Kings, Yogis, and Oriental Unfreedom

Hegel is perhaps the quintessential theorist of Eurocentrism, a fact that has only made his continued prestige as a philosopher and humanist all the more troubling. Today, we will accompany him on his world-historical journey, beginning with the primordial and unchanging East. More specifically, we will engage with two of Hegel’s most powerful claims: that China had no history, and India had no philosophy. In doing so, we should be able to develop a better grasp of what it really means to speak of “freedom” at all.

We Are a Swarm of Bees: The Life of Vitalism

The vitalist conception of life was fundamentally about organization: the nature of individual organs’ interrelationships and interdependencies, whose overall “economy” produces a “life and sensibility,” not some singular and overarching force. The “vital principle” of vitalism was therefore not unified, but diffused throughout the body, manifesting diverse characteristics in the organs... Their functions were not reducible to mind or matter; they were potentialities specific to organic material, products of its innate characteristics and "sensibilities."

Community and Capital

The capitalist playbook is of infinite length; wherever it finds itself, capitalism does whatever is necessary to make it big. Thus it has changed form to adapt to local conditions, donning many masks and learning to speak in countless vernaculars. If it needs to, capitalism is happy to incorporate beliefs in the divine, the supernatural, or the immaterial. It has no built-in requirement to refashion every place it conquers into a copy of London or Amsterdam, or transform every wage laborer into a secular citizen.

Groundings with a Black Marxist: Walter Rodney

Walter Rodney lived his life as a friend of the people and an enemy of the state. Upon his return to Jamaica in 1968, he rapidly immersed himself in social movements among the urban poor, focusing his efforts on segments of the youth who had already been radicalized by Rastafarianism. His charisma and ability to articulate the concerns of working people made him a valuable member of the Black Power movement, and unlike other intellectuals he developed close relationships with the grass-roots. To the still young Jamaican government, Rodney appeared as a very real threat.

Man the Machine, Dismantled

In 1738, affluent Parisians flocked to an exhilarating new exhibit at the Hôtel de Longueville that featured a flutist, a pipe-and-tabor player, and a curious duck that would eat corn right out of your hand and defecate only moments after. Of course, these were not normal musicians -- in fact, they were not even very good -- and this was certainly no normal duck. All three were automata: elaborate machines designed to imitate life.

When Knowledge Becomes Powerful

When people say “knowledge is power,” what they really mean is knowledge is empowering. Generally, the idea is that knowledge is the foundation of individual achievement -- that it makes a person more capable, effectual, and successful. In this piece, I’d like to take the opportunity to interrogate the history of the phrase “knowledge is power,” in order to illustrate how it may be fraught in surprising ways.

The Original Meaning of Life was in 1836 (Part 1)

Anyone in search of the original “meaning of life” need look no further than Sartor Resartus, an 1836 novel by Thomas Carlyle. In the story, a German philosopher named Teufelsdröckh (whose name literally means devil-dung) declares that “the meaning of Life itself” is “no other than Freedom.” Of course, “Freedom” is only the “original” meaning of life in the sense that Carlyle happened to coin the phrase.