On Ehrlich’s “Inside Syria”

First off, this reading made me realize that I knew very little about the many groups who are 1) locals in the war in Syria and 2) the countries who are funding these groups. For those interested, this is what what BBC says, this is what Wikipedia says, and here is a super image-heavy article published threeish weeks ago detailing the beginnings of US involvement in air strikes.

Secondly, I thought the reading was a brave attempt at chronicling the democratic uprising in Syria. It gave me a better picture of the wide spectrum of political and human rights interests that, whether liberal or conservative, were against the particular regime that Assad maintained. Ehrlich’s point that Syria’s slightly relaxed laws against homosexuality (citing a 2011 UN report) compared to other countries actually made some people support Assad’s regime was particularly interesting in that it shed light on how state laws can exert an influence of power on citizens that keeps those laws in check (if that makes any sense).

I also thought that this spoke to the plea that Ehrlich makes at the end of Chapter 11, against interventionism. The fact that military groups within Syria kept splitting in the beginning years show that foreign support is not at all easy. My guess is that arms contractors in the US did not foresee that to provide support would also antagonize other groups to splinter off like it did with the SMC. That fact alone shows just how complex these political/military relationships are. Obviously this is made clear in the whole antagonistic relationship between US/Russia. But as more and more countries get drawn, financially and militarily, into this conflict, it makes me wonder how much longer this conflict could go on.

[trisha r.]

A Life On The Surface

Notions of ISIS, standing in juxtaposition to Al Qaeda bring with it fascinating implications. ISIS is extremism out in the open, whereas Al Qaeda brings about images of Tora Bora, and attacks from the dark. Notions of hypocrisy are interesting, and also the notions of respect. One of the main objections to American Power by extremists has been its lack of respect, and its hypocrisy. The notion that the west “stole” islamic ideas, science and technology is an interesting one, and a notion that fuels extremists.

Although this article was thought provoking, I think it still misses some of the key issues surrounding violence and what causes it. I believe that violence is inherently causes by mimetic desire, and that the article simply reinforces this notion. Wanting the same thing is what causes people to fight, and at the end of the day we struggle to find true, hard, differences between humans. We fight because we are the same, and we want the same things. ISIS wants, despite all the talk about holding a mirror up to America, fails at what it sees as its greatest sentiment, hypocrisy. ISIS wants to be a global hegemon, and as there can only be one global hegemon, ISIS and the US inevitably stand, at odds with each other.

ISIS as an Empty Text

Devji’s assertion that perhaps, in our current moment, it may be more useful to read the actions and origins of ISIS at the level of pure appearance is a fascinating one. Especially since the events of 9/11, there has been a large degree of interest, both in the academic and public spheres, in trying to figure out where and when this apparent Islam vs. the West dichotomy appears. As Devji notes, people have looked to history as recent Israel’s presence in Lebanon and as far back as the Crusades, or even the foundation of Islam. There is an impulse to slot ISIS into clear and distinct historical, sociological, and ideological frameworks and that tendency may itself be a scientific impulse, resting on the notion that if we can categorize something we can control it. However, the way Devji frames ISIS is precisely the opposite: the group is ahistorical, ideologically inconsistent, and sociologically multiform. One can imagine (delivered in Norbert Wiener deadpan) an anecdote about an analyst who probes every molecule of a planarian, but has no clue what the creature actually looks like.

He notes that built into many of the actors people identify as Islamic terrorists groups is a resistance to depth, a resistance to reading the symbol. A fear and rejection of hypocrisy is also central to these groups, a structural device that does not assuage the dissonance in the politics of some of these groups, but one that produces a transparent organization nonetheless. This transparency in turn leads to ISIS as an organization with one central referent, acting as a reaction to an excrescent Western influence or intervention, but without any relation to anything outside of that. Devji relates the strange religious and political leadership of ISIS and how its central publication is almost “anodyne.” This combined with the public brutality and transparency of the organization lead him to assert that ISIS is an immanent, not transcendent, set of relations. ISIS then exists almost purely as a source of disruption, a reification of dialectic principles. It is often said that we conjure our own enemies.

Of course, as with most things we’ve read thus far, I’m tempted to read this characterization of ISIS in light of the work of Jean Baudrillard. This short excerpt from Simulation and Simulacra (1981) resonates especially with Devji’s approach to ISIS:

Melancholia is the brutal disaffection that characterizes our saturated systems. Once the hope of balancing good and evil, true and false, indeed of confronting some values of the same order, once the more general hope of a relation of forces and a stake has vanished. Everywhere, always, the system is too strong: hegemonic.


Against this hegemony of the system, one can exalt the ruses of desire, practice revolutionary micrology of the quotidian, exalt the molecular drift or even defend cooking. This does not resolve the imperious necessity of checking the system in broad daylight.


This, only terrorism can do.


It is the trait of reversion that effaces the remainder, just as a single ironic smile effaces a whole discourse, just as a single flash of denial in a slave effaces all the power and pleasure of the master.


The more hegemonic the system, the more the imagination is struck by the smallest of its reversals. The challenge, even infinitesimal, is the image of a chain failure. Only this reversibility without a counterpart is an event today, on the nihilistic and disaffected stage of the political. Only it mobilizes the imaginary.

Perhaps this provides a way to consider the strange composition of ISIS and similar transparent organizations. The lack of depth and resistance to hypocrisy, the ahistorical and ideologically discrepant (as both dissident and ‘a noise apart’) nature are the result of a nihilism. This bizarre current of the non-referential in ISIS is a somewhat vexing question and nihilism provides a route towards conceptualizing it. It is admittedly an easy answer to a question that is too complex to entertain such explanations, but it provides an interesting way of analyzing an organization that does not view violence as an unfortunate consequence of political change, but an act of value unto itself. Taken with some of Baudrillard’s thought, Devji’s essay could provide a description of ISIS as a post-political entity, certainly an intriguing notion. Perhaps such an idea is merely audacious.


Nonviolence vs violence against totalitarian regimes

The author of Inside Syria notes in a few places that protestors were forced to switch from passive methods to armed retaliation to defend themselves. It made me wonder what kinds of options are available to protestors up against a violent regime, and whether any of them could ever enact any meaningful change without massive amounts of bloodshed.

I found a TEDx talk about the topic in which a political scientist named Erica Chenoweth presents findings that nonviolent revolutions of the past were more likely to conclude with the establishment of a stable, democratic political system than were violent revolutions, and that passive methods of resistance are more likely to galvanize others into joining a revolution than violent ones. Furthermore, she claims that nonviolent revolutions are becoming more likely to succeed as time moves forward.

The author of the Washington Post article covering the video claims to have found in his own studies that violent uprisings are 50 percent more likely to fail than nonviolent uprisings due to their polarizing effect on citizens of the countries in which they occur, and because they tend to provoke all-out attacks from the militaries of the regimes they challenge.

The arguments and evidence are compelling, but it’s hard to blame protestors such as those in Syria for fighting for their lives. Either way, it’s food for thought on the uprising in Syria and other countries undergoing similar upheavals.


-Travis P.

Global Capitalism and Oil: Thoughts on Carbon Democracy

Confession: Timothy Mitchell’s book frustrated me. I found it difficult to conceptualize oil as a political force in the way he was asking. Not because I think he’s wrong, but because the basic premise—that carbon-based energy literally and metaphorically fueled (and continues to fuel) Western democracy both practically and conceptually—felt like nothing I had ever read before. I had to read it slowly and carefully like an entirely new piece of theory. (I’m also no economist or political scientist, so take that how you will.) The point where I felt I could actually wrap my mind around Mitchell’s theory came with the growth of global capitalism alongside the oil industry.

Capitalism, oil, labor, imperialism, industrialized culture—it’s all bound together for Mitchell. He writes, “The leading industrialised countries are also oil states. Without the energy they derive from oil their current forms of political and economic life would not exist. Their citizens have developed ways of eating, travelling, housing themselves and consuming other goods and services that require very large amounts of energy from oil and other fossil fuels. These ways of life are not sustainable, and they now face the twin crises that will end them” (6). Those twin crises—1) fossil fuels are running out and 2) the planet is damaged beyond repair— suggest that politico-economic change is imminent. But what will that change look like? Maybe one of the following…

Capitalist Status Quo

Capitalism makes too much sense to the people who profit from it (corporations and the wealthy elite), and the people who profit from it control the resources and have the power to influence national and global politics. Once the oil runs out and we, as a global populace, are forced to embrace clean(er) more renewable energy sources (let’s say solar for the sake of an example) then dependency simply transfers from now-limited or obsolete carbon-based resources to the newest indefinite energy resource: the sun. Overconsumption continues, albeit within a new frame that will undoubtedly restructure global politics and economies. Perhaps the U.S. focus would shift from the oil-laden Middle East to sunny Africa under this new “solar” democracy? Private corporations would continue to capitalize on and monopolize clean(er) energies.

To illustrate, Ian McEwan satirizes global capitalism and clean energy in his 2010 novel Solar, which explores the implications of shifting from carbon-based energy to solar energy. In the following passage, a businessman, Toby, set to invest in the solar panel industry expresses concern to his business partner. Toby is unsure whether or not people are convinced that global warming actually exists. His business partner attempts to calm his fears. Toby begins:

“If the place isn’t hotting up, we’re fucked.”

“Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. Even as we speak, Bangladesh is going down because the oceans are warming and expanding and rising. There’s drought in the Amazon rain forest. Methane is pouring out of the Siberian permafrost. There’s a meltdown under the Greenland ice sheet that no one really wants to talk about. Amateur yachts-men have been sailing the Northwest Passage. Two years ago we lost forty percent of the Arctic summer ice. Now the eastern Antarctic is going. The future has arrived, Toby.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“You’re not convinced. Here’s the worst case. Suppose the near impossible—the thousand are wrong and the one is right, the data are all skewed, there’s no warming. It’s a mass delusion among scientists, or a plot. Then we still have the old standbys. Energy security, air pollution, peak oil.”

“No one’s going to buy a fancy panel from us just because the oil’s going to run out in thirty years.”

“Toby, listen. It’s a catastrophe. Relax!” (McEwan 251)

Even catastrophe is ripe for capitalist profiteering. Catastrophic planetary collapse—it’s good news!


Can post-oil signify post-capitalism? Nafeez Ahmed thinks so: “The death of the age of oil is, therefore, symptomatic of the end of the capitalism itself” (Beyond Extinction). Is this too idealistic? Will humans find some new substance to mine and burn in order to sustain Amazon Prime? Or, perhaps, will humans start viewing themselves as inhabitants of the land instead of owners of the land? I hope so. We would have to start by reducing our consumption and de-industrializing ourselves. Our technological abilities and industrial capabilities might actually be disabling us.

Further Reading: Nafeez Ahmed, “Beyond Extinction—The Transition to Post-Capitalism is Inevitable.” (Last two sections on “Renewal” and “Revolution” particularly relevant.)

Carbon Democracy – Timothy Mitchell

It took me a while to get through the chapters of Mitchell’s book because it was sometimes hard to keep track of all the points he is making. However, all in all, I am glad that due to this reading, I gained a new perspective on things yet again. It was not that apparent to me that “[i]gnoring the apparatus of oil production” can be seen as an “underlying conception of democracy” (2) before I read the chapters from Mitchell’s book.

I thought that the part about Jihad vs. McWorld and specifically the idea of “McJihad” was very interesting. According to Mitchell, the term “McJihad” refers “not to a contradiction between the logic of capitalism and the other forces and ideas it encounters, but rather to the absence of such a logic. The political violence that the United States, not alone but more than any other actor, has promoted, funded and prolonged across so many parts of the Middle East over recent decades is the persistent symptom of this absence” (p. 230).

Even though Mitchell writes about the term “McJihad” quite a lot and tries to concise its meaning in these few sentences at the end of chapter 8, I think it’d be helpful if we could further discuss the term during class and maybe find our own definition of what Mitchell means by it and what details we specifically need to pay attention to.

I also found this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUeT1sviFB8 which I thought was quite helpful. Mitchell talks about McJihad and the visit of a delegation of the Taliban government of Afghanistan to Washington D.C. in 1997.

– Chantal