Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Commodity Corner Part II: Welcome to the Food Court

The university where I work recently redesigned its main dinning commons. The design includes a new café called "The Bleecker St. Cafe." This continues to amuse me. I do not know precisely what is supposed to make a little kiosk selling sandwiches, coffee, and juice in New England reminiscent of Greenwich village. Is it the hummus?

I have given the place the slogan: "Urban dining in a safe food court atmosphere."

This has got me thinking about immaterial labor. Which Lazzarato defines as follows:

"The concept of immaterial labor refers to two different aspects of labor. On the one hand, as regards the “informational content” of the commodity, it refers directly to the changes taking place in workers’ labor processes in big companies in the industrial and tertiary sectors, where the skills involved in direct labor are increasingly skills involving cybernetics and computer control (and horizontal and vertical communication). On the other hand, as regards the activity that produces the “cultural content” of the commodity, immaterial labor involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as “work”—in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and more strategically, public opinion."

Now, I am interested in this idea of the hegemony of immaterial labor; that is, I think it makes it possible to grasp many of the economic and cultural transformations of capital. While I think it is true that commodities have become inseparable from their cultural content, and to some extent the "Bleecker St. Café" testifies to this, otherwise it would just be labeled "Food court," it also reveals how absolutely ineffective and laughable some of this cultural work actually is. It is not just a matter of this particular food court, we are surrounded by poorly named and designed commodities: housing developments with names like "Whispering Pines," which can only refer to the trees that were destroyed to make way for the houses, and food courts with nautical themes in landlocked states.

So my question is where does this leave us: in the realm of the spectacle, where signs are completely separated from what they signify, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa is just something on the menu. Or does the gap between the commodity and its image make possible something, some critical strategy, other than inexhaustable and insufferable irony?

In the name of full disclosure I should mention that I eat at the Bleecker St. Café quite a lot, at least whenever I forget to pack my lunch. I recommend the hummus/feta sandwich with the chips, you gotta get the chips. It beats the veggie burgers I used to eat at the old generic dining commons.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Dialectics (Part Three)

OK, so the first thesis on Feuerbach is not as punchy as some of the others, and it is not going to fit on anyone’s tombstone, no matter how large, I still think that it is the most philosophically provocative of the eleven. In case anyone has forgotten how it goes, I will hum a few bars:

“The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.”

As of late I have been concerned less with the defect of materialism, or idealism for that matter, than the positive dimension of idealism alluded to here, its concept of activity. Specifically I have been thinking about the role of activity, or action, in The Phenomenology of Spirit. These thoughts are occasioned by a partial reading of some of the hits (“Sense Certainty,” Self-Consciousness”) for the purpose of teaching. On of the thing that struck me in rereading these sections is the way in which activity often necessitates the dialectical reversal. Transforming how the situation appears to how it actually is, from the in-itself to the for-itself, or rather the in and for itself. This can be seen most clearly in the section on Self-Consciousness, in which it is work that transforms the slave.

But action, at least some kind of activity, also appears as the transforming force, somewhat arbitrarily I might add, in the section on sense-certainty, where it is the act of writing that transforms the apparent richness of sense-certainty into an empty universal. Once “Now is day” is written down, materialized in paper, it becomes subject to the vicissitudes of time, becoming false as day turns to night.

Hegel explicitly acknowledges this gap between thought and action, in which action negates the thought which is its precondition in the section on “Scepticism.” As Hegel writes of Scepticism: “Its deeds and words always belie one another and equally it has itself the doubly contradictory consciousness of unchangableness and sameness, and of utter contingency and non-identity with itself.” Now if scepticism is in part a becoming conscious of the dialectical process itself (to quote Hegel: “Sceptic consciousness is the very experience of the dialectic. But whereas, in the preceding stages of the phenomenological development, the dialectic occurred, so to speak without the knowledge of consciousness, now it is its deed”), then this gap between consciousness and action now becomes explicitly manifest as well. From this point forward consciousness struggles with its non-identity with its own activity.

Now this is just a thought, but certain questions follow: First, what would this mean for a reading of Hegel, for a reading of a thought of practice in the Phenomenology in its various instantiations, from the work of the slave to Antigone’s ethical action? Is it possible to extract a thought of practice that is something other than conscious intent, but also perhaps something other than the cunning of reason? Second, what would this mean for a rethinking of the Hegel/Marx relation? In The German Ideology Marx reference the difference between what one says and what one does against German Idealism. As Marx writes: “Whilst in ordinary life every shopkeeper is very well able to distinguish between what somebody professes to be and what he really is, our historians have not yet one this trivial insight.” More importantly, Marx relies on this non-identity between thought and action to articulate the social relations underlying “commodity fetishism.” As Alfred Sohn-Rethel writes of commodity relations: ‘The consciousness and the action of people part company in exchange and go different ways.’ Fetishism is not something we think, we all claim that commodities are unique with their specific use values, it is something we do, we act as if they are concrete instantiations of value. Finally, could we extract form Hegel’s phenomenology a description of contemporary forms of scepticism and cynicism?

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Last Communist Standing: Notes on the Relation between Negri and Badiou

It is perhaps one of the many ironies of history that the two of the lastest intellectuals from Europe to be discussed and debated in “theory” circles are not “postmodernists” but two thinkers for whom “communism” remains an unavoidable point of reference, a word which is to be discussed, debated, and even contested, but not simply dismissed. Communism has outlived its various “pomo” gravediggers. I am talking about Antonio Negri and Alain Badiou. (I should also mention that I am omitting European liberals such as Luc Ferry, why would we import them? There is a glut in the market after all, and liberals should understand that.)

There has been very little discussion of the connections or relations between these two thinkers, despite the fact that Badiou opens his Logiques des Mondes (also published as Radical Philosophy “Democratic Materialism and the Materialist Dialectic”) with a criticism of Negri’s democratic materialism, his assertion that the body is the ultimate horizon of production. Now, I think that this criticism, which links Negri to a kind of ineffective pluralism through the assertion of biopower, a kind of bad infinity in which humanity is made up of multiple particularities, like so many exotic fauna, is patently unfair, given the fact that Negri’s thought has rigorously avoided such liberal platitudes. That in itself is not important, as Deleuze writes “ encounters between independent thinkers always occur in a blind zone.” So in the spirit of this blind zone, I would like to outline points of contact and disagreement. I should say from the outset that despite my invocation of Logiques des Mondes, which arrived in the mail last week, as of late I have been reading old Badiou (De l’idéologie and Théorie du sujet) and old Negri for that matter, Books for Burning and Labor of Dionysus, so this may end up being about a point of contact between their work in the seventies and eighties.

1) The primacy of revolt: In Badiou’s (and Francois Balmes) little pamphlet, which is primarily a polemic against Althusser’s ISA essay, Badiou and Balmes argue that ideology can only be understood dialectically, as a struggle between domination and revolt. Moreover, in this dialectic revolt is primary, “c’est la résistance qui est le secret de la domination.” Of course this argument of the primacy of revolt could be dismissed as a product of Badiou’s Maoism (“It is always right to revolt”). The primacy of revolt perists, however, through Badiou’s writing on the event. Badiou argues that Nazism can only be understood from the perspective of an event of a successful revolution, the simulacrum of the event can only be understood from the event itself, or, as he states in Ethics, evil from the standpoint of the good. This “primacy of revolt” is structurally similar to the famous “autonomist hypothesis,” in which resistance precedes and prefigures domination. Thus, Badiou and Negri are two thinkers for whom have a generally philosophical (even ontological) commitment to revolution; it is not just something which should be done, but something that must be posited to comprehend the world.

2) The discontinuous continuity of the subject: For both Badiou and Negri politics always passes through a subject. (As Badiou wrote somewhat dogmatically in Théorie du Sujet, “Every subject is political. That is why there are so few subjects, and so little politics.”) The connection between politics and subjectivity is not continuous but is made up of real breaks and ruptures. As Badiou writes: “This political subject has gone under various names. He used to be referred to as a ‘citizen,’ certainly not in the sense of the elector or town councilor, but in the sense of the Jacobin of 1793. He used to be called ‘professional revolutionary.’ He used to be called ‘grassroots militant.’ We seem to be living in a time when his name is suspended, a time when we must find a new name for him.” Negri’s history has different names, mass worker, social worker, and finally, immaterial labor and the multitude itself. In Badiou’s case this series seems to relate primarily to the political activism, to its subjective dimension, while for Negri the series is constituted by transformations of “class composition.” Thus it possible to simply place Badiou on the side of politics, even voluntarism, and Negri on the side of the economy, and an economism of sorts. However, I think that the actually situation is more complicated.

3) The Excess of the state: This is perhaps a legacy of Marx, for whom the state is not an expression of the community, but a monstrous machine standing above it. In Badiou’s thought this takes a mathematic formulation, inclusion is in excess of belonging. Or, put politically, the state does not deal with individuals, but with classes, groups, it represents and codifies what has been presented. As Badiou writes in Being and Event, “To say of the state that it is of the bourgeoisie has the advantage of underlining that the state re-presents something that has already been historically and socially presented.” Representation is the codification of what exists. For Negri the state also has to be understood as an excess and overdetermination. As the factory is extended across society, so has the structure of command. As Negri writes, “If the factory has been extended across the social plane, then organization and subordination, in their varying relationship of interpenetration, are equally spread across the entire society.” The point of commonality, besides a return and transformation of Marxist state theory, can be understood in opposition to both a Foucaultian tendency to reduce the state to micropowers and a liberal tendency to see the state as a possible defense against the market. For Badiou and Negri the state has to be thought and fought in its excess.

4) Ontology: Now it is on this point that the two perhaps diverge the most. However, there is at least a similar turn toward ontology in both thinkers at about the same time, during the 1980s. Of course this can be interpreted as a response to a similar, or at least connected, set of events: that is, the collapse of a radical activity, and thus “the consolations of philosophy.” That is probably true, but what interests me is the way this ontology makes possible a rethinking of practice itself, what Badiou calls intervention and Negri constitutive practice.

More in Part II

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Pop Life of Mario Savio

On Friday I finally got a chance to see Half Nelson. I had high hopes for the film, which is usually the perfect set up for a let down. However, in this case the film more than met my expectations at least when it came to the teaching scenes. In the film Ryan Gosling's character decides to teach eighth graders lessons on dialectics, and a dialectical conception of history; history defined by opposition, contradiction and conflict. (It is because of this drive to teach something that is both too difficult and yet very important, that I found myself identifying with the Gosling character; despite the fact that I have never taught in an inner city school, coached basketball, or had anything even resembling a drug habit.) Hands down my favorite scene in the whole film involved Gosling showing a clip of Mario Savio's speech before the Free Speech Movement sit-in. The quoted passage is as follows:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

Now I love that speech, who doesn't? Oh yeah, right, most people living on this planet, for whom it is just overinflated Marxist rhetoric. The inclusion of the speech itself in the film (as well as the inclusion of Pinochet's CIA sponsored coup, and other events from history) would already put it high on my list of films of the year. It is what happens after that makes the film stand out. Gosling asks the students what Savio means by machine. One student responds, "robots and stuff?" (It is that moment that I identify with, you have your perfect passage, your perfect opening question, and suddenly you are derailed by an answer that you could not possibly anticipate.) Later, over the course of discussion, after suggesting the possibility that the machine is a metaphor, he gets the class to see how we are all part of the machine. "We are all part of the machine," that is more than one expects from a Hollywood movie.

I could say more about the film, especially about its use of dialectics, which are not just a topic for classroom discussion but a structuring principle of the film itself. The film is riddled with dialectical pairs: student/teacher, dealer/addict, etc. It also has a few moments of what could be considered "dialectical montage," shots inter-cutting the drug dealer and student on rounds with the consumption of drugs. I actually take the drugs to be a metaphor through which the "ethics of consumption" are confronted by the "ethics of the producers." The teacher is horrified that his favorite student is involved in the drug trade, never really considering his complicity in that trade. In the same way we are all horrified with the sweatshops and global labor conditions, never really considering our complicity in that trade.

The odd thing, from which this entry gets its title, is that this is the second time in the last year that Savio's speech has appeared in pop culture. It was also cited in the season two finale of Battlestar Galactica, well not so much cited as appropriated. It is Tyrol's speech against labor conditions on New Caprica. Although, in this case the machine would have to include "robots and stuff," since they are working for the cylons. 

Hegel said that all great events in history happen twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy second time as pop culture injoke.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Capitalist Dogs

The New York times did a piece on "Designer Dogs,"the labradoodles, puggles, and other crossbreeds that are popping up everywhere, in the Sunday Magazine. What struck me about this piece is the way it grafts onto a history of the species that Donna Haraway alludes to in The Companion Species Manifesto. We can only speculate about the origin of the dog, and as Haraway argues such speculations (man creating dog, dogs choosing man, symbiotic relations) determine, or are determined by, how we think about culture and nature. They are modern stories of the garden before the fall, Master and Slave dialectics, or at least of Davy and Goliath. The recent history of the breed is caught somewhere between an idyll of peasant existence and Victorian economy of distinction and prestige. To quote Haraway: "Complete with the romantic idealization of peasant-shepherds and their animals characteristic of capitalist modernization and class formations that make such life ways nearly impossible discourses of pure blood and nobility haunt modern breeds like the undead."

Dogs are the last remaining aristocrats, still caught up in a "symbolics of blood," the purity of the blood line. Anyone who has seen AKC papers for a pure bred dog can't help but think this, the lineages include names like "Lady Gertrude," and I do not think that they are being ironic. In the dog's transition from feudalism to capitalism both the peasant definition of breed according to work and the aristocratic economy of distinctions gave way to the Oedipalized demand for "the family dog." To quote the times: "The new middle class spoke explicitly of “civilizing” the dog so it might better reflect its master. Cities were tidying themselves up, pushing unsavory things like abattoirs and coal-burning plants farther out of sight. Why not reform the dog as well?" Dogs became "privatized," removed from the world of work and the economies of surplus and expenditure, they were called upon to complete the home, to provide love and company.

It is at this point in the story that the "designer dog" comes in. The article in the times details some of the sociological reasons for the "designer dog," babyboomers retiring to smaller condos, urban living, and restrictions placed on condos. "It also suggests a kind of new status symbol, one not burdened by a bloodline, but one based on the "must-have" lifestyle accessories seen on television. The "designer dog" is as much a part of our current mode of production as custom ring tones and other signifiers of a unique lifestyle. To quote Haraway one last time, "Co-constitutive companion species and co-evolution are the rule, not the exception."