Monday, January 07, 2008

Now is the time to invent

Every philosophical library, public or private, has to deal with the unstable division between “primary” and “secondary” literature. At what point does a book on Nietzsche for example cease to be a book on Nietzsche and become a philosophical work in its own right; are Heidegger’s four volumes on Nietzsche Nietzsche books or books to be shelved with the rest of Heidegger? How about Deleuze’s book on Nietzsche?

This is not really the question that I want to ask, but it does occur to me as I sit down to write some reflections on Maurizio Lazzarato’s Puissance de l’invention: La psychologie économique de Gabriel Tarde contre l’économie politique. This book could arguably be considered a secondary source, a work on Tarde, and in some sense it is. However, that is not how I initially approached it. I read it because I was interested by Lazzarato’s work, specifically Les revolutions de capitalisme, and not so much because of an interest in Tarde, of whom I have read very little. (In fact I read the book in part to figure out if I should be really interested in Tarde, if it is worth the commitment of time to slog through the many long books that Tarde wrote).

The book definitely stands on its own in part because of its thorough consideration of Tarde’s work, but also due to the fact that it is situated within the contemporary debates: Tarde is examined alongside Deleuze, Guattari, Rancière, Foucault, Arendt, and Negri, not to mention Marx. As the title suggests, of all these names Marx is the central focus, given that the work positions Tarde’s conception of “economic psychology” against “political economy.” I have to say that some of the criticisms of Marx are the weakest part of the book. As is so often the case with criticism of “Marxism,” it is often unclear who (or what period of Marx’s writing) is being referred to when the standard ideas of so-called Marxism are trotted out: superstructure a mere reflection of base, labor as primarily industrial labor, and so on. These are arguably tendencies within Marxism, and it would be foolish to deny that they exist, but they are only tendencies, which are always countered by counter-tendencies. Lazzarato, who traveled in circles with Negri and Virno, should know better than to reduce Marxism to such tendencies.

However, Lazzarato argues that Tarde’s target is not just Marxist political economy but Marxist and classical political economy. Specifically he is targeting their specific psychologies, or theories of subjectivity. Classical (or bourgeois political economy) posits the subject as a bearer of pleasure or pain, happiness or sadness. These affects which provide the backdrop for the calculations of cost and benefit are irreducibly individual, unaffected by any relations with others, by collective or social evaluations. (This what some in the economics business call the myth of the rational consumer, the idea that there are only individual choices animated by pleasure and pain underlying the economy, that everyone really likes those stupid “crocs”). While Marx introduces a social and collective dimension to economics, this dimension is primarily seen as defined by labor, by abstract labor that has been rendered interchangeable. Aside from the few remarks on cooperation labor does not really interact with anything other than capital, the social dimension is subordinated to a dialectic of struggle. On the one side, there is a subject of pleasure and pain that can only be conceived as an atom of society, and on the other, there is a social relation founded primarily on labor.

What is missing from both of these accounts is what Tarde calls the relation between minds, or the cooperation of “brains” [cerveaux]. What Tarde is referring to, according to Lazzarato, is the myriad way that thinking, believing, and desiring is defined by the capacity to affect and be affected: habits, beliefs, ideas, and desires are defined by a fundamental instability and contagion in which thoughts determine thoughts. Ultimately, and this gets us to what is meant by the idea of economic psychology, Lazzarato argues that these relations between minds are fundamental to any economy. This is true of production; every labor process is ultimately a set of habits that must be communicated and shared. In a similar sense, the economy of goods depends on an economy of desires and beliefs without which the former would not function. Notwithstanding the polemics against Marxism here, there is a lot to this idea of examining the circulation of ideas and habits that underlie the economy, society, and politics. Lazzarato’s argument is strengthened by the fact that he distances himself here from any sort of epochal argument in which the economy is now at this moment an economy of habits, desires, etc. (Although it should be noted that Lazzarato does follow Tarde on another epochal division, that which divides a premodern society of custom, stable and conservative, from a modern society of ever changing and circulating habits, caught in relations of flux. And if I wanted to extend this parenthesis, to the point where it should be its own paragraph or post, I would say that Lazzarato’s Les Révolutions du Capitalisme does pursue a more epochal argument, linking Tarde’s idea of the relation between minds, and the technologies that make action at a distance possible, with Deleuze’s concept of control).

While Lazzarato’s invocation of Tarde’s theory of subjectivity opens up an interesting “micro-political” terrain of habits and desires, the more he discusses hiss theory the more it seems to pivot around an impasse of sorts. Lazzarato stresses that at the basis of Tarde’s psychology is difference, sensations, memories, and habits are articulated based on difference. Case in point, two of the fundamental categories of Tarde’s theory are imitation, the process by which a habit, belief, or desire is passed between minds, and invention, the creation of the new. Lazzarato stresses that these are each relations of difference: imitation is the repetition of the same habit in new conditions and invention is the creation of a different way of acting or thinking. The point, as Lazzarato sees it is to bridge the gap between imitation and invention. Imitation is more inventive than it would first appear, since it must recreate the old in new situations, and invention is nothing more than the transformation of certain undiscovered potentialities in what already exists. What appears to be radically new is dependent on small scale differences and transformations.

It is around these points that we see Lazzarato circle around a point that is both unavoidable and all too familiar: subjectivity must be thought as simultaneously conditioned and irreducible to its conditions, as constrained and free. This point shows up repeatedly in contemporary theory under various names: enabling constraints, iterability, power/resistance, deterritorialization/reterritorialization, etc. Its ubiquity may be due to fact that it is true, it is perhaps a fact of life that we are passive and active. At the same time, however, it appears to be a dead end of thought, a fact that can be asserted and renamed, couched in new philosophical language, that of power, habit, language, affects, etc., but never really elucidated. I wonder if it can be elucidated, at least theoretically. To go beyond this fact, one needs a concrete instance, a specific site, someway of moving beyond abstract possibility, the capacity to affect and be affected, to the concrete ways in which this particular capacity has been realized.

Despite these limits, I am now tempted to read some Tarde. Just what I need, another French guy to read up on, which will soon have me spending lots of money on alapage and lots of time that I should be doing other things.


  1. I have read some Tarde - he is quite interesting but goes on at excessive length about everything. The argument isn't elaborated, just repeated over and over again for hundreds of pages. The best book to start with is Monadologie et sociologie, which gives the metaphysics behind his method, and which (unlike most of his books) is quite short.

    I haven't read Lazzarato's book on Tarde yet (I have it on order); but in Les Revolutions du capitalisme I was quite annoyed by the violence of his polemics against Marx and "Marxism" -- which always come up when he is making an argument that in fact fits entirely within a generally Marxist framework or tradition.

    What you say about the aporia around subjectivity I think is entirely right for theoretical discussions these days in general. I am inclined to think that this problematic is elucidated best by Whitehead (which is who I am writing about at the moment), but it might well be that his theorizations, like those of others, just represent as you say, another dead end.

  2. Steven,

    Thanks for the heads up about Tarde. I have taken your advice and started Mondalogie et sociologie.

    With respect to what I said about subjectivity, I should stress that I consider the intersection of "determined/determining" to be something of a theoretical dead end. Although dead end is a bit harsh, since I think that one can make progress in this area. For example I find affective/corporeal ways of theorizing this in Spinoza, Deleuze, Simondon, Virno, etc. to be more promising than linguistic models. (I confess that I am not sufficiently informed about Whitehead to make an assessment). Moreover, I think that the turn to transindividuality or collectivity is something of advance. But with respect to subjectivity itself, I think that the only way past it might involve a practical dimension.