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.”