Totemism and Panopticon

This blog has been quiet for almost a month, first because I was happily secluded in the Alps for the better part of two weeks, and then because it’s examination season here in Leuven. Not only exams, but also PhD applications, grant applications (for neweurasia), and budget paperwork are all due this month. I’m somewhat frayed at the edges at the moment, as there’s not enough me (and what there is, isn’t especially great at time management).

Nevertheless, I would like to share something I have worked hard on these last few weeks for my “Media Ethics” course. Admittedly, it’s an academic Frankenstein’s monster: a paper entitled, “Totemism and Panopticon” (click on the link to read a pdf version), that fuses Foucault, Durkheim, and an immanent critique of Assange’s now well-known essay, “Conspiracy as Governance”, to explore the conflict between WikiLeaks and the United States under the Obama Administration. My use of Durkheim is key, as fundamentally I am proposing a spiritual and identity dimension to the debacle. Here’s my conclusion:

WikiLeaks as a reverse, grassroots panopticon with a peculiar ratio of liberal and democratic beliefs, a murky conception of the publics at stake in its Bolshevik-like endeavor to mobilize and transform the world, and an ambivalance between a Kantian and utilitarian understanding of the proverbial leak has collided headlong with the full totemistic power of the American national self as embodied in national security and the soldier, prompting in turn an equally Kantian response in terms of secrecy. This response is perhaps evidenced by the dogged manner in which the Obama Administration is pursuing legal action against Manning and Assange, the latter under the Espionage Act of 1917, a federal law which, as I understand it, has in mind the concept of leaking toward a specific enemy in officially declared wartime, not a general mass during what is still formally peace time (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan never receiving formal Congressional declarations), even if that leaking occurred for journalistic-activistic-historical (much less contre panoptic) purposes. Even more remarkable — and all the more telling of the totemistic crisis at stake — was when United States Senator Joseph Lieberman expressed his confusion/disappointment on Fox News that Assange [had not yet been] tried for treason a sentiment echoed by several other pundits on the station, even though he is not a United States citizen.

My interests in monopsychism and panpsychism also extend to the notions of “mass consciousness” and “public opinion”, hence why I thought using Durkheim would be at least interesting, hopefully a bit funky and creative. The goal in the paper is to get a fix on the public ethos that Assange et al have engendered, specifically in my homeland. By the Greek term “ethos” I mean something akin to the English notions of character, disposition, and fundamental values. With respect to WikiLeaks — specifically WikiLeaks as its own variety of mass media (by dint of it being a digital entity) and as a response to and element of the broader mediascape of today — I also mean ethos along the lines of how the Greeks used the term to refer to the power of music to influence its hearer’s emotions, behaviors, and even morals.

Besides trying to find an interesting new angle to the issue, I also felt duty-bound as a Baha’i journalist to get a fix on what WikiLeaks means for me. Assange et al are a moral confrontation right at the intersection between my religiosity and my professional work. The philosopher, in an essay such as this, tries to sort out the resultant mess – although the philosopher is also torn, between Hegelian and Gandhian instincts.

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Why Hizb ut-Tahrir is wrong

Hizb Ut-Tahrir is one of the world’s leading radical Islamist organizations. They propose “restoring” the Caliphate as the necessary precondition for “rejuvenating” the global Islamic community. This essay, originally published in three parts on neweurasia, constitutes my attempt to deconstruct their ideology. It’s point of departure is an essay by the University of Ghent’s Bruno De Cordier, also published on neweurasia, in which he defends the cogency of their ideology. (The photograph to the right is of the last Calph, Abdülmecid II.)

Last week, neweurasia ran a post by the University of Ghent’s Bruno de Cordier concerning his views on why the radical Islamist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir has been able to survive as long as it has despite sharp repression of its membership throughout Central Asia and the deep suspicion, even strong dislike for it evinced by the United States and many of its allies.

“I believe that the answer may lie in the extent to which the organization’s platform, if understood in a certain light, may be tapping into very real discontent and aspirations in the general population, and is responding to on-the-ground realities better than secular human rights organizations,” he argues. Fair enough, but let’s evaluate some of his evidence and lines of thought, and while we’re at it, Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s platform itself.

I shall move through Prof. De Cordier’s post and respond to it according to the order he uses therein. This first part shall deal with substance of the arguments for Hizb Ut-Tahrir’s vision of an Islamic super-state, particularly the Caliphate (paragraphs 2-6); the second part with Westernization, Modernization, and transnational integration (7-11), and the question of whether the global Islamic community needs a “defender” (12); and the final part with the bigger yet more fundamental questions of the efficacy and desirability of an Islamic super-state, faith, and “alter-globalism” (13). I’ve got a lot on my plate, but that’s because there’s a lot to dismantle, and much of it very crucial, because as I’ll ultimately argue in the third part, what’s rally at stake are differing visions of what it means to be human.

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The Transcendence has finally come

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Today is the second anniversary of my decision to join the Baha’i Faith, and to mark the occasion, Ben Harvey and I figure it’s about time that we release our long-awaited first book, The Transcendence, which you can download at directly from this post by clicking here.

The file is a simple PDF, a mere 14.8 MB in size and 60 pages long. It launches on full-screen scale when you first open it, but you can escape that if you want.

I should note that this is not the book I’ve been working on for neweurasia that was funded by the HIVOS Foundation. That’s CyberChaikhana, currently completing production at GRACO-Verlag in Berlin and set to be released later this month or in March.

Friends will recall that The Transcendence was my pet project from early 2006 through 2008. It was ambitious: combining poetry, the Rock concept album, and the manga graphic novel to tell a story of a young poet who goes on a quest for revenge against God, along the way exploring several theological, literary, and personal themes. My friend Bruce Schimmel, founder of the Philadelphia City Paper, once called the project “an old-fashioned epic poem”.

In 2007, I enlisted Ben’s talents to illustrate the manuscript, transforming the project into a co-authorship. At the time he was an intern with Studio IL (he’s since moved up the ranks), an up-and-coming artist collective in Philadelphia. Together we share the license, which by the way is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. My poems may vary in quality, but Ben’s artwork is consistently stunning, even all these years later. I also contributed some artwork. You can view the entire gallery above.

If you’re curious to know more about the back story of The Transcendence, click “Read More” to continue. Otherwise, Ben and I hope you, our readers, find our creation an exciting and powerful experience — and that you’ll do us the big favor of passing either the PDF or this URL around!

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Working the WikiLeaks beat (updated)

The old round-up of my WikiLeaks coverage was starting to get unruly, so here’s a new, chronological index, which I will update regularly. I must say, it’s kind of weird being a “WikiLeaks observer,” because not only is this an incredibly fast-moving story, but the learning curve is quite steep, as it entwines simultaneously the most theoretical and most lived parts of biography, ethics, history, international diplomacy, war, journalism, and cryptography. It’s very exciting and meaningful material, and in all due seriousness, I thank God, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), and neweurasia.net (not to mention Julian Assange!) for the opportunity to cover it in such an in-depth manner.

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The other diplomatic cables leak…

At the same time that WikiLeaks began making diplomatic history this past Sunday, November 28, another piece of diplomatic history was being made—or, to be more precise, being revealed—in a less noisy corner of the Web.

The historian blogger known as “History Punk” published on his blog a large collection of declassified State Department cables from the period immediately after September 11. The cables’ primary focus is logging global reactions, journalistic, diplomatic, and anecdotal, to the earthshattering terrorist attacks.

“These cables, largely unredacted, provide an inside look into how the world, foreign governments, and the staff at American embassy reacted to the horrors of that day,” History Punk wrote in his blog on Sunday.

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Central Asian views on WikiLeaks: trust, truth, and tech

WikiLeaks may end up becoming Central Asia’s best hope for bringing to light their leaders’ many dark secrets, say neweurasia’s bloggers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Yet, there are many problems, not least of which is trust, all of which WikiLeaks or other whistle-blower websites will have to overcome.

This editorial has been cross-posted from neweurasia. It’s a slightly different version of my “Our Take” editorial for our partner site, Transitions Online, with two additional quotes and block quotes. Thanks to Barbara Frye for copy-editing the original.

The whistle-blower website WikiLeaks has made international headlines for its leaks of sensitive information related to the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet a little-known aspect of the organization is its work in the former communist world, including Central Asia.

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Tron, real virtuality, and the début du siècle

The new trailer for Tron: Legacy, the long-awaited sequel to Disney’s great experiment in blue screen film-making, was released this past week.  Although doubtlessly it will be derided as spectacle, and with some justification — big dollars of course come from big dazzle — this film’s visual punch is going to be big precisely because, as filmmakers know very well, the image is often more meaningful than the word.

Popular science fiction always has its phases.  Remember the confluence of asteroid movies, books, and games in the Nineties?  Perhaps that trend reflected the calendrical (and cultural) fin du siècle.  No surprise, then, that the Noughties tended to be concerned with themes of paranoia, surveillance, the schizophrenia of espionage, and asymmetrical warfare.  The question, then, is what’s going on nowadays, for it seems virtuality, especially as related to transhumanism and the ultimate fate of humanity, has been really coming to the fore.

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The Prophet’s dialectic

I co-authored the following paper, “The Dialectic of Islam: an historiographical interpretation of Islamist political violence”, with my friend Mamed Askerov.  It was published in the United Nations University for Peace’s student journal, The Peace and Conflict Monitor. Typical of both our styles of thinking, the paper is a sweeping overview of Islamic history that seeks to give a new direction to the debate on Muslim spirituality and radicalism.  We ultimately argue that the very same forces which compel many Muslims to violence are also the same means by which the world can bring about inter-religious dialogue and peace.

Mamed’s contribution is the notion of the Muslim dialectic itself and the original skeleton draft, as well as the embryonic thoughts that eventually comprised the first post-script.  I added the section on the Golden Age and the second post-script, as well as fleshed out the entire paper.   It was an especially fun paper to write and we’re hoping to expand it further into something peer-reviewable.

Abstract

This paper aims to analyze the debate over political violence in contemporary Islam from the viewpoint of its historical roots. At the heart of the matter are two currents that have existed in the Muslim community since its very beginning: a dialectic between the intellectual and the martial, and competing interpretations of an idyllic patristic era, with several practical and ideological consequences. This paper will demonstrate how today’s debate can be framed within this vision of Islamic history.

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A wrong turn in Israel

Here is a story for you.  I’m not entirely sure if it’s the best one to tell you, but it’s the  first one that comes to mind whenever I think of Halloween or Israel.

It was October 31, 2004 — Halloween — and I found myself in Lud, Israel.  Lud is a terrible, desperate place. I’ve sometimes heard Palestinians from the Gaza Strip refer to it as “hell.” There are sections of the city where the houses are constructed of stapled aluminum siding and dried mud. The more civilized sections are fortresses. Most of the residents live in giant concrete blocks. The city elite (cops, politicians, and drug dealers) live in walled mansions. Lud’s dealers pioneered “ATM drugs”: the junkie walks up to a tiny slit in the wall of his or her dealer’s mansion, deposits some shekels, and out pops their heroin.

I had just returned from the north, visiting Nazareth, Akka, and Haifa, and other places.  I saw the minarets of Qalqiyah and Tulkarem peeking out over the top edge of the notorious Separation Wall and tendrils of black smoke from burning tires licking the blue sky.  I visited a small village called Kufr Manda, a poor farming community of Palestinians that had lost two of their sons in protests and whose hearts I would later break.  And I drank coffee with Bedouins — it had been brewed for three days and had the sharp texture of fine red wine.

On the return journey by train I was aiming for Ramle, near Lud, but overshot and ended up in Beer Sheva, deep in the south.  Israel’s a small country; such things can happen.  Several hours later, deep into the night and even deeper in the Negev desert, I sat with two security guards in the railway terminal of Beer Sheva. One guard was a newly immigrated Russian; the other, a second-generation Sepharadi. They had just finished their mandatory military service. They both served in Gaza, protecting the Israeli settlements there.

“I once saw a terrorist with a rocket,” the Russian said. “I shot him.”

“I ran over an Arab with my tank,” the Sepharadi said. “I don’t know if he was a terrorist.”

They both grinned with a savage joy. The Russian was twenty-four; the Sepharadi, twenty-one.

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The stars our destination: cyberdissent and the future of Turkmenistan

stars_my_destination

Exploring the question of why the normally totalitarian government of Turkmenistan has suddenly and aggressively striven to increase internet access among its population, this article is ultimately a reflection upon the impact of technology upon human society.  As a piece of what can only be described as “journalistic philosophy”, I’m particularly pleased with how it turned out; indeed, its core ideas are why I am a committed cyberjournalist.

Note: a shortened version of this editorial was published under the title,A Pandora’s Box“, in the “Our Take” section of Transitions Online (TOL).  The expanded version, republished below, originally appeared on neweurasia under the current title (click on the image above to read it).

It’s a philosophical riddle as old as when humanity first learned to harness the power of fire: Will technology bring freedom or slavery?  Lately, observers of Turkmenistan find themselves asking this very question about the Internet.

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The Search for the Historical Socrates: Was Socrates a Failure? (essay © 2007)

This essay is the fruit of an independent study project I did with Dr. D. Stefan Schindler, a philosophy professor at La Salle University of many specialties and author of the forthcoming article, “The Tao of Socrates” (TBA).  As with “The Search for the Historical Confucius,” my style has gotten a lot better (or so I like to think) since 2007, and I also no longer subscribe to evolutionary historiography.  Both essays were written before I discovered John Wansbrough and the possibility of applying literary theory and criticism to historical research.  Nevertheless, I really enjoyed writing them, especially the argumentative sections.  — CS 12.07.2008

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The Search for the Historical Confucius: How Knightly was Confucius? (essay © 2007)

This essay is the fruit of an independent study project I did with Dr. Charles Desnoyers, La Salle University’s resident Sinologist and author of A Journey to the East: Li Gui’s A New Account of a Trip Around the Globe (2004). As with “The Search for the Historical Socrates,” my style has gotten a lot better (or so I like to think) since 2007, and I also no longer subscribe to evolutionary historiography. Both essays were written before I discovered John Wansbrough and the possibility of applying literary theory and criticism to historical research.  Nevertheless, I really enjoyed writing them, especially the argumentative sections. — CS 12.07.2008

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Verbal Tec: The Nat Turner of Hip Hop (interview © 2007)

My interview of Philadelphia’s rising political-underground Hip Hop artist Verbal Tec, which was the cover article for the February 21st, 2007 issue of Play Philly Magazine. Published in print and online here. –CS 14.06.2008

PLAY and Verbal Tec discuss the life, death and future of Hip Hop… Out of the bloody streets of Baltimore, with rhymes that sizzle in spiritual and political fury, comes Verbal Tec, shouting, “I write for those who never had a voice!” A rising prince of Philly underground rap, this cold-eyed Temple University sociology graduate is determined to massacre what he deems as the apathetic consciousnesses of the listening public — or die trying.

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An Artist’s Responsibility (interview © 2006)

This is an article that I’m proud to say proved to be very popular among many of Play Philly Magazine’s readers. It’s about artists and their role in gentrification. Published in print and online here. — CS 14.06.2008

It really only takes one entrepreneurial artist opening a studio, a workshop — or as in the case of Aurora Deshauters, librarian and graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a gallery — before more of their kind begin pouring in. It’s a common American story: starving artists, hungry for cheap housing, move into low-cost, deteriorated or blighted urban neighborhoods, and soon they attract higher-income residents who “rejuvenate” a section of the city hitherto written off as beyond middle-class salvation. It’s so ubiquitous a story that Americans even have a name for it: urban renewal. Yet, most people don’t bother to consider if there might not be serious consequences for those who called these neighborhoods home long before penniless painters with flamboyant hairstyles and funky clothes came knocking.

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