Friday, April 27, 2007

No Admittance Except on Business

This is going to be one of those posts where I stitch together a few quotes, make a few comments that are somewhere between banal and provocative, and leave it at that. I consider this to be fair warning.

If I had to pick my favorite passage in all of Capital, it would be the following, which is the transition from Part Two to Part Three:

Accompanied by Mr. Moneybags and by the possessor of labour-power, we therefore take leave for a time of this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in view of all men, and follow them both into the hidden abode of production, on whose threshold there stares us in the face “No admittance except on business.” Here we shall see, not only how capital produces, but how capital is produced. We shall at last force the secret of profit making.

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

On leaving this sphere of simple circulation or of exchange of commodities, which furnishes the “Free-trader Vulgaris” with his views and ideas, and with the standard by which he judges a society based on capital and wages, we think we can perceive a change in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He, who before was the money-owner, now strides in front as capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his labourer. The one with an air of importance, smirking, intent on business; the other, timid and holding back, like one who is bringing his own hide to market and has nothing to expect but — a hiding.

(OK, that is probably more than could be called a “passage,” it is more like page). There is so much that could be said about the sheer rhetorical density of this passage, the allusions, sarcasm, and characterizations. I suspect that it was a good writing day for Marx. Marx’s general point is the division between the sphere of production and exchange. A division that offers another account of ideology or fetishism; ideology is a necessarily partial view of society, based on the market, a partial view which takes itself for the whole. The “eden of the innate rights of man” is an after image of market activity itself. Lately, I have been wondering if it is possible to push Marx on this point. I wonder if he may be understood to be saying something about the relationship between work and representation. What if the no admittance sign obscures work, and production, from the realm of social representation?

I have seen this theme come up a few places as of late. First, I am reminded of a theme that appears in Anti-Oedipus. As Deleuze and Guattari argue repeatedly in that book,“desire is not recorded in the same way that it is produced.” The entire thematic of the production of desire against the theater of desire is one form that this distinction takes. Deleuze and Guattari also suggest that since production is upresentable, idealist explanations rush in to fill the void. As Deleuze and Guattari write: “Let us remember once again one of Marx's caveats: we cannot tell from the mere taste of the wheat who grew it; the product gives us no hint as to the system and relations of production. The product appears to be all the more specific, incredibly specific and readily describable, the more closely the theoretician relates it to ideal forms of causation, comprehension, or expression, rather than to the real process of production on which it depends.”

In a short piece titled “The Factory as Event Site” Alain Badiou goes the furthest in suggesting that there is a general division between production and presentation. As Badiou writes: “Whomsoever is in civil society is presented, since presentation defines sociality as such. But the factory is precisely separated from society, by wall, security guards, hierarchies, schedules…That is because its norm, productivity, is entirely different from general social presentation.”
Finally, Rancière relates the “unpresentability” of labor to the “distribution of the sensible, a particular articulation of what is seen and felt, rather than a general ontological problem. As Rancière writes of the exclusion of the worker from public space in the nineteenth century: “That is, relations between workers’ practice—located in private space and in a definite temporal alternation of labor and rest—and a form of visibility that equated to their public invisibility relations between their practice and the presupposition of a certain kind of body, of the capacities and incapacities of that body—the first of which being their incapacity to voice their experience as a common experience in the universal language of public argumentation.”
Whatever the reasons, ontological, aesthetic, or political, the division between work and representation, would seem to necessitate two things: democratic politics, politics of representation are ideological, or rather fetishistic at their very core, and, second, the politics of work can only exist as a disruption of this order.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. 1922-2007

I have been trying to write something in honor of Kurt Vonnegut for some time now. While it has been awhile since I read his books, I poured through them in high school, and they were quite influential on my young impressionable mind. So in lieu of an actual post, I am going to post the following email that my father sent to my brother and I on the day of Vonnegut's death (which is fitting since most of the Vonnegut I read in high school were his old books).


I am sure that you have noted the death of Kurt Vonnegut. In my life he played a significant role in: (i) questioning the assumptions that are implicit in our daily lives; (ii) valuing our humanity and (iii) and the role of irony in maintaining some semblance of sanity. He addressed with considerable insight important themes in modern life:

1. Corporate Capitalism’s attack on individuality and community--Player Piano

2. Corrosive effects of consumer culture--God Bless you Mr. Rosewater

3. Crimes committed in the “fight against evil”--Slaughterhouse Five

4. Perversion of science as a weapon--Cat’s Cradle

5. Then emptiness of entrepreneurialism--Breakfast of Champions

He has been dismissed as a comic outsider speaking only to the disaffected. However, I believe that he will be recognized as someone who illuminated modern culture and focused on important issues. The NY Times obituary is very good and I urge you to read it.

Unfortunately, as was evident in his more recent writing, he was unable to take comfort from his own insights and had given up on humanity. Regardless of the effects on him, I love his writing for its intelligence and humor and will miss him greatly.



Friday, April 06, 2007

Those Who Dream with Their Eyes Open

Recently, I picked up Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy by Stephen Duncombe. I am not really sure why, it is not the sort of thing I generally read. I would classify it as pop-progressive, and I find that in general I do not have time to read those sorts of things. For example it took nearly a decade, and several friends, students, and colleagues recommending it to me, for me to get around to reading No Logo.

The book takes as its starting point the following anecdote about the Bush administration, relayed in The New York Times:

The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

While many within the “center-left-progressive” camp have cited this passage to stress the Bush administration’s disconnect from reality, claiming with pride to be part of the “reality-based community,” Duncombe takes it in an opposite direction, pointing out how ineffective the “murmured” enlightenment principles have been within politics. Ultimately he argues that “progressives” (to use his term) need to understand the constitutive nature of the imagination; the way the imagination, desire, and fantasy constitute community, subjectivity, and investments. Now, the book is not primarily theoretical in its orientation. It deals with specific sites of the imagination, video games, advertising, celebrity-worship, and Las Vegas, all of which are usually held in contempt, and tries to reconstruct their radical potential. This is done through the example of such political movements as “Billionaires for Bush” and “Reclaim the Streets.”

Now, I am in fundamental agreement with this book, I still have my suspicions about “Grand Theft Auto,” however, but aside from that I basically agree. What strikes me is that his central criticism of progressives, the idea that politics should eschew imagination, desire, and fantasy in favor of truth, reason, and the force of the better argument, is not just a bias on the left. It is also what I call “the spontaneous ideology of philosophy,” the idea that the “better argument always wins”: that truth has an effectivity in and of itself, and once enunciated and circulated it will change the world. Duscombe does not address this dimension. Like I said the book is not very theoretical, aside from references to Debord and Machiavelli, it addresses practical instances.

Of course there have been a few philosophers who have broken with this ideology; notably Marx, Machiavelli, Spinoza, and, oddly enough, perhaps even J.S. Mill. I was struck to discover again the following passage in Mill: “It is a piece of idle sentiment sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake. Men are not more zealous for truth than they often are for error, and a sufficient application of legal or even social penalties will generally succeed in stopping the propagation of either.” In some ways this reads like a muted echo of Spinoza’s idea of limited effectivity of the true insofar as it is true, but ultimately I think that Mill is conflicted on this point: propagating “true” principles while at the same time recognizing the forces of custom, habit, affects, and fashion, have more force than any principle.

Well, I seem to have blogged myself into a corner. It is not my intention to discuss the contradictions of Mill. I guess I will end with two projects that I think need more work: First, the constitutive dimension of the imagination; and, Second, the critique of the “spontaneous ideology of philosophy.”