Sunday, May 27, 2007

Last Communist Standing II: This Time it’s Personal

This is something of a follow up to my earlier post on Badiou and Negri. This is not actually more personal, I just think that the second in an any series needs to have as its tag line either “This time it’s personal” or “The War.” The third in any series then should be in 3-D (a la “Jaws” and “Friday the Thirteenth”). The fourth is then set in space, and the fifth can then only take place in “Da Hood.” There is a science to sequels, just look at the Leprechaun films.

Anyway, what I really wanted to do was to add the following to the Badiou and Negri comparison. With respect to a renewal of communist thought, the writing of Negri and Badiou could be seen to represent two major trends: in the first case a communism based on the axiom of equality and, in the second case, a communism based on a reconsideration of the common.

The first is, in a general sense, a perspective shared by Badiou, Ranciere, and Sylvan Lazarus. Defining characteristic that could be said to unite all of these thinkers is that in each case equality is an axiom, a presupposition for politics, and not something to be realized. To state that equality is an axiom for politics is to remove politics from the idea of a program or a plan, since equality means that there is always the possibility of a political event. Rancière goes the furthest is maintaining the anarchic dimension of the axiom of equality. As Rancière writes in Disagreement:

“Politics only occurs when these mechanisms are stopped in their tracks by the effect of a presupposition that is totally foreign to them yet without which none of them could ultimately function: the presupposition of the equality of anyone and everyone, or the paradoxical effectiveness of the sheer contingency of any order.”

Equality means that any order, any hierarchy, is ultimately illegitimate. Especially since, as Rancière points out, any hierarchical order makes the point of explaining itself to those who are inferior, simultaneously acknowledging and denying their equality in understanding. While equality has a disruptive effect on any attempt to ground politics, there is still the question of its ground. What justifies such an axiom? This might be the wrong question, and it is quite possible that it bears the ideological weight of the times that asserts the equality is nonexistent (after all nature is filled with hierarchies) and thus impossible. (Badiou’s The Century has some interesting remarks mapping the ideological vicissitudes of the last century according to shifting emphasis given to one or the other of the terms in the formula “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”) However, I still think that it is an important question to ask, if only because the answers get to some interesting points of distinction.

In the case of Rancière the answer would seem to speech, the equal capacity for speech. This in some sense shows the influence of Aristotle on Rancière. In many ways Rancière could be understood as working through the connection that Arisotle initially asserted between mankind as a speaking animal and a political animal. However, Rancière argues that far from being an anthropological constant speech is in some sense “always already” political. As Rancière argues “This is because the possession of language is not a physical capacity. It is a symbolic division, that is a symbolic determination of the relation between the order of speech and that of bodies…” Thus, speech refers back to the distribution of the sensible. Despite this move, it does seem to me that speech or rather language, the language through which political orders are articulated and contested, remains something of a ground, or a basis, of this axiom of equality.

In many respects Badiou seems less cautious with respect to the anthropological ground of this axiom. For Badiou it is not speech which provides the basis for equality, but thought, or as Lazarus writes, “man thinks.’ Equality is not a political goal to be realized, but a fundamental axiom, a starting point for politics based on the universal human capacity for thought. For Badiou there is an anthropological division at the heart of mankind, between thought, the human capacity to maintain itself in fidelity to truth, and interest, the preservation of self that mankind shares with all animals. Behind every “Thermidor,” every attempt to put an end to the political process, every reaction which occludes the event, “there is the idea that an interest lies at the heart of every subjective demand.”

The axiom of equality is thus not without its anthropological postulates. Postulates which refer to human capacities which are at once generic, shared by all, and ahistorical, thought and speech do not substantially change over time. Although one should not be too quick to simply assume the first. In fact what strikes me about this generic equality of thought is how it immediately calls to mind a very different sort of thought about anthropology in what Etienne Balibar calls “anthropological difference.’ What Balibar calls “anthropological difference” is a difference that fulfills two conditions: first, it is a necessary component of any definition of the human (such as language); and second, the dividing line can never finally be objectively drawn. Examples of this would include sexual difference and the difference between sickness and health. In each case there is no division of humanity into men and women (or the healthy and the sick) without remainders, intersections, and identities that would ultimately need to be policed and patrolled. Balibar includes the division of labor, or what he calls “intellectual difference”, within this category. Humankind cannot be defined without the idea of thought (as Spinoza writes: “Man Thinks”), but this general definition is divided by the practices and institutions which determine and dictate the division between the “ignorant” and the “educated” or between “manual” and “mental” labor.

Balibar’s concept stands as a necessary correction to the work of Rancière and Badiou. One that introduces what I see as a necessarily materialist dimension, since these divisions relate ultimately to the division of mental and manual labor, that is the historical production of divisions and differences. As such this division is complicated by technological history, which continually redraws the line between head and hand, through automation and labor saving devices, thus fundamentally rewriting the very schema or idea of the human body. Through the use of computers and technology intellectual operations are broken down and subject to the same mechanization as physical operations, while at the same time other intellectual operations are "somatized," inscribed in the body, as in "the aesthetization of the executive as decision maker, intellectual, and athlete." The division between head and hand determines and modifies the very figure, and ideal, of humanity into "body-men" and "men without bodies." These images of perversions of the human are ambiguous objects of both fear and idealization. For example: "body-men" human beings reduced to brute physicality by the labor process are objects of both an aesthetization and idealization, as athletes, and fear, as contemporary savages. As such the division between mental and manual labor is integral to, without determining, the imagery of various racisms and other forms of conflict, which are in part conflicts over the proper identity of the human, over the ideal of the "correct" integration of mind and body. The division of mental and manual labor is the point of intersection of the figure of the idea of humanity, as it is envisioned and lived, and the historical transformations of technology and the economy.

However, the direction that I wanted to go in was not to contest the generic aspect of equality, its anthropological basis in speech or thought, but its ahistorical basis. As I stated in the outset, what I want to do is contrast the axiom of equality to the materialism of the common in the work of Negri, Virno, etc. But I guess that is going to have to wait for the sequel. So stay tuned for “The Last Communist Standing III: In 3-D.” (I am going to have to figure out a way to distribute those cardboard glasses.)


Nate said...

This is a great post. I look forward to the next installment, and to the resulting spin-off TV series and action figures.

Your presentation of Balibar is particularly compelling - where does Balibar write about this? I don't know his work at all.

The point about mental and manual labor and racism is really interesting. I think that might connect back to Ranciere in two places. The first is the concept of the distribution of the sensible - mental and manual as such a distribution or part of one. The second is with the distribution of who talks and who listens in the Ignorant Schoolmaster and maybe the stuff on Plato in the Poor book - stultification is in part the instilling of a fear to attempt to be more than a bronze-souled 'body man' and is in part the instilling of a fear in the golden-souled bodyless of tomorrow that they may ultimately prove to be bronzed and bodied.
take care,

readingmao said...


i've been working on something like this, my hypothesis is that it replays some of the old soviet dialectical constructions, Negri's reading of history as material conditions versus Badiou's cataclysmic approach. i guess it is more complicated than that but it seems to me to replay some old soviet tropes.

perhaps i should send something to you once i have more down.