“Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday”

“Robinson Crusoe and Man Friday”

manifesting the liquid continent - part 1

arnie saiki

Editor’s note: Availing himself of the work of the theorists Karl Popper, Peter Sloterdijk, Arnie Saiki presents here an examination of the limits of capital and its theoretical origins through an examination of, among other works, Robinson Crusoe. This is part of a paper that’s much longer than our usual posts in Letters, so I’m breaking it up into parts. The title’s use of the phrase “liquid continent” refers to the Pacific region, which Tongan scholar Epeli Houofa has called “a sea of islands” rather than the typical view of tiny islands in a vast sea. Saiki was the moderator of the conference Moana Nui, which was a countermeasure against the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference which happened contemporaneously. He has worked for many years on contesting and critiquing capital’s entry into this region.

Civilization as we have come to understand it, was built the moment we begin to understand the benefits of our division of labor and our understanding of exchange, markets, and supply chains. We gave it those us-and-them names, and also numbers like “many” and “none.” Now those numbers, define the Anthropocene, numbers like 7 and 8 billion, which some futurists predict may one day become none if this planet should soon become an uninhabitable wasteland. Totemic identifiers may soon become little more than placeholders establishing legitimacy of an imagined historicism suggesting that to be civilized means to have been found.  The seminal political theorist and sociologist Karl Popper writes, “Robinson Crusoe and his isolated individual economy can never be a valuable model of an economy whose problems arise precisely from the interaction of individuals and groups.”[i] And yet, since we have never been as isolated as Daniel Dafoe’s shipwrecked and stranded character, then why should we strive for that insularity. There are some who reimagine the architecture of human space in the natural world, and will willingly leapfrog the millennia of our social evolution back to a solitary social contract dismissing the entire acquired knowledge of the Anthropocene to a pre-totemic place: a tree house on a deserted island.

Yet, the problems that Popper alludes to are “problems” because we are not fictive like Robinson Crusoe living in an island bubble away from cannibals. Our engagement in the world is economic. Whether islands in oceans, or mountain villages, or floating above the earth as in Jonathan Swift’s floating island of Laputa, we have evolved far beyond the historicist’s vision of an origin story. Ours is a story of supply chains. We divide our labor, we engage in exchange. Whether we walk or sail or fly whether we journey or aimlessly drift, the geography of islands, deserts, oceans, and mountains may, to some degree, have determined how natural partitions give boundaries to totems, but the movement of people towards markets of exchange reject the imposed partitions of states and islands and instead recognize oceans, mountains and deserts as merely the spectacle between markets, the interstitial space that would eventually define the breeding ground for military campaigns and conquest and the wastelands of nuclear testing.

It is in the classical political imagination of Euro-American culture that the asymmetrical relationship between main-lands and is-lands evolved, and it was Robinson Crusoe, who Peter Sloterdijk describes as the “puritanical simpleton who created a micro-commonwealth of British Christian clichés,” supplied a “formula for the relationship between self and world in the age of European world-taking.”[ii] The problem is that islands are also main-lands. Dafoe writes, “The savage was now a good Christian,” “we had here the Word of God to read and no farther off from his Spirit to instruct, than if we had been in England.”[iii]

The island of England was the mainland, precisely because of the puritanical self-identifiers that claim rights and property and determine the rules of exchange. Poor Robinson Crusoe left his middle class parentage to become a slave on a ship that was wrecked in a storm. Marooned on an island with savage cannibals, a commerce of which he had no taste for, Crusoe provided no service except for the guns he used to kill the savages and the conversion he applied to subjugate his native man-servant that he called Friday, whose name he never asked. Is it by coincidence, prognostication, or the persistent repetition of religious doctrine that the journals of Capt. Cook’s voyages into the Pacific should reproduce those very same narratives? Is that not the lesson learned from the apotheosis of Capt. Cook, that the self-fulfilling narratives of conquest, imperialism, and civilization are the myths of Christianity?[iv] And yet these myths persist, invoking the same narrative tropes as if our future could only move forward by rubberstamping its approval of authority. It is the hypocrisy that is maddening. We may self identify as puritans, yet we trade as cannibals, as violent traders that cannibalize markets. Our economy is predatory and fierce. In the history of the world, there is no greater example of a cannibalistic system than the waning days of neoliberalism when Wall Street’s Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns spectacularly imploded our financial system as investment markets consumed their own debt, hungered for credit default swaps, and feasted on derivatives and debt securities. The economy of Robinson Crusoe killed the people not the cannibal. The system still remains as we have imposed the capitalist moniker atop every totem of each locale as if the logic of human development evolved to only reach this place, as if this matrix were the zenith of power. Economic historians may one day understand as Foucault has, that “this form of power is salvation-oriented (as opposed to political power). It is oblative (as opposed to the principle of sovereignty); it is individualizing (as opposed to legal power); it is coextensive and continuous with life; it is linked with a production of truth—the truth of the individual himself.” [v]

[i] Popper, Karl. The Poverty of Historicism. Routledge. 1997. pp. 8

[ii] Sloterdijk, Peter. Spheres Volume III: Foams Plural Spherology. Semiotext(e). 2016. pp. 287-88.

[iii] Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. Random House. 2001. p. 203.

[iv] Obeyesekere, Gananath. The Apotheosis of Cpatain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific. Princeton University Press. 1992. p.3.

[v] Foucault, Michel. Power. “The Subject and Power.” The New Press. 2000. p.333.

About the author:

Broadly focusing on regional economic and geopolitical themes in the Asia and Pacific regions, Arnie Saiki (Moana Nui Action Alliance-Hawaii/Los Angeles) was the coordinator for the Moana Nui conferences, a partnership between the International Forum on Globalization and Pua Mohala I Ka Po and has been campaigning on issues around trade, development and militarization in the Pacific since. Currently, he is participating in a working group on Data, Statistics, and Valuation in the Pacific. He has been writing, producing online content and organizing since 2007. In 2009, Arnie received a "We the People" grant from Hawaii Council for the Humanities for his work on Hawai'i Statehood history and was the lead historical researcher for a federally-funded feature documentary, "State of Aloha." He received his MFA from NYU, Tisch School of the Arts, and later left the Performing Studies program at NYU as a Ph.D. candidate. He now lives in San Gabriel with his wife and children.

briefly noted: Happiness and ecosocialism

The Peterson-Zizek debate has thrown into question the bland notion of happiness. As Zizek notes in a Big Think talk, when one is on the verge of discovery, “you are willing to suffer.”So that’s on the happiness side, on the socialist side (and I realize I’m going out on a limb here): in the 90s the term was about as popular as fascism or Esperanto. But after the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession, reports showed that 40% of Americans and a higher proportion of millenials support socialism. And that’s the objectionable part for some, not the “Eco” part. 

Devon Pillay, formerly a political prisoner in Apartheid South Africa and now Department chair of Sociology at Witt University, notes the growing discontent with the GDP measure of happiness and asks if there is “a Chinese wall between the Buddha and Marx?”  In his recent article in the journal Globalizations, Pillay asks if the two can be brought into resonance as part of “a counter-hegemonic movement.” He mentions Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness as the best-known counter measure against GDP.

The following definition was given by Chris Williams at the EcoSocialist Conference at Barnard College:

changing one form of supplying energy for a less polluting form of supplying energy. [But it is] not just changing energy systems, but about changing the social and political power in this country and around the world. We’re not going to get positive ecological change without some positive social change, which means putting front and center questions of fighting racism, fighting sexism, and fighting homophobia, along with rearranging the social and political policies.


defending the mountain

When measured from the sea floor, the tallest mountain on Earth is Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i. Decades ago, a telescope was proposed for the summit. There are already a dozen telescopes there, but this is the very large Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). The construction of TMT on a summit that Hawaiians consider sacred has provoked the largest protest movement in recent years, rivaling the mass movement to stop the Navy’s target practice on the island of Kaho’olawe. A few weeks ago, Native Hawaiian activists blocked the entrance to the road to the summit, creating an encampment.  In July 2019, Native Hawaiians began to make national news over their efforts to block the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i Island. NBC news recently covered the emergence of a school. Named Pu’uhuluhulu University, it offers free classes, taught mainly by Hawaiians. NBC’s headline read that protestors (who call themselves “protectors”) started the school to teach “local culture and values.”

Native Hawaiians are involved in the building of infrastructure that could lead to greater things. I’ve written before about the need for a Hawaiian college here. The university established during the occupation is as grassroots as it’s possible to be, and seemed to emerge spontaneously out of the lava rock. It included lectures on decolonizing religion, “stepping into sovereignty,” water law, Hawaiian language classes and training for hula that would be performed during protocols. My lecture was titled “Nonviolence and Land” - two topics I know well, allowing me to speak extemporaneously without notes. But the organization of this occupation included medical services, a fully operational kitchen, and a protocol area in addition to the school. Many groups appeared with offerings for the leadership of the movement, on the day that I was there offerings were made from the Native American tribe from Standing Rock.

At one point, when the movement seemed to build steam, I thought to myself: “where were these people when the permitting process was happening?” This occured mainly in the 1990s, with some friends of mine (about my age - in their 40s and 50s now) being very active in that process. But I realized that many of the current protestors were in elementary and high school at that time. But here’s the rub: many were in schools that were started as part of the larger Hawaiian movement: Hawaiian Language Immersion schools, Hawaiian Culture-focused charter schools, as well as the school that I teach at (Kamehameha Schools, exclusively for Native Hawaiians). For example, Kaho’okahi Kanuha, who many consider the leader of this movement, is the first graduate of Punana Leo, the Hawaiian immersion preschools, as well as a graduate of Kamehameha. In the 1970s Native Hawaiians had a cultural renaissance, and in1990s and 2000s they built institutions, from which the current crop of protectors has mainly emerged. So viewed from a larger social perspective, the presence of millenial-aged protectors is a product of the institution building of previous two generations, and thus a case study in social movement building. 

empire and enmity

the legacy of the gore vidal-william buckley debates

History seems to have caught up with Gore Vidal. Vidal was the last of a kind of renaissance intellectual and writer who seems to have been replaced by the narrow specialists of today. Several recent releases reflect a growing interest with Vidal. Jay Parini's biography Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal, (reviewed, mostly unflatteringly, in The New Yorker) eulogizes the writer. The documentary Best of Enemies focuses on Vidal's 1968 series of debates with conservative pundit and flag bearer William F. Buckley. Leo Robson's article in The New Yorker, "Delusions of Candor," shows Vidal's versatility:

... almost by accident, virtually without sweat, and for the simple reason that he

could - [Vidal] became a novelist ("Julian," "Myra Breckenridge," "Burr," "Creation"), essayist ("Homage to Daniel Shays," The Hacks of Academe"), playwright ("Visit to a Small Planet," "The Best Man"), screenwriter ("Ben Hur"), politician (valiant failed campaigns for Congress, in New York, and for the Senate, in California [Vidal seemed to lack "the common touch"], actor ("Bob Roberts," "Gattaca," "Igby Goes Down"), steel-chinned prime-time brawler (points victories over Buckley in 1968 and [Norman] Mailer in 1971), and friend to everyone worth knowing (Greta [Garbo], Tennessee [Williams], Eleanor [Roosevelt], Orson [Wells], Mick [Jagger], Sting).

Vidal was born at West Point because his father, a former Olympian in the decathlon, was the track and football coach at the academy. Vidal's maternal grandfather was the blind Senator Thomas Gore. Born Eugene Louis Vidal, he dropped the first two names and took on his mother's surname Gore after his Christening. After Phillips Exeter, Parini recounts, Vidal chose not to go to college:

ʻAfter Exeter, I didn't want to go to Harvard, as I might have' he recalled. ʻMy

father had saved some money for my education, but I wanted the money. I’d have a small but tidy sum to launch me in the world.' He would actually receive about $10,000 from his father - a substantial amount in those days worth roughly $120,000 today.

Perhaps ironically, Vidal left his $37 million estate to Harvard upon his death in 2012, a strange act that Parini interprets as a desire to connect himself with a great institution, despite not having attended it.

Vidal was a fairly frequent visitor to the White House because he was a stepbrother of Jackie Kennedy, but he soon had a falling out with Robert Kennedy, who he called "a self-righteous little prick." Before his death Vidal released a book of photos of his days in Camelot, suggesting he may have regretted cutting off such a historic association. And this is the topic of Parini's book and Robson's review: Vidal's ambivalent and constant self-reflection. The New Yorker article suggests Parini was too biased from his close friendship with Vidal to be an impartial chronicler, and it's true that he saw Vidal as a kind of father figure. Parini describes their meeting in Italy:

We [Parini and his wife] had a rooftop terrace, above ... limestone cliffs. A massive villa - alabaster white, clinging to the rocks, like a swallow's nest - loomed above us, and we wondered who lived there in such opulence. Some Italian nobleman? A local mafia don? A film star? When I asked the tobacconist in town about its resident, he said "Ah, lo scritore! Gore Vidal. Americano." 

He sent a note and Vidal was soon pounding on his door inviting them to dinner. "A friendship blossomed ...we both loved Henry James, Mark Twain, Anthony Trollope and Henry Adams - and we invariably found we had more to talk about than time allowed."


Parini was not blind to Vidal's flaws but intersperses them with fawning praise:

He was both angel and monster, even at the same time. For all this, he was an astonishing man, inventive and shimmering, with a superb linguistic facility and capacious memory. If he could be petty and difficult, that was part of his total being. He was an alcoholic, no doubt ... He fought bravely against the stereotypes of gays, of course, coming out publicly in The City and the Pillar ... As late as 2011, he told me ... "I would have liked a son" ... But this was just the old imperial self again, never wrote happy with territorial limits.

Robson faults Parini with missing the large archive of writings of Anais Nin, a close friend and critic of Vidal, who claimed he needed "to conquer, to shine, to dominate." Never was this mania to build an "empire of self" seen more clearly than in his debates with William Buckley and their aftermath. The debate between the conservative pundit and editor of National Review and liberal writer Vidal at the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions came at a moment when Americans had supreme confidence in TV news, which offered little controversy or diversity. The debate also seemed to mark the beginning of the polemical screeds that pass for debate today, and Americans' addiction to them.  As Buckley observed of TV in one of his most cogent moments: "there is a conflict of interest between that which is highly viewable and that which is illuminating." It was also the end of the moderate Republican.

The debate began, in a sense, as a publicity stunt to save ABC News, the "budget car rental of television news," from its position at the bottom of TV ratings. It became a "confrontation about lifestyle ... [about] who is the better person?" Buckley held that people looked to government to provide goods that they should try to find in their religion, their culture and themselves. Vidal held that a party, the Republican, whose political platform was "entirely based on greed," could not hope to attract sufficient voters to win - he was, of course, wrong - but the reasons for his error constitute the story of the conservative rise since that time. Where he was right - and even the brother of Buckley admitted this - was in calling America an empire. That this is not surprising to us today shows his prescience. Vidal reminds one of the protagonists of Saul Bellow's books Herzog and Humboldt's Gift: brilliant, aging, losing the sharp edge of their chin and their sex appeal.

Buckley kept referring to Vidal as "the author of Myra Breckenridge," the risqué tale of sexual license, which Buckley and others viewed as pornographic. Vidal came out swinging in the first debate, citing a quote from National Review in which Buckley advised the nuclear bombing of North Vietnam to Ronald Reagan and Nixon. Later in the debates Buckley, clearly losing, dropped his own bombshell: an alleged letter from Bobby Kennedy lambasting Vidal. Vidal retained his composure, though clearly shaken, and in a witty comeback accused Buckley of forgery. It is this composure that The New Yorker calls his "delusion of candor." His seeming unshakability was a "mask behind a mask." What strikes one in fact is how similar the two debaters were - merely two sides of the same social class.  According to Columbia linguist John McWhorter, "America has always been anti-intellectual" and the two both represented the hated ruling class. Vidal's position on the side of the poor thus felt to Buckley like betrayal. Where they differed was on "law and order" (which, ironically, was the title of a film that starred Reagan).

Riots began to swell in Miami as the "lily white" Republican convention continued, and the shape of the future of the Republican Party of Nixon began to form. Vidal cited economic inequality statistics that sound positively egalitarian compared to today's extremes, and his description of the barricaded environs of Chicago during the Democratic convention as a police state resonates today.

By the seventh debate the gloves came off. Parini describes the scene:

[Vidal:] ʻAs far as I’m concerned, the only ... crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself.' It was a deadly assertion and Buckley curled his lip and sneered: ʻNow listen you queer! Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.' Buckley added with a wicked glare: ʻGo back to your pornography.'

Buckley also reminded Vidal he was a veteran - all this on national television in front of 10 million people. Unfazed, Vidal leaned over to Buckley after filming had ended, and said, "Well, we gave them their money’s worth." Vidal later reflected that he had meant to call Buckley a crypto-fascist. Buckley wrote a twelve thousand-word essay examining the question of what constituted decent discourse on television in Esquire, which Vidal responded to, suggesting that Buckley himself was a closeted homosexual.

Buckley’s star soon rose with the Reagan revolution, just as Vidal's seemed to set. As the public began to forget Vidal, critics differed on whether he would be remembered for his historical novels or his essays. Meanwhile, Buckley swam shirtless with Reagan, who said publicly that National Review was his favorite magazine. His skill as a debater was never in question. When asked why he was always sitting when he spoke and whether that meant he couldn't think on his feet, Buckley responded, "It is difficult to stand with the weight of what I know."

The resentments lingered for over thirty years, with suits and counter-suits, and bitterness that seemed to break the men over decades. Vidal apparently spoke of Buckley everyday, even years later, and Buckley said on Charlie Rose at the end of his life that he was tired of living on. Upon Buckley's death, Vidal wrote in his journal that he hoped Buckley was with his masters in hell, continuing as servant of their greed. This disillusionment with American politics led Vidal to a self-imposed exile to the Amalfi coast of Italy: "the perfect place to oversee the decline of the West."