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.