Thursday, December 28, 2006

Technical Difficulties, Please Standby

It has been over two weeks since my last There are external reasons for this, the last few weeks have pretty much consisted of the following: a nasty little cold, grading, and a brief trip to beautiful Cleveland, Ohio for Christmas. So I have not had a lot of time. I also have not had much inclination. All of the grading has left me without much by way of ideas, in fact I pretty convinced that reading sixty papers by college freshman on Marx's 1844 Manuscripts has sucked all of the ideas out of my head.

Could some please explain why Marx has the magic ability to turn your average fairly intelligent college student into an odd ideological mix of social Darwinism and neoliberalism babbling on about human nature and the survival of the fittest. To cite my favorite quote from Emma Goldman, "Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed?"

OK, that was a bit of a digression, I really did not intend to write about Marx, or Goldman for that matter, but rather to write about not writing. As I said, there are quite a few external reasons as to why I have not written much of anything as of late. However, I have also been avoiding anything resembling introspection for awhile. Not to say that this "blog" (yes, I still find it necessary to put scare quotes around the word even as I engaged in the practice) is that introspective at all, there is a great deal about my personal life that I avoid writing about here. Or, more to the point, part of the reason that I started this "blog" is to give myself something else to do in the wee hours of the night than to think about the sad and serious events that have affected my life as of late. Lately, however, I have been avoiding even the minimal reflection that blogging demands. In the past few weeks I have filled the time left over after grading by reading several novels, Dashiell Hammet's Red Harvest, China Mieville's Iron Council, and A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby, watched a season of Veronica Mars, as well as several films from the good, My Man Godfrey, to the bad, Enemy of the State, to the just plain ugly, Terminator 3.

All of which is to say that introspection can be overrated. Sometimes you have to peer into the dark recesses of your soul, and sometimes you have to spend the dark hours of the night wondering who killed Lily Kane.

Well since this is quickly becoming a post about nothing, and not in that hip postmodern way, I thought that I would conclude by relaying a bit of tragic news (oh, goody). I am afraid that tragedy has befallen America's greatest Marxist hip hop group The Coup. You can read all about it by following the link.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Hearing Your Own Accent

After having spent the weekend in London, I found this article in The New York Times on the connotations of the English Accent. It was an odd bit of synchronicity, since while I was there I found myself wondering what an American accent sounds like. Or, more to the point, how my accent sounded to them.

The English Accent, or should I say accents to include the various class versions, Cockney etc., not to mention the accents of Great Britain, is such a staple of American pop culture--signifying everything from snotty rebellion (The Sex Pistols) to dignity and education (Rupert Giles, etc.) Now I wonder what my accent signifies to them, American brashness and idiocy? If there is one thing that being awake at three in the morning in a hotel room in London teaches you, is that the British are exposed to a great deal of American pop-culture. During one night of jetlag and pre-conference jitters, I flipped through several American movies (Jaws 2, The Perfect Score, Mr. and Mrs. Smith) not to mention The Simpsons and other programs. Like much of the world the British are drowning in the dregs of our pop culture. Have you seen The Perfect Score (or The Breakfast Club versus the SAT)? There is no reason for that movie to exist. Then again it was on at three in the morning, so it is not like anyone was watching it.

It is perhaps an impossible task, to hear one's own accent. To not only hear it as an accent, but as an accent layered with various cultural and political connotations. It is not like the British walk around and think that they sound so intelligent and dignified, or maybe they do.

By the way Jean-Jacque Lecerle is a really funny guy, who knew?

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Get meta with me

Thanks to s0metim3s for posting a link to this great little essay by Etienne Balibar, cleverly titled "Sub specie universitatis." As the title suggests much of the article, the first part at least, deals with the institutional conditions of thinking within the university. Or, more to the point the tension between the specific site of the university, or rather specific universities with their institutional and political conditions, and philosophy's claim to be the universal grasped in thought.

The piece is interesting for two reasons: one, it is Balibar, and I find nearly everything he writes to be engaging and interesting (how is that for pathetic academic-fandom?) and, second, it deals with the question of the institution of philosophy, which is both philosophically interesting and completely practical at the same time.

On the speculative side it seems to me that one of the many philosophical tasks that Marx left in his wake, namely from the identification of philosophy and ideology in The German Ideology, is thinking philosophy in relation to its constitutive outside. As Pierre Macherey writes: "Hence this notion that Marxism was the first to explore: philosophy is not an independent speculative activity, as would be a pure speculation, but is tied to "real" conditions, which are its historical conditions; and this is why, let it be said in passing, there is a history of philosophy, which can be retraced and understood"

The academization of philosophy, a process by which outsiders to the institution of philosophy (Spinoza, Marx, Nietzsche, Benjamin, to name just a few) are made into respectable objects of study, around which careers can be made, also raises some real practical issues. For example, I always try to incorporate some contemporary philosophers in my intro to philosophy class. This inevitably leads to some objections from students who find the whole practice of citing and referencing to be at odds with their idea of philosophy (the search for the meaning of life, or whatever). Now these objections could be dismissed as naive, but I do not think that they are. I think that we have to offer our students something more than a future of commentary if philosophy is going to continue to exist.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Fries with that?

I just got back from spending Thanksgiving in Houston. In the weeks before my trip, whenever I would tell people where I was going, they would at me look as if I just told them that a distant relative had died, and offer their condolences. Yes, indeed, we east coast education and arts types have a bias against Texas and vice versa. But I have to tell you that it is not that bad, hence the city's new motto: "Houston, It is Not as Bad You Think."

It was great to see my brother (whose art is featured above), mother, and assorted friends of my brother (namely Donna and Amy). I also saw many fine sights, such as the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Diverseworks, the former Enron Building, and everyone's favorite Halliburton.

There are a few mysteries of Houston, however, like the predominance of Pawn Shops and Bail Bonds offices. Now, this might have something to do with Houston's famous lack of zoning laws, which leads to all sorts of strange combinations of businesses, like strip clubs nestled amongst Applebees and Dick's Sporting Goods (giving new meaning to the word "strip mall"--budda-boom.) Of course that would explain the placement of Pawn Shops but not the sheer number of them.(To continue reading about Houston and fries click "Read More")

The biggest mystery, at least of a culinary sort, occurred not in Houston but in Galveston. We were dining at a restaurant called "Fisherman's Wharf" which attempted to bring the tackiness of San Francisco's famous tourist trap to the Gulf Coast. Let me tell you they succeeded, it was just like fisherman's wharf but with oil rigs instead of Alcatraz. Being an vegetarian I ordered a salad (it was the only non-fish item), which came topped with onion rings and little balls of fried feta cheese. Now I am not opposed to fried food, I even ordered fries with my salad (a combo which I have sampled at many a restaurant), but I have never had so much fried food in a salad before.

We also went to see Fast Food Nation while in Houston. I was a little dubious about the film at first, but was curious enough to see it. I have to say that I enjoyed it, and thought that it worked better than the book. While the book has some interesting tidbits of information about the history of McDonalds, working conditions in meat processing plants, and fast food restaurants the films structure makes it possible to go beyond the perspective of scandalous facts.

The film follows three stories: an executive from a fictional fast-food chain investigating complaints about a meat processing plant, a high school age girl (and employee at the same chain) beginning to discover the world of campus politics, and a group of immigrants from Mexico working at the same processing plant. These stories do not really intersect, except tangentially, the girl serves a hamburger to the executive, etc. and I know from reading a few reviews that many people find this to be a weakness of the film. I would argue that it is a strength. First, because the stories do intersect, not directly through the characters meeting, but indirectly, through the corporation which they all work for, consume from, etc. Second, because as the film progresses all of these characters begin to struggle against the same corporation, albeit for different reasons, for some it is a matter of politics or conscience for others it is a matter of survival. It is this point that the disconnection between the stories, the relation of nonrelation, becomes powerful. All of the characters struggle in isolation and for the most part their struggles are futile. Watching the film one gets the sense that things would turn out better if the various characters could meet and organize (the executive would get evidence about the working conditions at the plant, the teen age girl could find a more effective way to rebel, etc.), but of course they cannot, and that seems to me to be the films point. These people (who are really just stand-ins for us) only relate through the commodities which they produce.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Milton Lost

Milton Friedman died the other day. Now I cannot say that I am all torn up by that, but it does provide an opportunity to tell this little story.

I was in a used bookstore, buying among many other things a copy of and Capitalism and Freedom and Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. (It was my second copy of the latter, the first was falling a part, held together with packing tape.) As the clerk was ringing up the various books he read the covers, first Capitalism and Freedom then Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. When he got to the second he exclaimed, "Capitalism and Schizophrenia, that is more like it. It is definitely schizophrenia, not freedom."

I always thought that was funny.

This story made me think about the books that I have completely worn out, and even replaced, and the fact that they probably say a lot about me.

Books that I have replaced include: The Ethics, The Savage Anomaly, The Genealogy of Morals, For Marx, and The Phenomenology of Spirit (Although the last one doesn't really count because I started with a crappy used version that had pen markings in the first few pages, as far as the reader got I suppose). Of course the list should also include books that are now held together with rubber bands or tape like: Lenin and Philosophy, Capital, and The Grundrisse.

It occurs to me that this is a game that everyone can play. So what books have you worn out?

Monday, November 06, 2006

Weekly Indoctrination

I end up teaching Marx, a lot. Sometimes I try to avoid it, but it is hard to teach classes on political philosophy, nineteenth century philosophy, etc. without teaching Marx. What I notice most of all is that the whole dynamics of the class changes when Marx comes up, when I teach Aristotle, Machiavelli, Spinoza, Arendt, etc., I feel like I really have to sell it, convinve them why this is worth reading, with Marx they may not know why, but at least the relevance has already been established. As Althusser says "philosophy should be judged in terms of its effects." Well Marx has had effects, not all good, some nightmarish even, but effects nonetheless.

With Marx I am already dealing with a misreading. This can lead to some amusing responses. Case in point, a discussion of "Estranged Labor."

Student: "It sounds like Marx is on the side of the workers."
Me: "You could say that, yes."
Student: "Then why is he a bad guy?"

Now, not all responses are that amusing. Some can be downright interesting, even daunting. Today I was teaching some short pieces including "The Power of Money in Bourgeois Society" and the first question was about money in communism, could it be dispensed with, etc? Now this question is difficult to answer, especially for a class that is only reading the "1844 Manuscripts." I did a passable job, or at least I avoided loosing the whole class by discussing Marx's critique of "time chits", but it occurred to me while answering that this student really wanted to know this, it was not an academic question.

I have also noticed a particular impass in teaching Marx. Most students grasp the critique of capitalist society and agree with at least part of it. However, at the same time they are aware, albeit vaguely, that some attempt to put these ideas into practice went horribly wrong. Caught between the critique and the solution, students are often left in a position of impotence, in which all attempts to change things are doomed to fail. As Homer Simpson says, "Never ever try." Thus despite Marx's best efforts (and mine) students end at the place where they began: cynically aware that everything is bad, and any attempt to change it can only get worse.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Rethinking and Remembering

Attending conferences and grading have kept me from the blog as of late. Last weekend I attended the intermittently held "Rethinking Marxism" Conference (aka: Marx-a-palooza). This is my fourth time attending the conference. Which means that a) I got to see a lot of people that I know and b) the whole place (UMASS conference center/student union) has all kinds of Proustian resonances. I never knew that grey concrete could conjure up so many memories.

The pleasures of this conference were mostly of the social variety. To quote the old man himself:

When communist workmen associate with one another, theory, propaganda, etc., is their first end. But at the same time, as a result of this association, they acquire a new need— the need for society— and what appears as a means becomes an end. In this practical process the most splendid results are to be observed whenever French socialist workers are seen together. Such things as smoking, drinking, eating, etc., are no longer means of contact or means that bring them together. Association, society and conversation, which again has association as its end, are enough for them; the brotherhood of man is no mere phrase with them, but a fact of life, and the nobility of man shines upon us from their work-hardened bodies (1844 Manuscripts)

Strike the whole patriarchal (or fraternal) "brotherhood of man" and the "work-hardened bodies," these are academics after all, and you pretty much get the picture. All in all I saw friends from undergrad, grad school, as well as my current institution, and managed to make some new ones as well. Yes, it is true what they say, there ain't no party like a Marxist party (cause of all the denunciations...)

Anyone who has attended the conference knows that the real fun (and by fun I mean fiasco) is in the plenary sessions, in which various big-wigs are harangued for the sins of theory, as well as everything that has or has not happened under the name of Marxism. The wigs were not as big this time (Ernesto Laclau, Susan Buck-Morss, Kojin Karatini, are hardly household names), but that did not keep the last plenary on "Rethinking Communism" from getting pretty contentious. First, I should say that I really admire RM for putting this panel on, after all Marx has become perfectly respectable academically (even "The Economist" says we should read him), but communism is another thing entirely. It was, however, the name of communism, as well as the fact that a certain speaker (who shall remain unnameded) went well over his allotteded time, that opened up the floor to all kinds of frustrations. As much as I cringe at every demand to "tell us what we should do to bring about revolution" (or something like that) I have to say that I like the insistence on some connection to politics, to practice. After all you just do not get those kind of questions at SPEP.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Commentary and Creation

I guess that this qualifies as more post-SPEP musings, since SPEP is, as many have noted, ruled by the tyranny of the proper name, in which panels or papers are organized under the banner of this or that philosopher, it raises the question--is commentary all that remains of philosophy? A colleague of mine recently compared philosophy, or the history of philosophy, to art history, where all one does is comment and categorized what has already been created. It is a depressing picture (no pun intended) one that the powers that be seem to only want to reinforce. Along these lines I thought that I would post the following (abandoned) review of Alliez's book, which paradoxically attempts to escape commentary from the inside.

Repetition as Creation

Review of:
The Signature of the World: What is Deleuze and Guattari’s Philosophy?
By Eric Alliez
London and New York: Continuum, 2004

When Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s What is Philosophy? appeared in English in nineteen ninety-four the title and the topic of the book was cause for a reconsideration of the earlier collaborative efforts of the unlikely pairing of the philosopher and the activist/psychoanalysist. Gone was the provocative subtitle “Capitalism and Schizophrenia” as well as the references to anthropology, literature, politics, and film, all of this was stripped away in favor of a book that dealt almost exclusively with philosophy with a definition of philosophy, as practiced by Plato, Descartes, and Kant. For many, such as Jonathan Rée, writing in the New Left Review, this change was not interpreted as a shift of position, a mellowing with age or a change of topic, but as revealing the truth of Deleuze and Guattari’s early positions.1 Deleuze and Guattari were not the radicals after all, the theorists of “micro-politics” of the revolutions of feeling and thinking of post-nineteen sixty-eight France, but philosophers, in the classical sense of the term, even philosophical “snobs” concerned with nothing more than the privileges of pure thought. The archetype of the reader of Deleuze and Guattari was no longer the student revolutionary, but Slavoj Zizek’s yuppie on the Paris underground, who locates in Deleuze and Guattari’s “deterritorialization” of desire a perfectly adequate description of globalized capital.2

Why did this final collaboration do so much to put the earlier works in question, becoming the scandalous truth that revealed the lie of their claim to be radical, political, and inventive? This change may have something to do with extrinsic factors (at least in the Anglo-American World). In the years that the first volumes of “Capitalism and Schizophrenia” were being translated, articles on Deleuze and Guattari appeared outside of the mainstream academic press, appearing in journals such as Semiotext(e) and presses such as Autonomedia, with their veneer of street-credibility, and Zone, with its blatantly avant-garde aesthetic, and discussion of their works was to be found on the internet, rather than in a graduate seminar. By the time that What is Philosophy? was translated this had begun to change, leading up to the cottage industry of Deleuze-studies that appear today. It may also be that while the first books could be easily grasped as inventive, as the production of something new on even the most superficial reading, all one had to do was glance at the footnotes to see Kafka cited alongside historical studies of nomadic peoples, Marx read along with D.H. Lawrence, and Bergson alongside the nineteen-seventies B-Movie Willard, the later work, with its references to the all too familiar names of Plato, Descartes, and Kant, seemed to be a return to business as usual. What is Philosophy? returns to not only a classic question, philosophy’s self-understanding, its concept of itself, but a classical way of answering questions, through the discussion of previous figures in the history of philosophy. Which is not to say that science and art (and even history and geography) are absent from What is Philosophy, but their presence is fundamentally altered. Science and art are defined through their own particular material and act of creation, science creates “functions” and art creates “percepts,” but these creative acts remain, it would appear, named and conceptualized by philosophy. This is strikingly different from Capitalism and Schizophrenia, in which central concepts such as the “body-without-organs” and “rhizomes” are directly imported from art and science, the first from Antonin Artaud and the second from botany. While in the former collaborative works, science and art interrupt philosophy’s history, in What is Philosophy, they would appear to be subsumed under a “philosophy of” art and science.3 Thus, potentially returning Deleuze and Guattari’s work to what Deleuze had earlier described as the “intimidation machine” of philosophy:

The history of philosophy has always been the agent of power in philosophy, and even in thought. It has played the represser’s role: how can you think without having read Plato, Descartes, Kant and Heidegger, and so-and-so’s book about them? A formidable school of intimidation which manufactures specialists in thought—but which also makes those who stay outside conform all the more to this specialism which they despise. An image of thought called philosophy has been born historically and it effectively stops people from thinking.4

The form Deleuze and Guattari’s argument takes in What is Philosophy? would appear to betray not only the spirit of their previous works, books that exemplify the trans-disciplinary mode of knowledge that has come to be known as theory, but its own specific content as well, its argument that philosophy should be considered to be a practice of the invention of concepts.

It is in light of this tension within Deleuze and Guattari’s last (collaborative) work that the paradox of Eric Alliez’s The Signature of the World: What is Deleuze and Guattari’s Philosophy? can be grasped. This short book which for all intents and purposes appears to be an addition to the genre of commentary/interpretaton, so-and so’s book on Deleuze and Guattari, aims to return this work to its project of invention and construction. As Alliez defines the paradoxical status of his own endeavor: “For it is the strength and the paradox of this book that it forces us to carry out an exercise in ‘textual commentary’ in order to escape both the fatality of Exegesis and the snare of Reference” (2). Alliez’s aims to produce something other than exegesis, the interminable practice of revealing what was already written, through the very tools of commentary, by writing a book on a book. In doing so his intent is to reveal not so much the content of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, but its practice, its way of doing philosophy. “Philosophy must constitute itself as the theory of what we do and not as the theory of what is…” (90).

This “practical turn” from philosophy as a description of what is, an interpretation of the world, to cite Marx’s famous statement from the These on Feuerbach, to a practice, an activity, bears more than a superficial resemblance to Louis Althusser’s work on “theoretical practice.” In each case it is a matter of seeing philosophy as an activity, as productive of effects, rather than as a picture or description of the world. Alliez alludes to this proximity by placing a quote from Althusser on Spinoza (whose influence on Althusser and Deleuze is immense) as the epigraph to the first chapter. Secondly, in Deleuze and Guattari as well as in Althusser, grasping philosophy as an activity means thinking its relation to other disciplines, other modes of thinking. Philosophy must be viewed through its constitutive relationship with “non-philosophy.”5 Although, the two will have very different conclusions regarding the relations that philosophy establishes to these other areas of thought. The most notable difference between Deleuze and Guattari and Althusser is that politics is absent from the former’s discussion of the conditions of philosophy, while art is absent from the latter’s understanding of philosophical practice. Which is not to say that art is absent from Althusser’s thought, not only is an essay on theater situated at the center of For Marx, but Althusser’s central concepts of “Darstellung” and “symptomatic reading” are drawn from an engagement with artistic production.6 However, art is absent when Althusser turns his attention towards a general theory of philosophy as a theoretical practice. As Althusser argues, philosophy is situated between the breaks of science, the new discoveries that are also new logics, new rationalities, and the revolutions of politics, which are transformations of ideology.7 This double determination also defines philosophy’s specific site of intervention: philosophy represents “science” to politics, bringing its rationality and logic to the conflicts of politics, and it represents politics in science, separating the discoveries and inventions of science from the dominant ideologies.8 A discussion of the relation between Deleuze and Guattari and Althusser is not just a matter of dredging up some distant ghost from the past to critique the present, the absence of politics as a specific mode of thinking, a specific condition for philosophy, is also the charged leveled by Alain Badiou against Deleuze (and Guattari’s) philosophy.9 Badiou’s charge mirrors the general critique of What is Philosophy? in which Deleuze and Guattari are revealed to be the opposite of what they claimed: not the anarchic liberators of desire, but rather neo-Platonists in revolutionary’s clothing, who have no politics, only a naturalist mysticism which reduces the world in its multiplicity to expressions of one vital force.10 For Badiou, the omission of “politics” as a condition for philosophy reduces Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy to ineffective speculation.

In latter works, published after The Signature of the World, Alliez defends Deleuze against this charge of the avoidance of politics, (eventually arguing that the encounter between Deleuze and Badiou is the definitive polarity within the contemporary orientation of philosophy), thus it is not surprising that Alliez’s earlier work, already contains not just a response to this specific charge, but an understanding of the political dimension of Deleuze and Guattari’s work on the status of philosophy.11 For Alliez, Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophical practice is summed up with the formula “Expressionism = Constructivism” (103). It is this general formula that Alliez uses to develop a different account of Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy, one that makes philosophy not an ineffective reflection, but a task of invention adequate to contemporary conditions. As Deleuze and Guattari argue, “philosophy is the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts.”12 It is this statement that Deleuze and Guattari develop and demonstrate through the rest of their book, and as Alliez argues it is in this development that the specific idea of expression as construction is developed. In order to demonstrate this point Deleuze and Guattari take as their initial example Descartes’ philosophy. This example, like most of the texts that Deleuze and Guattari cite in What is Philosophy? is self consciously drawn from outside the lineage of philosophers, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, from which Deleuze constructed his genealogy of a subversive strain of immanence in philosophy. Descartes is from the enemy camp, a philosopher of transcendence, subjectivity, and idealism. For Deleuze and Guattari, Descartes is first and foremost a philosopher of beginnings, of radical breaks with the past, or with presuppositions in general. It is perhaps this attempt to start anew and not the content of his thought that would make Descartes truly modern. “Descartes…does not want to define man as a rational animal because such a concept explicity presupposes the concepts of rationality and animality: in presenting the Cogito as a definition, he therefore claims to avoid all objective presuppositions…”13 Which is not to say that Descartes can avoid all presuppositions, can think ex nihilo, his famous formulation “I think therefore I am” (cogito ergo sum) presupposes that everyone knows what it means to think (8). Deleuze and Guattari do not see this replacement of objective presuppositions (the definitions of “animal” and “man”) with subjective presuppositions (the experience of what it means to think) as a failure on Descartes part. Rather it reveals an important part of “constructivism.” The philosopher does not simply construct concepts, but in doing so draws on a particular “image of thought, ” the image thought gives itself of what it means to think, or what Deleuze and Guattari call “the plane of immanence.” “Philosophy is a constructivism, and constructivism has two qualitatively different complementary aspects: the creation of concepts and the laying out of a plane.”14 Concepts are not pure inventions, but take place on a plane that they presuppose and realize.

The plane of immanence is the “non-philosophical” condition of philosophy. It is with respect to this that the stakes of Alliez’s formulation regarding “constructivism =expressionism” can be grasped in such a way that it traverses all of the problems alluded to above. As Alliez indicates the true inspiration for this idea of philosophy as constructivism is not Descartes, who it can be applied to, but Spinoza. It is Spinoza who illustrates the relationship between a “plane of immanence” and the concepts or definitions that are created on it. As Alliez writes with respect to Spinozist definitions in the Ethics: “Spinozist definitions do not derive from a reflexive relationship of the representer to the represented that would necessarily transcend (as their reference); rather they manifest an expressive material aspect immanent to their conditions of enunciation” (13). Alliez point of reference is Deleuze’s work on Spinoza, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza. In that work Deleuze argues that “expressionism” defines the relation of immanent causality, not only between God and the natural world, but between ideas and their causes.15 Ideas do not represent objects, but express or comprehend their causes. For Spinoza all ideas, including the inadequate ideas of superstition, have causes, conditions that they expresses, in a more less confused manner. At the core of the relationship between a plane of immanence and the concepts that are created on it is then a causal relationship between a manner of thinking and a manner of living. Concepts are invented on planes of existence that orient them. This relation passes through what Deleuze and Guattari call “conceptual personae.” Conceptual personae are the figures that appear in philosophy, such as Descartes’ “idiot,” the one who doubts everything. These “figures,” persons, hypothetical and imagined make the concrete connections between a way of thinking and a way of living. Descartes philosophical creation, the “cogito”, not only presuppose a particular idea of thought, but also a particular manner of evaluating life, of valuing certainty over doubt. “It is only from the ‘affective’ and ‘perceptual’ point of view of the conceptual personae that the plane can be traced and concepts can be created on the plane of immanence” (10). The conceptual personae illustrate Spinoza’s point that all thinking passes through its affective coordinates, its joys and its sorrows.

The formulation “Expressionism = Constructivism” results in a new perspective in philosophy, what Alliez calls “onto-ethology.”(25) An onto-ethology evaluates philosophy by grasping the connection that a philosophy, a particular creation of concepts, makes with a particular way of inhabiting the earth, the territories it creates. It evaluates them not by comparing them to some transcendent set of values, a vision of the good life, but by an immanent examination of the possibilities and connections it opens. “A possibility of life is evaluated through itself in the movements it lays out and the intensities it creates on a plane of immanence: what is not laid out or created is rejected.”16 This onto-ethology is opposed to what Alliez calls “onto-theology”or “onto-teleology.” Onto-teleology is caught in the relationship between “subject” and “object” searching for the guarantee of representation. In sharp contrast to this “onto-ethology” evaluates philosophy not in terms of how it represents an object to a subject, but in terms of the objects and subjects, the world, it creates. “The question is no longer that of the methodological dependence of the object in relation to the subject, but of the ontological auto-constitution of a new subject on the basis of its objects” (56).

Alliez’s “onto-ethology” in part answers to the question of the omission of politics as a specific engagement with the world in What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari do not address politics as a particular mode of thinking because all thinking, insofar as it relates to the construction and destruction of planes of existence, is political. A politics not of representation, of the state, contracts, and laws that represent subjects to institutions and vice versa, but a politics of production.17 The production of habits, ethos, ways of living. “Expressionism = Constructivism” has as its correlate a second formulation drawn from Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus: Nature = Production.18 Deleuze and Guattari construct this formulation from an inventive approach to Marx’s formulation in the 1844 Manuscript, in which man and industry are declared to be a part of nature, as well as the definition of production in the Grundrisse. As Deleuze and Guattari write, reflecting on the way in which consumption, distribution, and production effect and determine each other: “everything is production.”19 What Alliez’s formulations stress is that in each case the first term, expressionism or nature, which is generally understood to exist on the side of the object, or at least, outside of human interaction, only exists insofar as it is actualized, constructed or produced. To take the most contested example of Deleuze and Guattari’s corpus, the concept most capable of being understood as indicating a vitalist metaphysics, desire, Alliez reminds us that desire only exists as it is assembled, constructed in historically specific formations.20 As Deleuze and Guattari write “There is only desire and the social, and nothing else.”21 Alliez’s pithy formulations work in two directions at once. First, against “naturalism” or “vitalism” in that they stresses that the nature or the expressive powers of the universe is necessarily actualized by the constructions and productions of desire and thought. Secondly, against a pure act of creation, in that they argue that constructions or productions are always constructions of some already existing material conditions. As Alliez reminds us Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy could be considered a philosophy of nature “now that any distinction between nature and artifice is becoming blurred” (77). Politics is this intersection of nature and artifice, invention and constraint, thinking and living, praxis and poeisis. Thus to formulate something of a response to the criticism outlined above regarding politics, Deleuze and Guattari do not have a specific thought of politics because politics, the creation of ways of thinking and living, is immanent to thought. “Politics precedes being.”22

As we have seen with respect to philosophy this intersection of constraint and creation takes the following form. Every invention of a concept presupposes a “plane of immanence,” sometimes referred to as an “image of thought,” which is illustrated by conceptual personae, by “sketches” of its existential, relational, and dynamic features.23 Alliez highlights that it is a matter of engaging “the constitutive relationship of philosophy with non-philosophy” (29). In stressing this formulation from What is Philosophy? Alliez would appear to get at the heart of much of the criticism of the book, which has argued, more or less explicitly, that it is precisely this constitutive relationship that is absent from the book. The specific name that Deleuze and Guattari give this “non-philosophy” is (at least initially) the “plane of immanence.” As such it functions as an index of differentiation and periodization. “The plane is certainly not the same in the time of the Greeks, in the seventeenth century, and today (and these are still vague and general terms): there is neither the same image of thought nor the same substance of being.”24 Such a formulation turns the plane of immanence into something akin to a stage in the development of Spirit or even a particular epoch in the preontological understanding of being, to use Heidegger’s term. However, Deleuze and Guattari are wary of such narrativizations and historizations of philosophy, which bestow on it a necessary beginning, origin, and end. This narrative of philosophy can either be one of progress, “the self-unfolding of spirit”, or of decline, “the forgetting of being,” but in either case it remains to be a narrative of origin and end. In such cases “non-philosophy,” history or the understanding of being, becomes entirely subsumed by philosophy becoming a part of its necessary development.

Alliez argues that Deleuze and Guattari develop a different understanding of philosophy’s relation with non-philosophy, one based upon a “principle of contingent reason” (22). Deleuze and Guattari label this principle of contingent reason “geophilosophy,” because it replaces the question of the origin and end in time, “philosophy as the destiny of the west,” with the question of the formation in space. “Geography wrests history from the cult of necessity in order to stress the irreducibility of contingency. It wrests it from the cult of origins in order to affirm the power of a milieu.”25 Deleuze and Guattari are referring to Fernand Braudel’s geohistory of the contingent formation of capitalism in western Europe, a formation that involved multiple encounters, geographical, political, etc. but they could also refer to their own work in Anti-Oedipus which stresses the “contingent” formation of capitalism.26 As Deleuze and Guattari argue following Marx, capitalism is dependent upon the encounter of two “flows,” a flow of workers with nothing to sell but their labor power and a flow of money free to invest, these two flows have different and complex conditions, primitive accumulation, usury, merchant capital, colonialism. "The encounter might not have taken place, with the free workers and the money-capital existing 'virtually' side by side."27 Or it could have taken other forms: slavery or perhaps a bloody revolt of the poor. This assertion becomes a principle when it is both generalized and made into an interior condition. It is generalized to include the formation of philosophy in Greece, the so-called “Greek miracle,” which they argue should be understood in relation to its milieu, the jagged coast open to the sea, to maritime networks of exchange, and the stranger. For Deleuze and Guattari, it is not just that capitalism and philosophy are contingent elements of the west, unrelated and separate, but they intersect on the same terrain, the destruction of transcendental modes of evaluation in favor of an immanent process. For the Greeks this immanent process is the “agon” the contest between friends, which constitute the terrain of debate, while in capital it is the flows of capital, which place everything on the same terrain of exchange. “Modern philosophy’s link with capitalism, therefore, is of the same kind as that of ancient philosophy with Greece: the connection of an absolute plane of immanence with a relative social milieu that also functions through immanence.”28 Finally, “the principle of contingent reason” situates history with respect to the “becomings” that animate it. “Becomings” refer to the process of invention, a process that is dependent upon conditions, on a specific plane of immanence, but turns away from it, intersecting with the dimensions of the event not realized.

Deleuze and Guattari’s citation of Fernand Braudel as a model for this contingent history is a bit confusing, since it is not clear that Braudel himself (or his disciplines) would recognize Braudel as a theorist of contingency. What Braudel stressed was the intersection of multiple histories, the long dureé of geography and day-to-day practices intersecting with the more rapid transformations of markets, and the punctual events of political transformations and battles. For Deleuze and Guattari it is less a matter of thinking the intersection of different histories, for example the history of art, science, and philosophy, than it is a matter of stressing the heterogeneity between history and “becoming.” It is a matter of thinking the “event” as the production of the new that always exceeds its conditions. As Deleuze stresses in an interview with Antonio Negri, “What history grasps in an event is the way that it is actualized in particular circumstances; the event’s becoming is beyond the scope of history.”29 Becoming refers to what cannot be explained or narrativized by history, it is the presence of the unforeseen, the contingent, in any historical process. In asserting the categorical difference between history and becoming, Deleuze and Guattari make it clear that they are opposed to not only the teleological histories of Hegel and Heidegger, but any historization of philosophy, this would most likely include Marxist or materialist historicizations. While many would equate the rejection of historicization as a rejection of Marx, and materialism, altogether, it is clear that Deleuze and Guattari do not. Despite the fact that What is Philosophy? unlike the previous volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia does not offer any novel interpretations of surplus value, commodity fetishism, or the role of power in capitalist society, it does offer an important challenge to the appropriation of the creative powers of the concept by capital. As Deleuze and Guattari write, lamenting advertising and publicity’s claim to be creative: “The only events are exhibitions, and the only concepts are products that can be sold.”30 However, precisely how Deleuze and Guattari reconcile Marx’s critique of capitalism and a problematization of history as a method of explanation is not clarified in What is Philosophy?31 Alliez’s The Signature of the World does not exactly address this tension, but it does offer at least a point to place from which to begin by suggesting that Deleuze and Guattari’s category of the virtual must be thought as simultaneously material and abstract, which brings it into conceptual proximity with the Marxist concepts of abstract labor, money, and surplus value, all of which can be described as simultaneously material and abstract (105).32 However, the problem of the materiality of abstraction is not central to What is Philosophy? or even The Signature of the World, their central problem is the creativity of philosophy, and it is in light of this that the distinction between history and becoming is invoked.

While the different “planes of immanence” the different “images of thought” make up the history of philosophy, determining its different periods, Greek, Modern, Postmodern, philosophy as an act of creation exceeds this history. It exceeds it in part by the ability of placing these different periods and figures in proximity to each other. “Philosophy is becoming, not history; it is the coexistence of planes, not the succession of systems.”33 As Alliez writes, clarifying this perspective on the history of philosophy: “There can thus be a philosophical history of philosophy only through the elaboration of virtual philosophies that dramatize the play of concepts as the expression of the play of the world” (100). Thus there is a definite stress given to the history of philosophy in What is Philosophy? It is a history that forgoes the assumed lines of influence that pass for history in most discussions, and teaching, of the history of philosophy; that is, Deleuze and Guattari are not primarily concerned with the influences or “conversations” that are generally invoked to explain philosophical positions (the way Kant responds to Descartes, or Aristotle to Plato). For Deleuze and Guattari each philosopher must be grasped transversally (as an act of creation, expressing a particular plane of immanence) not linearly (as part of the “great conversation” of philosophy) or horizontally (as the expression of a particular historical moment). Or, it might be more accurate to say that while Deleuze and Guattari’s other collaborative works stressed the non-philosophical conditions of philosophy, by converting history, economics, and anthropology into conditions for philosophical invention, the latter book attempts to thematize this very act of invention, of fabrication. Alliez refers to this difference, between the former and the latter, as the difference between an extensive and intensive definition of philosophical practice (86). When Deleuze and Guattari consider art and science in the final chapters of this book, it is not to consider them as part of the “non-philosophical” conditions of philosophy. Deleuze and Guattari’s writing is far from Althusser or Badiou, who consider science, politics, and art (in the case of the latter) as conditions for philosophy (to use Badiou’s term), which modifiy or transform its practice. For Deleuze and Guattari art and science are not conditions for philosophy, provocations or raw material, but fellow travelers in a process of thinking, a process of invention. They are different ways of confronting or organizing the “chaos" of the world. "What defines thought in its three great forms--art, science, and philosophy—is always confronting chaos, laying out a plane, throwing a plane over chaos.”34 It is this chaos, or the plane that is constructed over it that defines the non-philosophical condition of philosophy, art and science intersect with this plane, pursuing their own vectors, but they do not determine it. Deleuze and Guattari are not interested in laying out the groundwork for a renewed intellectual history, that would chart the effects of scientific discoveries and aesthetic innovations on philosophy, but on studying how each discipline (for lack of a better word) constructs a particular mode of living and thinking. Alliez’s little book makes it possible to see the stress on philosophy, defined as a practice of invention, not as a retreat to the ivory tower, but rather an attempt on Deleuze and Guattari’s part to thematize their own practice, as well as the practice of philosophy in general. Hence the importance of the parallels with science and art, which can be intuitively grasped as practices of invention and creation. What is Philosophy? was written as an invitation to produce philosophy rather than just another comment on it. Its goal is to turn philosophy away from the institutions of commentary and interpretation in order to make it a practice of invention. Ironically The Signature of the World is in some sense the attempt to write the last commentary on Deleuze and Guattari’s book, one that would liberate its specific practice. It is easy enough to add a new interpretation to philosophy, a new understanding of this or that philosopher, it is more difficult, however to reorient its practice, to set it new goals, however, Deleuze, Guattari, and Alliez remind us that this is all any philosopher worth of the name has tried to do, this reminder is also a challenge and a provocation.

1 Reé 1995, p. 111.
2 Zizek 2004, p. 183.
3 There are suggestions that this difference is not merely one of form. In Anti-Oedipus Deleuze and Guattari explain their tendency to draw from science and the arts through their theory of capitalist deterritorialization: “Why this appeal to art and science, in a world where scientists and technicians and even artists, and science and art themselves, work so closely with the established sovereignties—if only because of the structures of financing? Because art, as soon as it attains its own grandeur, its onw genius, creates chains of decoding and deterritorialization that serve as the foundation for desiring machines, and make them function” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, p. 368).
4 Deleuze and Parnet 1987, p. 13.
5 Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p 218.
6 Montag 2003, p.35.
7 Althusser 1995, p. 308.
8 Althusser 1971, p. 65.
9 Badiou 2000b, p. 196.
10 Badiou 2000a,p. 10.
12 Alliez 2004, p. 6.
13 Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 2.
14 Deleuze 1994, p. 126.
15 Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 37.
16 Deleuze 1992, p. 138.
17 Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 74.
18 Alliez 2004, p. 9.
19 Alliez et al 1999, p. 125.
20 Deleuze and Guattari 1983, p. 4; see also Read 2000,96.
21 Alliez 2004, p. 9.
22 Deleuze and Guattari 1983, p. 29.
23 Deleuze and Guattari 1987, p. 203.
24 Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 70.
25 Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 39.
26 Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 96.
27 Read 2003b, p. 5.
28 Deleuze and Guattari 1983, p. 225.
29 Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 98.
30 Deleuze 1995, p. 170.
31 Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 10.
32 It is worth noting here recent works that while have developed the connection between Marx and Deleuze and Guattari, none so far have fully explored the idea of the virtual in connection with the abstract materiality of money. See Read 2003a and Thoburn 2003.
33 Alliez’s early works demonstrate an ease in working through the Deleuze/Marx intersection in thinking through the specific politics of neoliberalism. See Alliez and Feher 1986.
34 Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 59.
25 Deleuze and Guattari 1994, p. 197.

Alliez, Eric 2004. “Anti-Oedipus-Thirty Years On,” Radical Philosophy 124: 6-12.
Alliez, Eric et al 1999, “The Contemporary: A Roundtable Discussion, Pli, 8: 119-137.
Alliez, Eric and Feher, Michel 1986, “The Luster of Capital,” Translated by Alyson Waters. Zone 1/2: 314-359 .
Althusser, Louis 1971, Lenin and philosophy, and other essays, translated by Ben Brewster. New York: Monthly Review.
Althusser, Louis 1995, “Notes sur la philosophie (1967-8),” Écrits philosophiques et politiques, vol. 2. Paris: Stock/IMEC.
Badiou, Alain 2000a, Deleuze: The Clamor of Being, translated by Louise Burchill, Minneapolis: Minnesota.
Badiou, Alain 2000b, “Un, multiple, multiplicité(s),” Multitudes, 1: 195-211.
Deleuze, Gilles 1992, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, translated by Martin Joughin, New York: Zone.
Deleuze, Gilles 1994, Difference and Repetition, translated by Paul Patton, New
York: Columbia.
Deleuze, Gilles 1995, Negotiations: 1972-1990, translated by Martin Joughin, New York: Columbia.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari 1983, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated by Robert Hurley et al. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari 1987, A Thousand Plateaus, translated by Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari 1994, What is Philosophy? translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, New York: Columbia.
Deleuze, Gilles and Claire Parnet 1987, Dialogues, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, New York: Columbia.
Montag, Warren 2003, Louis Althusser, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
Read, Jason 2000, “Everything is Production: Notes on Deleuze and Guattari’s Marxism,” Crossings: A Counter-Disciplinary Journal of Philosophical, Cultural, Historical, and Literary Studies, 4: 95-117.
Read, Jason 2003a, The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present, Albany: SUNY.
Read, Jason 2003b, “A Universal History of Contingency: Deleuze and Guattari on the
History of Capitalism,
” Borderlands ejournal, 2, 3.
Rée, Jonathan 1995, “Philosophy for Philosophy’s Sake.” New Left Review, 211: 105-111.
Thoburn, Nicholas 2003, Deleuze, Marx, and Politics, New York: Routledge.
Zizek, Slavoj 2004, Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences, Routledge:
New York.

Monday, October 16, 2006

As Fragile as Glass

My goal of writing a post-SPEP post has been stalled for two reasons: One, I could not find a picture of the Jellybean Children, and Two, nothing really substantial (or even clever) to say. Well since the latter goes without saying, especially for anyone who has ever read this blog before, I will explain the former. SPEP was held in Philadelphia, specifically in the "old city" (or "old town" or "ye olde city" or something like that) which is full of tourist attractions, just like in days of old. One of these tourist attractions is the National Liberty Museum. Now, I can imagine what you are thinking, there is nothing exceptional about that name, however, did you know that the museum is "The only Museum in the world featuring contemporary glass art to represent the fragile qualities of freedom?" I kid you not. And that it features "Jellybean Children" in celebration in diversity? Now, I did not go into the museum, but I did look at it, and read its brochure and very much enjoyed the picture of the Jellybean Children and wanted to post it here, but could not find such a picture.

As for the second reason, the conference was fun, which surprised me a bit. I heard a few interesting papers, mostly by friends or at least acquaintances, which raises the question (discussed at the conference, but not officially) do we like the papers of our friends, or are we friends of the people whose papers we like? I can tell you that my favorite one liner of the conference was: "In America even the Marxist are liberals." Not the sort of thing that one would expect to hear at SPEP, but that is part of what made this conference enjoyable, plenty of papers off of the beaten Husserl, Heidegger, Derrida, Levinas path. Badiou was oddly disappointing, references to Spinoza notwithstanding. This might have something to do with the way in which Badiou decided to address "existence" and "phenomena," perhaps he was not informed that SPEP is just a name, a relic even, and not a program. Or maybe he is just not good live. Wendy Brown, however, was very impressive.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Updating and Outing

Gilles Deleuze writes, "Concretely if you define bodies and thoughts as capacities for affecting and being affected many things change. You will define an animal, or a human being, not by its form, its organs, and its functions, and not as a subject either; you will defined it by the affects of which it is capable...For example: there are greater differences between a plow horse or draft horse and a racehorse than between an ox and a plow horse. This is because the racehorse and the plow horse do not have the same affects nor the same capacity for being affected; the plow horse has affects in common rather with the ox."

I thought of this quote while I was watching both an ox pull and a horse pull at the Fryeburg Fair. I thought of because first it is true (draft horses are huge, and strong), but then I thought about the fact that I was thinking about it. I am not sure, but I think that I was the only person at Maine's largest agricultural fair watching a livestock competition thinking about Deleuze's comments on Spinoza. Yes, the fair was a glimpse into another world, a world where adolescents have their own teams of oxen to train for competition. As my father said, it is good to get out of one's world. In my case a world where everything reminds me of some philosophical reference, The Simpsons, or Buffy (usually all three). It is also good to see that there still are different worlds, it is all to easy to imagine the world (or even this country) to be more homogenous than it is--to imagine a world in which people "now read the same things, listen to the same things, see the same things, go to the same places, have their hopes and fears directed to the same objects" (That last quote is J.S. Mill, or maybe Rupert Giles, I honestly cannot remember which). Yes, I am glad to live in a world where there are still agricultural fairs.

Speaking of outings, this weekend I attended Sacred & Profane, an art show held in a decommissioned WWII Bunker on an island. It starts with a ferry ride and ends with a picnic, and who does not like that. I just like the idea of an old military bunker being used for art. However, this was if not my world, at least an adjacent planet.(Photo by Scott Whitton)

On the general theme of updating I have to say that I have been pleased with my music purchases as of late. I have the new TV on The Radio, The Decemberists, and The Thermals in heavy rotation, and they are great in their own unique and special way--like snowflakes.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Reavers, Oh my!

It is no secret that I am a fan of the work of Joss Whedon (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, etc.). Since there is no Whedon show on now I occasionally watch old episodes on DVD. Lately, I have watched "Serenity" which is the name of the pilot of the show "Firefly" and the movie which served as something of a finale to the unfairly canceled show.

I think the pilot is one of the best things to ever air on television. It does not have the sort of awkwardness that made the early episodes of Buffy so embarrassing (and endearing), and has a real patience, developing a world, characters, etc. I like the film as well, but when I watch it I always feel that it rushes through too many things, leaving some things out. For example the "Blue Sun" corporation, the omission of which leaves capitalism out of the picture.

In the series the "Reavers" (bands of violent cannibalistic marauders) are given a mythic definition--as "men gone savage on the edge of space." In the film the "Reavers" are the product of a government experiment. The political implications of this change of the plot point are ambiguous. On an immediate level it lends itself to a somewhat cliche anti-utopian plot, in which any attempt to improve or change human nature comes into conflict with an insurmountable "asocial sociability." On a somewhat deeper, but more contemporary level, given the fact that the government has created the Reavers, created the very thing that it claims to protect its citizens from, could be understood as a thinly veiled allegory for way in which governments produce the violence that justifies their existence. As Captain Reynolds says "The chickens have come home to roost." (Malcolm X?)

However, the account from the series, which presents the Reavers as a product of isolation and alienation, connects in a stronger way to the general theme of the series: the creation of civilization and community. It also connects with series/films Chinese theme at least obliquely, or, more to the point, it connects with something I heard in a paper about Confucian philosophy. To quote Robert Eno, "...For Confucians...the self is a socially acquired and radically maleable product...In Confucian terms, the issue for the person is not whether or how to express oneself, it is how to shape oneself." The Reavers are the technologically produced outside of civilization. This stands in contrast to the struggle on the spaceship Serenity, the struggle to constitute both a self and a society in the face of the void.

Friday, September 29, 2006


There is a quote from Adorno that I have been thinking about as of late. It reads as follows:

"The theorist who intervenes in practical controversies nowadays discovers on a regular basis and to his shame that whatever ideas he migh contribute were expressed long ago--and usually better the first time around. Not only has the mass of writings and publications grown beyond measure: society itself, despite all its tendencies to expand, in many cases seems to be regressing to earlier stages, even its superstructure, in law and politics. Embarrassingly enough, this means that time-honored arguments must once again be trotted out. Even critical thought risks becoming infected by what it criticizes. Critical thought must let itself be guided by the concrete forms of consciousness it opposes and must go over once again what they have forgotten."

This quote seems particularly apt today, in the face of our current "War of Terror." In the speeches of our president, and other supporters of the war, the justification for the war seems to rest on two fundamental statements, "We are fighting them over there so that we do not have to fight them here," and, more fundamentally, fighting is "Protecting our freedom." Now these statements are demonstrably false, and have been proven to be several times by the few critical voices left. Moreover, one does not need the tools of ideology critique, to have read Adorno, Althusser, and so on, to prove them false. Of course the situation gets even more absurd when you consider all of the people who believe that Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11, or that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

Saturday, September 23, 2006


Most of the time I carry a small notebook with me. Usually it is one of those ubiquitous moleskin notebooks (that word unsettles me, who would want to skin a mole?). However, as of late it has been a snazzy little journal with a robot on the cover (made by these fine people). In this journal I write down quotes from books that I am reading, fragments of half formed ideas, and even a few titles and outlines for papers or even books that I one day might write. Since I started the blog, however, I have been writing in my book less and less, and I realize that some of these fragments of ideas have made it here on the internets (why does that little "s" on the end of the word still amuse me?). I am not sure if they belong here, they are after all only sketches, or a series of ideas that are almost like a "connect-the-dots"drawing, only without the numbers to guide anyone in making them. More importantly they are not the sort of thing that I thought that I would write when I started this thing--I thought that I would write more about movies, music, and my many adventures.

What I am left with is a veritable backlog of things that I meant to write, ideas formed in the shower, while walking, or whatever, that have made it nowhere. Which is not too different from my usual life. In fact, I think it might be possible to chart a kind of ecology of ideas, in which each idea has its own particular life span related to both the conditions of emergence and validity--some ideas make it into writing and some barely survive the sentence in which they are first articulated. It is not always the best ones that survive.

For example I never wrote about The Black Dahlia, perhaps the oddest film experience I have had in awhile. First, I should mention that it was the first time I was seeing a film with my new friend: a situation fraught with all kinds of mores and customs to be negotiated, talk during trailers? (acceptable), during the film? (unacceptable, unless the film is bad), etc. Add to this the fact that this friend is a heterosexual male, which raises the whole "guy-date" problem (did anyone see that ridiculous New York Time piece about this problem? Heterosexual men at great pains to not even give the appearance of being on a date), specifically it raises the problem of seating. Some men, like my brother, insist on an empty seat between two men in a theater, lest anyone think that they are dating. (For the record, I love my brother, but I would never date him--too much history). Anyway, I opted to sit next to my friend. Then comes the movie which is just odd, so odd that I can only conclude two possible things about it:

1) Brian De Palma is trying to prove the it is impossible to make a new "film-noir" film (is that redundant?). As Jameson and Zizek remind us, it was always already impossible to make a "film-noir" movie, since the term itself is based on the French reception of certain American B movies, thus the term relates more to a perspective, something that happened in translation, than an actual genre. However, there is a certain way in which the film refuses any suggestion of depth that was characteristic of noir, that made it possible to see in it a conflict between an existential hero and a corrupt world. All of the actors in De Palma's film are completely opaque in terms of their motivations, or if not they come off like copies of a copy. The mostly young cast also seem completely lost in the historical period. As my friend pointed out, when Josh Hartnett mentions Rita Hayworth, you get the distinct impression that he has no idea who he is talking about. It is perhaps for this reason that the film made me think of Brick, which one could say is a more successful way of making a new film noir, or maybe I was just thinking "I would rather be watching Brick right now."

2) It sucked.

I should mention that as far as a first time seeing a film with a new friend, it went great. By the end we were cracking each other up. It was a little weird to be the only people laughing in the theater, but it made for a more enjoyable experience.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Place of Philosophy: Spinoza

This is one of the half formed thoughts that I came up with in the middle of teaching my Spinoza Seminar. The sort the leaves me thinking, after responding to a student's comment, "hey, there might be something to what I just said." It is also an attempt on my part to think in somewhat generic terms about my particular position, in philosophy, in a state university, in Bush's America. Thoughts which are provoked, in part, by my morbid fascination with resent discussions about liberal bias in the university.

In Spinoza's refusal of a position at the University of Heidelberg he writes the following:"I do not know within what limits the freedom to philosophize must be confined if I am to avoid appearing to disturb the publicly established religion.” Now the refusal of the position has generally been interpreted as a characteristic statement of Spinoza's caution. However, I have been thinking of it in light of the division that Spinoza sets up between the philosopher and the "common people" in the Theological Political Treatise.

In the Treatise Spinoza argues that all worthy objects of desire can be classified under three general headings:
1. To know things through their primary causes
2. To subjugate the passions, i.e. to acquire the habit of virtue
3. To live in security and good health

For Spinoza the conditions for the first two "lie within the bounds of human nature itself," and thus can be pursued by the philosopher alone. The third, however, requires the artifice of the "social body." However, given that Spinoza will later argue that some social order is a precondition of any economy or arts, it would seem that the first two ultimately presuppose the third. The cultivation of knowledge presupposes the community.

Now, it is at this point that things get interesting. The order of the community is secured by imagination, by scripture which extends obedience beyond thus who cannot grasp the rational basis of the community. The security of the community in turn makes possible the life of the philosopher, whose very examinations call into question that foundation. There is a dialectic in which philosophy continually subverts what by definition it must presuppose. That is to say that there is something of an existential situation where the philosopher is continually questioning the beliefs that make philosophy as an activity possible.

At this point it would be easy to lapse into an easy division between the philosopher and the common ("vulgus"), however, as Spinoza makes clear this division is not between two separate classes of people, but between superstition (or imagination) and reason, cutting through each individual. After all we are all rational and imaginative, reasonable and superstitious, mind and body. For Spinoza the state is founded both on reason, on the recognition that "nothing is more useful to man than man," and imagination, the projection of the other as someone like me, a highly ambivalent situation since this imagined similarity makes possible conflict and strife (EIVP37). To quote Balibar: "Sociability is therefore the unity of a real agreement and an imaginary ambivalence, both of which have real effects."

We all live simultaneously inside and outside of the ideologies that constitute our shared life. I wonder if this split could be related back to the division of mental and manual labor? To the fact in a highly specialized economy of knowledge, we are active in some respects, capable of producing real ideas, but passive in others, subject to the established ideologies. I cannot connect all the dots here, but I thought that I would toss in the following quote from Adorno by way of a conclusion. It is a passage that I think about a great deal.

"The intellectual, particularly when philosophically inclined, is cut off from practical life: revulsion from it has driven him to concern himself with so-called things of the mind. But material practice is not only the pre-condition of his existence, it is basic to the world which he criticizes in his work. If he knows nothing of this basis he shoots into thin air…[H]e hypostatizes as an absolute his intellect which was only formed through contact with economic reality and abstract exchange relations, and which can become intellect solely by reflecting on its own conditions. "

Like I said it is a half formed thought.

By the way the image above comes from a collection of philosophical T-Shirts. Perfect for that special someone.

Other news: Finished Badiou's Theorie du Sujet (more on that in a bit) as well as Ranciere's Nights of Labor. Recently saw The Black Dahlia which was hilarious, but I do not think that it meant to be.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

The Youth of Today, and the Youth of Today

Perhaps nothing separates me from the kids of today (by which I mean college students) than the concept of "selling-out." It is utterly alien to most of them. They have no problem with the fact that the bands that they like are appearing on television shows and commercials.

(There used to a lag between a song being released and it appearing on a commercial. It used to be years. Then it shrunk to less than a year. Now it is a commercial before it is a hit. Think of Nick Drake, that Volkswagen commercial was the best thing that happened to him, too bad he was already dead.)

Now I cannot pretend to speak for my entire generation, but for at least a certain section of quasi-punk/hardcore kids "selling out" was not just an issue, it was the issue. It was the entirety of critique of capitalism, and more than that it was our existentialism, or politics, our bread and butter. We would spend hours discussing who sold out and exactly when. It still haunts me.

In fact I may have pinpointed the exact moment when I sold out, it was when I bought these:

100% Organic Hemp, 100%Recycled tire, Union Made shoes. A product that complete expresses my particular combination of social and ecological concerns. Not to mention all of that exposed stitching. (And I am not going to mention the kicking corporate ass part, because that would be embarrassing).

There is something about identifying with a brand any brand even if it meets you halfway that just feels like selling out.

Since I am plugging products I will say that I am thoroughly enjoying the new album by The Thermals, "The Body, The Blood, The Machine." I will spare you the attempt at rock journalism and just say punk rock concept album, that is right, complete with tales from a dark fascist-christian future (or is that present?).

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Mythos and Logos: Hollywood Version

I recently stumbled across this article in the New York Times titled "If Hollywood is a Game, this Player Says that it is Over." The article is on Michael Tolkin the author of The Player, the book that was the basis of Robert Altman's film. In the article Tolkin argues that what Hollywood is facing is nothing less than a collapse of the basic narrative structure of the hero's journey.

“The movies haven’t been very good the last three or four years, they really haven’t,” he said. “Everybody knows that. At least that, maybe more. And what they were will never return.” The source of all this creative-industrial-complex angst is the death of what he both eulogizes and parodies: the classic journey-of-the-hero story structure, analyzed by Joseph Campbell in the 1940's, popularized a generation ago by George Lucas through “Star Wars,” spouted and shorthanded by studio executives ever since, and all but trampled to death, Mr. Tolkin said, by nearly every subsequent action movie and thriller that Hollywood has turned out.
Or as Griffin puts it: “Physics cracked the atom, biology cracked the genome and Hollywood cracked the story.”

Now there is perhaps nothing less original the bemoaning the fallen state of Hollywood, but what is interesting is the reason that he gives for it. It is at this point that the article caught my eye:

“I don’t think America’s had a good movie made since Abu Ghraib” Mr. Tolkin said, before clarifying that he’s talking about big movies, not the minuscule ones that have met the industry’s quotas for unembarrassing award nominees.“I think it showed that a generation that had been raised on those heroic movies was torturing. National myths die, I donÂ’t think they return. And our national myth is finished, except in a kind of belligerent way”

Now this is perhaps a bit too optimistic, after all it assumes that everyone is upset about Abu Ghraib, and the war for that matter. (Plus it does nothing to explain The Phantom Menace.) At the same time, it does raise the interesting issue that if war remains our basic template for heroism, and the current war is one that is at the very least fraught with ambivalence if not disdain, where does that leave us with respect to our myths?

A quote from Jameson ups the ante on this: "The west has long since found itself unable to think the category of the 'great collective project' in terms of social revolution and social transformation. But we have convenient subsitute, in any case far less demanding on the imagination: for us, and as far back in 'modernity' as we can determine, the great collective project--the 'moral equivalent of war'--is simply war itself. It is finally as a war machine that the efficiency of the state is judged: and no doubt modern warfare offeres a very advanced form of collective organization indeed. But a fundamental structural and ideological imagination is surely demonstrated by this lack of alternatives, and by the persistence of World War II in the American mind as the great Utopian moment of national unification and the lost object of our political desire" (A Singular Modernity pg. 212).

What strikes me about this is how our current war pales in the face of this, it is a war without a "collective" dimension (that is unless you count those-"support-the-troops"-magnets-that demonstrate-unconditional-support-without-damaging-the-resale-value-of-one's-car). Or, perhaps more accurately it is a war which manifests itself as a collective insecurity. We all participate through fear, through the spread of the news of the latest thwarted terrorist plot, or news tidbit about unprotected water towers and reservoirs.

Ranciere argues (Yes, I have been reading a great deal of him as of late) that this offers a new definition of the state, or a definition of the new state. Playing off of the current administrations "old/new Europe" distinction, in which "old" Europe followed the electorate's hostitility towards the war in Iraq and "new" Europe towed the line, treating democracy like a "focus group," Ranciere argues we should define the "new" democracy, the new state as follows:

The advanced capitalist State is not one of automatic consensus, of adjustments between the daily negotiation of pleasures and the collective negotiation of power and its redistributions. It does not proceed by defusing passionate conflicts and disinvesting values. It does not self-destruct in the limitless freedom of digital communication and the polymerization of individual identities so destructive to social ties. Where commodities rule without limit, whether in post-Reagan America or post- Thatcher England, the optimal form of consensus is one cemented by fear in a society grouped around the warrior State. ("On War as the Advanced Form of Advanced Plutocratic Consensus" pg. 254).

So perhaps we will need new myths, new stories, that are no longer based on the outdated hero (Tolkin's example) or even the sublated collective project (Jameson) but on a society governed by fear and separation.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Pizza Hut Theory (Commodity Corner: Part One)

There are so many other things that I should be writing now, but a post (or two) on dialectics necessitates a post on "bad infinities" so here goes.

Have you ever seen a commercial for Pizza Hut (or Dominos for that matter) that advertises some new twist on pizza? Something like "new stuffed crust," "double layer,"or some other needless improvement on a basic formula that really does not need improving. If they are not advertising some variation on pizza then they are advertising some kind of breadstick, or something that you can dip into somekind of sauce. No sooner are these things introduced then they disappear. Well why do they do this? It could just be that "Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. "

I think that there might be a little more to it than that. First of all pizza is generally pretty popular, so it is a bit hard to imagine that there are potential consumers out there who are saying themselves "I would try that Pizza-thing if only the crust were stuffed somehow." So it is not an attempt to englarge the market. At the same time pizza is so popular that every town has its little mom and pop places, regional chains, etc., which are generally more popular than the major chains. So I can only thing that all of these "innovations" are an attempt to move the pizza commodity from formal to real subsumption, to get it so pizza exists as something that only a major corporation can deliver. To bring it up to speed with the rest of the staples of American fast food, which are primarily consumed in their namebrand variations.

Dialectics (part two)

Once again working off of an idea from Badiou (Theorie du Sujet). Badiou writes that there are two contradictions in Marx’s understanding of capitalism: between the forces and relations of production and then class struggle, or the contradiction between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. “Two contradictions, two definitions, one object—capitalism--, one doctrine Marxism” (pg. 44) The first contradiction is objective, defining the place of the proletariat, caught between the productive powers of industry and the rule of private property. While the second is subjective, defining the intensity of struggle and commitment. As Badiou argues both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat draw their members from the same “inconsistent multiplicity”: the masses. What Badiou stresses is the double inscription: that every historical moment, every struggle, must be related both to the objective struggle of places and subjective struggle of forces. And in turn every force is placed, while every place is displaced by force.

This is the strength of dialectical thinking, specifically in a Marxist context it allows one to think that every economic transformation is political, and every political transformation is economic.

It is also from this perspective that one can grasp one of the dominant trends and even strengths of anti-dialectical thought: the refusal of mediation (displacement) in the name of immanence. Take for example Deleuze and Guattari’s claim in Anti-Oedipus: “Desire is part of the infrastructure.” It indicates that transformations of the economy are directly transformations of desire and subjectivity, without passing through the mediations of superstructure (specifically the family). It is a matter of what Paolo Virno calls “immediate coincidence between production and ethics, structure and superstructure, between the revolution of labor process and the revolution of sentiments, between technology and emotional tonality, between material development and culture.”

Michel Foucault is also a thinker of immanence or immediate coincidence. This can be seen through his lectures in the late seventies (Securite, Territoire, Population and Naissance de la Biopolitique). Foucault argues that “neoliberalism” should be viewed not as an ideology (politics) or as economic policy (economy) but as a conduct of conduct, a mode of governmentality.

It is at this point that I see both the merits and the tension between these two perspectives.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Dialectics (part one) and Cover Bands

As I mentioned earlier I have been reading Badiou's Theorie du Sujet. In many ways I find it be comparable to Althusser's For Marx. In each case there is an effort to draw out the philosophical implications of some of the revolutionary slogans of the past century (One divides into Two) as well as an attempt to revive the dialectic. In Althusser's case this takes the form of overdetermination while in Badiou's case it entails splitting the dialectic itself into one of places and forces.

What interests me about this is that at the time that I became interested in philosophy the dialectic was the enemy. The charges were so well known that they did not even need to be articulated: the dialectic totalizes, it simultaneously elevates and reduces all difference to contradiction, etc. Now these criticism are for the most part true, but at the same time there is a whole series of attempts to push the dialectic into new directions, to think difference, singularity, and antagonism: I am thinking of Adorno, Althusser, Badiou, and to some extent even Sartre.

In some ways the situation is similar to Marxism itself. On the one hand, Marxism appears to the very model of dogmatic thought, the repetition of key formulas as doctrine, but on the other hand there are real innovations in the work of those who call themselves, or are called, Marxists. Most notably while the various other philosophical "isms" restrict themselves to the topics that the philosopher in question cover, there are Marxist (Marxian) philosophers of language, literature, and film, even though Marx wrote nothing on these topics.

Innovation at the heart of repetition: one divides into two.

It is too long of a story to tell, but I ended up at a bar last Friday night listening to what could only be described as a bar band. They were not one of those cover bands that dedicate themselves to one band, like "In the Spirit of the Doors: Riders on the Storm"etc, but a band that covered a wide variety of different songs (not a wide variety, there entire set could have been an hours listening of any classic rock station on a no repeat Monday--Zeppelin, Sly and the Family Stone, Bob Marley, Earth, Wind, and Fire, Peter Gabriel). There range was perhaps the only thing impressive about them, although it was unintentionally amusing to watch the horn section try to look busy during the sans-horn- Zeppelin covers. Couldn't someone at least give them a cowbell?

Since I was bored by the experience it did leave me thinking about two things:

1) Classic Rock. When I was in high school classic rock was the default music selection for most Frat Boys, all of whom owned their copy of Bob Marley's Legend, assorted Zeppelin cds, and related music. Even during the late eighties this seemed odd, a bunch of kids living off of someone else's nostalgia. Given that I was older than most of the drunk and enthusiastic crowd on Friday it would appear that this has not changed much. Classic rock will outlive the babyboomers.

2)Continental philosophy. It has occurred to me before that most of the Anglo-American Continental Philosophy scene is structured sort of like the world of cover bands. You have your Nietzscheans (who write on Nietzsche, or in "the spirit of Nietzsche"), Heideggerians, Derridians, Deleuzians, and so on. All of whom produce very interesting commentary, but it leaves you wondering if anyone will ever write any originals. But perhaps I am being too harsh.

Innovation at the heart of repetition: one divides into two.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Shelter Me: Or, A Day in the Life of Civil Society

I have spending some time at the local animal shelter, my volunteer work/occasional summer job. When I am not playing with dogs, helping people find lost cats, or figuring out how to put staples in the copier, I find myself thinking about the shelter as a place where the relationship between humans and animals, culture and nature is negotiated. It occurs to me that much of the work that the shelter does, taking in strays, unwanted litters, etc, has to do with overcoming the contradiction between the attitudes people have towards their pets, as commodities, and the existence of animals as living, breathing, loving, and occasionally annoying creatures.

For example it is not uncommon for someone to call looking for someplace that will take their elderly possibly blind or deaf cat that no longer uses the litter box (These calls are usually about cats and not dogs). Some of these people have actually deluded themselves into thinking that there are tons of people out there just dying to have one of these cats. ("No, I am not really interested in one of the dozens of adorable kittens that you have. Do you have anything that reaks of urine?") After I explain to the person the procedure, what will happen, the likelyhood of their cat getting adopted, the fact that there are so many cats that the shelter has a waiting list for people who want to surrender their cats, and so on, they usually then ask if the shelter has any kittens for adoption. Sometimes they will ask this after explaining at length that they do not have the money to care for their current pet. Of course this is may be true, but given that some of these people are willing to shell out $100 (the cost of adopting a kitten) for a new pet, I think that it is more accurate to say that it is just not worth it for them to spend the money. Going to the Vet is like going to one of those run down old places that offer "TV/VCR Repair," it just does not make economic sense. If something wears out, gets too old, why not just buy a new one?

In the Shelter there is a poster stating that the animal shelter should be considered a community service, not unlike the hospital, the fire department or the police, a part of the "safety net," what Hegel called "The Police" in the expanded sense of the term. To borrow a phrase from Polyani, the police exist wherever the commodification of labor, land, and money produces disastorous results: that is, wherever the "market" of labor or land would result in death and destruction. I would add animals, or at least pets, to this list of what he calls "fictious commodities." I do not find his (Polyani's) term to be so helpful, they are not really fictious, but rather things that either antagonistically resist commodification, or do so passively, as in the case of the environment, through unintended consequences. So in this day and age of "free markets" we are left with the remnants of the "safety net," underfunded cramped buildings with overworked people dealing with whatever sector of society is no longer profitable: the sick, the ederly, the abandoned.

It is interesting to note that historically society's for the prevention of cruelty to animals are linked to the violent shock of the emergence of industrial capitalism, even making a small cameo in Marx's writing. As Marx writes in Capital, assuming the in the voice of the worker in a complaint against the capitalist: “You may be a model citizen, perhaps a member of the R.S.P.C.A. [Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals], and you may be in the odor of sanctity as well; but the thing you represent when you come face to face with me has no heart in its breast.”

Pets protect us from the alienating effects of capitalism, the isolation and loneliness, and in turn the shelter attempts to protect them from a culture based on the exchange of commodities.

I realize that this is not the most thought out post, but hey it will at least please all of those people who are looking for articles on Karl Polyani's economic theories and cats litter box use.