Archive for November, 2012

Between Romantic and Barbarian Orientalism

November 30, 2012 Leave a comment

This post generally deals with the difficulty of making value judgments that are balanced and accurate. Particularly considering communities and groups one does not belong to.

I want to recognize that the situation for women in most of the Arab world is objectively oppressive and is vastly unequal in relation to men. At the same time I want to recognize that descriptions of the region as backwards can be Orientalist and themselves unhelpful and degrading to those who live in it. There is a balance between romanticizing and demonizing the other that is important to trace. So while Arab countries have laws that discriminate against women, to say that Islam or Arab culture is the problem is to go to the end of demonization. On the other hand to ignore that this is the case at present is to go to the romanticization end. It seems that demonization and romanticization both lie in generalization. But not all generalization falls into either end. It is tricky to try to formulate a method by which to avoid both extremes without saying that we should judge on a case by case basis. One good way is to play with scale. To say that Islam is incompatible with democracy simply takes the observation of Muslim groups in democratic countries and democratic groups in Muslim countries to debunk.

But what about value claims. Something like “wearing the veil is wrong”. The referent is Western values in this case and applies to others, that is the forcing of others to take action as directed by external edict. This is true regardless of whether the actor is oppressing another. So to tell Saddam or the Turks to give more freedom to the Kurds is such an imposition regardless of whether the Kurds themselves are oppressed. The question is whether there is a logical way or a rule to distinguish situations in which these statements may be beneficial or acceptable and others when they are not.

The balance seems to necessarily lie with more description and less generalization. Even though generalization and conceptualization are necessary for theory formation and understanding there are some concepts that correspond to a certain reality better than others. I say certain reality because all concepts find their root in a reality of some sort, but reality is vast and continuous and sense making divides it into parts. So conceptualization, generalization, and simplification are necessary.  The reality of female circumcision coexists with one in which not all Muslims practice it, but the focus of simplification and observation differ.

It just seems that there is no real way to make a general argument of how to judge one statement or another and that such statements must always be taken on a case by case basis.

Open ended…


On Consciousness and Western units of analysis

November 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Primer text: Mounira Charrad: States and Women’s Rights.

This text is a springboard for some ideas on the utility of concepts like class (and others) outside of the environment they were developed in. Class based politics makes sense in Western Europe where a lot of politics was modeled on lines of State-Capital-Labor negotiations and movements. Hardcore Marxists would argue that any alternative political consciousness beyond class is false consciousness. Therefore any political activation of sect or group is simply counter-productive because it retards the activation of true class based politics, it is false consciousness. Whether it operates in service of bourgeois interests and capitalism is another relevant question.

I want to reject this and I know many others have and will. Weber provides status group, Bourdieu provides a field of relative hierarchy of groups as well, there are other ways to organize politics and analysis than class. One way is to take the relevant groups that have political consciousness and use them as conceptual foundations for analysis. So in Lebanon the sect or party stops becoming perverse and starts becoming a conceptual framework for sensemaking. The traditional groups of labor, business and state make no sense there. This is a call to extract concepts from the contextualized observation of the case rather than to bring them in preset such as class. This is not to deny that class is important but that it works as a sense-making framework in some situations more than others.

Charrad: “When I considered political developments in Tunisian and Maghribi history, however, the models used for predominantly class-based and capitalist societies did not seem to apply. Although classes certainly developed in the Maghrib, tribal kin groupings appeared to be a key variable differentiating the process of state formation and political outcomes in Maghribi countries. I became convinced that, even after capitalist economic arrangements had developed, kin-based social formations made an enduring imprint on Maghribi history. State-tribe relations and kinship as a key principle of social organization thus had to be brought to center stage in the analysis of state formation and state policy on family law and women’s rights in the Maghrib””

One problem that remains is a normative one, if belief that class based politics is more effective than another political consciousness (for which the case can be made, sectarianism as destructive, tribes as backward). But the point is that we must distinguish this from analysis and understanding.

Ontological Argument

November 28, 2012 Leave a comment

Can you imagine something that is not? Easy enough, but can you imagine something that is beyond anything you have ever seen or experienced before? That  is to say we may be able to imagine things that do not exist by recombining aspects of many things that do exist, but we cannot imagine something that has no conceptual or experiential relation to anything in reality.

This statement is far more significant than it first seems. It has repercussions for conceptualization in the social science, for the study of politics, for the construction of society … That is we cannot make sense of the world except through categories that have some foundation in experience even if the category is a combination of parts of different experiences, no part can be something that has no corresponding equivalent. So we can imagine a unicorn but we have seen horses and horns. We can imagine flying dragons but we have seen lizards and birds and scales and armor and teeth etc… This is why it is so difficult to imagine what alien life would look like, the Discovery Channel brought together several experts on alien life to model what it could look like and they came up with weird four winged birds. Even in movies, aliens always seem to be recombinations of existing things. Therefore I believe it is correct to say that we cannot think outside of experience.

I could take this analogy to a number of places but today I want to discuss the Ontological Argument with this in mind. The Ontological argument is a proof for the existence of God first put forth by Anselm in 1078. Basically Anselm confusingly argues the following: That God is defined as a being of which no greater can be conceived. That this being exists in the human mind (we can think God) and that a being that exists in the mind and reality is greater than a being that only exists in the mind. Therefore God must exist in reality because we can think of it. When I first came across this argument I thought it was extremely stupid. Common counter-arguments are, I can think of an excellent invisible flying Unicorn but just because I can think of it does not mean it exists. Same for God, just because I can think of it, does not mean it must exist. Aquinas argues that humans cannot conceive God. In any case for a long time this argument made very little sense to me until I thought of it in different terms to how it is presented.

Let us say that God is omnipotent and omniscient. How am I able to conceptualize or imagine such a being with such characteristics if I have not come across these characteristics in my experience before? If we accept the first paragraph, that we cannot imagine anything that has no correspondence in reality, then we cannot imagine omniscience or omnipotence either. But both  of these are cohesive and whole characteristics. One cannot be partially omniscient or omnipotent. Therefore I could not have patched up this concept from different parts like I would have with a unicorn. I must have experienced these things in order to imagine them and because they only exist as wholes (or as perfect) then they must have existed so that I could think them. Therefore a being with the characteristics of God must have existed and possibly continues to exist.

This is not to say that I agree with this logic, but I recognize it. Whereas I could not get a grasp on what Anselm or Descartes were really saying when they said if I can think of a perfect being it must exist.

In way of objections, one could say that simply because we experience something, this does not mean that it existed, many times our senses can betray us. We may have experienced our parents as omnipotent and omniscient as children but this was merely an illusory experience. We may have experienced actual omnipotence (again with the parents example) without this necessarily meaning that it was God or omnipotent. (One is on sense betrayal another is on sense accuracy but conclusions being wrong about the nature of the being). More problematic is the claim that we can actually imagine omniscience and omnipotence as wholes. We may imagine them by constructing them from parts, someone who knows math and another who knows physics etc… and we come up with a concept of omniscience. But I would argue we do not imagine them as wholes, we can think them by cobbling together their parts and making a leap of imagination. We cannot think of perfection (Aquinas’s argument).

This is not quite the ontological argument, but it is a way to think of it.


Measurement of labor?

November 24, 2012 Leave a comment

The amount of work to build the very first railroad from Birmingham to London was worth the work of 1.5 Pyramids. Not sure which pyramid and how this is measured. The railroad was built in 5 years. So either capitlaism is as efficient as slavery or redress the egyptians used slaves argument.

Categories: Uncategorized


November 20, 2012 Leave a comment


Genghis Khan killed so many people (40 million) that enough cultivated land turned to forest that it offset 700 million tons of carbon. That is the amount we produced in a year in 2011. Holy shit. So many interesting links here, to ancient deforestation, the effects of the Mongol empire on the world etc…  So period is 1170s until mid 1200s. It was also listed on Qi after minute 9 somewhere


Categories: Quote/Snapshot

Marseillaise Industielle

November 1, 2012 Leave a comment

In the end of his life st simon asked the author of the Marseillaise to rewrite the lyrics so that it would praise industry. Can’t find anything about this on google. It was in Alexander Gerscheron, Ch1, Economic Backwardness.

Categories: Uncategorized