Sunday, February 24, 2008

Primitive Accumulation: The Movie


The last few entries on this blog have been notebook entries, the half formulated conceptual connections that used to belong in my little notebook (and should perhaps stay there). So as something of a change I thought that I would write about film.

I had a highly ambivalent reaction to There Will be Blood, an ambivalence that I could not pinpoint. This ambivalence was, and remains, primarily political, aimed at the political subtext of the film. Although I have to admit that this may have a lot to do with my expectations. I went into There Will be Blood half expecting to see Matewan except with oil; something about the scenes of the child preacher made me thing that this was the case. While I have come to appreciate the film, I still wonder about this particular omission of anything resembling class struggle. It is a film about capitalism, but without workers.

When Marx is writing about “primitive accumulation” he is writing about two things at once. The first is the account that capital gives of its own formation. This is essentially a moral story of thrift versus expenditure; the world is divided between those who save their money and become capitalists and those who spend theirs and are left with nothing but their labor power to sell. It is essentially a version of the old fable of the ant and the grasshopper. Marx, however, connects it to a different literary source. As Marx writes “This primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology.” This is what Marx refers to as “so-called primitive accumulation.” It is not only an ideological conception of capital, a moral justification, but a complete inability to think historically, falling to grasp how one ends up with workers and capitalists to begin with. Against this conception Marx provides an account of the formation of capital that is opposed to the first on every point: focusing on force rather than morality, and on the aleatory encounters of multiple relations, rather than the linear trajectory of an intention. This is the second thing, an account of force and violence in history. As Marx writes, summing up this process.

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of indigenous population of a that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of early capitalist production…These different moments are systematically combined together at the end of the seventeenth century in England; the combination embraces the colonies the national debt, the modern tax system, and the system of protection. These methods depend on brute force, for instance the colonial system. But they all employ the power of the state, the concentrated and organized force of society, to hasten, as in a hothouse, the process of transformation of the feudal mode of production into the capitalist mode, and to shorten the transition. Force is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power.

When I first saw There Will be Blood it occurred to me to view it as a narrative of “so-called primitive accumulation,” a moral story. How else does one interpret the long scene of Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) working on his own silver mine? The first part of the film is very much the fantasy of the capitalist as the self-made man; which is why workers are oddly absent from the film. A great deal of writing on this film has labeled Plainview as the personification of capital. (The strongest argument for this interpretation can be found here). If this is so, then on first glance it is not necessarily a critical personification, since it holds onto one of the central ideas of capitalist ideology, the capitalist as one who has earned his wealth, the capitalist as “self-made man.” However, even this narrative is interrupted by the appearance of Paul Sunday, the goat farmer’s son who sells his family out of the desire for escape or perhaps spite. This contingent factor becomes the basis of Plainview’s later fortune, stressing that fortune is made up of frustration, desire, and spite as much as it is of thrift and work.

I am still at a bit of a loss as how to interpret the odd decision to cast the same actor (Paul Dano) as both Paul and Eli Sunday, as both opportunist in flight and would be moral core of the community. The explanation within the film is that they are brothers, ostensibly twins, but it leads to an odd confusion or doubling. All of which resonates in the final scene, when the brother that supposedly represents virtue and faith attempts to repeat the same gesture of opportunism and betrayal that the first brother did, only without success. One could thus argue that the casting, or the presentation of the brothers as twins, underscores the fact that the two narratives of primitive accumulation, morality and force, are never really separate, but intertwined.

This intertwining is given an added dimension by the presence of Plainview’s adopted son. In the long opening scene detailing Plainview’s initial accumulation of capital, he also acquires a bit of symbolic capital through the adoption of the son of a worker killed on the job. The son functions as Plainview’s morality externalized, his alibi as a “family man.” Capital does not so much follow from the moral actions of those who accumulate it, their thrift and hard work, rather it accumulates a moral image based on force. It can present the corporation as a “family business” only after it has destroyed the economic basis of the family. As Deleuze and Guattari stress in their brief remarks on “primitive accumulation,” primitive accumulation is not just violence but a violence that immediately cloaks itself in authority, by claiming a right to appropriate. To quote Deleuze and Guattari:

Hence the very particular character of state violence: it is very difficult to pinpoint this violence because it always presents itself as pre-accomplished. It is not even adequate to say that the violence rests with the mode of production. Marx made the observation in the case of capitalism: there is a violence that necessarily operates through the state, precedes the capitalist mode of production, constitutes the primitive accumulation and makes possible the capitalist mode of production itself. From a standpoint within the capitalist mode of production, it is very difficult to say who is the thief and who is the victim, or even where the violence resides. That is because the worker is born entirely naked and the capitalist objectively “clothed” an independent owner. That which gave the worker and the capitalist this form eludes us because it operated in other modes of production.

Finally, it occurred to me to look at the film beyond the two perspectives on primitive accumulation, capital born from thrift and work or blood and destruction. What the film stresses, in a way that is more reminiscent of Horheimer and Adorno than Marx, is not just the intertwining of morality and violence, but that capital is born out of violence done to the self. The opening scene of the film, the long drawn out scene of struggle with the earth itself, is not that of a man pulling himself up by his bootstraps as it were, but of a man destroying any connection with others, anything that we confusedly call humanity. What remains is the façade of morality, the adopted son and the image of the family man, and the ruthless desire to accumulate.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Real as Relation

There are several lines from Hegel that are not only cited often, but also modified to become the basis for new statements. I am thinking of the famous injunction to consider the absolute not just as substance but as subject, which Badiou transforms into demand to “conceive of imperialist society not just as substance, but also as subject,” or of the assertion that the rational is real, which Muriel Combes rewrites as “the relational is real, the real is relational.” It is the former, which appears in Combes short book on Simondon, that interests me now.

Combes remark follows an important insight of Simondon’s, that individuation is not just a process of the constitution of things, an ontogenesis, but of the constitution of thoughts, which are also individuated through operations that transform an inchoate backdrop of thought into discrete concepts. Against a tradition that has assumed that the individual is given, in terms of both individual things and concepts, Simondon argues that both thoughts and beings must be constituted and sustained through an operation, that is a relation with pre-individual singularities and metastable conditions that function as their outside. Ultimately Combes offers a “mash-up” of sorts of Hegel’s statement, substituting relations for rational, and Spinoza’s equally famous proposition seven of Part II of the Ethics, which states that the order and connection of ideas and things are the same. Ideas and things are both relations, not just in their relation to each other, but intrinsically as well; ideas are relations and things are relations.

It is possible to situate Combes remark alongside at least two others, which cross a similar terrain. First, and most immediately, there is Vittorio Morfino’s assertion that Spinoza’s thought is an ontology of relation, rather than a metaphysics of substance. Of course Morfino is going against the dominant tradition of interpretation here, years of commentary that have focused on the stable presence of substance underneath the vacillations of the modes. However, it is precisely this division between primary substance and accidents that Spinoza’s thought refuses. There is no practical division between primary and secondary aspects, between what is intrinsic to a thing and its extrinsic relations. Spinoza defines the essence of a thing in such a way that it cannot be separated from its accidents. Desire is the essence of man; desire which is nothing other than the historically constituted articulation of the conatus, of a particular striving. A thing, a body, a mind, an individual, is nothing other than a relationship with its outside.

Second, Etienne Balibar has argued that Marx’s critique of ideology in The German Ideology has as its corollary a concept of the “real as relation.” The specific quote is: “The materialist critique of ideology, for its part corresponds to the analysis of the real as relation, as a structure of practical relations.” As Balibar notes, Marx does not just denounce ideology in the name of the actually existing material relations of production, in which case the relations would be the truth of the fiction of ideology, but attempts to demonstrate how ideology emerges through those relations, constituted by the division between mental and manual labor. Thus, it is not possible to simply juxtapose an ideological conception to a real condition since that real condition, the structure of material relations of production and reproduction, includes ideology.

There is nothing particularly unique or particularly unified about these three different texts. They are held together only by the tenuous threads of memory, as they all happen to be books or articles I have rea. Beyond that one could make the argument that philosophy has been trying to think the real of relation, or reality as a relation for a long time. After all, this is perhaps part of the meaning of Hegel’s idea of the absolute as subject. Dialectics, structuralism, and so-called post-structuralism have all attempted to pinpoint the particular consistency and logic of relations. If anything justifies this post it is the particular impetus that Combes’ reading of Simondon gives this idea: it is not just that what is exists as a relation, but thought is a relation as well. Thought is not outside of the relations that it is trying to grasp, but is thoroughly immanent to them and constituted by those relations. It seems to me that in this series of clippings and citations there is something like the basis for a materialist redefinition of philosophy.

On a similar point, and as a follow up to my previous post on “The Production of Stupidity,” I would recommend Yves Citton’s “Noo-politique spinoziste ? (Recension de deux livres récents sur Spinoza, de Lorenzo Vinciguerra et de Pascal Sévérac)” The article, which is in part a book review, attempts to bridge the gap between Spinozist discussions of the materiality of thought and Lazzarato’s work on noo-politics. The article ends with a discussion of the particular production of stupidity in contemporary society. As Citton argues stupidity is produced when an event or happening is situated outside the common, outside the dense network of relations that constitute it, and rendered incomprehensible in its singularity. To which I would add, in thinking about the forces of mass media, that such events are then related only to a moral dimension. After all it was Spinoza who taught us that moral understanding of phenomena, of God’s supposed law, tell us nothing; they are the effect and cause of ignorance.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Power of Form

For a bit of irony I should start with a confession; as I have indicated in my discussion of Lazzarato below, I have little or no patience for knee-jerk criticisms of Marx, criticism based on some supposed identity of Marxism. I find this to be particularly the case with respect to Foucault, who quite famously criticizes Marxism, only to then cite Marx repeatedly “without quotation marks.” I could go on an on about this, pointing out that Foucault often picks the strangest things to retain from Marx, the grand battle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat that ends The History of Sexuality, or, stranger still, the concept of petty-bourgeoisie, for example. I could write a book about this, and would if it was still the nineteen-eighties.

Actually, I should start with two confessions, the idea for this post stems from a certain contingent encounter of two passages, to things that I happened to be reading at the same time that seemed similar. I confess, because I realize that such encounters are banal to say the least; everyone who teaches has had to endure the student who figures out that the thing that he or she is reading in class x is just like the thing he or she is reading in class y.

The first bit is from Foucault’s lecture titled “Truth and Juridical Forms” collected in the third of the “essential” works series. (Another day, when I am in an even more vitriolic mood I am going to write about how much I hate these collections, how much of the really interesting stuff from Dits et Écrits is left out, how they are basically just a repackaged collection of mostly already translated material, and, finally, how they are a horrible hatchet job, disconnecting Foucault’s thought from Deleuze, Marx, Blanchot, etc.) Where was I? Oh yeah the quote, here it is:

Those wishing to establish a relation between what is known and the political, social, or economic forms that serve as a context for that knowledge need to trace that relation by way of consciousness or the subject of knowledge. It seems to that the real junction between economico-politico processes and the conflicts of knowledge might be found in those forms which are, at the same time, modes of power exercise and modes of knowledge acquisition and transmission.

Throughout these lectures, as in many places, Foucault is distancing himself from the concept of ideology, a concept that he argues retains the “subject of knowledge”: ideology is inseparable from a distinction between truth and falsity. In the quote above, however, Foucault adds the concept of “form” to this distinction. To understand the connection between power and knowledge we should examine the forms of knowledge, the test, inquiry, and discipline, not the contents of knowledge. What is so striking to me, and he is where the other reading comes in, is how much Foucault’s emphasis on form rather than content echoes so much interesting Marxist writing on form, real abstraction, etc. This struck me because I happened to be reading Pashukanis’ The General Theory of Law and Marxism at about the same time. Pashukanis is at great pains to stress that a Marxist theory of law is not simple based on the idea of class struggle, on seeing bourgeois interests behind the supposedly neutral categories of law, but on examining the fundamental relation between the commodity form and the legal form. As Pashukanis writes:

Just as in the commodity, the multiplicity of use values natural to a product appears simply as the shell of value, and the concrete types of human labor are dissolved into abstract human labor as the creator of value, so also the concrete multiplicity of relations between man and object manifests itself as the abstract will of the owner. All concrete particularities which distinguish one representative of the genus homo sapiens from another dissolve into the abstraction of man in general, man as a legal subject.

Now one does not have to dredge up such a thinker as Pashukanis to make this point; all one has to do is read the opening of Capital, which focuses on the “commodity form.” Marx’s materialism is grounded on the paradoxical materiality of form, it is the form of the commodity that “matters,” that has effects. One could argue that Foucault knows this, after all his understanding of the norm, as an abstract ideal productive of multiple effects, is indebted to Marx’s concept of abstract labor. That is not the point I want to make here, rather, I want to turn to the odd point of overlap between these two unrelated texts—the distinction between ideology (as content) and commodity (as form).

In a great little book, that recently came back into print, Etienne Balibar examines the different problems underlying the concepts of “ideology” and “commodity fetishism.” These concepts refer not only to specific texts, The German Ideology and Capital, but also to specific problems. The first refers to the state, to power, while the second refers to the market, to subjection. Ideology emerges from the division of mental and manual labor, from the conflict of classes, while fetishism emerges from the quotidian practice of market exchange, from social relations. To this series of oppositions we could add the following: ideology concerns a content of thought while fetishism concerns the very form of thought.

The reason that this is important is not only that it reveals how mistaken Foucault is in his criticism, but it reveals something of a trend in contemporary thought: away from ideology and towards the fetish. Foucault’s remark about forms of knowledge, Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of the image of thought, Adorno’s critique of identity, and even Althusser’s concept of ideology all focus on the question of form, and its effects. Finally, if one remembers Balibar’s remark that fetishism concerns a particular mode of appearance, the way things in a commodity society must appear, then one could extend this list to include the revival of a certain idea of aesthetics in Ranciére; aesthetics understood not as a theory of the ideal forms of the beautiful, but as the distribution that determines what appears and how it is sensed.

I am not sure where all of this is going, except to perhaps point out that the question of how to change a form of thought, or perception, is a much more vexing question than simply substituting one ideological content for another. Marx could only begin to address this question by referring to the question of social practice.