Saturday, September 22, 2007

University Experience

This semester I am co-teaching a class on “consumer society,” a class which is designed to inspire and provoke students to critically think about that which is most familiar to them. Already in a few short weeks the class has reinforced a realization that has begun to crystallize over the last few years of teaching. By and large students have no real problem with radical criticisms of the present order. I have taught Marx, Foucault, Negri, Goldman, etc. semester after semester, and generally students have no trouble accepting critiques of capital and the like. The thing is that they cannot imagine any connection between these critiques and their life or life in general. Furthermore they interpret the fact that I care about these things, believe in these criticisms, to be simply a testament to the fact that I do not live in the real world, but in the classroom. In the classroom it is perfectly acceptable to criticize capitalism, but in the real world one needs to find a decent job.

Of course I am generalizing, and not even in a profound manner. My point is this, if for decades the figure of the student was synonymous with social rebellion, with a ruthless criticism of everything existing, this may have less to do with theories than with a particular practice, a particular experience of living. Universities uproot students from their homes, from their familiar and entrenched place in a familial order, and place them in a context that is halfway between communism (collective living, eating, sleeping) and anarchism (the necessity of creating a social order ex nihilo, even if it is only with a roommate). On top of this there is all of the time, free from work and other demands; time to spend in clubs and social activities. There is something radical about student life, independent of the classroom. (In fact one of the things that critics of academia like David Horowitz can never explain, or even address, is the fact that the years that we associate with student activism, the tumultuous sixties, were years of relatively conservative teaching.)

It is this experience, this liminal space of freedom between home and job that is being destroyed. It is being destroyed by the cuts in funding to education. Students today, at least my students at a state university, work jobs, both on campus and off, and worry constantly about making ends meet. Many live at home, and have no time for clubs and student organizations, for practicing politics. They are all theory and no practice, and so theory appears to be lifeless and dead to them.

There is a fairly mediocre science fiction novel called Kampus by James Gunn. Most of it takes place in a futuristic extrapolation of a sixties college campus (Berkeley, I think), with permanent protest between students and administration; a college president who has been kidnapped so many times that he is replaced by an android; and so on. There is a scene in the novel when the main protagonist is on the run, hiding out at a community college/technical school. After a few days of observing the mind numbing conditions at the school, he decides to take action. He gives a rousing speech, imploring the students to rise up and demand freedom to think and live. The students rise up to attack him, however, worried that his disruptions will threaten their grades and job prospects. That is the university of the future, no androids needed.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Jacques Rancière’s contribution to Lire le Capital has been unfortunately maligned. Even Rancière himself quickly repudiated it. The essay, titled “The Concept of Critique and the Critique of Political Economy” was not included in the second edition of the collection and thus like Macherey’s piece it was left out of the translation. It was, however, eventually translated in a book in the Economy and Society series.

In critiquing Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts, Rancière proposes that Marx’s text is governed by a series of amphipologies in which the economic meaning of a term fluctuates with a larger anthropological meaning. For example, value at times refers to a economic sense of the term, but it also refers to a larger anthropological sense, to be devalued is to be impoverished. The same could be said of poverty, exchange, and wealth, all of which fluctuate between a specific economic meaning and a larger anthropological meaning. It is the latter which ultimately determines the former.

I have been thinking about this general critical strategy, rather than the specific philosophy and politics of Althusser’s Marxism, in light of recent writing on the concept of the subject by Etienne Balibar and Nina Power. What both Balibar and power stress is that the subject is a concept overdetermined by multiple meanings: grammatical, ontological, political, etc. Much of the critique of the subject has taken ontology or a particular philosophical understanding of the subjet as central: individual subject of knowledge and representation. This can be seen in the odd elevation of Descartes to the status of the first and primary philosopher of the subject despite the fact that he never uses the term or its related problems. What is assumed in this is that the philosophical meaning determines the political meaning. Thus, against the genealogy that makes Descartes the culprit, Balibar suggests Kant as the first philosopher of the subject. This is in part more accurate, Kant uses the term, but it also reflects the overdetermination of the problem: Kant’s subject is an attempt to think the problematic unity of ethics, knowledge, and politics.

What is lost in this “critique of the subject” is any sense of the political dimension of the subject. Or, to put it in Power’s terms, that the individual subject, the Cartesian subject, may itself be effacing the project to construct a collective subject. There is thus something oddly conservative in the critique of the subject: the assumption that ideas, not actions, determine history, that philosophy is always primary to politics.

Finally, this suggests a new critical strategy, not a critique of the subject, or a revalorization of the subject. As if it is meaningful to be for or against the subject, but an examination of the way in which the subject is always situated at the intersection of multiple meanings, one of which is determinant. Despite the fact that Althusser is often guilty of the philosophical reduction, his ISA essay pretty much tries to reduce ideology to a diffuse Cartesianism, other texts, such as Sur la Reproduction make a different argument. In that manuscript (which the famous piece on ISAs is an excerpt of) Althusser argues that what defines bourgeois ideology is the centrality of a particular juridical-moral ideology. It is the ideology of the contract, which identifies everyone as an individual formally identical to others: “Freedom, equality, and Bentham.”

The “critique of the subject” is a necessary first step, it severs the connection that naturalized the subject, identifying the subject with the human animal. The next step is not to dispense with the subject, to move on to “bodies and powers,” but to examine the specific practices of subjectification. For example: I would argue that it is the economic subject that is now dominant, the subject of interest, the subject that calculates. Thus,rather than remain prisoner to one particular amphibology, in which it is the philosophical sense of the term that is dominant, it would be possible examine the different amphipologies, the different attempts to suture the subject to one meaning.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Buridan's Ass

Classes start on Tuesday. Given that I am teaching two new classes in the semester as well as making several conference presentations and invited lectures this semester it will probably prove to be a very demanding one. So the question is what to do with the last few days before it begins. I am torn between three options: read and work on notes for classes; read something for research (or maybe even write); or blow everything off, ride my bike, go to the beach, read comics and rent movies. Each option is equally compelling, thus I remain frozen, doing a little of all three, but a lot of random things as well.

I think that is probably the thing missing from the famous description of the ass. It is not enough that the donkey would neither eat nor drink, it has to also decide to engage in some kind of pointless activity while it simultaneously starves and dies of thirst: reorganizing its CD collection, looking up old Dischord bands on on Youtube, and google-mapping every apartment it ever lived in. That is what it is like to be caught between equally compelling demands.

My old roommate in graduate school and I used to have a term for this, responding to pressures by wasting time: we used to call it "sovereignty." Specifically we would use this term to refer too blowing off the reading for classes and exams in order to read something else, some other work of philosophy or theory usually. The use of the term is a vague reference to Georges Bataille. As is the name of this blog.

A few people have asked why I have named my blog "unemployed negativity." Some have even been quick to point out that I do in fact have a job. If there is any justification for the title it has to do with the idea of critical energy that does not really go anywhere, fragments of thought that do not make it into publications or the classroom, hence unemployed. Mostly, however, I just thought that it sounded cool. I am not even that into Bataille or negativity, for that matter.

Well back to the subject of waisting time. I have been known to make up some really stupid songs (another roommate remembers a song I made up about Jean Baudrillard) and equally stupid dances. It is perhaps for this reason that I have developed an odd fascination with The Flight of the Conchords, a show that I have only seen in its youtube form.

Here are some favorite bits:

Finally, let us remember what Spinoza said about all of this wasting time on youtube:

[I]t may be objected, if man does not act from free will, what will happen if the incentives to action are equally balanced, as in the case of Buridan's ass? [In reply,] I am quite ready to admit, that a man placed in the equilibrium described (namely, as perceiving nothing but hunger and thirst, a certain food and a certain drink, each equally distant from him) would die of hunger and thirst. If I am asked, whether such an one should not rather be considered an ass than a man; I answer, that I do not know, neither do I know how a man should be considered, who hangs himself, or how we should consider children, fools, madmen, &c.