

II. Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this régime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

III. In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as…

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