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.”)