Saturday, October 15, 2022

James R. Martel's "Anarchist Prophets"

James R. Martel is Professor of Political Science at San Francisco State University and the author of The Misinterpellated Subjectand Unburied Bodies: Subversive Corpses and the Authority of the Dead.

He applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, Anarchist Prophets: Disappointing Vision and the Power of Collective Sight, and reported the following:
Page 99 happens in the middle of a chapter on Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. My argument on that page is a summary of how Zarathustra is what I call an anarchist prophet, that is a prophet who has the trappings of an archist prophet (i.e. hierarchical, knowing something that no one else does, having access to transcendental truths) but uses that position to return vision and sight to the community that it is normally stolen from. [On a side note: the term archist may be unfamiliar but for me it is the opposite of anarchism. It is the hierarchal and violent form of politics that dominates the world to the point where it doesn’t even seem to have a name.] The page begins mid-stream in analyzing a scene in which Zarathustra encounters a group of disabled people on a bridge. They beg him to heal them and he refuses. More specifically, the page begins with a discussion of Zarathustra’s refusal to heal a blind man. It says that were he to do so, Zarathustra would be fulfilling the miraculous function of a prophet, thus affirming for this man, among all the others, that they really were detestable in their original form and needed to be cancelled and replaced by something better. By denying him sight, Zarathustra reinforces the possibility that the blind man will “see” with his own faculties (not literally sight in this case) rather than trusting the forms of sight that are granted to him by archist power. The page goes on to say that although Nietzsche is usually thought of as a radical individualist, in fact he has a collective and political project in mind (so that the blind man, when he starts to “see for himself” does so in conjunction with his larger community of fellow sufferers, rather than once again seeing what he is told to see). I mention at the very end that for Nietzsche each of us would devolve into internal fantasies if we didn’t have others for whom to bounce off ideas and actions.

Page 99 is actually quite good in giving a sense of the overall argument of the book although it probably needs a bit contextualizing to show how and why that is the case. The focus on the blind man helps to get at the central theme of the book which is that under conditions of archism our sight is usually organized for us by the state, the market and other archist institutions. The role of the anarchist prophet is to return a sense of collective sight to the communities that are determined by archist forms of vision. In many ways, Zarathustra is the clearest example that I have for an anarchist prophet (at least in a philosophical sense; later in the book I give real life examples from history). In the very way that Zarathustra can look so much like a standard archist prophet (for example, it appears that he does have the power to heal people of their ills even though he doesn’t choose to use that power) he is an ideal candidate to subvert archism by its very own mechanisms. Due to this disguise, Zarathustra flies under the radar but he uses his power to undo and undermine the normal functions of archist organization of vision. The focus on the blind man is also helpful because it suggests something important about the nature of sight as such. Sight can be considered to be the “master sense” under conditions of archism. It is privileged above other senses and is used as the basis to gaze upon the world and organize and rank it accordingly (earlier in the book I speak of the archeon, the site from which this sight emanates and which is itself exempt from the ranking of everything and everyone else). But in fact even sight is not really what we are dealing with. Archism actually overrides our collective sight with its own version of what we must see, how we must “read” the world around us. For this reason, by refusing to restore sight to a blind person, Zarathustra is offering that it is not sight per se that is at issue (the blind can be as subject to phantasms as the sighted). The man’s blindness offers a way to bypass the master sense and shows that collective vision is about shared experience and knowledge rather than a matter of simple empiricism.
Learn more about Anarchist Prophets at the Duke University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue