Sunday, October 28, 2007

Animal Spirits

Image from Hugo Gellert "Karl Marx's Capital in Lithographs"

For brevity’s sake, I am not going to go through the myriad problems and paradoxes of that strange thing called “Marxist Philosophy”: the interminable debate of “interpreting” versus “changing” the world. However, as a short introduction to what I want to discuss, I will say that one way to understand the relation between Marx and philosophy is as a series of both provocations and critiques. What Etienne Balibar, in The Philosophy of Marx, called simultaneously “falling short of” and “going beyond philosophy”; the first takes the form of fragments of philosophical speculation, often presented as conclusions without premises, and the later takes the form of a critique of philosophy’s claim to autonomy. It is the first of these that I would like to focus on.

The unstated center of Marx’s thought is a thought of social existence, of community, that is something more than, or other than, a collection of individuals. Without this, the critique of the egocentric rights of man;” of the Robinsonades of political economy; and of the illusions of “Freedom, equality. and Bentham” that make up the spontaneous ideology of the market would not make any sense. Or, more fundamentally, without this communism would be the empty utopia that its critics accuse it of being.

However, when it comes to theorizing the grounds of this community though some understanding of social existence, Marx often falls short. At times Marx asserts it as a fact, without giving the ground of this fact, as in the following passage from Capital.

Whether the combined working day, in a given case, acquires this increased productivity because it heightens the mechanical force of labor, or extends its sphere of action over a greater space, or contracts the field of production relatively to the scale of production, or at the critical moment sets large masses of labor to work, or excited rivalry between individuals and raises their animal spirits, or impresses on the similar operations carried on by a number of men the stamp of continuity and many-sidedness, or performs different operations simultaneously, or economizes the means of production by use in common…whichever of these is the cause of the increase, the special productive power of the combined working day, is under all circumstances, the social productive power of labor, or the productive power of social labor. This power arises from cooperation itself. When the worker co-operates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of this species [Gattungsvermögen].

This passage, and the entire section on cooperation, is important for at least two reasons. First, within the logic of Capital, it precedes the sections on “The Working Day,” thus illustrating the struggle and antagonism that animates and transforms the capitalist mode of production. Second, the reference to Gattungsvermögen, species capacity, suggests another way of reading the relation of the young Marx to the old Marx. It offers a way of thinking species being, not as some metaphysical notion of the essence of man, but as part of a social ontology, as the historically existing capacity and powers of social relations. Despite this provocation, there is also the strange indifference to the ultimate conditions of this increased value of cooperation: it could be the effect of the uniformity imposed by the machine, animal spirits, or whatever.

So, one of the philosophical tasks left in the wake of Marx, an answer to a question posed but not answered, would be to theorize cooperation itself. This is not to be confused with the altruism that moralists and evolutionary psychologist concern themselves with; cooperation, and the sociality it implies, is not a moral category but simply the effects that individual actions have on each other.

Maurizio Lazzarato and Paolo Virno are two thinkers who have tried to create the theory of sociality or cooperation that Marxism, or at least the critique of capital, needs. In the case of Lazzarato this takes the form of a lengthy engagement with Gabriel Tarde. For Lazzarato, the center of Tarde’s thought is precisely what Marx passes over with indifference in the passage above: the intercerebral relations (I could not think of better translation), the relations and effects that different thoughts and habits have on each other. These relations are not just at work on the factory floor, but they permeate all of the economy; consumption, production, and even financial speculation all require the spread of opinion and beliefs, which is why Lazzarato argues that such relations determine the “economy” (in a restricted sense) rather than vice versa. The title of his book on Tarde (which I am halfway through) is, after all, Puissance de l’invention: la psychologie économique de Gabriel Tarde contre l’économie politique. In a similar way, Virno examines Simondon’s notion of transindividuality to examine the manner in which subjectivity is constitutive of and constituted by habits, languages, and knowledges that exceed it. Simondon offers the grounds for understanding what Marx referred to as the “social individual.”

In the case of both Virno and Lazzarato the examination of what could be called, for lack of a better world, sociality, is tied up with arguments regarding the “general intellect” and the epochal transition from material to immaterial labor. However, and this is why I began the post with the passage on cooperation, as well as the general point about Marxist philosophy, there is also the sense that Marxism, or at least materialism, requires an anti- or non-individualistic account of social relations. Virno’s analysis of Simondon (in various articles and interviews) is as much about a general ontology of social relations as it is about a new mode of production. This is even more the case with Lazzarato’s sudy of Tarde; especially since Tarde already claimed, in the early part of the twentieth century, that political economy failed to grasp the relation between thoughts, habits, and beliefs that make anything like an economy possible. So it is as much of a matter of grasping the past as the present or future of capital.

I do not have a real focused conclusion to this post; it does seem to me that this task of thinking social relations beyond the category of the individual is crucial to understanding the past, present, and future. The effect of thoughts on thoughts, habits on habits, beliefs on beliefs, is a terrain that is in need of conceptualization. This may not be something that can be extracted from Capital, but it is very much a philosophy that the later requires. A philosophy for Marxism rather than a Marxist philosophy, to use Althusser's distinction.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Lance Hahn, 1967-2007

In a few seconds of idly cruising the web I found out that Lance Hahn died. I have not listened to J Church or Cringer for a long while, and have not kept up with the latter's recordings. I have Quetzcoalt on tape somewhere and more than a half dozen or so 7-inches. The news still managed to hit me. I never saw the band live, never met Lance, and it many ways I have become increasingly distant from the whole thing. At the same time, however, I really connected to that music at a really formative of time of my life. The lyrics, songs, and voice really communicated the immediacy of a connection, it was the best of what now has been packaged as "emo." Plus you have to love all of the situationist references and Guy Debord quotes. I am going to listen to my copy of "She Said She Wouldn't Sacrifice" and Cringer's cover of that Thatcher on Acid song right now.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Inhuman commitments

As I have mentioned earlier, I used to work in an animal shelter and continue to volunteer at one. It is because of this, and a long and vexed history of being associated with, or at least around, people with commitments to “animal liberation,” that I was curious to see The Year of the Dog. Well not so curious that I saw it in theaters over the summer, but curious enough to rent it.

I think that the film does a good job of capturing the unyielding moralism that defines animal liberation activists: a moralism that is grounded on the superiority of speaking for an absolute victim, a purely innocent creature. In the film, Peggy, the protagonist, cannot understand or tolerate any one who does not fully commit themselves to the cause of saving animals. There are only innocent animals and the guilty people who do not care. I have come to think that there are certain structural similarities between animal liberation activists and anti-abortion activists; both of whom believe themselves to be speaking for a purely innocent creature, a creature that cannot speak or act on its own accord. Although, in this case, the film does have Valentine, a German shepherd who serves a reminder to the fact that animals remain absolutely indifferent to our moral categories.

(Valentine has what those in the business would call “food aggression,” the tendency to violently guard food bowls, snacks, etc.: fairly common problem amongst “shelter dogs,” and one that is exasperated by the failure of human beings to understand it. As Donna Haraway points out, dogs and people often suffer from a human, all too human tendency of the latter to understand dogs as a little furry children, to think that they can understand the intent behind such gestures as cleaning around the dog bowl or a good night kiss.)

It is thus easy to see the film as a critique of animal liberation, at least initially. Peggy becomes increasingly shrill, intolerant, and self-destructive in her actions, stealing money, traumatizing children, and destroying her home, in an attempt to care for as many animals as possible. However, what saves the film from making a fairly simple critique at a fairly easy target (animal liberationists care more about animals than people), is that it paints the other characters in the film in an even less flattering light: Peggy’s boss is obsessed with money; her friend with marriage; her neighbor with hunting and knives; and her family with their children’s health. These four things, money, marriage, hobbies, and children, which make up the majority of not only people’s lives, but what gets to matter in contemporary society, are portrayed as essentially self-centered activities, defined by a myopic attention to the everyday and survival. (On the this idea of what gets to matter, I recommend Lawrence Grossberg’s overlooked We Gotta Get Outa this Place). Throughout the film, characters talk about their particular interests, whether it be their child’s allergies or their engagement, oblivious as whether or not anyone is listening.

As much as the film deals with a politics that is profoundly apolitical, if not anti-political, since it is ground on a moralizing fantasy of absolute innocence and wrong, the film also offers something of a picture of political passion, of political love, or fidelity. More specifically, it deals with how out of sync such passions are with the obsessive narcissism of contemporary society. It is possible to argue that the film accurately presents “animal liberation” as what remains of politics in a culture in which moralism, the fantasy of innocence, and the individual reign supreme.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

We Scholastics: Or, Disciplining Thought

Spinoza tells us that there is a kind of joy associated with thought, a joy based on the affirmation of our own power to think. For me this joy comes in moments where I am thinking on my feet. Sometimes this happens in the classroom and sometimes it happens when writing or reading, but somehow things click and I can see things coming together in a new way. It is probably the reason that I am in this business, the reason that I sit through departmental meetings, grade piles of papers, and have given up any control over where I get to live.

These moments have been few and far between as of late. This is in part due to the classes I am teaching this semester. For example: one class I am teaching this semester is Medieval Philosophy. It is the first time I am teaching this course, and I do not have the background or confidence to really entertain any new interpretations; so I stick to my notes. Of course this is in some sense keeping with the spirit of the medieval philosophy, which was in some sense all about respecting the established authority of not only scripture but whoever came before, the endless commentaries on Aristotle, Porphyry, Lombard, etc.

I do not want to be too glib, but there is an odd similarity between the medievals and us. We too have our commentaries, our volumes of writings that exceed the originals. I am teaching Boethius’ and Abelard’s commentary on Porphyry’s Isagoge (itself a commentary on Aristotle) while I at home I am editing essays that discuss Negri’s commentary on Spinoza and so on. I would be tempted to make some kind of meta-comment about the particular social and historical conditions that produce such insular self-reflection.

What keeps me from being too glib, and hopefully keeps this post from being from another rant against the collapse of philosophy into commentary, is the second class I am teaching this semester. I am also co-teaching an interdisciplinary freshman seminar on “consumer society.” This should be the opposite of “medieval philosophy,” modern, cutting edge, and interdisciplinary. However, I am co-teaching this course with an economist and a professor from English with a background in cultural studies. What I am finding is that this is not without its particular constraints, and disciplining effects. Often, I am called upon to speak “as a philosopher.” In the last few weeks, the economist and I both lectured about Marx, which raised the question how does Marx the philosopher differ from Marx the economist. This is a question that is difficult to answer. It is hard to fit Marx into any generic definition of a philosopher. However, the class more or less requires those of us teaching it to differentiate ours specific approaches. So I end up trying to say something about the philosophical problems underlying “commodity fetishism.”

This has lead me to conclude two things about interdisciplinary and the disciplines of philosophy:

1) Disciplines cannot be simply placed in relation as if they were independent things, because each discipline has its own internal relations to others. (I have to admit that this point is stolen from Althusser’s prescient critique of interdisciplinary research in “Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists”: an essay that would perhaps be read more if it did not have such an ungainly title). To take Althusser’s example: one cannot simply combine philosophy and mathematics, since mathematics exists as an internal point of articulation of philosophy. I would add that the same applies to other disciplines. Philosophy may not have a theory of literature as an internal condition, but it does have myriad ways of interpreting texts and reading. At the same time other disciplines cannot be separated from “their spontaneous philosophy.”

2) There is no philosophy in general. Every philosophy worthy of the name rewrites the basic rules of thinking, argument, and articulation. This statement applies not only to such maverick philosophers as Marx, Foucault, and Deleuze, whose philosophy is clearly grounded in other practices of knowledge, but even such “philosopher’s philosophers” as Spinoza and Hegel.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Dead Mall: Or, Postapocalyptic Now

I caught the tail end of a show on Weekend America (npr) about Deadmalls. I then went online to follow the rest of the show and it turned out that it was not about deadmalls in particular, but in a very specific deadmall, Randall Park Mall. This Mall is near where I grew up, and I logged many hours there, wandering between the Hobby Shop, Record Store, and movie Theater. I find its collapse to be oddly satisfying, perhaps because it is the ruins of capitalism or perhaps because it is the physical embodiment of my fading memory. The story also has links to photos of an abandoned Holiday Inn next door. I went to my first comic book convention there, and it seemed to be a kind of magical place. I think it is because I had never stayed in a hotel, only motels.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Marxism in Reverse

The idea that neoliberalism is a kind of Marxism in reverse has taken on a great deal of currency in academic, popular, and activist circles. In Chroniques de temps consuels, Jacques Rancière goes so far as to say that Marxism has in some sense become the official ideology of liberal societies. (Similar remarks can be found in Disagreement).The grounds for this idea of Marxism displaced or reversed are basic. In each case it is the matter of the economy determining the political. What has been reversed is only the value attached to this determination; free markets and private property and not the free association of producers is now the basis for freedom.

Alain Badiou has pushed this argument further, stating that is not simply economic determinism that unifies Marxism and neoliberalism but a shared anthropology that unifies all economic discourse. It is an anthropology of interest, in which the human animal is defined by its desire for the conservation of self. It is hardly an anthropology at all, since it does not so much define the human as reduce humans to the animalistic basis of existence. It is against this that Badiou juxtaposes the human capacity for fidelity to truth.

In identifying Marxism with neoliberalism, Rancière and Badiou repeat some of the old polemics and arguments against Marxism from the past decades. The accusation of economism, of an anthropology which identified humanity with basic needs, can be found in critics such as Arendt, Baudrillard, Gorz, Habermas, and Foucault, to name a few. Thus it would be more accurate to say that neoliberalism is vulgar Marxism in reverse.

These same positions, economism, anthropology of labor, etc., are what Marxism (what has sometimes been called Western Marxism) has been trying to philosophically distance itself in past decades. So, rather than say that neoliberalism is Marxism in reverse, it is possible to say that Marxism confronts its own limitations in an inverted form. This opens up an interesting critical predicament. At the same time that Marxism has been expanding its critical tools, developing materialist understandings of ideology, non-reductive accounts of the economy, and a nuanced social ontology, capitalist ideology has been simplifying itself, to the point where it no longer conceals its economic basis. Can neoliberalism even be called ideology?