Sunday, April 13, 2014

Abstract Materialism: Sohn-Rethel and the Task of a Materialist Philosophy Today

This is the longer version of an old conference paper. It never quite became publishable; it is left here to the gnawing criticism of digital mice.

Materialism has always been the bastard stepson of philosophy. Its very position is paradoxical, if not impossible. It must use concepts and arguments to conceptualize and argue against the primacy of concepts and argument. This perennial problem is even worse today. If Marx was in some sense the most sophisticated materialist philosopher, elevating the material beyond the brute materiality of the body, to locate the material in the reality of production and the conflicted terrain of social relations, then one could argue that even this version of materialism is in jeopardy today. The economy, the last instance of materialist philosophy after Marx, can no longer be identified with the machines and noise of the factory, it has become digital, immaterial. What then remains of materialism when the economy has become ideal, determined more and more by the idealist category par excellence, speculation, and even labor has been declared immaterial, intersecting with beliefs and desires? At least the beginning of a response can be found in the seemingly paradoxical concept of “real abstraction.” This term, introduced by Marx, takes on a central importance in the work of Alfred Sohn-Rethel, where it is no longer a methodological necessity, but the cornerstone of a philosophy that seeks to understand the material basis of abstraction itself.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Affect and/or Emotions: Differentiation or Dialectic

Theories of affect tend to articulate the term affect in relation to some idea of emotion. Perhaps the locus classicus of this distinction is to be found in Brian Massumi's work on affect. As Massumi writes,

"An emotion is a subjective content, the sociolinguistic fixing of the quality of an experience, which is from that point onward defined as personal. Emotion is qualified intensity, the conventional consensual point of insertion of into intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progressions, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning. It is owned and recognized. It is crucial to theorize the difference between affect and emotion."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Life During Wartime: Remarks on The Americans

I was initially surprised to learn that FX had developed a show about KGB sleeper agents, more so when I learned it is something of a hit. In retrospect I should not have been so surprised; the anti-hero had become such a staple of "long form television" that KGB agents are no more surprising subjects for a show than mobsters, bootleggers, advertising executives, serial killers, and drug kingpins. KGB agents could be considered to be yet another variant of the popular sociopath. Thus, a show about KGB agents does not suggest some kind of immediate revision of cold war history and propaganda, but it does revisit a period of recent history.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Utopia Now: on Pierre Macherey's De L'Utopie!

Pierre Macherey’s De L’Utopie! follows a pattern similar to his other books that have come out of his "philosophie au sense large" seminars. As with other seminars, what is stake is the tracing of a concept or idea, that of the university, the quotidian, or, in this case, utopia, is less a matter of producing a definitive interpretation of the concept in question than it is of exploring the idea in its essential errancy and historicity. Whereas Macherey’s other books included in their trajectory a survey of philosophical, sociological or psychological works, and literature, De L’Utopia is concerned with that particular genre of writing that defines utopia. Although Macherey does consider various theories of utopia, and includes an appendix on Brecht’s opera the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny, his primary concern is the particular form of writing that defines utopia. There is no need to contrast philosophical theories and literary texts because this tension of the philosophical, or sociological, and the literary is internal to utopian writing itself. 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

We Can Remake Him: Robocop Redux

It seems fair to begin this review with a confession as to why I love the original Robocop. It has as much to do with how I saw it as with its satirical take on corporations and American politics. I snuck in, or, more precisely, my father snuck my brother and I in. We were on vacation in Maine for the summer and one rainy day forced us to see a movie (Although I must confess the rainy day movies were as much a highlight of summer vacations growing up as hikes and rafting trips). We picked the godawful Jaws: The Revenge and just as we were walking out, the sounds of a shark that roared still ringing in our ears, my father turned to my brother and I, whispered "they owe us," and escorted us into another screen in the multiplex. This always struck me as appropriate: Robocop snuck its satire into a sci-fi action premise, and we snuck into see it. 

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Divisions: Theorizations and Repudiations of the Division of Mental and Manual Labor

If there was a column listing the what is hot and what is not of contemporary Marxism (and why shouldn't there be?), then the division of mental and manual labor would definitely be in the "not" column. There are multiple reasons for this not the least of which is that the division, especially as it was developed into "the separation of execution from conception," was identified with the factories of Taylorism and Fordism. The separation of mental and manual labor was something that our age, an age of "immaterial labor" or "cognitive capitalism" was supposed to have surpassed.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Commonalities: On Gilbert's Common Ground

Full disclosure: I met Jeremy Gilbert at a Deleuze conference in Wales in the summer of 2008. He gave an interesting paper on Deleuze, Guattari, and Gramsci and I ended up talking to him at pub. The conversation was one of shared interests that went beyond Deleuze, it was a Deleuze conference after all, to include Simondon, transindividuality, and the broader problem of reimagining collectivity in individualistic (and individuated) times. As anyone in academia knows, the experience of meeting someone with shared interest is often ambivalent. There is the joy of finding someone to talk to, of feeling less alone in the wilds of academia, coupled with the sadness of feeling less original, less insightful. The latter feeling is of course intensified by a publishing culture that is predicated less on collective projects and more on developing a highly individuated name for oneself. In the years since then, as our projects progressed (his made it toprint first) we joked about constituting a new school of thought, Transindividual Ontology and Politics (TOP)?

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

What Does the University Say? On Macherey's La Parole Universitaire

The fundamental structure of Macherey’s book on the university is familiar to readers of his recent publications on “everyday life” and utopia, as well as anyone who has followed his website “Philosophe au sense large.” As with those works (and courses) a central idea or problem, in this case the idea of the university, is subject to a broad thematic investigation that encompasses philosophy (Kant, Hegel, Heidegger), sociology and psychoanalysis (Bourdieu and Lacan), and literature (Rabelais, Hardy, Nabokov). This is “philosophy in the largest” sense, to borrow the name of Macherey’s course; the different registers and disciplines and knowledge problematize and negate each other as much as they expand upon the central topic. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Present as Conspiracy: Vaughn and Martin's The Private Eye

Brian Vaughn and Marcos Martin's The Private Eye is a web only comic that has a critical view of the internet. Set in the not too distant future, in the year 2076, it takes place in a time in which values regarding privacy and anonymity have been completely transformed, or "revalorized"--to use Nietzsche's terminology. Privacy is held as a sacred right, so much so that everyone has a secret identity, or several, and masks to wear when they go out in public. A generalized secret identity might seem like a critical take on the conventions of the superhero comic, but Vaughn and Martin's critical target is less the conventions of their medium than those of our world. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Personalized Ideology (or Ideology Personified): Silva's Mood Economy

Do not demand of politics that it restore the “rights” of the individual, as philosophy has defined them. The individual is the product of power. What is needed is to “de-individualize’ by means of multiplication and displacement, diverse combinations. The group must not be the organic bond uniting hierarchized individuals, but a constant generation of de-individualization.  Michel Foucault, Preface to Anti-Oedipus. 

In the past few weeks I have returned again and again to the idea of "negative solidarity" that I outlined on this blog. I found myself mentally bookmarking news reports and articles that seem to be evidence of hostility to any collective organization for wages or benefits, not to mention larger or more structural transformations. The affect of ressentiment, the distinct sense that someone somewhere was benefiting at your expense, seemed prevalent. (Of course the "someones" in this situation are always those on social welfare programs, state employees, etc., never capitalists, investors, etc.) However, negative solidarity risked having all of the characteristics of what Althusser called a "descriptive theory," a sophisticated sounding recasting of what one already knows and thinks. The dangers of descriptive theories is that they provide a moment of recognition, ("That is it, dude; totally,")but no way to move forward. So the question which I returned to again, is how to account for the genesis and constitution of negative solidarity, how to move beyond description. This is a question of socio-political theory, but it is a necessary precondition of political action as well.  Negative Solidarity is in that sense another name to the barrier of any politics whatsoever.