Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Body Remains

So far I have spent a good part of break getting caught up on movies. Last night I saw Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler. The Wrestler is a very visceral movie, like Requiem for Dream. The major difference between the two is that whereas the first dealt with the effects of addiction on the body, the latter deals with the body’s breakdown and decay, its status as a “broken down piece of meat.” A breakdown that has everything to do with the relation of capital to the body.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Eternal Return

So I happened upon a folder of old drawings an cartoons that I did for my old zine. These drawings and cartoons are over fifteen years old. Two things come to mind: One that I am in many ways still pursuing the same critique of capital, in this blog and in my published writings. The references have become more extensive and sophisticated, but the basic themes remain the same: what is the "Manufactured Needs" about but the production of subjectivity and the commodification of existence? Second, that I should draw more, but perhaps not comics, which tended to descend into a didactic screed by the last panel.

As for the first point, I could feel bad about this, that I have never actually gotten anywhere, but i prefer to see it as fidelity to a fundamental idea. I have to, because the alternative is depressing.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Incomplete Me

As someone who reads, teaches, and writes on a great deal of French philosophy I hate to get caught up in the phenomena of the “next big thing from France”: the way in which there always seems to be a new French philosopher of the moment, from Derrida, to Foucault, to Deleuze, to Badiou, etc. For me “French Philosophy” is interesting for the questions it addresses, questions that ultimately have to do with the constitution of subjectivity and the formation of knowledge, but are not limited to that. Moreover, these are not exclusively French concerns, extending into the work of Paolo Virno and Antonio Negri and drawing on the work of Spinoza, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche (to name a few). All of this is really nothing more than an apology, however, for what follows: a discussion of the work of Bernard Stiegler, arguably “the newest thing” from France.

In the last month two translations of Stiegler’s works have come out from Stanford Press. This is to some extent odd, since it is not as if people were clamoring for new translations. I bought a copy of the first volume of Technics and Time a while ago, up until this point the only work of his to appear in translation, and it is a used copy that had been taken out of circulation by a university library. So, based on my incredibly unscientific sampling, I would say that there has not been much of an interest in Stiegler up until now.

(Perhaps it has already been done, but someone should do a study of the politics and chronology of translations of French philosophers, but not just the French: it seems to me that there are odd itineraries and incomplete translations that produce their own odd receptions. Case in point: Stiegler has now been translated but Gerard Granel, his teacher, has largely not been translated. Or a similar point could be made with Badiou, whose works of the seventies and eighties, works in dialogue with Lacan, Deleuze, and Althusser, are just now being translated.)

I first learned of Stiegler when I watched, and then screened, the film The Ister. I was initially struck by his theory of historical time as something that is dependent upon technology, understood in its broadest sense. To put it too simply: we have an understanding of ourselves as historical beings because we have artifacts, relics of past ages. These things, such as tools, art, and writing, create a memory, which is fundamentally different from the individual memory that dies with us and the species’ genetic memory that cannot be transformed in our life. Since watching that film, which is primarily about Heidegger, I became further interested in Stiegler when I saw that he cited Simondon. Thus started an inquiry into Stiegler’s work.

To offer something of a brief encapsulation of what I find interesting about Stiegler, I would like to follow Balibar’s suggestion that works of philosophy “incomplete” other works of philosophy, and themselves. Balibar’s examples here are the way in which almost all of Marx’s corpus could be considered to actively “incomplete” Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, calling into question the dialectical sublimation of civil society into the state, but also works such as Heidegger’s Being and Time, which incompletes itself, rendering a second volume impossible. Following this idea of the way in which philosophical works interrupt others, calling into question their theoretical unity, or completing their own unraveling, I could describe Stiegler’s work through two interruptions.

First, and this is close to Balibar’s point, Stiegler completes (or perhaps incompletes) Heidegger’s line of demarcation with Husserl. As Stiegler argues, one of the key points of demarcation between Husserl and Heidegger is the discussion of historicity in the second part of Being and Time. For Heidegger memory, temporality, is not just a synthesis of an individual’s experience, but necessarily involves the already there of traditions and histories. Memory is always already materialized in institutions, structures, tools, and techniques. Second, and in a point that seems to be initially distinct, Stiegler argues that Simondon never connected his concept of the social with his analysis of technology. These two interruptions intersect in that obscure region where the constitution of subjectivity, or modes of being in the world, intersects with objectivity, with things structures and institutions: or, as Stiegler puts it, where the consitution of the who intersects with the what.

To step back a bit, it is perhaps worth clarifying just what precisely is Simondon’s account of sociality. On this point Stiegler stresses that Simondon’s concept of transindividuality is the mutual individuation of the “I” and the “we,” in which individuals are only constituted through collectivities and vice versa.

“In effect, if every I is inscribed in the we that constitutes it, and that it constitutes, if the I and the we are two faces of the same process of individuation, at the core of which develops their tendency to become-indivisible, ceaselessly projecting their accomplished unity, this projection is never concretized except by default, in other words by ceaselessly deferring this completion which, if realized, would be the end of the process of individuation or, in other words, the end of the individual.”

This mutually constitution of the individual and the collective, the “I” and the “we,” is what makes up a history; a history in which a third thing, a culture or a language, is also individuated. If one needed a classical reference for this process, Stiegler argues that this relation of transindividuality can be seen in Plato’s Apology and Crito: the first asserts Socrates’ individuality, his eccentric nature with respect to the community, while the second underscores his belonging to this community. In the interplay between the two, according to Stiegler, a third “individual” is constituted, and that is philosophy. Philosophy remains then for Stiegler an exploration of the relation between the “I” and the “we,” the exploration of their mutual constitution.

This link, constitutive of the “who,” is inseparable from the “what” from the technologies and techniques that constitute memory, from writing to the internet. It is the intersection of the three, the “I,” the “we,” and the “what,” that interests me, as technologies transform the conditions of individuation and the constitution of collectivities. I should add at this point that I have only begun to read the second volume of Time and Technics, and thus begun to explore this relation, but, and his will have to serve as a conclusion it strikes me that Stiegler’s emphasis on the present is in the disorientation of the “I” and the “we” produced by the transformation of the “what,” the deterritorialization of self and community made possible by the industrialization and then digitization of memory. This is in contrast with the work of Paolo Virno, who also takes inspiration from Simondon: for Virno the introduction of the transindividual, language, habits, and affects, into the production process opens up the possibility of the articulation of the common. In a future post I hope to explore the tension between these two Left-Simondonians, as well as the larger question of what Simondon’s concept of the transindividual offers for politics.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Fear of the State/the State of Fear

A few weeks ago I happened to catch Bill O’Reilly on The Daily Show. The topic of the interview was the “politics of fear” that the Fox Network has propagated since Barak Obama’s election. I am not sure if I got the words right, but when asked why he was afraid of an Obama presidency, O’Reilly said something to the effect of, “I do not know how he is going to govern.” Now O’Reilly was being disingenuous with this, almost as disingenuous as his claim that he is an anarchist and wants power to the people, but what if we took him seriously?

Why? Well because I think that there is something to looking at the present through this perspective of how one is governed or, in Foucault’s terms, governmentality. First of all it underscores the fact that we have been governed in a particular manner for at least the last eight years. Speaking broadly I would say that this governmentality has combined an inchoate fear of the “terrorist” with a neoliberal model of interest. The fear stems from 9/11 and has been mobilized repeatedly whenever there has been a need to curtail rights. The “neoliberal” interest has roots that extend much farther back: it is our basic idea of government as a service that we purchase with our taxes. Neoliberal interest does not just demand that the government cost less in a monetary sense, taking less of our tax dollars, but that it cost less in terms of our time and attention as well. As Lawrence Grossberg once wrote, “the government which distracts the least, governs best.” Neoliberal interest understands freedom to be something that is primarily realized in the market, in shopping. These two modes of governmentality overlap, sometimes spectacularly so, as in George W. Bush’s call to “Unite, consume and fly” after 9/11. They also overlap the more mundane way that neoliberalism’s massive disinvestment in the public, as a realm of freedom and action, paves the way for the complete and utter destruction of the rights of the public.

Based on this rather cursory analysis one cans see the recipe for the republican’s recent collapse: When the market itself becomes an object of fear the combination of neoliberal interest and fear comes unraveled. Bush’s speech in favor of the $700 billion bail-out was in many ways modeled after post-9/11 politics of fear: the same claim of a terrifying exigency that trumps discussion, debate, and politics, but this time it fell flat. The last few weeks of the McCain campaign, in which there was an attempt to resuscitate at any costs the politics of fear, bringing back ‘60s radicals and the red scare, were based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the affective composition of the electorate. It is not that fear was lacking, it is just that its object had changed: the economy which was supposed to be an outlet of what remains of freedom had become an object of fear.

(As something of an aside, I reminded of Spinoza’s remarks about the internal limitations of a politics of fear and superstition in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. As Spinoza argues nothing is more unstable than a state founded on fear and ignorance. “The multitude has no ruler more powerful than superstition,” but superstition itself cannot be ruled.)

Based on this analysis it does seem to me that there is a real question as to how Obama will govern. The reason that this is such a question is that I think that it is pretty clear that the democrats lack their own specific form of governmentality (to borrow and twist Foucault’s point about Marxism). The democrats by and large have simply adopted the terms of neoliberal governmentality and their supplementary politics of fear: claiming to be both fiscally more responsible and more intelligent in terms of the “war on terror.” While Obama’s politics by and large follows this trend, disappointingly claiming to return to the “war on terror” to its true front line in Afghanistan, he has made a few rhetorical gestures outside of it: namely, his critique of the “ownership society” as an “on your own society,” his attempt to invoke some idea of (nonmilitary) sacrifice, not to mention his reference of “spreading the wealth. What remains to be seen is if these will constitute another idea of governmentality; that is, if there is something beyond the empty signifier of “change.”

Ultimately I am less concerned with Obama’s specific governmentality than what an Obama presidency means for those to the left of the democrats: in other words, the left. To return briefly to Foucault’s remarks on governmentality, which provides the barest of conceptual skeletons for this rant, in Security, Territory, Population he suggests that governmentalities emerge and change through the various counter-conducts that challenge them. The real question then is how are “we” going to protest and provoke the Obama presidency? What counter-conducts are possible. This question is important for two reasons. The first is the frightening collapse of critical thought in the face of the admittedly inspiring and historical event of the Obama presidency. The second is that eight years of the Bush presidency has led to its own exhaustion of critical thought: everything Bush did was so wrong, morally, politically, tactically, etc., it just got to be so easy to say no to the whole thing. Rage and anger eventually gave way to irony: politics collapsed into discussing the latest gaffe.

As Mike Davis suggests, it is perhaps time to construct the equivalent of tent cities.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Unclear on the Concept

I was thoroughly amused and delighted by the events recounted in today's New York Times. First, one has to admire the sheer discipline and organization that led to physical copies of a faux-times being handed out across New York City. More importantly there is the content of the edition itself. While it is in many respects "too liberal" for my taste, wage caps, taxes that reflect social cost etc., It at least has the advantage of expressing some fundamental fantasies and desires: most importantly the end of the Iraq war.

However, as the article makes clear the "Times" quite simply fails to get it. First of all, it cannot really be called a spoof. Second, it is almost sad to learn that the only response to such an event that the article can imagine is selling a copy of the counterfeit "Times" on ebay. (Dream Big) What the authors fail to grasp is the politics of the imagination: the political dimension of imagining a better world. It is quite possible that many of the people who received copies of the paper felt a moment of elation when they read its headlines. There is something valuable in that feeling, if even for a moment, that another world is possible.

Since the election last week there has been a small scale reaction, laying the ground for a mini-Thermidor, against the tiny, and all too modest progress of change. Articles in the "Times" and elsewhere have sought to curtail the sense of the possible, reminding us that America is a "center-right" nation, lest we get any ideas. What these articles forget, what the "Times" forget is that the political orientation of the nation, and the sense of the possible, are not given, but produced.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Address my Fantasy

There has been a great deal of humor, satire, parody, imitation, etc., produced about the current presidential campaign (The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, the return of Saturday Night Live, etc.), so much so that the jokes and imitations serve as indicator as much as polls and analysis. One could say a great deal about this sort of meta-irony, in which parody comes prior to event. However, that is not my point here, I was watching this parody of the final debate today, and the following occurred to me.

Not only is its absurdist take on the whole "Joe the Plumber" thing amusing, it captures something true as well. For me the key scene is when McCain forces Obama to apologize to his imaginary friend Joe. This is in many ways the political situation in this country. The Republican Party, or the right in general defines the fantasy, the war on terror, the middle class, etc., and the Democrats are judged by how well they address the fantasy.

This is especially true of "Joe the Plumber," a man who very much wants his fantasy preserved. He claims that he wants to own his own business, but as subsequent news reports revealed, he was in no position to become the wealthy independent business he desire to be. His real complaint to Obama, and the real objection to "spreading the wealth" is that it robs him of the fantasy.

I do not want to sound too much like an unholy combination of Zizek and Lakoff here, although I am afraid it is a little late for that, but it seems to me that nothing will really change in this country as long as the right defines the fantasy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Preemptive Strikes (of a philosophical variety)

Materialism is a paradoxical philosophy, for multiple reasons, not the least of which is that on some fundamental level it diverges from the basic premise underlying the very practice of philosophy. This premise is the fundamental idea that the best argument always wins, that the true has an efficacy in and of itself to overcome any illusion, error, or bias. However, if we take as one of the defining characteristics of materialism Marx’s dictum that “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life,” then it is clear that it is “life,” understood as material conditions and social relations, and not the better argument that has the last word. The question then arises, how to do philosophy in a materialist manner. How do you argue when you recognize that arguments have only a limited force against ideologies, which are sustained and embedded in material practices?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Gregarious Isolation

It perhaps goes without saying that at any given moment I am ruminating over some quote from Marx. As of late it has been this one from the Grundrisse:

“Only in the eighteenth century, in 'civil society', do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social (from this standpoint, general) relations.”

Marx’s interest in presenting this is at least for the most part to stress the historical nature of the category of the individual. However, I think that it could be understood as particular mode of sociality that is paradoxically social in its isolation (isolation as a general social experience) and isolated in its sociality (market relations as a precondition of individuality). I could go on about this again, and probably will, but what struck me about this idea recently is the discovery of a precursor of it in the most unlikely of places: Descartes’ Discourse on Method

“…[T]his desire made me resolve to take leave of all those places where I could have acquaintances, and to retire here, in a country where the long duration of the war has established such well-ordered discipline…and where among the crowds of a great and very busy people and more concerned with their own affairs than curious about the affairs of others, I have been able to live as solitary and as retired a life as I could in the remotest deserts—but without lacking any of the amenities that are to be found in the most populous cities.”

Much could be said about this idealization of the anonymity and security of early modern life, the life of the emerging city, and how it relates to the famous problem of Descartes’ borderline solipsism: the cogito cut off from others, pondering the men across the street, who very well could be automatons. What is striking is the manner in which an emerging social reality immediately becomes an epistemological ideal. The world is thought, and recreated from the perspective of the isolated individual. Producers who work in isolation and only meet through the anonymity of the market is not just an emerging economic reality (although, on this point it is important to note how ahead of the curve Descartes is), but an ideal for the comprehension of reality. As Adorno defines this problem:

“The intellectual, particularly when philosophically inclined, is cut off from practical life: revulsion from it has driven him to concern himself with so-called things of the mind. But material practice is not only the pre-condition of his existence, it is basic to the world which he criticizes in his work. If he knows nothing of this basis he shoots into thin air…[H]e hypostatizes as an absolute his intellect which was only formed through contact with economic reality and abstract exchange relations, and which can become intellect solely by reflecting on its own conditions.”

For Adorno the less one thinks of economic reality, the more one thinks in line with it. Adorno’s extended aphorism on this takes on a characteristically negative tone, it is a lose or lose situation. Either one fails to think of material reality, and its fundamental categories and relations reappear in disguised form, or one thinks of it, and philosophy loses its specificity. To put this problem in a different register, that of Negri, we could say that Descartes politics is his ontology, and vice versa, and this connection between politics and ontology is underwritten by a social dimension, by the way in which labor and society are reflected in thought. Society is immanent to thought before becoming its specific object.

Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay “Being Singular Plural” puts forward two crucial statements in his reflections on being as being-with. First, is that isolation, separation, and solitude must themselves be thought of as a kind of sociality. That even the moment of absolute isolation is itself a social moment: this is demonstrated by Descartes own meditations, which even in their isolation are addressed to another. “The ego sum counts as “evident,” as a first truth, only because its certainty can be recognized by anyone.” (This first point is a polemic against Heidegger, who as much as he argued for the constitutive nature of Mitsein continued to see it as primarily a degraded form of existence, as less authentic than the solitary relations with death). Second, Nancy argues that it is impossible to separate sociality, collective existence, from its image, from its representation that is also its falsification. “There is no society without the spectacle because society is the spectacle of itself.” The world cannot be disassociated from its theater, to return to Descartes once more. (This last polemic is against Marxist attempts to separate society from its specular fetishization, including Situationism, which took this problem the farthest). Nancy’s polemics are thus aimed against the two places in the twentieth century that attempted to think social relations as something other the sum total of individuals.

These two polemics against hitherto presentations of the problem of sociality are each predicated on the ambiguity of the “with.” With is the degree zero of relation, an inclusive disjunction, in that it does not differentiate the manner of relation. To say something is “with” something else does not specify its manner of being with: society appears with its spectacle, the desiring machines with their full body (as this last point indicates, I think that Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of desiring machines are an idea of sociality). Whatever appears, appears with: this fact is unavoidable. Thinking is always thinking with.

Sociality is difficult to think because we are already, even always already, immersed within it. Although, and this might be the closest I get to a conclusion here, this always already takes multiple forms that are not reducible. It reflects a historical condition, in the sense that the categories and conditions of thought are always historically produced, but it also reflects, as Nancy demonstrates, an ontological condition, the primacy of relation. These two things are simultaneous, but also in extreme tension. It is difficult to think the social, that is, historical, constitution of sociality along with its ontological constitution. Social ontology remains at the very least a concept of dialectical tension, if not an oxymoron, but an unavoidable one.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Essence of Ideology

The following scene from The Wire is in my estimation brilliant, not just because it reveals the functioning of the drug trade, but more importantly it reveals something essential about capitalist ideology.

As Bodie states, after a lesson on the fundamentally rigid hierarchy that characterizes both the chess board and the drug trade, that a "smart ass pawn" could not only make it through the game but get to be queen. This statement describes his own perspective of his situation: a lowly soldier in the drug war who believes that his intelligence and perseverance will ultimately see him through to the end. This idea, an awareness that the odds are stacked, that most of us wont get rich, coupled with a confidence that the odds do not apply to us, is the the fundamental ideology of capitalism. It is in a sense what Althusser meant when he wrote that ideology interpellates individuals as subjects, as much as we are aware of the historical conditions that define and limit our situation we believe that they do not apply to us, that we transcend them as a kingdom within a kingdom (to cite Spinoza, Althusser's point of reference).

Althusser thought that his applied to all ideology, but it seems to be in many ways specific to capitalist ideology. After all capitalist ideology disentengles power from any specific condition, all those motley ties; one does have to be descended from a particular family, a particular race, or background to have money. The only thing that characterizes the ruling class is money. There is no barrier that keeps us from changing our class position. Thus, we all fantasize that we will one day be rich: as the New York State lottery used to say, "It could happen to you."

Many progressives or leftists are constantly frustrated that the working class fails to vote their interest, supporting tax breaks, like the "death tax," that do not apply to them. I think that this is because they, or we, do not identify with our interests, our specific position, we identify with the fantasy. We are all the "smart ass pawn," the exception, the person who makes it rich, or to take an example closer to home, gets tenure in a job market that increasingly eliminates tenure track jobs for temporary or adjunct work. This makes it very difficult to construct politics that address systematic failures, like that of health insurance or the mortgage industry; most of us believe that such bad things happen only to others.

In case you are wondering how things turn out for Bodie (spoiler alert for those who have not seen Season Four).

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Know your Place

The following is what happens when you combine teaching Plato’s Republic with reflecting on the current election, specifically the Republican National Convention.

In the end, glorification of splendid underdogs is nothing other than the glorification of the splendid system that makes them so.
-Theodor Adorno

One of the many merits of Jacques Rancière’s The Philosopher and his Poor is that it reveals how much Plato’s Republic is structured around an understanding of work. Rancière underlines a very basic point, that the definition of justice that we get in Book IV (doing one's own work and not meddling) is a repetition of what was already stated in Book II as an essentially economic argument, that every person must dedicate him or herself to one job. As Rancière writes: "The image of justice is the division of labor that already organizes the healthy city." Plato repeatedly praises the virtue of the craftsman or worker, the dedication to a single task, going so far as to see the worker as the solution to all of the decadence of society. When it comes to sickness, the craftsman understands that he has no time for a lengthy cure, for anything that would keep him out of work for a long time. The craftsman must return to work, even if this means death. The singular dedication to a task is, in the end, the ideal of a society in which everything is in its place. As Rancière writes: “The Platonic statement, affirming that the workers had no time to do two things at the same time, had to be taken as a definition of the worker in terms of the distribution of the sensible: the worker is he who has no time to do anything but his own work.” The well-known objects of criticism, artistic imitation and democracy, are in the end criticized for violating this fundamental economy of focus: they are fundamentally out of place, and displacing. What threatens the order of the city, an order that is at once aesthetic and political, is anything that deviates from its assigned place: the worker who thinks or the artisan that imitates the voice of a general or the appearance of a king.

I think that Rancière’s reading of Plato, which I have hastily tried to summarize here, could be taken as a model of a certain kind of right-populism. (Yes, I know that there is more to it than that). At least this is what occurred to me as I was watching the Republican National Convention. The Republicans favorite rhetorical ploy is to criticize the Democrats for their disdain of the simple working folk, for “saying one thing in Scranton and another in San Francisco.” Against this the virtues of rural life are repeatedly espoused, moose hunting, church, hard work, etcetera. This vision of the charms of simple life is of course first and foremost patently false; case in point, Giuliani’s claim that Palin’s hometown is perhaps not cosmopolitan enough for Obama is beyond satire, as is the claim of “outsider” status for a party that has been in power for over eight years. More to the point it is fundamentally regressive, the praise of the values of the small town worker are the praise of people who know their place and never step out of it. It is a life entirely dedicated to the private sphere, to work and family, a life that leaves the state and politics in the hands of the true political subjects, the corporate interests. Thus the criticism of “community organizers” was not simply an opportunistic attack on a detail of Obama’s biography but an expression of a fundamental principle: communities should not be organized but dispersed to the vicissitudes of an entirely private life.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Sorry, It's much worse: (somewhat less than a book report, even)

As something of a follow up to the recent post on Negri it makes sense to write a short review of sorts of Richard Sennett’s The Culture of the New Capitalism. Like Negri, Sennett ascribes to the view that there has been a radical transformation of labor, and that this transformation has effects that reach far beyond the economy to constitute a new basis for politics and a new articulation of culture. However, unlike Negri, Sennett is almost entirely pessimistic about this transformation.

Sennett’s sketch of the present focuses on two fundamental transformations of the structure of work. First, there is the demise of a certain model of hierarchy and bureaucracy, of the pyramid structure of the corporation. The loss of this is also a loss of a particular relation to time, to social capital, and ultimately to a particular kind of subjectivity. The subject of the hierarchical corporation worked to “climb the ladder,” accumulating knowledge, and social capital (defined as a particular investment in one’s social involvements). This also entails a particular involvement and investment in time, a time of delayed gratification, in which work is towards constructing a future. Ultimately Sennet is more concerned with the particular subjectivity that accompanies this structure, than the structure itself, that of the citizen/craftsman. This is the second transformation. Sennett defines the craftsman as someone willing to do something for its own sake, something which requires an objectification in an object or practice. As philosophers such as Aristotle and Arendt have argued, this “thing,” car, cake, law, or institution becomes the standard of the action.

These two things, the institution of delayed gratification and the ethic of the craftsman, overlap and reinforce each other in that both require a certain construction of the future, a certain ideal of stability. They are thus both destroyed by the way in which work has been reorganized by the twin specters of uselessness, automation and outsourcing. These have fundamentally restructured the organization of the corporation, from a hierarchy, in which one accumulates expertise and social capital, to a lateral system of networks, where one moves from job to job, starting over each time, never accumulating knowledge (because it is continually radically redefined) or social capital. In place of the craftsman the contemporary subject of work is defined by potential. It is this potential that is assessed in the various tests that start in the early years of life, and becomes the basis for future movement. This potential exists as something fundamentally unrealized and unrealizable, it is a vague ability to adapt to new situations, to respond to the situation, and to interact, to “work with people.” Sennett connects this to a fundamental change of attitudes, this subject as potential is caught between the anxiety of uselessness and the flexibility of adapting to new rules and structures. We are all little ipods, obsessed with potential that cannot be realized, all of that excess memory, and capable of indifferently switching in new programs, new rules, depending on the situation. In this way his work echoes themes in Paolo Virno's work regarding anxiety, cynicism, and opportunism.

It is important to stress that Sennett connects this ideal of the craftsman with a particular idea of the citizen. The citizen-craftsman is able to dedicate his or herself to the difficult task of constructing institutions and structures, structures that have a certain objectivity, which outlast the individuals that create them. More importantly the citizen-craftsmen is able to research issues and ideas, dedicating time towards the eventual good of knowledge and participation. In its place we now have the “citizen consumer.” The actions of the citizen consumer are modeled on the general trends in consumption in general. Sennett points out that contemporary production is based on more or less standardized products, which have slight variations of style or packaging. Politicians and political events take on the same structure, a fundamental homogeneity that underlies the various pseudo-events, the scandals and slight changes that make up the din of political coverage.

“So familiar are we with this crossover from consumer to political behavior that we lose sight of the consequences: the press’s and public’s endless obsession with politician’s individual character traits mask the reality of the consensus platform. In modern political performances, the marketing of personality further and frequently eschews a narrative of the politician’s history and record in office; its too boring. He or she embodies intentions, desires, values, beliefs, tastes—an emphasis which has again the effect of divorcing power and responsibility.”

Sennett’s skepticism regarding the liberatory effects of immaterial production is in part based on the shift from the production to consumption. Whereas Negri focuses almost exclusively on the production of subjectivity through labor, finding a subject which is communicative, ethical, and capable of organizing itself outside of the control of capital, Sennett focuses on consumption, finding a subject which is isolated and subject to the narcissism of minor difference.

Finally, I would argue that the connection that Sennett (and others such as Negri, Virno, etc.,) explore between a mode of labor and a mode of social existence can and should be deepened. Sennett’s fundamental point of a transformation of time, from an ethic of deferred gratification to an ethic of anxiety and short term connections, should be examined and extended. It would seem that the most fundamental challenge in the present is the one that Virno outlines:

"What is involved here is the conceptualization of the field of immediate coincidence between production and ethics, structure and superstructure, between the revolution of labor process and the revolution of sentiments, between technology and emotional tonality, between material development and culture. By confining ourselves narrowly to this dichotomy, however, we fatally renew the metaphysical split between “lower” and higher, animal and rational, body and soul—and it makes little difference if we boast of our pretensions to historical materialism. If we fail to perceive the points of identity between labor practices and modes of life, we will comprehend nothing of the changes taking place in present-day production and misunderstand a great deal about the forms of contemporary culture."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Diminishing Returns

Two of my favorite blogs (The Pinocchio Theory and What in the Hell…) have written about Negri’s recent books, namely The Porcelain Factory and Good-Bye Mr. Socialism, expressing disappointment. I have to admit that I share this disappointment. I am not going to address the specific texts in question, I read the former over a year ago when it appeared in French and am only halfway through the latter, but I agree with the fundamental point that with the exception of Kairos, Alma Venus, Multitudo Negri’s recent work does not touch the sheer greatness of The Savage Anomaly, Marx Beyond Marx, or Insurgencies (Constituent Power).

The criticism of these recent works (in these blogs and elsewhere) basically follows two fundamental points: First, the excessive confidence in the fundamentally creative and subversive nature of the existing labor practices and social relations, the multitude as a latent reservoir of revolution and, second, the misplaced emphasis on the present as a radical break with the past, immaterial labor as something fundamentally unseen. I do not want to address these criticisms here, rather I would like to focus on another problem, one that has to do with the provocations of Negri’s early works.

In The Politics of Subversion Negri makes a point which I have taken to be fundamental regarding his understanding of the production of subjectivity, in that book he writes: “The ontological aspects of subjectivity are produced in different (or rather, antagonistic) ways.” As Negri elaborates, there is a proletarian production of subjectivity, passing through the wage, through the social relations of cooperation, and into insurrection. Against this there is leveled a capitalist production of subjectivity that breaks down this collective subjectivity through competition and the market. In these passages Negri maintains in productive tension between what could be broadly described as post-structuralism, (namely, Foucault) in which subjectivity is effectively produced by discourses and relations of power, and Marxism, insisting on a duality of struggle, even if it is produced rather than given. This assertion in an early work is to some extent vexed by the problem of lapsing back into a dialectic, or what Negri refers to as an “antagonistic Manicheism”; that is to say it is a matter of maintaining antagonism without lapsing into the symmetry of opposites or the inevitable conflict of pregiven social substances.

It is this sense of the antagonistic constitution of subjectivity that is largely absent from Negri’s later works. In later works the networks and social relations of immaterial labor produced a subject that is wholly opposed to capital, untouched by the market, by neoliberal strategies. This is largely the case, but not entirely. In Empire Hardt and Negri cite Debord’s theory of the spectacle as a fundamental dimension of the antagnostic constitution of subjectivity, and not a misrepresentation of a given reality. As Hardt and Negri write: “The spectacle destroys any collective form of sociality—individualizing social actors in their separate automobiles and in front of separate video screens—and at the same time imposes a new mass sociality, a new uniformity of action and thought.” This idea of a production of subjectivity that passes through the media, through the “immaterial” technologies of television and the internet, and does not produce a multitude but something else also appears, albeit briefly, in Negri’s latest works. As Negri states in Goodbye, Mr. Socialism the public functions as a kind of capitalist production of subjectivity.“The public is a medium between people, class, and individuality: the people were formed by the State the class by the party, while the public is constructed from a mixture of the media, television, newspaper, and by small editorial production of the worst type…This public isn’t multitude at all.”

This discussion of the antagonistic production of subjectivity is not only more interesting than the endless repetition of the power of the multitude versus the empty shell of capital it is more useful as well. What we need are the tools for the analysis of the production of subjectivity. We need to understand the way in which the existing power structure, Empire, for lack of a better word, is produced and reproduced by the existing machines of consumption and production. To paraphrase Alain Badiou, who in turn was paraphrasing Hegel, “We must think Empire not just as substance but as subject.” Less cryptically we need to understand how Empire is not something out there, but in us, part of our subjectivity. Second, we need to understand the tools and techniques that make possible a counter production of subjectivity. Negri’s provocative statements regarding the changing status of labor, the emerging affective and intellectual dimensions, are an important part of this, but they are not the whole picture.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Many Faces and Names of Finitude

In Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus (a book which will require a more thorough review at another time), Stiegler suggests that the original relation between anthropology and technology should be considered through the perspective of a thanatology. It is death that introduces the fundamental absence through which technology enters into the world. It is because we die, and are aware of this fact that we create a memory for ourselves in the form of languages, tools, and devices. Animals, which are ignorant of their death, are also unaware of artifice.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Cinema of Isolation

Image from "that book by derrida" on Flickr

The movies construct subjectivity. This is true in at least two senses. Taken to its extreme, this statement would mean that the movies, taken here in the broadest sense of the term to include whatever is projected onto any screen of any dimensions, TV, computer, ipod, construct subjectivity by giving the audience the codes, affects, and styles that make up the basic backdrop of our existence. In a more moderate sense this would mean simply that the movies construct subjectivity on the screen, convert a series of images into characters, or subjects. This construction is laid bare whenever something non-human, a car, a duck, a zombie, a robot, is given subjectivity, depth. The basic vocabulary of this construction is “shot-reverse-shot,” show the object then the thing reacting to the object (a shot of the face, or whatever stands in for the face), then an action on the second thing, action, contemplation, reaction, the basic elements of subjectivity. As Walter Benjamin argued, subjectivity is often constructed on the cutting room floor.

It goes without saying that Wall-e is a film about isolation, about separation, and ultimately about loneliness. It goes without saying, but it is worth mentioning that we are talking about a children’s cartoon that deals with these things. What is perhaps interesting is that every character in the film is presented as lonely or isolated in some sense, and their ways of coping with this reflect aspects of contemporary life.

Wall-e, the film’s central character, is introduced through his loneliness and isolation. The opening third of the film defines him a character, a subject, that is not only alone (shots of other broken down robots, of huge expanses of wasteland) but lonely. This loneliness is established through his relation with objects. Wall-e collects objects found in the garbage, objects like the rubik cube, the dolls, the lighters, and the video tape that seem to suggest a world. The objects not only reflect a world, one that is gone, but make up a world, a world that defines an interior subjective space; a point that is reinforced in the final moments of the film, when these same objects are used to awaken Wall-e’s memory, to remind him who he is.

Aboard the spaceship we meet the humans who are isolated in a fundamentally different way. The denizens of the spaceship Axiom cruise about in separate floating chairs, interacting only through screens no matter how physically close they may be. The image conjures up a phrase that Hardt and Negri use discuss the current spectacle, which they describe as—“individualizing social actors in their separate automobiles and in front of separate video screens.” In this way the humans occupy a strange sort of isolation, they are not alone, in fact they are unified in their isolation or isolated in their unity. They travel along parallel tracks, never seeing anything outside the screen in front of them. Moreover, such isolation is only possible given a great deal of social organization, even if in this case it falls to robots. Such a situation recalls Marx’s overlooked, but important description of modern existence as a kind of asocial sociality:

“Only in the eighteenth century, in 'civil society', do the various forms of social connectedness confront the individual as a mere means towards his private purposes, as external necessity. But the epoch which produces this standpoint, that of the isolated individual, is also precisely that of the hitherto most developed social (from this standpoint, general) relations.”

The humans in the film take this to an almost absurd level, they are the completely isolated consuming subject, infantilized, overweight, and absolutely passive. In fact this opens up many questions, they are so isolated, so disconnected, it remains difficult to see how they could ever reproduce. More disappointingly, the film subscribes to the worse ideology of ideology: the idea that to escape ideology it is enough to turn off the screen and simply open one’s eyes to reality. We all know what happens when the screen turns blank, when the machine breaks down, people do not see reality and each other for the first time, they call tech support or the cable company. (It is perhaps too much to expect ideology critique from a Disney film, but those opening scenes of a desolate and abandoned Earth are just so good, it tends to get one’s hopes up.)

To conclude somewhat abruptly, the movie outlines several contemporary strategies for dealing with isolation, and what strikes me is how easy it is to map them unto contemporary existence. Wall-e embodies a particular idea of fan culture: collecting objects with nostalgia for a better world, and watching the same film again and again to extract lessons. In our contemporary world he would be shopping on ebay and keeping a blog on old musicals. While the human’s in the film embody a kind of digitally connected materially disconnected existence. In our world they would have hundreds of “friends” on facebook, but little or no contact with their neighbors. I am not sure what children think of this film, but it does seem well suited to prepare them for life in the contemporary world.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Follow the Money

What follows are some reflections on the final season of The Wire so Spoiler Alert.

The fifth season of The Wire is best understood as the intersection, maybe even the collision, of two trajectories. The first is the culmination of a theme introduced in the first season, namely money. Money has always been an integral part of the drug investigation on The Wire, but it is also that which expands and disrupts the drug investigation connecting it to the broader world of politicians and corruption. As Lester Freamon stated in the first season, “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don't know where the fuck it's gonna take you.” The second theme is unique to the fifth season, and constitutes something of a meta-level reflection of the show itself and that is the relation of truth and fiction.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Comment on Ritual

This post is in many ways a follow up to the previous post on good and evil. The title however is a tribute to the late great Nation of Ulysses.

In his short book on an anarchist anthropology David Graeber says two seemingly contradictory things about Utopia. First, he issues a tiny manifesto against anti-utopianism (an anti-anti-utopian manifesto). Graeber’s point is fairly straightforward, since we cannot ultimately know if the world can be a better place, if we can live without hierarchy, exploitation, and domination, then we would be wrong to not at least try to improve things. As the epigraph to the book states, citing Jonothon Feldman, “Basically if you’re not a utopianist, you’re a schmuck.” It is only cowardice or an invested interest in the existing order that would lead one to present it as the only possibility.

Later, however, Graeber makes a fundamentally different point about utopia. This second point follows one of Graeber’s most significant theoretical points, so it is going to take a bit to set it up. Drawing from his own fieldwork and the ethnographic record, Graeber reflects on societies which are relatively egalitarian. While these societies are in predominantly governed by relations that are noncoercive and anti-hierarchal they have mythologies or religious that are characterized by violence and exploitation. Day to day life maybe characterized by relations of cooperation and consensus, marred “only” by gender inequality, but the supernatural world is characterized by violence, revenge, and the threat of constant unseen enemies.

Graeber draws two conclusions from this fact. First, following Pierre Clastres and Marcel Mauss he argues that non-market and non-state societies should not be understood as residing in some primitive antechamber to market and state societies, yet to develop these crucial institutions, but as actively warding off such societies. Gift economies, described famously by Mauss, are not simply an alternative to market societies, but actively ward off the accumulation of wealth and power that make the later possible. The same could be said of Clastres understanding of “societies against the state.” Proof of this is to be found in the violent mythologies of these otherwise egalitarian societies; such societies are not ignorant of the “evils” of humanity, the capacity for domination, they merely relegate such possibilities to the imagination, to myth and religion.

This leads to Graeber’s second point, the one which relates to the question of utopia. The fact that such societies do not completely dispense with domination and violation means that these are unavoidable, they can be situated in fantasy, but not dispensed with altogether. As Graeber writes: “There would appear to be no society which does not see human life as fundamentally a problem. However much they might differ on what they deem the problem to be, at the very least, the existence of work, sex, and reproduction are seen as fraught with all kinds of quandaries; human desires are always fickle; and then there’s the fact we’re all going to die…Indeed, the fantasy that it might, that the human condition, desire, mortality, can all be somehow resolved seems to be an especially dangerous one, an image of utopia which always seems to lurk somewhere behind the pretentions of Power and the state.” I must admit that it is a little frustrating that Graeber uses the term “utopia” in such opposed ways in the same short text, once to refer to the possibility of a better world and a second time to the unrealizable nature of a complete realization of that possibility. (Two bring to otherwise unrelated thinkers into relation, Graeber’s point here is similar to Badiou’s idea of the unnamable or the evil of dogmatism) Despite this contradiction, or rather because of it, Graeber’s point is a fairly consistent agnosticism with respect to human nature. Between the two invocations of utopia, one optimistic the other pessimistic, there is an idea of a human nature the limits and possibilities of which cannot be known.

In Graeber’s argument there is thus an echo of Emma Goldman’s counter-argument to the opposition to anarchism based on human nature. As Goldman writes:

But what about human nature? Can it be changed? And if not, will it endure under Anarchism? Poor human nature, what horrible crimes have been committed in thy name! Every fool, from king to policeman, from the flatheaded parson to the visionless dabbler in science, presumes to speak authoritatively of human nature. The greater the mental charlatan, the more definite his insistence on the wickedness and weaknesses of human nature. Yet, how can any one speak of it today, with every soul in a prison, with every heart fettered, wounded, and maimed? John Burroughs has stated that experimental study of animals in captivity is absolutely useless. Their character, their habits, their appetites undergo a complete transformation when torn from their soil in field and forest. With human nature caged in a narrow space, whipped daily into submission, how can we speak of its potentialities?

Such an agnosticism with respect to human nature underlies “weak” conceptions of social construction. The idea being quite simply that we have never seen humans outside of this or that social context, so we never grasp human nature just this or that social political articulation of it. The trouble is that this particular sword cuts both ways, uncaged human nature may be Hobbes’ wolf or Rousseau’s noble savage. Last semester some of my students, eternal pessimists that they are, always looking for new apologies of the existing order, argued vehemently that uncaged man might simply be much worse.

In the recently published Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation, Paolo Virno expands upon his remarks in the essay “Anthropology and the Theory of Institutions.” The central point is still the connection between good and evil, rooted in the radical indeterminacy of the human animal. As Virno writes:

Both “virtue” and “evil” require a deficit of instinctual orientation, and they feed off the uncertainty experienced in the face of “that which can be different from the way it is”; this is how Aristotle (Ethics) defines the contingency that distinguishes the praxis of the “animal in possession of language.”

The solution to this predicament is not to resolve this condition, to impose a law that would annul once and for all this indeterminacy with the categorical command to obey. Nor is it to liberate or realize human nature, which quite simply is nothing other than the indeterminacy of any specific nature. Rather, for Virno, the solution has to return to and rearticulate this fundamental indeterminacy. Institutions only protect us if they articulate rather than dispense with this fundamental ambivalence of the human condition: an excess of stimuli coupled with a deficit of determination, what is often referred to as an opening to a world. The examples Virno gives of this are language and ritual, with language being in some sense the clearest example. As Virno writes:

Language is also more natural and more historical than any other institution. More natural: unlike the world of fashion or of the State, the foundation of language lies in a “special organ prepared by nature,” or in that innate biological disposition that is the faculty of language. More historical: while marriage and law fit into the category of certain natural givens (sexual desire and the raising of children, for the former; symmetry of exchanges and the proportionality between damage and compensation for the latter), language is never bound to one of the other objective sphere, but it concerns the entire experience of the animal open to the world—the possible no less than the real—the unknown—as well as the habitual.

Virno coins a term historico-natural for such institutions as language in ritual, which address the fundamental fact of human existence, its indeterminacy, in historical specific ways. Every ritual, every common place of language, touches upon its indeterminacy and artifice in its very articulation. “The oscillation between the loss of presence and its act of reestablishing itself characterizes every aspect of social practice. The ambivalence between symptoms of crisis and symbols of redemption pervade the average everyday life.” Ultimately, Virno uses this to redefine multitude, as that which puts this historico-natural combination in maximum tension, but he also uses this to redefine the current conjuncture. It is that which I would like to conclude with.

Given that every human institution is caught between the indeterminacy that is its foundation and the regularity it would like to invoke, we can describe the present as characterized by both a defect and an excess of semanticity. We are caught between norms without justification, without sense, the structures of the market and institutions, and an excess of chatter, silent rules and ineffective words. Our problem is not action, but how to make action matter, to break free of both the senseless necessity of the market and the endless chatter of the public.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I am not a Marxist, but...

Much of what David Simon says in this lecture I agree with. I was so excited when he said "Capitalism is our God," but then was disappointed to hear him accept capitalism as the only game in town and disavow Marxism. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. Perhaps "I am not a Marxist, but..." will become the equivalent of "I am not a feminist, but..."; In each case the analysis of the conditions stands, patriarchy, the destructive aspects of capitalism, etc. but what is disavowed is the subjective identity, the radical position.

Now, I love The Wire as the recent posts on this blog demonstrate, but I think that David Simon could perhaps use some brushing up on his Marxism. The funny thing is that I was standing less than fifty yards from David Simon a few weeks ago. I desperately wanted to talk to him, but I couldn't get close. It is probably for the better, since all I would said was "I love your show."

Follow the Youtube links to get to the rest of the video. Although it gets a little odd, since the final portions are Q and A with the questions edited out.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Everything is Externality

I have been working through two different problems lately, well longer, for the last few years. The first problem is a critique of neoliberalism, specifically a critical examination of its particular anthropology, its particular understanding of humankind as homo economicus as an isolated, rational, and calculating creature. The second can only be described as an examination of social ontology, specifically Simondon’s concept of transindividuality, Spinoza’s multitude, Tarde’s ideas of imitation and invention, and the revival of these theories in the work of Virno, Balibar, Deleuze, etc. Admittedly this second problem has occupied more of my time as of late, but for the most parts these have been two fairly separate projects, traveling along separate lines, with only the vaguest idea of any possible intersection. It is that vague idea that I would like to explore here.

In some brief remarks about neoliberalism in The Politics of Subversion Negri sketches something like a connection between these two projects. “The only problem is that extreme liberalization of the economy reveals its opposite, namely that the social and productive environment is not made up of atomized individuals…the real environment is made up of collective individuals,” What Negri suggests with this phrase “collective individuals” is that far from being a purely speculative exercise the question of what constitutes social relations is central to the political and economic struggles of the present.

Yann Moulier-Boutang has underscored the importance of grasping the paradoxical logic of externalities in contemporary capitalism. Traditionally defined externalities are the various impacts that a given transaction has on those who are not party to the transaction. Examples of this include such “negative” externalities as pollution and such “positive” externalities as the unintended cultural and social benefits of the formation of cities. In each case there are effects that are not paid for, not a part of anyone’s calculation. As Moulier Boutang presents it, “externalities are the representation of the outside of the economy acting on the economy.” One could push this a bit further to say that externalities are the way in which a neoliberal society imagines its constitutive conditions, they are everything that do not correspond to the strict calculation of cost for benefit. As such they represent the economy’s, or the market’s, attempt to represent its outside.

The problem is that these externalities have become increasingly difficult to ignore. This is especially true with respect to the environment, as a negative externality, and the knowledge involved in the production process, as a positive externality. There is a historical argument here about the transformation of capital, and it should be viewed critically, perhaps even dialectically, to recognize the continuities that underlie the changes, the complex mix of the new and old that constitutes any conjunction. It seems bizarre to say that the “environment” and “intellectual labor” are in any way new, but at the same time there is a certain manner in which they have recently become unavoidable. Capital’s negative effects on the environment go back to the very beginning, but have recently become unavoidable due to the density of population and intensity of accumulation; in other words, there are no new colonies left to exploit. At the same time capital has always put to work the accumulated knowledge of society, but for a long time it was able to work with the knowledge hierarchies that it found ready made, the medieval system of the university, the feudal system of guilds, etc, but now it must rewrite knowledge in its own image.

In an argument that is similar to Moulier Boutang's in many ways, Etienne Balibar underscores that what these “exernalities” call into question is first and foremost the idea of property as something that is absolutely and exclusively owned. As Balibar writes:

This question first arises “negatively,” by way of "ecology" in the broad sense, that is by the recognition of the harms that turn the "productive" balance sheet of human labor into a "destructive" one, and that suddenly make manifest that the use of nature is submitted to practically no law. By "nature" should be understood here precisely all the nonpossessable materials that are nonetheless an indispensable component of all "production," all "consumption," and all "enjoyment:" Their existence is only noticed when they are lacking (by the potential or ongoing exhaustion of certain fundamental "resources"), or when they are transformed into waste that cannot be eliminated, or when they produce effects capable of endangering the life of individuals and of humanity, which can be neither controlled nor repaired by the owners of their "causes," even when these owners are superpowers or multinational conglomerates with a worldwide reach....

In an opposite way the rise of intellectual production has challenged the particular identity of private property. Although as Balibar points out, this has perhaps always been the case; there has always been tension between the idea of absolute ownership and the production of knowledge and ideas, which in some sense depends on their transmission, their circulation beyond market exchanges. It has always been difficult to separate the work of art from its reproduction, the invention from its copy. Nevertheless there has been a quantitative if not qualitative transformation of this as well. As Balibar writes, “Data and methods are irresistibly "disseminated"; the "paternity" of the results of scientific and technological research can no longer be defined in an exclusive fashion - neither can, as a consequence, the property of objects that incorporate an ever greater amount of crystallized knowledge.” Ecological effects demonstrate that ownership, of land, resources, etc., are never discrete or total, it is impossible to limit the effects of any action to the chunk of the environment that I possess. At the same time the production of knowledge, or production through knowledge, reveals that the excess of effects over ownership are often a necessary condition for accumulation.

The conclusion that Balibar draws from these transformations are as follows:

It then becomes impossible in practice, and more and more difficult even to conceive of in theory, to pose on one side a right of property that would deal only with things, or with the individual concerned with the "administration of things" (with the societas rerum of the jurists of antiquity), and on the other side a sphere of the vita activa (Hannah Arendt) that would be the sphere of "man's power over man" and man's obligations toward man, of the formation of "public opinion," and of the conflict of ideologies. Property (dominium) reenters domination (imperium). The administration of things re-enters the government of men.

Balibar’s political statement reveals an ontological challenge as well. If it is no longer possible to separate the “administraton of things” from the “government of men” then it is equal impossible to rigorously and decisively separate objects form subject, things from agents. Thus we can perhaps locate the faint lines of this political transformation behind the various philosophical projects to recast reality as constituted of assemblages, networks, dispositifs, and so on. (All of which may also in some way be attempts to recapture or reinvigorate what Marx initially meant by a “mode of production,” which was not just a new name for an old thing, the economy, but an attempt to understand the mutually constitutive relations of subjects and objects, commodities and ideas.) Moreover, it is not just a matter of recognizing dense networks of relations that exceed any simple division of subjects and objects, but recognizing the constitutive character of relations. As Balibar argues Marx’s philosophy, like that of Spinoza and others, can be characterized as insisting on the primacy of relations, or, more accurately, the relation of relations. With respect to neoliberalism the externalities of the environment and of the circulation of knowledge underscore how completely impossible it is to understand our world through the category of the individual (object or subject) since everything seems to happen above and below the individual. To use Simondon’s terms, everything happens at the level of “pre-individual singularities,” the affects, habits, and perceptions, or transindividual relations, collectivities etc.

To return to Negri’s quote above, it is possible to understand neoliberalism as an ideology that is wholly out of touch with reality. At the exact moment that the world is made and remade through relations, of the sub and transindividual, it represents the world as made up entirely of individuals. However, such a characterization misses some of the strongest points of the criticism of neoliberalism in the work of Wendy Brown and even Foucault’s recently translated lecture course on “biopolitics.” Writers on neoliberalism have insisted that it is not just an ideology, in the pejorative sense of the term, a set of ideas one may or may not subscribe to, but a fundamental transformation of how we live and perceive the world, a production of subjectivity. As Wendy Brown argues, one can survey the quotidian effects or practices of neoliberalism in the manner in which individualized/market based solutions appear in lieu of collective political solutions: gated communities for concerns about security and safety; bottled water for concerns about water purity; and private schools (or vouchers) for failing public schools, all of which offer the opportunity for individuals to opt out rather than address political problems. Despite our best efforts we are all some sense produced as neoliberal subjects, calculating the maximum benefit for minimum cost with respect to our labors, actions, and desires.

In the end, and by way of a conclusion, the challenge would seem to be to retain these two ideas at once. To both recognize the constitutive nature of relations, relations which exceed the categories of subjects and objects, and to recognize that one of the things those relations constitute is the image of a world made up of isolated competitive individuals (an image which has very real effects).

Friday, June 13, 2008

Stringer Bell's Lament

When I started this blog almost two years ago, one of the many ideas behind it was to have it function as a kind of outlet for my various musings on films and television. I wanted to write about these things, but did not want to contribute to the latest volume of "That's What She Said: Philosophy and Gender in The Office." Today, I have effectively broken that little rule, and have proposed the following for a book on The Wire. Given that this blog is usually the outlet for these thoughts I thought that I would post it here as well.

In The Wire the illegal drug trade function as a sustained allegory of capitalism. It is at once the outside of the world of legitimate business, governed by different rules and principles of loyalty, and the former’s dark mirror, revealing the effects of a relentless pursuit of profit on the community and lives of those caught up in its grip. Nowhere is this tension between “the game,” the drug trade, and the larger game of capital illustrated with greater clarity than in the life and death of Russell “Stringer” Bell. Bell is often presented as the character most enamored of the legitimate world of business, taking economics classes at community college and applying the lessons to the world of the drug trade. Bell is also presented as the character who desires not only wealth, but the legitimacy of the world of legal business. His story functions as a brutal and tragic retelling of the classic Horatio Alger story, a “by the bootstraps” “rags to riches” story in which murder, addiction, and betrayal are as fundamental as hard work and business acumen. It is story that ends tragically as well, while Stringer Bell is able to accumulate money, he is unable to acquire security and legitimacy, he remains caught between the “semi-feudal” loyalties of the drug trade and the ruthless world of capital until the contradictions between the two eventually kill him.

Bell’s trajectory is best understood as a variation of what Marx referred to as “primitive accumulation.” Marx’s chapters in Capital on primitive, or so-called primitive accumulation, make two separate but related arguments. First, Marx counters the account of the formation of capital provided by political economy, an account that is presented as a moral tale dividing the thrifty from the wasteful. It is the original template for all Horatio Alger stories. Second, Marx provides his own historical account of the emergence of capitalism from feudalism, an account in which violence is an indispensable element. What is at stake in Marx’s theory (and in the works of such theorists as Althusser, Deleuze, and Negri that have developed these ideas) is less a matter of distinguishing between a positive or negative account of capitalism, in which capital is seen as either moral or immoral, than of working through the complex intersection of morality, desire, narrative, and violence that is at stake in life under capitalism. Capitalism cannot be separated from its narratives that equate financial worth and moral worth, as much as it continually undermines these narratives in practice.

Bell’s arc over the course of The Wire does not simply function as an illustration of this theory, but pushes it into the present. As the series illustrates as legitimacy in capitalist society is equated with financial success this leads to the devaluing of human life. In order to be valued, one must devalue the lives of others. To quote David Simon, summing up the major lesson of the show, “It’s the triumph of capitalism over human value.”

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Indiana Jones Versus the General Intellect

If one wanted to be generous to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull one could say that it tries to continue the self-reflexive nature of the previous films. Whereas the early films represented the 30s and 40s through the lens of the serials of the time, the current film represents the 50s through the conventions of a 50s B-movie, complete with the atom bomb, greasers, the red scare, and flying saucers. It does not go far enough in this direction, however, or, more to the point, it is hindered by Lucas and Spielberg’s desire to become caricatures of themselves.

One thing that has characterized Lucas’ filmmaking since the prequels is this relentless desire to connect all of the dots; the prequels find it necessary to present the origin of everything, from Boba Fett to Chewbacca’s uncle. The current film is burdened by filling in the loose ends to the point where we know not only that Marcus Brody (Indiana Jones’ colleague) is dead, but also that he became dean of the college before dying. From the very beginning Speilberg’s films were almost always family romances, the reconciliation of the family through some external event, aliens, dinosaurs, poltergeists, etc. In the latest Indiana Jones film this becomes incredibly literal and over the top, as Indiana Jones gains both a wife in being reunited with Marion Ravenwood and a son. The only thing missing is a family dog, but his son goes by the nickname Mutt, which is also a meta joke since "Indiana was the dogs name." So much of the film is driven by these rather uninteresting subplots and easter eggs.

The Indiana Jones films have always been on some level about the politics of knowledge. First, there is the “Orientalist” narrative in which only the West can comprehend the secrets of the ancient kingdoms of Egypt and Central America. The living denizens of the various exotic locales do not even have a clue what treasures lie beneath them, let alone how to find them. Only Indiana Jones can unlock the secrets of the ancient tombs (it is only a tragedy that he does not speak Hovitos.) Second, there is also often a quasi-religious idea of humility in the face of the divine. In the end Indiana Jones knows that the ark is best left alone.

The closing scene on the politics of knowledge in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Which is reborn as an easter egg in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 
Look closely and you can see the Ark

In the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull this focus on the politics of knowledge gets shifted a bit. With respect to the first, the Orientalist narrative, there are no "native informants" in this film, nothing like Sallah, Indiana's friend in Egypt. Knowledge exists only between different westerners, Indy spends most of the film tracking down the clues left by his old grad school buddy Harold Oxley, deciphering clues left in Mayan. When the natives do appear they appear as a screaming horde armed with blowguns, there is nothing to discuss, just punch and shoot. Second, the villains are now Communists rather than Nazis, so the plot of the first and third films, Hitler’s desire to turn religious artifacts into weapons, is absent. Second, because the object in question is now secular, an alien skull, rather than sacred, the ark of the Covenant of the Holy Grail. This leads to a very muddled final scene in which the communist villain points out that aliens have a hive mind. She latter is killed by her desire to “know everything.” In some ways this reproduces the end scene of the first film. Aren’t all sequels secretly remakes? This is where the film missed its mark, and could have really developed the anti-communist message. Given that the film dallies with the rumors of Stalinist psychic experiments, the film could have developed the hive mind versus individualistic knowledge. This also would have allowed for the film to develop the rather tacked on middle section about McCarthyism into something. It could have pitted Indiana Jones, the representative of western knowledge (of its others) and "free inquiry" against the collective intelligence of the soviets/aliens.

Hence the title of this post.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Matters of Substance

I will admit from the beginning that I am not a Lacanian. I am minimally competent in Lacan. I have read him, sure, the selections from Ecrits, The Four Fundamental Concepts, and even The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, but all of that was along time ago. Nowadays I tend to avoid him not out of some fundamental disagreement but more out of an acute awareness of how much work it would take to actually engage Lacan again.

So it was with some trepidation that I picked up A. Kiarina Kordela’s $urplus: Spinoza, Lacan. Not that I think that the project of the book is totally unfounded. As the book suggests on the first page, Spinoza’s groundbreaking concept of immanent causality has, especially since Althusser’s invocation of it in Reading Capital, been inseparable from the concept of differential causality. So, perhaps, the encounter between Spinoza and Lacan has been a long time in coming.

The book takes as its central point of interpretation Spinoza’s difficult remark in Ethics II Prop 43, “As the light makes both itself and the darkness plain, so truth is the standard both of itself and of the false.” Kordela sees this statement as the basis for a contradiction in Spinoza’s thought. A contradiction between Spinoza’s ontology, which subordinates every final cause to a series of efficient and ultimately immanent causes (we call good what we have been determined to desire), and the requirements of human action that necessarily require some goal, some final cause. In Kordela’s Lacanian terms this becomes the necessity of a fiction. Thus to return to Spinoza’s somewhat puzzling statement, truth’s relation to its opposite, the false, becomes a matter of intimate interrelation. Truth is structured like a fiction.

Kordela illustrates this through Deleuze’s retelling of the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. As Deleuze stresses it is incoherent to think that God forbid Adam to eat the apple; rather it is necessary to understand the apparent injunction as a simple statement of causal effect—“in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Kordela argues that Spinoza (and Deleuze’s) contradiction has to do with living and dying as ends, as final causes, the former of which is more desireable. What Spinoza (and Deleuze) overlook according to Kordela is the unavoidable nature of the final cause, the unavoidable nature of a fiction. This criticism seems to miss the mark on several points. First, Spinoza addresses this “contradiction” in the preface to part four of the Ethics. As Spinoza argues despite the fact that good and evil indicate nothing in terms of things, tell us nothing about the world, it is necessary to retain these terms practically, with respect to some model or ideal of existence, an ideal that necessarily contains living. More to the point, Kordela’s general criticism that Spinoza fails to recognize the “cognitive dimension” of fiction seems to overlook the status of fiction, or the imaginary in Spinoza political works as well as the Ethics.

Those are the books limitations. The books strength lies in the way in which it reinterprets immanent causality, drawing lines connecting Spinoza and Marx. What Kordela focuses on is the tripartite structure in which Spinoza immanent causality is God (or Substance) expressed in terms of the modes of thought and extension, three terms in which the first exists only in its differential articulation into the other two. The equivalent of this in Marx is Surplus value which exists only in the form of exchange values, which are taken as signs, and use values, objects of utility. (The order and connection of ideas and things.) The structure of being is as follows according to Kordela…1) being as the imaginary univocity of abstract thought, that is, as simulacrum (exchange value or signifier); 2) Beings as the multiplicity of beings (use value or physical beings); and 3) the primary, transcendent, yet immanent, differential (non)-substance that at once institutes the above duplicity and is the effect thereof (surplus).”

I have to say that there is something clever about this idea of surplus value as substance, as substance that exists only in terms of its effects (which are also causes). First, it is not something that I would have thought of, and it does an interesting job of drawing together Spinoza and Marx’s insistence that thought is part of the world. Secondly it insists on an ontological dimension of capital, capital transforms being. It is this last point that is also a bit vexing, as much as the author suggests that an immanent ontology de-ontologizes ontology, rendering it historical and worldly rather than transcendent, it is hard to see this as nothing other than a fixed structure in which only the slots change. There would then be different surpluses, different excess immanent elements, from God to capital, structuring the relationship between thought and being. I would argue that this immanent ontology is not immanent enough, it must take the turn (arguably) that Spinoza’s work takes in part three and four of the ethics, turning towards desire, affects, etc. So much work needs to be done in understanding the intertwining connections between capital and desire. What the book ultimately lacks is something that Fischbach’s book does well articulating, is a connection between Marx and Spinoza at the level of practice, at the level of their concepts of labor and conatus.