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Archive for November, 2010

It’s a world of Marvel. And in it, Julian Assange might just be Spiderman with Wiki-Leaks being the (world-wide) web that he casts. But it seems that Assange – and Wiki Leaks –  has become the black Spiderman. Well, the hero’s prerogative  has been to be the one to know what’s right and wrong, and to fight for truth and justice. (Even the black Spiderman is just a concoction of evil that must be overcome by the hero’s true nature).  In the world of Spiderman, or his alter ego, photographer Peter Parker, this agenda was embedded in the world of classic newspaper journalism. And in this regard, the analogy sticks:  In order to keep up with the analogy of comic books, in the traditioanl rivalry between Marvel and DC comics, there always  were certain differences: the world of Marvel always seemed inherently black-and-white. There was right and there was wrong, good and evil, true and false. DC Comics, well, their worlds and heroes knew their shades of grey: There is the Batman, who operates outside the law – out of the remorse over a family tragedy – whose methods are sometimes questionable and are, thus questioned to the point where he himself has become not just a vigilante but pursued as a criminal by the police. His many tragic and self-caused losses include his lovers, friends and, of course, underage sidekicks. He mourns them, and yet, they are part of the business. And then there is the Superman. Always fighting with his conscience, at times he even turns his back on humanity, sometimes for loss of faith in humans and sometimes because of the damage he himself has brought about. Superman’s alter ego Clark Kent is a journalist who, like Peter Parker,works for an editor; Perry White, a tough but fair boss. Peter Parker’s boss is Jonah Jameson, tough and, well, just tough, and always putting the story before anything else. This analogy is an insightful one that serves to express my disappointment in the WikiLeaks project, which now has ultimately proved my concerns about it right instead of vindicating my hopes for it.

Wiki Leaks’ actions of  posting ofmasses of information on diplomatic exchanges, deprived of any context, in late November, have not just cost a league of – mostly American – diplomats their credibility and trustworthiness, I am afraid; WikiLeaks has exacted the same cost on itself.

What for, one may ask? That is not something, I can answer easily. I can only suspect. It may be vanity and over-arching narcissism, a lust for the kind of power or, rather, influence that WikiLeaks recently enjoyed. Or it may be an ideology that equates pure information with facts, and those with the truth. and acts on an imperative that the truth must come out, now and no matter what, and consequences be damned. But does the truth always set you free? Well, in Spiderman’s world, the truth does set you free, and that is always good. In Batman’s world, well, it’s more like: there are going to be consequences but damn them anyway. Who knows, Julian Assange would probably like to see himself as the Batman rather than Spiderman. After all, the role of the suffering and tragic hero is certainly more appealing, especially when it is the Batman who gets to have flirtations with different and often dangerous ladies, when Spidey seems hooked on his high school and college sweethearts (and, oh yes, I can already hear the cry of the comic book fans: “Mind Gwen Stacy!”; but this is the world of analogies and tentative pop-cultural perceptions, so, get a life!).

But there is a crucial difference, where Jonah Jameson would publish any story just for the story and Spiderman would be set free by the truth and nothing but the truth – whithout ever asking what is truth anyway and is there such a thing as the truth? – Clark Kent would always have to go through and with Perry White and Lois Lane on the question of the publication of a story, and the Batman, well, he has his conscience personified in the loyal Alfred and the righteous Commissioner  Gordon. Now, who does WikiLeaks have?

This is about what is true, what is right, what is good, and what is just. And here, the analogy ends, and history, sociology, politics and philosophy begin.

When WikiLeaks began its “publishing career”, when it became an influential medium of “revealing” truths or, rather, hidden and suppressed bits of information, this seemed like a promising new development. Not only were they courageous, they also became a moral institution in the eyes of many. But did this indicate that they were, themselves moral, morally right or becoming moralized?  Very quickly, questions arose whether the information they put on the web was really telling us something without the context, whether it wasn’t one-sided, and, in some cases, even endangering people – the latter was and continues to be a claim that the American government has made. Regarding most previous publications on WikiLeak, I would not have sided with the American government, butI understood their  position. And while I have been and continue to be often highly and outspokenly critical of governments, politicians, industrialists, media moguls, etc. (especially German ones because [!] I am a patriot, and American ones, because I really like Americans and the US, and at the end of day I am a an old-fashioned, 19th century-styled, transatlantic scholar), I have also never bought into any kind of conspiracy theories. Sorry.  The US government has a legitimate interest in certain facts not to be known, just as the (world) public has a legitimate right to know these facts. Conflict of legitimate interests, there. WikiLeaks serves the latter purpose of the public; and their informants inside the government, first and foremost, do the same. But this is where we should reflect on a crucial difference between the role of those that provide information and those that publish it. In the past, journalists and their editors have often made decisions, whether to withhold a critical piece of news or publish it outright. Their reasoning had always been that sometimes the damage that a publication can do outweighs its newsworthiness and the right of the public to know it. Secondly, even the decision that something should be published was often made only in the face of the decision how it should be published, namely that context and some kind of expert  interpretation was provided. An older sociological theory assigned the name of “trustee” to persons who fulfilled such a role.

In a sense, their role was not to say what truths may come out or not, nor was it to say “You can’t handle the truth”, only Jack Nicholson gets that one right, anyway. Instead, they were entrusted with the task of understanding what sort of truths pure information allowed to create from it, and which truth would serve the purposes causes of promoting freedom and democracy (sometimes against their own governments), rather than hurt its progress or endanger actual people. Today, we have become so cynical as to say that any information will come out no matter what, and the one who publishes it first is, well, just the lucky one who has it first. There are no ethical issues these publishers seem to consider and with this development, the concept of the “trustee” has gone out of the window, too.

How often have we heard the line on telly or in a movie, spoken by a secret informant to the hero: “I trust you to do the right thing!”

My hope for WikiLeaks was exactly that: informants would come to them and trust them to do the right thing. To have information that may be incriminating sometimes means for the informants that they do not know what to do with it (except, well, sell it for a lot of money, that is), because they don’t know what the right thing is. Once, they could turn to the Bob Woodward kind of journalists and other “trustees”.     Perhaps, this older breed of journalists were just better educated, I think sometimes , and they just knew that sometimes the time was not yet ripe for something to be made public, while other things needed to come out right now.  But the education question of intermediaries is another can of worms for another day. Today, well, everything that is available gets published, to satisfy either the ego (the vanity) or the uber-ego (the positivist info=fact=truth=freedom equation, the naive realism ideology) of the Assange’s of this world.  If the information WikiLeaks just published on the diplomatic correspondence had been about past players, and, thus, historic events that would have little influence on current decisions and politics, well, fine. If the information they provided had been about criminal or highly questionable actions or plans by diplomats, officers, etc., fine.  Instead, the actual content, above all presented as pure information for everyone to forge their own instrumentalizable truths from it, was – while influential in its consequences – remarkably trivial in itself. WikiLeaks was not working to prevent or reveal critical policies, but WikiLeaks was making politics itself, and thus they became a political entity and ceased to be a civil entity.

Of course, governments ask their diplomats to give them assessments of  their counterparts in other nations, and, of course, they are not just looking for the bright sides but the worst cases they have to expect in dealings with these people. Yup, Angela Merkel is a bore and tries to deflect anything until the last minute, but hey, who doesn’t these days.  And, moreover, secretly, most politicians know that others think of them (and those who don’t, well, they usually don’t last too long in this game anyway). But to actually hear it out loud, well, that is just a totally different thing. This  being explicit undermines the kind of trust that these actors need to have to be able to work with one another. It’s human but that is what it is: It is one thing to have a dialogue with somebody who I suspect thinking me a lame duck than having it with somebody I know for a fact thinks me a lame duck. Just think of the difference between a situation where you strongly suspect your spouse of cheating and the situation where you know it for a fact. Between hoping for the best despite grim chances and knowing the worst. Your range of actions is still open when you have hope. WikiLeaks has destroyed my hopes for it – despite my earlier suspicions, I had hope. They are not able to serve as trustees in this world society, because they are not to be trusted. Those who have the ideology that they can do no wrong, because the truth will set them free will end up with “consequences be damned”. Some deeply liberal activists may see this differently. You, dear reader, and Julian “Spidey” Assange may do so. However, one piece of advice: Mind Gwen Stacy!

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Any problem-oriented scholar has a wide variety of tools in his conceptual tool-box. That is her or his great assett and also the point why discipline-oriented scholars often have communication problems with them and, instead of rising to the opportunity of engaging, they rather try and create some “family myth” regarding the disciplinary subject matter and declare the problem-oriented approach an act of dillentantism, obscurantism (sometimes co-qualified as terrorism), or superficialism, not to mention, in some cases, they qualify it as reactionary and  dangerous. To be a problem-oriented scholar is, therefore, a dangerous and risky business, and thanks to the obscurateur terroristique  Michel  Foucault, we can accept being dangerous as a positive qualfiication for the likes of us.

However, every now and then we do encounter a disciplinary-oriented expert who happens to be willing to engage what we do and who does not try and find qualifications that bolster his or her own ego, institutional position, or proto-fascist bureaucratic procedures of governing static state of going nowhere, but who does believe in the need for creative exchange between different ways of doing science in order to be constructice and innovative. Luckily, I recently encountered  such an engagement that revelaed a precarious concept in my work, which I had used so self-evidently and took for granted without explicating it and its sources enough, mostly because I adopted it from scholars who didn’t. this is the concept of phantasm and I will now try to provide a bit of background for it.

In a recent funding patch for my next project, I used the concept of “phantasm” quite often. It is a concept that I came across very often in recent years, dealing with works on literature and metaphor, history of science and culture, and, of course, postmodern philosophy. I had never really bothered anywhere in the funding proposal, or anywhere else recently, to describe or define the the concept and its use. From reading the works of Stefan Rieger, Philipp Sarasin (whose book on Anthrax even feature Phantasm in the German title), Zizek (on Deleuze and Lacan), I adopted the concept and took its use for granted. After all, it is prominently featured in Deleuze’s Logic of sense. But simply “googling” phantasma or phantasm elucidates the need for further clarification. It takes a few pages until you even reach a dictionary through a search engine. And that reveals phantasm to mean “ghostly apparition” and “illusory mental image”. In Platonic and, to some degree, the conception appears as well, referring roughly to a belief that rises through sensation but could be false.

Thinking about this problem, I came to engage the meaning of phantasm in Rieger and Sarasin, whose works I have come to cite quite frequently of late, in a more explicitly and with a pragmatic attitude. Of course, neither the Platonic nor the ghostly meaning of phantasm brought me very far. And I was not really satisified with Zizek and Deleuze, though they were pointing in a suitable direction, for my needs, they remain “too contemplative”  (to use the term that Parsons reserved for philosophers the likes of Heidegger and Schuetz). After all, phantasms to be efficacious, dynamic, and procedural social actants,  need to be more fundamental than, say, metaphors, yet have the same kind of constructive force as have the “metaphors we live by”. After all, the phantasms I deal with in my research (or rather the “how” of their emergence and their subsequent career) are the control phantasm and the regionalization phantasm, referring to to process that we can identify in the 19th century leading up until today that have grave structurational power over our individual and collective lives and institutions.  Hence, I realized I needed to look elsewhere and, via my interest in influence of the works of Pierre Janet on William James,  rediscovered  Ernst E. Boesch, student of Jean Piaget and Oskar Pfister, whose ideas on symbolic action had crossed my path in my former effort to deal with my appetite for symbol theories a few years back (in my graduate years I had come up with the plan, but have abandoned this idea, to write a comprehensive book on the world-history of symbol theories and to derive a symbolic epistemology from this). Boesch has a very precise and useful understanding of phantasm. At the center of some of his work is the “myth of lurking chaos” that rules much of human civilization. A myth, he says, is a pre-strucutrual guiding pattern and, therefore, not even a theory or precise idea; it is an “unspecified ‘mould’ of receptivity and evaluation” [quoting from Boesch in: Keller, Heidi el, eds. Between Biology and Culture, Cambridge UP, 2002]. There are different ways of dealing with myths (the myth of lurking chaos being one of the most primal and most influential), and phantasms comprise one of them. Though Boesch sees phantasms emerge in the individual development of children through selection and amalgamation, his general description works rather nicely to describe the kind of patterns that phantasms are, whether emerging individually or proceeding collectively. we can paraphrase as such: what we call phantasms are the perceiving, transforming as well as anticipating images, bound up with the acting party (or actor).

Boesch also declares, and we do well to follow him, that “phantasms are, of course, ‘over-determined'”.  They provide a way in which “culture certainly influences the way we [ also as scientists, A.S.] think and evaluate,  shapes our action interaction. However, it acts no less below the surface, in those mythical dispositions, which we now hardly notice. Culture, then, makes us form phantasmatic orientiations of which we recognize the more ‘rational’ manifestations – our goals and fears, affections and antipathies – but which nonetheless act at a depth that we will hardly ever be able to reflect on.”

I accept and integrate this idea into the tool-box I have created as a “microclimatology of truth”, the “analytical heuristic for the analysis of knowledge regimes and knowledge production”,I first introduced to an audience at the BSA 2008 and in subsequent publications. It is a fundamental tool towards the study of the emergence of epistemic cultures and the creation of specific epistemic objects within these cultures by reference to concrete acts of decision-making. My new project is supposed to reconstruct the epistemic culture of New England that emerged between 1846 and 1898, and the creation of the human body as an epistemic object. Control and regionalizationa re two guiding phantasms and they lead, as I will show, to a predigital process of virtualization, a dynamic process of restructuring information orders into forms of knowledge that inherently fail to represent concrete  cases that require decision-making.For example,  running rampant in biomedical science and, above all, biomedical science administration and governance over the twentieth century, this type of  virtualization has resulted in regimes of diagnostic and therapeutic knowledge that have created patient trajectories in bureaucratized systems that no longer correspond with individual patients’ needs nor are their concrete bodies represented in the data these systems produce and process. This is why I am interested in understanding the creation of the human body as an epistemic object, which is and has always been one of the key-themes of my scholarship. Perhaps this is my own, personal phantasm, so to speak.

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A few days ago, I wrote to a journal about a paper I submitted 13 months ago. Still under review, I was told. Fine with me. On Friday, I submitted another two papers electronically to another journal, which is edited by a well-known historian. In the span of five minutes today, I was sent emails that I was assigned editorial processing numbers and then two identical standard letters that my paper was reviewed and rejected, and that reviewers comments were at the bottom of the page – surprisingly there were none. From the documentation of these emails I can judge, that it seems that the renowned man has used his incredible intellectual abilities of reviewing two 30 page papers in five minutes, where another journal hasn’t managed to review one paper in thirteen months.

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