Thursday, May 31, 2007

Last Communist Standing 3-D: The Commons

If you have the glasses I believe this picture will be in 3-D. I would have made the entire post in 3D, but who really wants a buch of words jumping out at them?

As I stated in a previous post, I consider Badiou and Rancière’s work on "the axiom of equality" as well as Negri and Virno’s work on “the commons” to be important aspects for a renewal of communist thought. (I could also say the same for Balibar’s work on equaliberty.) Communist, and not Marxist, first, because as it has been documented Marx had little to say about communism, and second, because it is less a matter of citation of textual authority than drawing out the logics of political practice. Finally, such works deal with the axiom or the ideal that one struggles for, rather than what one struggles against: elaborating a theory of communism rather than furthering the critique of capital.

So, how to define the commons? In one of Negri’s latest books, published in French as Fabrique de porcelaine: pour une nouvelle grammaire du politique, the common is defined through the old problem of the relation between public and private. As Negri states, following arguments that are as old as Marx’s writing, capitalist appropriation is always private while its form, that of contractual law, is public, defined by the state. Capital is thus neither public nor private, it is what Marx refers to as a “social power.” The liminal position of capital only increases as it appropriates not only the physical aspects of labor but language, science, and social knowledge, what Marx calls he “general intellect.” The common must thus be thought as the inverse of capital, occupying the same liminal space. It is neither public nor private, collective nor individual, but the ground through which such distinctions are made.

Three things make this argument interesting. One, as it takes as its starting point the contradictions within capital itself. This is a departure from some of Negri’s definitions of the common, which are often excessively celebratory. Secondly, in that Negri writes of the emergence of the common from the transformation of capital, it stresses the fact that Negri’s understanding of the common has little to do with a nostalgia for “the commons” for pre-capitalist relations of shared use. Capital is criticized from the future it makes possible not the past that it destroys. Finally, it draws out one of the strengths of the concept of the common and that is ambiguous or liminal nature. This comes out must strongly in the work of Paolo Virno, for whom the common (or the multitude, a term which is thoroughly intertwined with the meaning of the former), is situated at a point of indistinction between collective and individual; public and private; work and action (to use Arendt’s categories).

This last point is perhaps the most important, the common is not the collective, nor is it any term, such as society that could be understood to stand above or beyond the individual. The idea of the common is inseparable from rethinking these oppositions from the perspective of “the production of subjectivity.” As Negri and Hardt write in Multitude “Subjectivity, in other words, is produced through cooperation and communication and, in turn, this produced subjectivity itself produces new forms of cooperation and communication, which in turn produce new subjectivity, and so forth.” The concept of the common is inseparable from a new thought of subjectivity one that moves beyond the opposition of individual and collective. The very things that individuate us, a manner of thinking, speaking, inhabiting the world, are drawn from the common, and the common does not exist outside these acts of individuation. The common produces subjectivity and subjectivity produces the common. To quote Negri once again, “It follows that subjectivity is not something interior placed before an ‘exterior’ that we define as language; on the contrary, like language it is another mode of common being and nothing more.”

To return to the theme of this series of posts, the communism of Badiou and Negri, this insistence on the intersection of the common and the production of subjectivity is based on very different grounds than the former’s axioms of equality. In Badiou’s case (as well as that of Rancière) it is a matter of communism based on the axiom, or invariant of equality. Equality is an axiom, and a prescription, a here and now insistence, indexed only to the generic equality of thought. While in Negri’s thought (and in post-operaismo) it is a matter of a communism of the common, a communism of the production of the common, in which capital’s subsumption of the capacitites for language, knowledge, and desires, produces a common ensemble of capacities, the conditions for not only he creation of wealth, but also the transformation of society.

There are very different philosophical anthropologies underlying these two concepts. In the first it is the matter of isolating a generic invariant, thought or speech as that which precedes and exceeds the hierarchies and classifications of any social order. While in the second, it is a matter of locating the historical nexus of productive capacities that defines the common. The risk of the first approach, the axiom of equality, is that it overlooks the actual divisions and mutations of thought and speech that are produced through historical structures. While the latter carries with it all of the baggage of any historicism; just look at all of problems and debates surrounding the attempt to identify the present through the concepts of “immaterial labor” and “real subsumption.” The strength of both these perspectives, and the debate that opens up between them, is that they foreground the idea of a different account of the social order and the human subject, against the consensus that locates a self interested individual at the basis of all of history, and any social order.

Spinoza and Marx: Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

It is no secret that I consider Marx and Spinoza to be “two great tastes that taste great together.” I also really like Reese's peanut butter cups, and have fond memories of their old commercials, which involved people walking down the street eating from jars of peanut butter only to collide with people eating chocolate bars. This is why jars of peanut butter should only be consumed in the kitchen or possibly while watching television. It is just too dangerous to eat peanut butter in public. I consider pushing this analogy to extremes (“hey, your immanent ontology is in my socio-historical critique!”), but I decide to spare you that, dear reader.

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.)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


[blägkapsel] noun. 1. A blog which was regularly updated for a period of time, but has since fallen into neglect. It remains on the web as a sort of time capsule of the period in which its author was active. 2. What "unemployed negativity" was in the danger of becoming.

It has obviously been a very long time since I have updated this blog. The reasons for this are quite mundane, the usual end of the semester crunch combined with a conference and a brief period of travel in which I was off the grid for a little bit. These mundane reasons have combined to break the habit of "blogging" so now, even when I have the time (arguably), I do not have the inclination. I have even gone back to writing random thoughts in my notebook instead of posting them here. I am now trying to get the habit back and am taking advantage of some jetlag which has me wide awake at 3:47 AM to get back into the habit. This blog was begun in jetlag and in jetlag it shall be reborn.

Of course starting the habit is not the same as having an idea. The only glimmer of an idea that I have right now has to do with title of this post. As a reader of blogs I have noticed that more often than not, when the author (or authors) of a blog stop posting, the blog continues to linger online for a long period of time, preserving the moment that it was active. This brings up an aspect of the relationship of the internet to temporality that one does not often think about.

It has become commonplace (even banal) to indentify the internet in general with immediacy, it is the place where one goes for up to the minute news, commentary, etc. Thus, the internet easily serves as a kind of technological stand in for the decline of historical comprehension in contemporary capitalism. The reduction of time and history to the instant and pure speed of communication. However, as I have already indicated this image does not fit the internet itself, which perserves the traces of not only various blogs but many things. One can still find archived discussions on listservs when performing searches on Google. On the internet the past and present coexist, appearing on the same list of search results. Like Freud's use of the ruins of Rome as a metaphor for the unconscious, past and present exist side by side without distinction or differentiation. I am not sure what this says about time, or historicity, other than that the temporality of the internet (and perhaps of society in general) is not just the pure present but an unthinking and unreflecting retention of the past. Nothing is forgotten. To quote Deleuze and Guattari, “a motley painting of everything that has ever been believed.”