This parallel polis

“It’s said that college is not the real world, and in a sense I’m happy to affirm that. But I don’t see it as mere preparation for the things of real substance and value — that’s not the mode of its remove from reality. I see it instead as a kind of polis apart, with a few permanent members and an ever-changing citizenry of youths. What happens in this polis, when it’s in good working order, is a kind of intensification of a form of reflective self-cultivation that can and ought to be a continuous life activity. It is the stuff of a good life, not some mere instrumental means. It can be intertwined with, and can deepen, almost any subsequent life activity (including many forms of work and political engagement). This parallel polis provides an important counterweight to the culture-shaping effects that arise from the melding of corporate capitalism and contemporary communications technology. Because the academy encourages an open-ended form of self-cultivation, and because it provides an important counterweight to an outlook on value that threatens to render us a monoculture, it can be defended in the name of liberal pluralism, and the liberal should not adopt standards of public argument that prevent us from bringing the value of the academy into view. It would be a devastating loss if we remade this parallel polis in accordance with the guiding values of the corporation. This is not at all to say that we have no need to remake this parallel polis. But we ought to remake it in the image of its best self.” — Talbot Brewer, “The Coup That Failed,” The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014): 64-83

People of the (Face)book

A few juxtapositions. First, Michael Case in a recent Verge article:

Imagine a single, central website that could answer any question you had about government and whether it can help you. One portal where you could log in, and with a tool as familiar as Google search, ask: “how can I apply for a passport?” “is it illegal to fish without a license in Washington, DC?” “where do I vote?” “what do I do if my disability claim is taking too long?” “what forms do I need to establish my business?” No matter your query, you are met with an actionable answer, or a way to contact a human being who can help you with your request.


Now imagine you’ve gotten a useful answer from that website, but you need to sign some forms, have a photo taken, or take a test. For one reason or another, you need to interact with a human being face to face. What if there was one place in every community that could deliver all government services? Post offices are ubiquitous across America — what if they could be retrofitted to also be Social Security offices and DMVs and passport offices and polling locations? What if folks who aren’t comfortable with fancy, modern websites could walk into their post office and have any question about government answered for them? Yeah.

— Michael Case, “Our future government will work more like Amazon”

Étienne Balibar, from 2003:

Surely freedom of movement is a basic claim that must be incorporated within the citizenship of all people (and not only for representatives of the ‘powerful nations,’ for whom this is largely a given). But the droit de cité (rights to full citizenship) includes everything from residential rights as part of having a ‘normal’ place in society to the exercise of political rights in those locations and groupings into which individuals and groups have been ‘thrown’ by history and the economy. Let’s not be afraid of saying it: these citizenship rights include the manner of their belonging in state communities, even, and indeed especially, if they belong to more than one such community. Given the above, the right to full citizenship is indissolubly linked to freedom of movement.

— Étienne Balibar (trans. Frank Collins), “Europe, an ‘Unimagined’ Frontier of Democracy,” Diacritics 33.3/4 (Autumn/Winter 2003): 36-44

Via an io9 article on governments of the future, a review of Zach Weinersmith’s “thought experiment in distributed government”:

“Polystate” represents Weinersmith’s attempt to work out one possible solution to this question. His hypothetical society consists of a collection of “anthrostates,” governments that proscribe laws and support institutions but have no geographical boundaries. Each citizen of a polystate would choose allegiance to an anthrostate, agreeing to be bound by its regulations and gaining the advantages of its services. Citizens of multiple anthrostates would coexist in the same region, with next-door neighbors possibly choosing to live under completely different systems. One family, for example, might pledge its loyalty to a collectivist society where taxes are distributed equally, while another on the same block might join a theocracy where tithes go to the building of churches and the attendance of religious services is mandatory.

Importantly, citizens would be able to change anthrostate on a regular basis, allowing them to experiment with different types of governance. He contrasts this situation to that of the current geopolitical climate, where people are born into “geostates” (traditional nations such as Mexico and Canada) and can only change their government with great difficulty, if at all. This sort of “permanent revolution,” the author contends, would swiftly remove support from unjust rulers and help eliminate corrupt systems. As he writes regarding the growth of North Korea, “It is hard to imagine that he [Kim Jong-un] would have this larger population if any of his citizens could have freely switched to any other government.”

Weinersmith argues that advances in technology would remove many of the obstacles associated with this sort of society. Digital currency and computerized money markets, for example, could alleviate the headaches caused by the unique financial systems of coexisting anthrostates, while improved artificial intelligence could help arbitrators navigate conflicting legal codes in now-common “international incidents.” Numerous benefits, such as the difficulty of waging war between nations with distributed populations, would also arise organically from the system. Yet the author does not shy from offering a realistic view of the problems facing a polystate, from international trade to the possibilities of tax evasion and cheating.

— Sword of Science, “Book Review – Polystate: A Thought Experiment in Distributed Government”

John Gall’s quasi-panarchist polemic from 1975:

“Under Free Choice of Territory, a citizen of any country is free to live in any part of the world he chooses. He remains a citizen of the government he prefers, to which he pays taxes and for whose officers he votes. However, as the term Free Choice of Government implies, he may at any time change his citizenship and his allegiance from his present government to another government that offers more attractive tax rates, better pensions, more interesting public officials, or simply an invigorating change of pace (Common courtesy would seem to require two weeks’ advance notice; the standard notice any employer would give an employee.)

With these two new Freedoms in effect, one would expect that after a short period of equilibration, citizens of any nation would be distributed amongst the citizens of all other nations – not necessarily at random, but sufficiently so for our purpose, which is to remove them effectively from the grip of their own government. A government can hardly put any large number of its own citizens in jail if it has to send halfway around the world for them, one by one, and persuade other governments of the justice of the proceedings. Raising armies would become administratively impossible. Furthermore, wars of any government against another would become impractical, since large numbers of the “enemy” would be distributed all over the world, including the territory of the home government.

The net result of the two new Freedoms would be to break up the Concentration of the Governed, to divide and distribute them throughout other governments, a principle which we shall call the Comminution of Hegemony. If practiced on a world-wide scale it could lead to revolutionary changes in the relationship of citizens to their governments, reversing the traditional polarity and making governments fearfully dependent upon the favor or even the whims of their citizenry rather than vice versa.”

— John Gall, “Systematics: How Systems Work and Especially How They Fail” (1975)

Leonidas Donskis on the relation of the Facebook “community” to the Jewish diaspora:

“The diaspora was once the unique fate and curse of the Jews, but now we are all living in the diaspora. So that we might recognize ourselves as exiles and emigrants or, alternatively, reject these descriptions, there must exist a territorial nation along with the territory that collects and defines that nation and gives it meaning. But the nations of today are, increasingly, extraterritorial and global formations, collecting themselves in the distribution zone of virtual reality and information (of that of symbolic power and social prestige, which nowadays coincides with the attention gained and the number of ‘likes’ earned). All of us have more or less become people of the global diaspora. Nowadays we are all global exiles. Thus, the diaspora becomes a normal, legitimized, recognized, and practically routinized form of life. Who is abnormal? Only someone who pines after a territorial or local past.


There was a time when secret services and the political police worked hard to extract secrets and get people to reveal the details of their private and even intimately personal lives. Today, these intelligence services should feel simultaneously exhilarated and unnecessary. What can they bring to the table when everyone is telling everything about their own business themselves? Even if people don’t disclose what they’re doing, whom they dislike, and how they got rich, they still reveal with whom they communicate and whom they know. And it’s impossible not to participate in this orgy of sharing and disclosing. If you don’t participate or if you withdraw, you lose your sense of past and present; you sever contact with your classmates and your colleagues; you get separated from your community. In virtual reality and on Facebook, what vanishes is a fundamental aspect of real freedom: self-determination and a free choice of association. You have entered this new realm of friendships, of cyberconnectedness, because technology — and its hard-to-discern masters — have convinced you that you cannot live a civilized life otherwise. Or elsewhere.” — Leonidas Donskis, “Facebook Nation,” The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014): 94-101

Real strenuous business

“For fantasy is also a harsh mistress and includes its own ironclad reality principle. You cannot satisfactorily daydream about living forever without first settling the practical matter of how those who do not live forever are going to be handled: fantasy demands a certain realism in order to gain even provisional or ephemeral libidinal an aesthetic credit, and this is indeed the deeper truth-mechanism of narrative itself (and the source of the adage about trusting the tale rather than the teller and his own personal ideology). However a story may originate in private wish fulfillment, it must end up disguising its private subjectivity and repairing all the non-functioning machinery, building a village behind the Potemkin facade, dealing with the sheerly logical contradictions the unconscious has left behind it in its haste — in short, shifting the attention of the aesthetic spectator from the gratification of the wish to its far less appealing preconditions in the Real, and thereby becoming in the process transformed from the expression of an ideology to its implicit critique.

In the case of longevity or immortality, I would not want this critique to be taken in any moralizing sense. I am indeed astonished and appalled at the degree of residual moralism still inherent in this topic. It surely has some relationship to the traditional anti-Utopian motif of ultimate boredom I referred to, although the scarcely veiled motivation of this is political and thereby a little less complicated than the insistence of so many writers on the subject that it would be evil to live forever, that true human existence requires a consent to mortality, if only to make room for our children’s children; that hubris and egotism are to be denounced as prime elements in this particular fantasy about the supreme private property, not merely of having a self but of having it live forever. All that may be so, but I would be very embarrassed to argue it this way, and there is certainly an aroma of ressentiment or sour grapes to be detected in this extraordinary puritanism, which may simply reflect the greater facility accorded to writers by simple religious and ethical paradigms, as opposed to the more strenuous business of imagining the social itself.” — Fredric Jameson, “Longevity as Class Struggle” from Archaeologies of the Future

He alone has kept his promises

“But two days after my operation, rumors swept through the camp that the battlefront had suddenly drawn nearer. The Red Army was racing toward Buna: it was only a matter of hours.

We were quite used to this kind of rumor. It wasn’t the first time that false prophets announced to us: peace-in-the-world, the-Red-Cross-negotiating-our-liberation, or other fables… And often we would believe them… It was like an injection of morphine.

Only this time, these prophecies seemed more founded. During the last nights we had heard the cannons in the distance.

My faceless neighbor spoke up:

‘Don’t be deluded. Hitler has made it clear that he will annihilate all Jews before the clock strikes twelve.’

I exploded:

‘What do you care what he said? Would you want us to consider him a prophet?’

His cold eyes stared at me. At last, he said wearily:

‘I have more faith in Hitler than in anyone else. He alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.’” — Elie Wiesel, Night

All forms of time suspended

“The hundreds of references to time were complementary, in that keeping track of the rhythms of the universe was another way of comprehending the interventions of the supernatural. Sewall actually lived amid several modes of time. As a merchant he had slow, uncertain communications with his business partners overseas. Months went by before he knew whether ships were lost or safe in port (LB 1:86). But while the rhythm of the world of work was irregular and slow-paced, the rhythm of historical time was fixed in a certain pattern. The bits and pieces of news that reached Sewall from abroad fell in order as evidence that the sequence described in Revelation was rapidly unfolding. Historical time, like the phases of a war and events in Massachusetts politics, was really prophetic time, and Sewall struggled to decipher the relationship between the two. Time for him was also a complex structure of coincidences. And time was finally GOD’S time’ (2:660) in that he alone determined what would happen. As Sewall lay in bed at night listening to the clock tick way the minutes, this sound was cause for reflection on the profound contingency of life. To know this, to know time, was to feel that life could end abruptly, without warning.


Yet Sewall sensed that time was never to be understood as permanent or regular. Though prophecy unfolded, though the clock ticked away the hours by an unvarying beat, though the seven days of Genesis were stamped immutably upon the calendar, the will of God stood over and above any structures, even structures God created. All existence was contingent, all forms of time suspended, on his will. The unexpected crash of a glass to the floor (1:378) was like the crash of God’s anger breaking in upon the flow of time: ‘How suddenly and with surprise can God destroy!’ (1:418). The diary entries pile up as Sewall notes the happening of the unexpected — the roaring of a cow in the street (1:288), the cry of fire, the ‘amazing News’ (1:564) of someone’s sickness, and most frightening of all, the deaths that happen without warning. Sewall was fascinated by such cases…” — David D. Hall, Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment

Too many sons and daughters

“Human rights are being violated on every continent. More people are oppressed than free. How can one not be sensitive to their plight? Human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere. That applies to Palestinians to whose plight I am sensitive but whose methods I deplore when they lead to violence. Violence is not the answer. Terrorism is the most dangerous of answers. They are frustrated, that is understandable, something must be done. The refugees and their misery. The children and their fear. The uprooted and their hopelessness. Something must be done about their situation. Both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people have lost too many sons and daughters and have shed too much blood. This must stop, and all attempts to stop it must be encouraged. Israel will cooperate, I am sure of that. I trust Israel, for I have faith in the Jewish people. Let Israel be given a chance, let hatred and danger be removed from their horizons, and there will be peace in and around the Holy Land.” — Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, 1986

The pure subject, if he existed

Let us pause for a moment to let the weirdness of all this sink in. Notice that we have moved (very quickly, in this compressed treatment) from an argument about the illegitimacy of certain established political authorities of the seventeenth century to the illegitimacy of the authority of other people in general to the illegitimacy of the authority of our own experience.

In telling the story of the Enlightenment in this sequence, I want to suggest that the last stage (on this telling), the somewhat anxious preoccupation with epistemology, grows out of the enlighteners’ political project of liberation, and that we should view it in this light. Their organizing posture against authority compelled the enlighteners to theorize the human person in isolation, abstracted from any pragmatic setting in which he might rely on the testimony of others, or, indeed, on his own common sense as someone who has learned how to handle things. The pure subject who is posited as the beginning point for the Cartesian/Lockean account of knowledge is a person who has been shorn of those practical and social endowments by which we apprehend the world. If such a creature actually existed, we can well imagine that he would be gripped by the question of how we can know anything.” — Matthew B. Crawford, “How We Lost Our Attention.” The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014): 18-27

Throwing stones

“The estrangement of Verne’s early voyages is limited to a transient pleasure in adventure, and the cognition to adding one technical innovation or bit of locomotive know-how (as the Moon projectile) to an unchanged world. His ‘novel of science’ can be compared to a pool after a stone has been thrown into it: there is a ripple of excitement on the surface, the waves go to the periphery and back to their point of origin, and everything settles down as it was, with the addition of one discrete fact — the stone at the bottom of the pool.” — Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction

Plot is only a net

“If the author’s plot is only a net, and usually an imperfect one, a net of time and event for catching what is not really a process at all, is life much more? I am not sure, on second thoughts, that the slow fading of the magic in The Well at the World’s End is, after all, a blemish. It is an image of the truth. Art, indeed, may be expected to do what life cannot do: but so it has done. The bird has escaped us. But it was at least entangled in the net for several chapters. We saw it close and enjoyed the plumage. How many ‘real lives’ have nets that can do as much?

In life and art both, as it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive. Whether in real life there is any doctor who can teach us how to do it, so that at least either the meshes will become fine enough to hold the bird, or we be so changed that we can throw our nets away and follow the bird to its own country, is not a question for this essay. But I think it is sometimes done — or very, very nearly done — in stories. I believe the effort to be well worth making.” – C. S. Lewis, “On Stories”