Saturday, December 29, 2007

Movies: Ruining the Book since 1920

For Christmas this year I got a t-shirt that reads: “Movies: Ruining the Book Since 1920.” I am not sure if always agree with the sentiment, especially since Hollywood has long since moved on from books to video games, toys, and tv shows. Can anyone really shed a tear for the Transformers, which went from a half hour toy commercial to a two hour one? However, today I saw I am Legend, and I most agree with what the shirt says wholeheartedly.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

First Impressions: Reflections on Japan

Roland Barthes supposedly wrote “Those who do not reread are doomed to read the same thing over and over again.” I have always liked this quote, even if I never took the trouble to verify that he ever wrote it, or what its exact wording is, for that matter. What I like about this sentence, which was relayed to me at some point, is that it says something about the fundamental inaccuracy of first reads, first impressions, which are nothing more than our initial prejudices and preconceptions. I think that this is true of reading, especially students who excel at finding themselves in everything they read no matter how hostile it is to their neoliberal ideology, but I also think it is true or experience, or at least travel.

I recently returned from Japan, which I visited for the first time. During my trip, which was part academic conference and part tourist excursion, I tried to see Japan, to understand something about the culture and people; you know all of the reasons that we are supposed to travel and see the world. The search took a myriad of random forms: everything from just walking around, to conversations with locals and academics who study Japan, to explorations assisted by those hallowed tomes of brief excursions, Rough Guide and Time Out. However, I felt that my search for some kind of knowledge was thwarted at every turn. Of course I picked up some trivia and bits of knowledge: I now have a working knowledge of the basic geography of Tokyo; some understanding of its subway system; and have some awareness of such cultural peculiarities as the cold mask, love hotel, Shinto, host/hostess club, toilet slippers, Christmas cakes, and the fashions of Tokyo. Most of the impressions that I came with, however, are nothing but confirmations of all of the things that one expects to find in Japan: the people were polite but reserved, the city was crowded and efficient, and so on. Whatever I was looking for, whatever exceeds the pages of a tourist guide, eluded me.

I did learn a few things about myself, however. First of all I should say that with the exception of a few hours listening to language tapes and a few years studying aikido, I know absolutely no Japanese; so I am only able to say things like “please,” “do you speak English?” and “two handed wrist grab.” I have never been more lost, linguistically speaking, than in Japan. In Tokyo this does not matter much; most signs are in English and Japanese, and even the subway announces stops in a polite English accent (like the computer in a sci-fi movie). Outside the city, however, one can get lost real quick, and I found myself playing "memorize the kanji" desperately trying to learn the characters for things like men's bathroom and the town I was trying to find. This language difficulty hit me the hardest when it comes to finding out about the world. Without a laptop, a paper, or a radio station to listen to, I went into serious news withdrawal. Lesson one: I am more of a news junky than I would like to admit. As much as I criticize and even despise "The New York Times" and NPR, I need them like an addict needs whatever substance he or she is addicted to. Second, despite everything I heard about distrust of foreigners, especially in more rural areas, I wanted to believe that the polite and enthusiastic way that I asked "Excuse me do you speak English?" (in Japanese) made me some kind an exception. I truly believed that I was not the obnoxious and ignorant foreigner. So in many ways I am such a fucking American, desperately believing that I am an exception to the rule, and ever so likeable.

It is pretty depressing, but on the plus side: monkeys!

I made it Jigokudani YaenKoen (otherwise known as "Monkey Park") to see the famous Snow Monkeys (Japanese Macaques), which, embarrassingly enough, has been something of a lifelong dream. Monkeys running in snow and bathing in hot springs: great fun. My picture is crap, I know, so if you need more monkey action you can check out their very own webcam. Clever monkeys.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Lost, Found, Recycled

This evening, while in the midst of trying to do some actual work, my mind wandered to a presentation I gave years ago; so naturally I stopped working and looked for it on my computer and in my files. For a brief moment, panic sank in, I could only find partial and incomplete drafts. However, I did eventually find it, and after a brief reread decided to post it here. Why? Because it is one of those punchy little roundtable things that never make it into a publication, or see the light of day after being presented, and secondly, it is content, it will fill a blog entry, and I am desperate for content now. It is not that I do not have thoughts, just no time.

As you can see it is very much in keeping with some of the obsessions that fuel this blog. In fact it is depressing to see how little my thought has progressed in the few years since I presented it. So here it is, pretty much found as is, a conference presentation from years ago.

In attempting to speak as a former student of this institution, I wanted to begin from a quote, a little bit of wisdom passed on, some little statement that made up part of my education. However, the particular statement in question could not be found in any of the folders and binders of notes I have kept from my classes; kept, yes, but have not consulted since I left defended my thesis in 2001. Not only could I not find it, but in my searches it became harder and harder to remember who exactly said it and in what context. (Perhaps, it was never said, at least not in so many words) Anyway, what I remember to have been said was something to the effect of “research requires infinite patience and demands infinite impatience.” (Not exactly elegant, I know, thus you can see why I was compelled to look through those yellowing sheets of paper, with the hope that somewhere what I remembered was said better in some sort of pithy formulation.) Infinite patience, because, as you all know, to work on any specific area of thought, within any discipline, on one of the specific figures that constitute respectable areas of specialization and competence requires a great deal of time, more time than one would like to admit. In the six or seven years it takes to complete a doctorate there is perhaps only enough time to read, to really read, a dozen or so works, or understand a half dozen or so authors. Of course, in the same time it is possible to pick up those basic thumbnail sketches of other authors, and other works, to be able to say a few intelligent things about most of the proper names, and schools of thought. These tidbits and snapshots are in many ways the “coin of the realm,” they will perhaps get you through your “comps” and some of the more awkward conversations at any job interview. However, to coin a phrase, such tidbits “are not yet thinking.”

From this, from one half of those lost words of wisdom, it is possible to sketch a caricature of most academic work, at least in philosophy and other humanities. Tidbits, and thumbnail sketches, are the very matter and material of most the academic community, they define competence—the “academic common sense” of the various disciplines. At the same time, however, one’s research is supposed to be, nay must be, a deviation, from these sketches and thumbnail pictures. It is the unwritten rule of every dissertation, whether it be on Spinoza, Marx, Heidegger, or Irigaray, that it begin with the following implied proposition, “forget everything you know about Spinoza, Marx, or whomever,” and from this some new idea, a new reading, is advanced, and with it the discipline supposedly advances. Yet despite the fact that this happens, that novelty is the condition for worthwhile research, the thumbnail sketches, those snapshots and reductions, persevere; survive long after they have been definitively criticized in multiple dissertations, articles, and books. Research, the production of new readings, with its use-values for this and that political and ethical project, a “new Nietzsche,” a feminist Heidegger, a Marx for our time, exists alongside the exchange value of what everyone knows. They form the two sides of the commodification of academic labor.

The coexistence of these different versions, one pertaining to general competence and the other to specific knowledge, introduces an odd sort of noise or dissonance at the heart of most academic communication. This in part due to the affective economy underlying the more overt economy of professionalism. The various specializations of research that are, in my field at least, often identified by the proper name of various philosophers, must simultaneously struggle for their legitimacy and their uniqueness; that is, one must argue for the usefulness of reconsidering, or rereading, Sartre, Althusser, or Montesquieu, while simultaneously producing a new perspective on the philosopher in question. The struggle for legitimacy accounts for the various contests over intellectual hegemony; the battles that pit Marxists against post-structuralists, Heideggerians against Deleuzians, and Socialist Feminists against Queer theorists. The claim of uniqueness, means that the more one succeeds in this struggle the more one loses; if one actually ever convinces the enemy on the other side to switch camps, as it were (has this ever happened?) then one produces only other professionals, other publications that one will have to differentiate oneself from. The situation is similar to what Spinoza described with respect to the affective economy of ambition. One struggles to have one’s object of love recognized, and thus have one’s love free from the ambivalence of the affects, but success in this only produces jealousy (EIIIP31Schol). The more one succeeds the more one loses: the battle for intellectual hegemony is re-staged. Only now the battle lines are drawn “within one’s own camp,” against the incorrect readings of whatever philosopher, or theorist, one has convinced others to reread or reconsider. There is now not just one book, one panel, on that author, but a series of books, and a whole conference, and the arguments only become more intense, more focused. To take one particular glaring example, first one argues for the relevance of Deleuze in a field dominated by Heidegger, then, once one succeeds, one argues for the relevance of this particular Deleuze, the Spinozist Deleuze, the Bergsonian Deleuze, the scientific Deleuze, etc.

At this point my caricature has collapsed into out an out satire, and perhaps even cynicism and bitterness. I think, or at least I would hope, that some in the audience are thinking to themselves, but wait…there is more to research, to the world of academia, than the drives of professionalism, intellectual hegemony, and ambition. This is precisely my point, or rather my question, what is that something more, that which is irreducible to these drives for power and prestige, what is it that calls for thinking? By way of an answer, I would at least like to consider the final half of my initial misquote “research requires infinite patience and demands infinite impatience.” I have discussed, infinite patience, and how this patience to really work through ideas, can itself be warped by the existing structures and economies of research. Research also requires infinite impatience, a connection with the immediate exigency and demand of some practical question. At first glance this does not sound too different from the caricature above, I already mentioned that the drive to produce a new and different understanding of this or that philosopher is usually placed in the service of some political or ethical project. “Infinite impatience,” or what I am gesturing at with the phrase infinite impatience does make a difference, or at least strives to, perhaps not at the superficial level, we are still talking about research, about a politics of thinking, but at the level of the affective economy underlying research. It is a matter of replacing “ambition” with its various struggles over hegemony, with interest, and its struggle for something to communicate.

I am borrowing the word “interest” from Isabelle Stengers, who uses it to describe the pragmatics of scientific practice. Scientific statements she argues struggle to interest other scientists; interest here is derivative of interesting, and is thus relatively distant from the individualistic and economic connotations of the term. At first glance this may not seem to be that different from the struggles for hegemony indicated above, and I must admit that I am not doing justice to her theory here, but I only intend to borrow the word for what it connotes. What strikes me about the term interest is that it suggests something that rarely happens in the humanities, a communication of the “what” which someone discusses against the “how.” There are moments of this, in fact I would go so far as to argue that Bill Readings book The University in Ruins is a book that provokes interest, when I have read it and heard it discussed, I do not hear a focus on its particular theoretical orientation, if I remember a combination of Althusser, Lyotard, and Bourdieu, but on that word “excellence,” empty yet ubiquitous, which does not so much define as the contemporary university as point to a problem at once institutional and existential. In general interest would mean that it would be possible to speak to each other across the difference of specific projects, specific researches, and the singularity of a question posed without recourse to the banalities of “intellectual common sense.”

What would this look like you ask? I think that this is the task and the question. If we are going to make the work carried out in the university matter before it is too late, before it is gone, we are going to have to learn how to surrender not only the struggles over intellectual hegemony (almost everyone at least claims to do that) but also the fundamental comportments and affective investments, which continue the struggle long after we have given it up. We need to cease to write, talk, and think as if we a proposing a new common language, and find the common in the interstices of our singular researches. It is a matter of a community founded not on ambition, which can never have what it wants, but on what Spinoza called “reason.”

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Production of Stupidity: Or, Steps Toward an Ecology of the Mind

Illustration by Ben Gibson, from The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders.

On Wednesday I stepped out of my little world for the first time in a while. It is not the first time that I had traveled in awhile; I went to SPEP a few weeks ago, and traveled to Montreal last weekend. It was, however, the first time I had left my little world, the world made up of academia, friends, and leftist politics. We could say that is the first time I left my ecosystem, not my ecosystem per se, even if it is conduce for my survival, but the ecosystem in which my ideas survive.

Let me explain, in using the word "ecosystem" I am following Hasana Sharp in her piece "The Force of Ideas in Spinoza" (recenlty published in Political Theory). (I should also point out that I am only making an oblique reference to Gregory Bateson, who, I must admit, I have yet to read.) Sharp's piece takes her bearings from the first proposition of part IV of the Ethics: "Nothing positive which a false idea has is removed by the presence of the true insofar as it is true."(A statement which is perhaps as devastating to the "spontaneous ideology" of philosophers of our time, as Deus sive Natura was to the philosophers in Spinoza's time). As Sharp argues, this means that ideas, like anyhing else, have to be understood as finite things struggling to find the conditions for their realization: conditions which include other ideas, affects, and practices, which reinforce and repeat the ideas in question.

This leads Sharp to refer to an "ecological" understanding of ideas; ideas cannot be considered in isolation, but must be viewed as part of the community of ideas and actions that make them possible. This metaphor of an ecosystem stuck with me over the holiday weekend, as I departed my own little ecosystem. It occurred to me how much the world actively produces stupidity. I do not mean stupidity in terms of the malicious and downright idiotic content of the reigning ideologies, but stupidity in terms of the form of thought itself. I happened to spend several hours waiting at an airport where the presence of CNN was unavoidable. It struck me how the overwhelming form of the network was that of an echo chamber: the most banal facts were repeated and reiterated by various “talking heads” who quickly categorized them into the prevailing narratives and ideologies. The central message is that “There is nothing to think about here,” the world is made up of recognizable villains and victims, the terrorists, Chinese, and the assorted missing white people.

It seems to me that we will fail to comprehend the present if we do not take serious this production of stupidity. Oddly enough, Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the flows of knowledge and information in Anti-Oedipus originally attempted to thematize this production. As they write with respect to the “scientific worker,” “Although he has mastered a flow of knowledge, information, and training, he is so absorbed in capital that the reflux of organized, axiomatized stupidity coincides with him, so that, when he goes home in the evening, he rediscovers his little desiring-machines by tinkering with the television set—O despair.”(It should be noted that Deleuze and Guattari takes as their emblematic example the career of Gregory Bateson). I understand their idea of “axioms of stupidity” to be a particularly odd restaging of forces/relations of production. Only it is not a matter of the forces, in terms of technology, confronting the fetters of the relations, in terms of laws, but of the way in which capital produces an immense capacity for thought that it restricts by way of gossip magazines, scandals, and idiotic pundits.

Finally, on this last point I have to recommend The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders, a not altogether subtle but funny study of the production of stupidity. I know that Saunders develops this idea of the way the media produces stupidity in his essay "The Brain Dead Megaphone," but I have not read that yet, but have heard him talk about it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

It is all downhill from here

I have been nagging myself to write something, anything, on this blog for days now. Between grading, conferences, travel, and all the other crap, I just have not had the time to do so. To be honest it is going to get worse before it gets better, the next few weeks are going to be very busy.

I had thought about writing something about the film Fido, which I moderately enjoyed. Specifically, I wanted to write something about the film, work, and Deleuze and Guattari's apropos line about zombies being a work myth and not a war myth. But I have to admit that the time for such a post has come and gone.

Second, I wanted to write something about SPEP this year, not the usual complaints about "continental philosophy" and the philosophical establishment, but the way in which the conference actually left me with something to think about. Specifically, the way in which the theme of ontology and politics, and their nonrelation, came up again and again. This was the underlying theme of the panel on Hallward's book, which argues that Deleuze (and Guattari) has (have) a political ontology but not a politics, as well as several panels on Foucault, which dealt with the question of Foucault's ontology. This too will have to wait.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Animal Spirits

Image from Hugo Gellert "Karl Marx's Capital in Lithographs"

For brevity’s sake, I am not going to go through the myriad problems and paradoxes of that strange thing called “Marxist Philosophy”: the interminable debate of “interpreting” versus “changing” the world. However, as a short introduction to what I want to discuss, I will say that one way to understand the relation between Marx and philosophy is as a series of both provocations and critiques. What Etienne Balibar, in The Philosophy of Marx, called simultaneously “falling short of” and “going beyond philosophy”; the first takes the form of fragments of philosophical speculation, often presented as conclusions without premises, and the later takes the form of a critique of philosophy’s claim to autonomy. It is the first of these that I would like to focus on.

The unstated center of Marx’s thought is a thought of social existence, of community, that is something more than, or other than, a collection of individuals. Without this, the critique of the egocentric rights of man;” of the Robinsonades of political economy; and of the illusions of “Freedom, equality. and Bentham” that make up the spontaneous ideology of the market would not make any sense. Or, more fundamentally, without this communism would be the empty utopia that its critics accuse it of being.

However, when it comes to theorizing the grounds of this community though some understanding of social existence, Marx often falls short. At times Marx asserts it as a fact, without giving the ground of this fact, as in the following passage from Capital.

Whether the combined working day, in a given case, acquires this increased productivity because it heightens the mechanical force of labor, or extends its sphere of action over a greater space, or contracts the field of production relatively to the scale of production, or at the critical moment sets large masses of labor to work, or excited rivalry between individuals and raises their animal spirits, or impresses on the similar operations carried on by a number of men the stamp of continuity and many-sidedness, or performs different operations simultaneously, or economizes the means of production by use in common…whichever of these is the cause of the increase, the special productive power of the combined working day, is under all circumstances, the social productive power of labor, or the productive power of social labor. This power arises from cooperation itself. When the worker co-operates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of this species [Gattungsvermögen].

This passage, and the entire section on cooperation, is important for at least two reasons. First, within the logic of Capital, it precedes the sections on “The Working Day,” thus illustrating the struggle and antagonism that animates and transforms the capitalist mode of production. Second, the reference to Gattungsvermögen, species capacity, suggests another way of reading the relation of the young Marx to the old Marx. It offers a way of thinking species being, not as some metaphysical notion of the essence of man, but as part of a social ontology, as the historically existing capacity and powers of social relations. Despite this provocation, there is also the strange indifference to the ultimate conditions of this increased value of cooperation: it could be the effect of the uniformity imposed by the machine, animal spirits, or whatever.

So, one of the philosophical tasks left in the wake of Marx, an answer to a question posed but not answered, would be to theorize cooperation itself. This is not to be confused with the altruism that moralists and evolutionary psychologist concern themselves with; cooperation, and the sociality it implies, is not a moral category but simply the effects that individual actions have on each other.

Maurizio Lazzarato and Paolo Virno are two thinkers who have tried to create the theory of sociality or cooperation that Marxism, or at least the critique of capital, needs. In the case of Lazzarato this takes the form of a lengthy engagement with Gabriel Tarde. For Lazzarato, the center of Tarde’s thought is precisely what Marx passes over with indifference in the passage above: the intercerebral relations (I could not think of better translation), the relations and effects that different thoughts and habits have on each other. These relations are not just at work on the factory floor, but they permeate all of the economy; consumption, production, and even financial speculation all require the spread of opinion and beliefs, which is why Lazzarato argues that such relations determine the “economy” (in a restricted sense) rather than vice versa. The title of his book on Tarde (which I am halfway through) is, after all, Puissance de l’invention: la psychologie économique de Gabriel Tarde contre l’économie politique. In a similar way, Virno examines Simondon’s notion of transindividuality to examine the manner in which subjectivity is constitutive of and constituted by habits, languages, and knowledges that exceed it. Simondon offers the grounds for understanding what Marx referred to as the “social individual.”

In the case of both Virno and Lazzarato the examination of what could be called, for lack of a better world, sociality, is tied up with arguments regarding the “general intellect” and the epochal transition from material to immaterial labor. However, and this is why I began the post with the passage on cooperation, as well as the general point about Marxist philosophy, there is also the sense that Marxism, or at least materialism, requires an anti- or non-individualistic account of social relations. Virno’s analysis of Simondon (in various articles and interviews) is as much about a general ontology of social relations as it is about a new mode of production. This is even more the case with Lazzarato’s sudy of Tarde; especially since Tarde already claimed, in the early part of the twentieth century, that political economy failed to grasp the relation between thoughts, habits, and beliefs that make anything like an economy possible. So it is as much of a matter of grasping the past as the present or future of capital.

I do not have a real focused conclusion to this post; it does seem to me that this task of thinking social relations beyond the category of the individual is crucial to understanding the past, present, and future. The effect of thoughts on thoughts, habits on habits, beliefs on beliefs, is a terrain that is in need of conceptualization. This may not be something that can be extracted from Capital, but it is very much a philosophy that the later requires. A philosophy for Marxism rather than a Marxist philosophy, to use Althusser's distinction.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Lance Hahn, 1967-2007

In a few seconds of idly cruising the web I found out that Lance Hahn died. I have not listened to J Church or Cringer for a long while, and have not kept up with the latter's recordings. I have Quetzcoalt on tape somewhere and more than a half dozen or so 7-inches. The news still managed to hit me. I never saw the band live, never met Lance, and it many ways I have become increasingly distant from the whole thing. At the same time, however, I really connected to that music at a really formative of time of my life. The lyrics, songs, and voice really communicated the immediacy of a connection, it was the best of what now has been packaged as "emo." Plus you have to love all of the situationist references and Guy Debord quotes. I am going to listen to my copy of "She Said She Wouldn't Sacrifice" and Cringer's cover of that Thatcher on Acid song right now.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Inhuman commitments

As I have mentioned earlier, I used to work in an animal shelter and continue to volunteer at one. It is because of this, and a long and vexed history of being associated with, or at least around, people with commitments to “animal liberation,” that I was curious to see The Year of the Dog. Well not so curious that I saw it in theaters over the summer, but curious enough to rent it.

I think that the film does a good job of capturing the unyielding moralism that defines animal liberation activists: a moralism that is grounded on the superiority of speaking for an absolute victim, a purely innocent creature. In the film, Peggy, the protagonist, cannot understand or tolerate any one who does not fully commit themselves to the cause of saving animals. There are only innocent animals and the guilty people who do not care. I have come to think that there are certain structural similarities between animal liberation activists and anti-abortion activists; both of whom believe themselves to be speaking for a purely innocent creature, a creature that cannot speak or act on its own accord. Although, in this case, the film does have Valentine, a German shepherd who serves a reminder to the fact that animals remain absolutely indifferent to our moral categories.

(Valentine has what those in the business would call “food aggression,” the tendency to violently guard food bowls, snacks, etc.: fairly common problem amongst “shelter dogs,” and one that is exasperated by the failure of human beings to understand it. As Donna Haraway points out, dogs and people often suffer from a human, all too human tendency of the latter to understand dogs as a little furry children, to think that they can understand the intent behind such gestures as cleaning around the dog bowl or a good night kiss.)

It is thus easy to see the film as a critique of animal liberation, at least initially. Peggy becomes increasingly shrill, intolerant, and self-destructive in her actions, stealing money, traumatizing children, and destroying her home, in an attempt to care for as many animals as possible. However, what saves the film from making a fairly simple critique at a fairly easy target (animal liberationists care more about animals than people), is that it paints the other characters in the film in an even less flattering light: Peggy’s boss is obsessed with money; her friend with marriage; her neighbor with hunting and knives; and her family with their children’s health. These four things, money, marriage, hobbies, and children, which make up the majority of not only people’s lives, but what gets to matter in contemporary society, are portrayed as essentially self-centered activities, defined by a myopic attention to the everyday and survival. (On the this idea of what gets to matter, I recommend Lawrence Grossberg’s overlooked We Gotta Get Outa this Place). Throughout the film, characters talk about their particular interests, whether it be their child’s allergies or their engagement, oblivious as whether or not anyone is listening.

As much as the film deals with a politics that is profoundly apolitical, if not anti-political, since it is ground on a moralizing fantasy of absolute innocence and wrong, the film also offers something of a picture of political passion, of political love, or fidelity. More specifically, it deals with how out of sync such passions are with the obsessive narcissism of contemporary society. It is possible to argue that the film accurately presents “animal liberation” as what remains of politics in a culture in which moralism, the fantasy of innocence, and the individual reign supreme.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

We Scholastics: Or, Disciplining Thought

Spinoza tells us that there is a kind of joy associated with thought, a joy based on the affirmation of our own power to think. For me this joy comes in moments where I am thinking on my feet. Sometimes this happens in the classroom and sometimes it happens when writing or reading, but somehow things click and I can see things coming together in a new way. It is probably the reason that I am in this business, the reason that I sit through departmental meetings, grade piles of papers, and have given up any control over where I get to live.

These moments have been few and far between as of late. This is in part due to the classes I am teaching this semester. For example: one class I am teaching this semester is Medieval Philosophy. It is the first time I am teaching this course, and I do not have the background or confidence to really entertain any new interpretations; so I stick to my notes. Of course this is in some sense keeping with the spirit of the medieval philosophy, which was in some sense all about respecting the established authority of not only scripture but whoever came before, the endless commentaries on Aristotle, Porphyry, Lombard, etc.

I do not want to be too glib, but there is an odd similarity between the medievals and us. We too have our commentaries, our volumes of writings that exceed the originals. I am teaching Boethius’ and Abelard’s commentary on Porphyry’s Isagoge (itself a commentary on Aristotle) while I at home I am editing essays that discuss Negri’s commentary on Spinoza and so on. I would be tempted to make some kind of meta-comment about the particular social and historical conditions that produce such insular self-reflection.

What keeps me from being too glib, and hopefully keeps this post from being from another rant against the collapse of philosophy into commentary, is the second class I am teaching this semester. I am also co-teaching an interdisciplinary freshman seminar on “consumer society.” This should be the opposite of “medieval philosophy,” modern, cutting edge, and interdisciplinary. However, I am co-teaching this course with an economist and a professor from English with a background in cultural studies. What I am finding is that this is not without its particular constraints, and disciplining effects. Often, I am called upon to speak “as a philosopher.” In the last few weeks, the economist and I both lectured about Marx, which raised the question how does Marx the philosopher differ from Marx the economist. This is a question that is difficult to answer. It is hard to fit Marx into any generic definition of a philosopher. However, the class more or less requires those of us teaching it to differentiate ours specific approaches. So I end up trying to say something about the philosophical problems underlying “commodity fetishism.”

This has lead me to conclude two things about interdisciplinary and the disciplines of philosophy:

1) Disciplines cannot be simply placed in relation as if they were independent things, because each discipline has its own internal relations to others. (I have to admit that this point is stolen from Althusser’s prescient critique of interdisciplinary research in “Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists”: an essay that would perhaps be read more if it did not have such an ungainly title). To take Althusser’s example: one cannot simply combine philosophy and mathematics, since mathematics exists as an internal point of articulation of philosophy. I would add that the same applies to other disciplines. Philosophy may not have a theory of literature as an internal condition, but it does have myriad ways of interpreting texts and reading. At the same time other disciplines cannot be separated from “their spontaneous philosophy.”

2) There is no philosophy in general. Every philosophy worthy of the name rewrites the basic rules of thinking, argument, and articulation. This statement applies not only to such maverick philosophers as Marx, Foucault, and Deleuze, whose philosophy is clearly grounded in other practices of knowledge, but even such “philosopher’s philosophers” as Spinoza and Hegel.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Dead Mall: Or, Postapocalyptic Now

I caught the tail end of a show on Weekend America (npr) about Deadmalls. I then went online to follow the rest of the show and it turned out that it was not about deadmalls in particular, but in a very specific deadmall, Randall Park Mall. This Mall is near where I grew up, and I logged many hours there, wandering between the Hobby Shop, Record Store, and movie Theater. I find its collapse to be oddly satisfying, perhaps because it is the ruins of capitalism or perhaps because it is the physical embodiment of my fading memory. The story also has links to photos of an abandoned Holiday Inn next door. I went to my first comic book convention there, and it seemed to be a kind of magical place. I think it is because I had never stayed in a hotel, only motels.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Marxism in Reverse

The idea that neoliberalism is a kind of Marxism in reverse has taken on a great deal of currency in academic, popular, and activist circles. In Chroniques de temps consuels, Jacques Rancière goes so far as to say that Marxism has in some sense become the official ideology of liberal societies. (Similar remarks can be found in Disagreement).The grounds for this idea of Marxism displaced or reversed are basic. In each case it is the matter of the economy determining the political. What has been reversed is only the value attached to this determination; free markets and private property and not the free association of producers is now the basis for freedom.

Alain Badiou has pushed this argument further, stating that is not simply economic determinism that unifies Marxism and neoliberalism but a shared anthropology that unifies all economic discourse. It is an anthropology of interest, in which the human animal is defined by its desire for the conservation of self. It is hardly an anthropology at all, since it does not so much define the human as reduce humans to the animalistic basis of existence. It is against this that Badiou juxtaposes the human capacity for fidelity to truth.

In identifying Marxism with neoliberalism, Rancière and Badiou repeat some of the old polemics and arguments against Marxism from the past decades. The accusation of economism, of an anthropology which identified humanity with basic needs, can be found in critics such as Arendt, Baudrillard, Gorz, Habermas, and Foucault, to name a few. Thus it would be more accurate to say that neoliberalism is vulgar Marxism in reverse.

These same positions, economism, anthropology of labor, etc., are what Marxism (what has sometimes been called Western Marxism) has been trying to philosophically distance itself in past decades. So, rather than say that neoliberalism is Marxism in reverse, it is possible to say that Marxism confronts its own limitations in an inverted form. This opens up an interesting critical predicament. At the same time that Marxism has been expanding its critical tools, developing materialist understandings of ideology, non-reductive accounts of the economy, and a nuanced social ontology, capitalist ideology has been simplifying itself, to the point where it no longer conceals its economic basis. Can neoliberalism even be called ideology?

Saturday, September 22, 2007

University Experience

This semester I am co-teaching a class on “consumer society,” a class which is designed to inspire and provoke students to critically think about that which is most familiar to them. Already in a few short weeks the class has reinforced a realization that has begun to crystallize over the last few years of teaching. By and large students have no real problem with radical criticisms of the present order. I have taught Marx, Foucault, Negri, Goldman, etc. semester after semester, and generally students have no trouble accepting critiques of capital and the like. The thing is that they cannot imagine any connection between these critiques and their life or life in general. Furthermore they interpret the fact that I care about these things, believe in these criticisms, to be simply a testament to the fact that I do not live in the real world, but in the classroom. In the classroom it is perfectly acceptable to criticize capitalism, but in the real world one needs to find a decent job.

Of course I am generalizing, and not even in a profound manner. My point is this, if for decades the figure of the student was synonymous with social rebellion, with a ruthless criticism of everything existing, this may have less to do with theories than with a particular practice, a particular experience of living. Universities uproot students from their homes, from their familiar and entrenched place in a familial order, and place them in a context that is halfway between communism (collective living, eating, sleeping) and anarchism (the necessity of creating a social order ex nihilo, even if it is only with a roommate). On top of this there is all of the time, free from work and other demands; time to spend in clubs and social activities. There is something radical about student life, independent of the classroom. (In fact one of the things that critics of academia like David Horowitz can never explain, or even address, is the fact that the years that we associate with student activism, the tumultuous sixties, were years of relatively conservative teaching.)

It is this experience, this liminal space of freedom between home and job that is being destroyed. It is being destroyed by the cuts in funding to education. Students today, at least my students at a state university, work jobs, both on campus and off, and worry constantly about making ends meet. Many live at home, and have no time for clubs and student organizations, for practicing politics. They are all theory and no practice, and so theory appears to be lifeless and dead to them.

There is a fairly mediocre science fiction novel called Kampus by James Gunn. Most of it takes place in a futuristic extrapolation of a sixties college campus (Berkeley, I think), with permanent protest between students and administration; a college president who has been kidnapped so many times that he is replaced by an android; and so on. There is a scene in the novel when the main protagonist is on the run, hiding out at a community college/technical school. After a few days of observing the mind numbing conditions at the school, he decides to take action. He gives a rousing speech, imploring the students to rise up and demand freedom to think and live. The students rise up to attack him, however, worried that his disruptions will threaten their grades and job prospects. That is the university of the future, no androids needed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Jacques Rancière’s contribution to Lire le Capital has been unfortunately maligned. Even Rancière himself quickly repudiated it. The essay, titled “The Concept of Critique and the Critique of Political Economy” was not included in the second edition of the collection and thus like Macherey’s piece it was left out of the translation. It was, however, eventually translated in a book in the Economy and Society series.

In critiquing Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, Rancière proposes that Marx’s text is governed by a series of amphipologies in which the economic meaning of a term fluctuates with a larger anthropological meaning. For example, value at times refers to a economic sense of the term, but it also refers to a larger anthropological sense, to be devalued is to be impoverished. The same could be said of poverty, exchange, and wealth, all of which fluctuate between a specific economic meaning and a larger anthropological meaning. It is the latter which ultimately determines the former.

I have been thinking about this general critical strategy, rather than the specific philosophy and politics of Althusser’s Marxism, in light of recent writing on the concept of the subject by Etienne Balibar and Nina Power. What both Balibar and power stress is that the subject is a concept overdetermined by multiple meanings: grammatical, ontological, political, etc. Much of the critique of the subject has taken ontology or a particular philosophical understanding of the subjet as central: individual subject of knowledge and representation. This can be seen in the odd elevation of Descartes to the status of the first and primary philosopher of the subject despite the fact that he never uses the term or its related problems. What is assumed in this is that the philosophical meaning determines the political meaning. Thus, against the genealogy that makes Descartes the culprit, Balibar suggests Kant as the first philosopher of the subject. This is in part more accurate, Kant uses the term, but it also reflects the overdetermination of the problem: Kant’s subject is an attempt to think the problematic unity of ethics, knowledge, and politics.

What is lost in this “critique of the subject” is any sense of the political dimension of the subject. Or, to put it in Power’s terms, that the individual subject, the Cartesian subject, may itself be effacing the project to construct a collective subject. There is thus something oddly conservative in the critique of the subject: the assumption that ideas, not actions, determine history, that philosophy is always primary to politics.

Finally, this suggests a new critical strategy, not a critique of the subject, or a revalorization of the subject. As if it is meaningful to be for or against the subject, but an examination of the way in which the subject is always situated at the intersection of multiple meanings, one of which is determinant. Despite the fact that Althusser is often guilty of the philosophical reduction, his ISA essay pretty much tries to reduce ideology to a diffuse Cartesianism, other texts, such as Sur la Reproduction make a different argument. In that manuscript (which the famous piece on ISAs is an excerpt of) Althusser argues that what defines bourgeois ideology is the centrality of a particular juridical-moral ideology. It is the ideology of the contract, which identifies everyone as an individual formally identical to others: “Freedom, equality, and Bentham.”

The “critique of the subject” is a necessary first step, it severs the connection that naturalized the subject, identifying the subject with the human animal. The next step is not to dispense with the subject, to move on to “bodies and powers,” but to examine the specific practices of subjectification. For example: I would argue that it is the economic subject that is now dominant, the subject of interest, the subject that calculates. Thus,rather than remain prisoner to one particular amphibology, in which it is the philosophical sense of the term that is dominant, it would be possible examine the different amphipologies, the different attempts to suture the subject to one meaning.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Buridan's Ass

Classes start on Tuesday. Given that I am teaching two new classes in the semester as well as making several conference presentations and invited lectures this semester it will probably prove to be a very demanding one. So the question is what to do with the last few days before it begins. I am torn between three options: read and work on notes for classes; read something for research (or maybe even write); or blow everything off, ride my bike, go to the beach, read comics and rent movies. Each option is equally compelling, thus I remain frozen, doing a little of all three, but a lot of random things as well.

I think that is probably the thing missing from the famous description of the ass. It is not enough that the donkey would neither eat nor drink, it has to also decide to engage in some kind of pointless activity while it simultaneously starves and dies of thirst: reorganizing its CD collection, looking up old Dischord bands on on Youtube, and google-mapping every apartment it ever lived in. That is what it is like to be caught between equally compelling demands.

My old roommate in graduate school and I used to have a term for this, responding to pressures by wasting time: we used to call it "sovereignty." Specifically we would use this term to refer too blowing off the reading for classes and exams in order to read something else, some other work of philosophy or theory usually. The use of the term is a vague reference to Georges Bataille. As is the name of this blog.

A few people have asked why I have named my blog "unemployed negativity." Some have even been quick to point out that I do in fact have a job. If there is any justification for the title it has to do with the idea of critical energy that does not really go anywhere, fragments of thought that do not make it into publications or the classroom, hence unemployed. Mostly, however, I just thought that it sounded cool. I am not even that into Bataille or negativity, for that matter.

Well back to the subject of waisting time. I have been known to make up some really stupid songs (another roommate remembers a song I made up about Jean Baudrillard) and equally stupid dances. It is perhaps for this reason that I have developed an odd fascination with The Flight of the Conchords, a show that I have only seen in its youtube form.

Here are some favorite bits:

Finally, let us remember what Spinoza said about all of this wasting time on youtube:

[I]t may be objected, if man does not act from free will, what will happen if the incentives to action are equally balanced, as in the case of Buridan's ass? [In reply,] I am quite ready to admit, that a man placed in the equilibrium described (namely, as perceiving nothing but hunger and thirst, a certain food and a certain drink, each equally distant from him) would die of hunger and thirst. If I am asked, whether such an one should not rather be considered an ass than a man; I answer, that I do not know, neither do I know how a man should be considered, who hangs himself, or how we should consider children, fools, madmen, &c.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Body Politic

In many ways this post is a follow up to “No Admittance Except on Business,” in that it deals with relation, or non-relation, between production and representation. This time the point of entry is that of the body politic. Of course the idea of a body politic has a long history from Menenius Agrippa through Chrstian Pizan and so on, but I am interested in a more contemporary and critical use. First, in Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus, where they write the following:

…the forms of social production, like those of desiring production, involve an unengendered nonproductive attitude, an element of anti-production coupled with the process, a full body that functions as a socius. This socius may be the body of the earth, that of the tyrant, or capital. This is the body that Marx is referring to when he says that it is not the product of labor, but rather appears as its natural or divine presuppositions. In fact, it does not restrict itself merely to opposing productive forces in and of themselves. It falls back on [il se rabat sur] all production, constituting a surface over which the forces and agents of production are distributed, thereby appropriating for itself all surplus production and arrogating to itself both the whole and the parts of the process, which now seem to emanate from it as a quasi-cause. (pg. 10)

Deleuze and Guattari are drawing from Marx’s notebooks on “Precapitalist Economic Formations.” These notebooks are the conceptual underpinning of much of Anti-Oedipus. The focus of their particular borrowing seems to set up a relation between production and what appears to be the presupposition of production, a relation that in many ways an opposition between production and appearance, production and representation. The despot, which is produced by the institutions and structures of precapitalist society appears to produce those same structures. As Spinoza would perhaps say: the effect is taken as a cause. This lineage descends down to capital itself, which appears as wealth generating wealth without the need of labor. The full body is always an appropriation and a misrepresentation of the productive relations of society.

In the opening pages of Alain Badiou’s Logique du Mondes, there is an articulation of the three forms of subjectivity: the revolutionary subject (or subject defined by fidelity to truth), reactive subject (defined by a denial of the truth) and an obscure subject. The first two are symmetrical, structured by the same event. The reaction is defined by the revolution it denies. Badiou’s example here is Francis Furet or the “new philosophers” whose thought is defined by the very event that they deny, declaring the French Revolution or May’68 to be a non-event. (As I have written earlier, this is Badiou’s “autonomist hypothesis” all counter-revolutions must be traced back to the revolution they deny). The obscure subject has a different trajectory. It is based not a pure and simple conservation, a retention of the past, but on an invention. It produces something, but its production is not related to an event, to a rupture of the existing order. It is an invention that is oriented in terms of a transcendental body. “The obscure subject articulates in a decisive way a timeless fetish, an incorruptible and indivisible body. Nation, God, or race”(pg. 69). The obscure subject does not address the revolution, even to deny it, but severs any connection to it through a fetish, a full body, which is produced as transcendent.

This overlap is admittedly superficial, much of it hinges on the use of the term full body [corps plein], and some vague suggestion of similar problems through the idea of the fetish. However, this superficial point of intersection, makes it possible to bring together two different critical approaches on the “production of subjectivity.” The first, in Deleuze and Guattari, is historico-structural in that the subject is related to different modes of production, different regimes of desiring production, savage, barbaric, and capitalist. In this way Deleuze and Guattari’s work intersects with Foucault, who in his own way provided for a genealogy of the oedipalized subject of desire, as well as that of Negri and others, who have theorized the new subject produced by the desiring machines of the real subsumption of capital. The second, in Badiou, is formal-structural, in that subjectivity is not related to specific social transformations, but the general, or generic, coordinates of a truth, whether this truth is actively produced, denied, or simply obscured. These strike me as two different ways of discussing the subject, each with their strength and weaknesses. The first offers an important materialist perspective, situating subjectivity as part of the larger social force (desire is part of the infrastructure), but in relating subjectivity to social forces in general it overlooks some of the transformative effects of subjectivity. While the second offers an interesting ethics of revolt, that is totally disconnected from an understanding of social forces.

Here these two understandings of subjectivity are related, however, through a problem that is important in its own regard: that of the (re)presentation of sociality itself. It seems that we cannot avoid some presentation of the social totality, and of our relation to it, what Althusser called “the society effect.” However, we could see our actions as effects of the large molar structures, capital, the state, etc. or see these structures as apparatuses of capture that obscure their conditions.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Undertheorized: Or, More on Movies

My last post on The Stranger was originally intended to make a connection to the relatively restricted visual economy of "classic films" and Rancière's concept of "the distribution of the sensible." Rancière defines this concept as "the system of self-evident facts of sense perception that simultaneously discloses the existence of something in common and the delimitations that define the respective parts and positions within it.” This is what I was getting at with the idea that films from different periods disclose something about different regimes of visibility. However, it takes a lot of theorizing to get from Rancière's concept, which suggests a historically immanent constitution of the visible and the sayable, and the more overt limitations of American film making in the 1940s, and besides, I have not even finished reading The Future of the Image, so I let the point drop.

I also intended to make a somewhat facile connection between the rupture that I sensed in Welles film and some experiences I have had in watching current films. First, there is the distant memory I have of watching Ocean's 13 earlier this summer. That film had a subplot involving harsh working conditions at a Mexican dice-factory, and an eventual labor strike. These things should have been just as jarring as Sullivan's Travels shots of poverty, especially given that most of the film is made up of pretty boys in pretty clothes, but I cannot say it had the same effect. This is in part because it is played in large part for laughs, but also in part because no image is strictly incongruous with any other. As Rancière writes, "Linking anything with anything whatsoever, which yesterday passed for subversive, is today increasingly homogenous with the reign of journalistic anything contains everything and the subject-hopping of advertising." Now, I do not want to include that this all has to do with the omnipotence of the spectacle, and that is not the direction that Rancière goes in, but I do at least want to mark a difference.

I recently saw The Bourne Ultimatum. Now by and large I enjoyed the film, but I have to say I am little tired of films that subtly and slightly criticize the current political regime. First of all it is so easy, all one has to do is put in some reference to torture, rule by fear, black-ops, surveillance, a shadowy government within, etc. and you are being critical. (see V for Vendetta, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Land of the Dead, Pan's Labyrinth,etc.) Now I must admit that these little jabs are preferable to films that go in the other direction, such as the various pro-torture films and series (24, Man on Fire, etc). However, turning the current travesty of the war in Iraq and the war of terror into entertainment strikes me as a bit obscene. Despite all of this, or because of it, I love the final scene between Matt Damon and Joan Allen. It is not enough to be disgusted by the state of the world, one must do something.

Friday, August 10, 2007

I did not expect to see that

As of late my movie rentals have tended to the old, the noir, and the works of Welles. Watching several movies from a different period (or nation) becomes an instant education in the particular protocols of visibility of that era. This is especially true for films produced under the Hays code. Although, as Adorno is quick to remind us, our modern Hollywood films are no less restricted, it is just that the source of the restriction has changed from the state to capital. These protocols go beyond the strict rules of the Hays code to encompass the sensibilities of a given time.

I sometimes wonder how much of the U.S.’s nostalgia for a particular past, that of the nineteen fifties, is not so much nostalgia for the actual past, but for what could be presented of that past in its media.

I thought of all this while watching Orson Welles’ film The Stranger. In that film, Welles plays a Nazi concentration camp officer who has fled to America after the war, disguising himself as a small town teacher. An American agent knows that the Nazi is hiding in the town, and tries to get Welles to reveal his true identity. Two things about this cat and mouse game are significant. The first takes place during a dinner party in which the agent (played by Edward G. Robinson) asks Welles about his opinion of Germany, a fairly transparent ruse. Welles then launches in a tirade about the essentially militaristic and authoritarian nature of the German people; he argues that unlike the rest of Europe, the Germans have had no spirit of revolutionary justice, no equality, liberty and fraternity. A student at the dinner objects, “But what about Karl Marx, who said the proletariat have nothing to lose but their chains?” To which Welles replies, “But Marx was a Jew, not a German.” This denial becomes key in Robinson figuring out who Welles is, as he says later in the film, “Well, who but a Nazi would deny that Karl Marx was a German... because he was a Jew?

The citation of Marx as an emancipatory figure in a film made in 1946 is a bit odd, but it is nothing compared to what happens later in the film. Robinson is trying to turn Welles’ wife against him, he takes her into a room with a projector and the screen shows actual newsreel footage of the liberation of the camps, the ovens, bodies stacked like wood, etc. It is truly a shocking image, breaking with the protocol of everything before and after in the film. According to IMDB this is the first instance of images from the holocaust appearing in an American film. More importantly, it is a strange rupture with the visual logic of the film itself, It is perhaps comparable to Preston Sturges’ montage on the depression in Sullivan’s Travels, a film that is some sense about the limits of what can be profitably shown on the screen.

I can think of only a few examples of ruptures in modern films, which are empowered by the spectacle to juxtapose everything with anything.

Monday, August 06, 2007


I have been tagged by Nate to come up with eight things about myself. So here goes:

1. I had a pet turtle for twenty-years. Well, it started as my brother’s turtle, and I sort of inherited it (not that my brother died, he just moved into an apartment that was too drafty for proper reptile care). It was an Asian box turtle (sometimes referred to as Malaysian Box Turtle). I loved that turtle.
2. I once worked for a syndicated court TV show (like Judge Judy, only less successful). My job was to read the dockets of local small claims courts, searching for cases that would make good television. I am not proud of this, but it did help me get through graduate school, at least for the few months that it lasted. I also learned something about the power of television through this job. For the most part the judges I encountered during this job hated me, something about ruining the sanctity of the judicial process, but the clerks and other people I encountered were utterly fascinated; they saw me as link to the glowing world of television.
3. I am somewhat obsessed with monkeys, and I consider the day I spent watching howler monkeys in the jungles of Guatemala to be one of my fondest memories.
4. I have a brother who is an artist and a musician. I do not know what horrible karmic wrong my parents did to get a philosophy professor and an artist/musician for sons, but they have dealt with it well. (I should link to my brother’s band or art site here, but it would violate my commitment to anonymity, sorry about that.)
5. I am quite fond of the peanut, in all of its forms, peanut butter, peanut sauce, peanut butter cups, etc.
6. (as a belated response to Steven Shaviro) Aside from the brilliant teachers I have had, my pedagogical role model is Rupert Giles, simultaneously bookish and cool.
7. I once killed a man just for snoring too loud.
8. One of these is not true.

I am also supposed to tag others, and promise them good luck if they comply. Well I am less comfortable about this part. I do not want to threaten anyone with bad luck, or dabble in mystic forces that I do not comprehend (see #6), but I will say that if you are a frequent or occasional visitor to this site, you should consider coming up with your own eight things.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Matter of Thought

Lately, I have been reading some Gilbert Simondon. The particular book I have is L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information which includes both L’individu et sa genèse psycho-biologique (which initially appeared in 1964, and was influential for Deleuze) and L’individuation psychique et collective (which was published in 1989, and develops the idea of transindividuality, important for Balibar and Virno), as well as an unfinished Histoire de la Notion de’Individu. I am primarily interested in the latter two, or at least the latter two fit my current areas of research, but there is something in the first book/section that struck me as interesting.

Simondon criticizes the hylomorphic model of understanding the constitution of individuality, the idea that individual things are defined by a particular combination of form and matter. In examining this idea, Simondon relates it back to its technological conditions, the practices that would seem to generate the model. Simondon argues that even those activities that would seem to exemplify this idea of form and matter, such as brick making, are actually more complex than the model would suggest. Clay is not just a formless, generic matter, but must itself be selected and prepared according to the way in which specific qualities lend themselves to particular forms. Not to mention the fact that the form, in this case the mould is not a pure idea, but must be made of matter, with particular qualities and limitations. There is always more matter in form and more form in matter than the model would suggest. This leads Simondon to argue that the form/matter pair is not simply a practical idea that has been extended to explain everything from the soul to human reproduction (as in Aristotle), but is ultimately the effect of a particular social relation. “One could say that in a civilization that divides men into two groups, those who give orders and those who execute them, the principal of individuation, following a technological example, is necessarily attributed either to form or to matter, but never the two together. (pg. 58)” Thus we could say that the form/matter distinction is the effect of a particular division of mental and manual labor.

This is the idea that interests me: the connection between a metaphysical concept and a particular social formation, an immediate connection not just between base and superstructure, but between the very possibility of thought and the most basic practical activities. Perhaps the most audacious example of such a short circuit comes from Marx himself, who writes the following in Capital:

“The religious world is but the reflex of the real world. And for a society based upon the production of commodities, in which the producers in general enter into social relations with one another by treating their products as commodities and values, whereby they reduce their individual private labour to the standard of homogeneous human labour – for such a society, Christianity with its cultus of abstract man, more especially in its bourgeois developments, Protestantism, Deism, &c., is the most fitting form of religion.” (page 172)

It seems to me that at this point we are not speaking of ideology, at least as it is generally understood. Ideology generally designates a specific doctrine, or set of representations, and not, as in the above examples, such generic an unavoidable ideas as form/matter or abstract humanity. Understood broadly this idea does not just appear in Marx. Heidegger at times makes the argument that metaphysical concepts are simply the effects of our pre-reflexive understanding of being, an understanding rooted in practical comportments. As Heidegger writes:

“In production, therefore, we come up against just what does not need to be produced. In the course of producing and using beings we come up against the actuality of what is already there before all producing, products, and producibles, or of what offers resistance to the formative process that produces things. The concepts of matter and material have their origin in the understanding of being that is oriented to production.” (The Basic Problems of Phenomenology pg. 116).

The passage refers specifically to matter, but in full section Heidegger is referring to the practical basis of the medieval metaphysical (predominantly Aquinas) of existence and essence. It is not just that the idea of matte comes from production, but substance as well. My point is not equate these various assertions, far from it. For Simondon and Marx the connection is between social relations and conceptual production, while for Heidegger it is production in a technological (or even anthropological sense). What interests is the sporadic appearance of this “short circuit,” appearing primarily as an aside and rarely as a theory. (The exception would perhaps be Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s Intellectual and Manual Labor). A few questions follow from this: What does it mean to trace the origin of some metaphysical concept to some social and practical structure? What does this say about practice or thought? What does it mean that such origins are always effaced? Finally, what about the limitations of such a project; that is, what are the social conditions or the connection between concepts and social conditions?

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Meaninglessness of Style

Subcultures are defined not so much by their particular kind of commodities, music, clothes, etc., but by a particular relation to commodities. This relation runs the gambit from a strong sense of identification, which is usually exclusive (the rest of the world does not appreciate the genus of “blank”), to ironic detachment, “so bad its good.” Often it is the particular relation, and not the aesthetic values of the commodities concerned, that takes precedence. Case in point, the concern about “selling out” in circles of punk, indie rock, etc.: what is lost when the band moves to a major label is not so much its particular sound, but that feeling of exclusive identification. The band is no longer your band when all of he kids at the mall are wearing their shirt.

These are the thoughts that crossed my mind last night when I was watching The White Stripes perform. At one point I really liked The White Stripes, but then all of the exposure, the guess stints on The Simpsons and Cold Mountain, not to mention the fact that the records after “White Blood Cells” that lacked the geeky intensity of the early recordings, made it difficult to sustain the same level of enthusiasm. When the show began I was firmly entrenched in the existential position of jaded indie-rocker. The first thing I noticed was all of the kids wearing brand-spanking new White Stripes t-shirts; I thought to myself, have the rules of cool changed that much? You do not wear a new shirt of the band you are seeing, an old shirt from their first tour, maybe. Better yet, a shirt from another band somehow related, but more obscure than the band that you are seeing, in this case The Detroit Cobras or The Black Keyes. Then, I a said to my friend Ron, “It makes you wonder what were all of these kids with new shirts wearing to the show?” To which he replied, “Maybe there is a dumpster full of Killer’s t-shirts out back.” Yeah it went like that, at least at the beginning.

As Jack and Meg entered the stage to the sounds of “Boogie Chillin’,” I thought to myself, I wonder how many people here even know who John Lee Hooker is, let alone catch the reference to the Detroit blues sound, which is so important to the White Stripes? My bitter mocking may have something to do with the fact that, when I was in High School, I went to see John Lee Hooker play and the only person I could get to go with me was my father, my peers did not care. So perhaps I was just jealous of the fact that those cool points came nearly twenty years too late. Then something happened as The White Stripes played, I forgot all about kids with new shirts, the widely out of place mosh pit up front, and sad attempts as Mohawks, I just heard the music. I am not claiming an unmediated experience here, all I am saying is that they rocked. Sometimes it is good to remember that it can be about the music.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

New Foucault Against the Final Foucault

Anyone who has been around philosophy for even a little bit of time is familiar with its cyclical nature, old ideas and philosophers are continually being reborn and repackaged, there is a “New” Nietzsche, Spinoza, Bergson, even Sartre. At times this seems to be a reflection of a genuine change and insight and at other times it just seems like a lot of repackaging. One philosopher who seems due for such a resurgence, or reconsideration, is Michel Foucault. This might seem odd, since Foucault, unlike the other philosophers considered above has not disappeared from intellectual debates and discussions. (For example at the time that the “New Spinoza” was published it was nearly impossible to find a decent translation of the Political Treatise.) While it is true that Foucault’s work and works on Foucault are never in short supply, what does seem to be in short supply is original thinking when it comes to Foucault. Foucault scholarship has ossified into a rather standard narrative: after coming up with an original theory of power that unfortunately lacked agency and normative criteria, Foucault thankfully discovered the Greek’s practices of freedom, admitted that he liked Kant, and had dinner with Jürgen Habermas.

What is missing in this narrative (which I have simplified in the most insulting way possible), besides a more nuanced understanding of Discipline and Punish and the first volume of The History of Sexuality, is any explanation or account of what happened in the interim years between the first and second volumes of the History of Sexuality. Well now it is possible to at least have some understanding of what happened in that period through the publication of the courses from 1977-1979, Sécurité, Territoire, Population (recently translated into English) and Naissance de la biopolitique. These courses do not pursue the question of how individuals became subjects of desire but examine governmentality, the other theme of Foucault’s work in the late seventies and early eighties.

What is most striking, however, is Naissance de la biopolitique, which focuses on neoliberalism: making it both Foucault’s only sustained study of politics in the twentieth century and his first engagement with political economy since The Order of Things. More importantly the focus on governmentality, and neoliberalism as a form of governmentality, undermines one of the central commonplaces of Foucault’s turn. It has often been said, even by Foucault himself, that the shift from the work of the seventies to the eighties is a shift from studying the objectivizing of the subject, the way the human individual is made a subject of inquiry by others, to the subjectivizing of the subject, the way individuals constitute themselves as subjects. (Foucault said this in “The Subject and Power,” from there it became canonized in Dreyfus and Rabinow’s book) Thomas Lemke has argued that the concept of governmentality undermines any opposition between “object” and “subject”: governmentality constitutes a continuum encompassing everything from the state down to an individual’s conduct.

This seems to me to be especially true of neoliberalism, which is as much a practice of the self as it is a government policy. As much as neoliberalism theoretically reimagines society as a marketplace, as competition between self-interested individuals, the breakdown of social structures such as unions practically accomplishes the same thing. It encourages individuals to see themselves not as “workers” in a political sense, who have something to gain through solidarity and collective organization, but as “companies of one.” They become individuals for whom every action, from taking courses on a new computer software application to having their teeth whitened, can be considered an investment in human capital. As Eric Alliez and Michel Feher write: “Corporations’ massive recourse to subcontracting plays a fundamental role in this to the extent that it turns the workers’ desire for independence…into a “business spirit” which meets capital’s growing need for satellites” (In “The Luster of Capital” published in the first Zone collection). Neoliberalism makes it harder to think of opposition between “objectifying” and “subjectifying” as an opposition between domination and agency. In neoliberalism governmentality is subcontracted, we govern ourselves.

Christian Laval has written an interesting study of neoliberalism, or really the prehistory of neoliberalism, in a book called L’homme économique: essai sur les raciness du néoliberalisme, which also stresses the untenable nature of this division between object and subject. Central to Laval’s argument is a thorough reading of Bentham, a reading that moves beyond the panopticon to Bentham’s understanding of the role of reputation and publicity in a free market society. In such a society, where reputation and image are integral to economic exchanges, determining how and if one gets, hired, bought from etc., everyone is simultaneously policing and policed. As Laval writes, “The primary panoptic apparatus [dispositif] is society itself as a space of mutual surveillance.” Thus, following the provocations of Lemke and Laval, the new Foucault would not try to salvage agency, to oppose the work of subjectification to that of obectification, but to see how in neoliberalism our agency, our self-interest and self-policing, is a form of subjection.

It seems to me that such an inquiry would be more interesting than yet another reconsideration of Foucault’s essay on the enlightenment.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Marx and Averroes: Communism of the Intellect

While there has been a great deal of writing about Marx’s idea of the “general intellect” in circles of post-operaismo, little has been said about the anomalous nature of the concept. Appearing in the Grundrisse the concept appears to be completely orphaned, cut off from not only any connection with the rest of Marx’s thought, but with the history of philosophy in general. It is perhaps for this reason that the term appears in English in Marx’s writing, a foreign idea. The passage in which the term appears is as follows:

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are the products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge objectified [vergegenständlichte Wissenskraft]. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it (Grundrisse pg. 706).

What sets the concept apart from the rest of Marx’s thought, as well as the history of philosophy altogether, is the idea of the productivity of social knowledge, of thought as something that is both incorporeal, residing in no one individual, and concrete, directly having effects. One could argue that this idea is not entirely without precursor in Marx, that Marx continually “flirted” with this problem, from ideology, to fetishism, and through the discussions of the divisions of mental and manual labor. Even so, the concept, and the problem it entails, is completely alien to western thought, which has tended to posit the intellect as always the intellect of an individual.

Thus it is interesting and surprising to see Giorgio Agamben invent a lineage for this concept. In the short essay “Form of Life,” Agamben writes the following:

We can communicate with others only through what in us—as much as in others—has remained potential, and any communication is first of all communication not of something in common but of communicability itself…That is why modern political philosophy does not begin with classical thought, which had made of contemplation, of the bios theoreticos, a separate and solitary activity…but rather only with Averroism, that is, with the thought of the one and only intellect common to all human beings, and crucially with Dante’s affirmation—in De Monarchia—of the inherence of the multitude to the very power of thought...(Means without Ends pg. 10).

Agamben completes this passage with an overt reference to the diffuse intellectuality of Marx’s general intellect. Now, Agamben’s interest in Averroes, and in Medieval Thought in general, dates back to at least to Stanzas (from 1977). Anyone who reads Agamben is accustomed to these jarring conjunctions, which put Aquinas next to Debord, Marx and Grandville, etc, but in this case the conjunction suggests a larger point of overlap. Agamben is referring to the problem of the active (or agent) intellect and potential (or material) intellect in Islamic discussions of Aristotle. The discussion has to do with Aristotle’s assertion in De Anima that the mind must have both a matter and an agent or cause. In the case of the mind it must be an entirely potential matter with no property of its own, since the mind must be able to think the intelligible nature of anything whatsoever. This problem gets a larger discussion after Aristotle than it does in Aristotle. In the various Islamic philosophers which have addressed this question, Alfarabi, Avicenna, and Averroes, both the matter and agent are understood to be something transindividual, even cosmological, a capacity for thought and an agent for thought that exceeds the confines of the individual mind. In fact the individual mind, the thoughts that an individual has at a given moment are only a small part of what one can potentially think, a philosopher is not always thinking philosophically, a poet poetically, etc, potential always exceeds the actual.

While Agamben’s interest in this seem to be primarily focused on rethinking the relation between potentiality and actuality, I am interested in this conjunction for three reasons. First, it underscores the “communism of thought,” the fact that both the matter of thought, language, concepts, and images, and the agent of thought, that which provokes thought, are never the products of a solitary mind, but collective products. Second, they have been so not just since the internet, but since humans began to think with conceps and words. (Which is not to say that there have not been changes with the role of thought in the productive process.) Finally, it offers an interesting way to “practice philosophy” after Marx; rather than search for a precursor to Marx’s concept, it takes a concept from Marx and tries to find a conceptual articulation that does justice to it. This is the same thing that is happening with some of the work on Spinoza. (Incidentally Spinoza’s thought of “common notions” could be used to expand the idea of the “general intellect.”)

Friday, June 22, 2007

The All Seeing Eye

So I have made at least one mention of The Evens on this blog before, making a link to their song about vowels. However, I have not really expressed the particular fondness I have for this band, a fondness based in large part on their stripped down but intense sound. I also love the band for the way in which their aesthetic can be understood as an answer a very particular existential question: How to maintain fidelity to youthful rebellion as one gets older?

That is a little awkwardly phrased, but I thought that the Badiou term was appropriate. Let me explain. First, as a general background point, in the United States radical politics has been identified with youth culture, anarchism is tied to punks, peace to hippies, etc. (If I wanted to continue writing this in Badiouisms, I would say that radical politics has been sutured to adolescent counterculture.) Thus, making it very difficult to think of how one can maintain such political commitments into adulthood. A grown up anarchist, an adult anti-war activists, the phrases suggest the caricature of an aging hippy with a ponytail comb-over. Radical politics are for the young, for those who have not learned the ways of the world. That old saying about "anyone who isn't a socialist at twenty having no heart" and so on carries particular weight here.

One half of The Evens is Ian Mackaye, famous for such bands as Minor Threat, Embrace, and Fugazi. A living icon of sorts. Now he could perhaps follow the icons of a previous generation in continuing to market nostalgia, perhaps a Minor Threat reunion tour? After all it worked for The Sex Pistols. Or give up entirely. Instead we have The Evens. The Evens have what could be described a more mature sound, played sitting down, no more jumping around; so they have left some of the kid's stuff to the kids. At the same time they have not sacrificed the core of rebellion. If anything their songs are even more direct than at least Fugazi; the chorus of "Everyone knows," which is about the current administration is quite simply, "Everyone knows you are a liar."

So one can grow old and still be punk as fuck.

Of course given my age, I almost have to believe this to be possible. I just got back from seeing The Evens live. I wont say that I was the oldest person at the show, there were some adults who brought their kids to the all ages show. I did, however, run into a few students there. One of whom pointed out that I was probably old enough to have seen Fugazi. Yes, I am that old.

One final note on the show itself. Ian Mackaye was very much what one would expect. The title of this post comes from a comment he made about a kid who had brought his laptop to record the show for Youtube. Which prompted a rant about the all seeing eye, the desire to tape everything, record everything (one could add blog everything) rather than experience it. Mackaye's impromptu lectures are as much a part of the show as the music, and all of well known topics were covered, punk breaking down the wall between performer and audience, the war, and even a brief digression about cadence. Amy Farina has a quieter intensity, focusing on singing, only really speaking up to mock Ian as a walking encyclopedia . They complement each other well.