Thursday, February 19, 2009

Open Question: Work and Film

I am currently putting together a course on the politics and philosophy of work. The course is a survey of sorts, taking the place of a more general survey of social and political philosophy; it begins with the contradiction between the place of work and the model of work in Plato and Aristotle (with a nod to Rancière) and then continues through Locke, Smith, Hegel, Marx, and Arendt, ending with feminism and then the "immaterial labor" debate (some Virno, Negri, and Sennett). Because the course is a summer course, and thus is packed into these horrendous three hour sessions that meet several times a week, I was thinking of adding some films. These would break up the heavy reading load, and give me time to prepare lectures.

So this has led me to think, albeit in a loose and provisional manner, about the relationship between work and film as I look for suitable films. Last night I watched Blue Collar, which I learned about from Kino Fist. While watching the film two things occured to me. First, there is an almost uncanny relationship between film and modern factory work. The montage is the natural medium for the assembly line: it is impossible to show it any other way. Film and the Fordist assembly line both fragment the body and its gestures, ultimately reassembling them into a different totality than the one organized by the individual. Despite this vague resemblance at the level of technique (or this vague thought of ressemblance) work is unpresentable, at least in terms of the commercial film. A film that captured the reality of work would beyond the point of boring. Film exists as an escape from work.

So anyway, I am trying to think about interesting films about work. Ideally these films would reflect the historical nature of the survey. Despite what I said above it is relatively easy to find films about modern industrial work, but harder to find films about praxis and poesis, or films which critically interrogate possessive individualism. So far I have considered Strike (or something by Eisenstein), Fast Food Nation, Mardi Gras: Made in China, and perhaps even The Wrestler (given what I have written below).


Saturday, February 14, 2009

Not with a Bang but a Whimper

Two quick points:
First, it is utterly surprising to me how quickly the language around the economy and politics has changed. For years, even decades, we have heard not only that "free markets" could regulate themselves, but that they were the key to regulating anything else, to fixing any social ill, from health care to social security. Now this seems to be very much in question. Of course the charges of socialism, first against Obama and now against the stimulus package, are hyperbolic and hysterical. The hysteria is, however, a symptom, a symptom of profound unease around the once fundamental justifications of neoliberalism and capitalism. Something has changed, but what?

Second, all of this has taken place with very little popular revolt and uprising, at least in this country. There was the much discussed incident at Republic Doors in Chicago, but not much aside from that. There have been large protests in Europe, but in the US "the left" has not even managed to put pressure on the stimulus package. Of course there has been a vague sense of anger and bitterness, manifested primarily in terms jokes about bankers.

The question then is how do these two things combine? What, if anything, will fill the void left behind by the fantasies of the market? And when, if ever, will people take to the streets?

Monday, February 09, 2009

What Interests Me

I have been following the news of the economic collapse and the stimulus bill with some interest. Although I have to admit that I am of two minds on the issue. As a tenure track (but not yet tenured) philosophy professor at a state university I am keenly aware of my precarious job position. I am also concerned for the well being of my friends and family, many of whom work in non-profits, education, and social services, in other words all of whom are expendable. Because of this, part of me would to see this bill succeed, to see the economy restored, or at least brought out of this downward spiral. At the same time, however, I do not want to say that I would like to see it fail, but at the very least I would like to see something other than a restoration of business as usual. I would like to see this conjuncture extended into real critical reflection about the fundamentals of our economy: of what counts as wealth and how it is distributed. I am not hoping for a revolution (at least yet) just a transformation, and it seems like it has to get much worse for that to happen.

One could label the first thought, that of hope for success of the economic stimulus package, interest, since it bears directly on my economic wellbeing. In doing so it brings to mind the critical ways in which interest has been discussed by Badiou, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari. (Admittedly this is a somewhat odd constellation since it encompasses texts written over the last thirty-five years). In Badiou’s little text on Ethics, he argues that “interest” is fundamentally conservative, even nihilistic, because it can recognize no event other than harm, than the eventual death of the human animal. “The ordinary behavior of the human animal is a matter of what Spinoza calls perseverance in being, which is nothing other than the pursuit of interest, or the conservation of self.” In Metapolitics Badiou goes on to argue that “interest” is at the heart of every “Thermidor” of every attempt to deny the truth of a revolutionary event. The revolution comes to an end when it is declared that “interest lies at the heart of every subjective demand.” Politics is reduced to the conflict of interests—truth, equality, and universality collapse in the face of competing interest groups. I find Badiou’s scattered remarks of interest to be well interesting, they capture something that is essential to both neoliberalism and interest group politics. However, they are not presented as such, as diagnoses of the present. For Badiou there is a fundamental split in humanity: on the one side there is interest, a struggle for survival shared with all living things, on the other there is the capacity to be immortal, to maintain fidelity to the truth of equality and justice.

In a different way Deleuze and Guattari argue for a division, not between interest and truth, but between interest and desire. However, for Deleuze and Guattari, interest is not the residue of a purely animalistic existence, rather it is the product of a particular social formation. As Deleuze writes in Desert Islands, “Once interests have been defined within the confines of a society, the rational is the way in which people pursue those interests and attempt to realize them. But underneath that, you find desires, investments of desire that are not to be confused with investments of interests, and on which interests depend for their determination and very distribution: an enormous flow, all kinds of libidinal-unconscious flows that constitute the delirium of this society.” The distinction between interest and desire relates to a short period in Deleuze and Guattari’s work, roughly the years around Anti-Oedipus, and it seems to be part of the incomplete project of that early work: the project of schizoanalysis as an analysis of the political unconscious. Deleuze and Guattari’s use of the distinction between desire and interest is an attempt to overcome two dualisms: one between base and superstructure, desire is part of the infrastructure, and one between rational interest and irrational false interest. Thus sometimes it is desire that is completely subjugated to the system, caught in the flows of money that make it appear as if we all participate in the massive flows of wealth. As Deleuze and Guattari write, “Desire of the most disadvantaged creature will invest with all its strength, irrespective of any economic understanding or lack of it, the capitalist social field as a whole.” At other times, interest is entirely subordinate to the social aggregates, to the socius, and it is desire that is revolutionary. It is possible to be radical at the level of desire, breaking the chains of society, and reactionary at the level of interest, or, and this is more Deleuze and Guattari’s concern, vice versa, to have an interest in changing society but fascist desires. What is essential, at least as far as differentiating Deleuze and Guattari from Badiou, is that neither interest nor desire are natural; they are not anthropological constants, but thoroughly historical and social, even at the point where they break with society.

Michel Foucault continues this discontinuous line of considering the historicity of subjects of interest in his lectures on neoliberalism (The Birth of Biopolitics). According to Foucault neoliberalism can best be understood as a form (or would that be mode?) of governmentality that acts on interests rather than on rights. Rights by definition are exchangeable; in fact one could argue that, at least in classical social contract theory, rights come into existence through the exchange of certain “natural rights” for the right of security, safety, and property. Thus rights are oddly social even in their separation. Interests are irreducible, they cannot be exchanged or alienated. To be governed by interests is to take this irreducible asocial aspect as foundational: one channels interest by making certain activities cheap and others costly.

I am not sure what this quick survey of interest has to do with the dilemma above, except to pose the following question: what if we assume that we are governed by interest? Which is to say that we are not so much controlled by ideology, by arguments and ideals about how we should live, but by our simple desire to live. Our interest causes us to be invested in things that we might otherwise oppose, like huge bailouts to banks, because we need them to simply survive. Interest ties us to society as it exists. It seems to me that we can then follow Badiou and Deleuze’s route, and try to find that which radically breaks with interest: truth or desire. We could try to recognize in interest the seeds of our subjection and try to think about how we could constitute ourselves otherwise.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Anthropogenesis Two: The Part Played in Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, Or, Everyone Loves a Prequel

In the last post I said that I was going to follow the last post on Stiegler with a post on Virno, but I have decided to write a little about Lukács’ The Ontology of Social Being instead. I have been reading this over the last few weeks, and during that time it has occurred to me that Lukács could be understood as proposing a theory of anthropogenesis, a theory of the constitution of the human, that like Stiegler and Virno, sees this constitution as inseparable from the development of technology and social relations. This immediately superficial resemblance may just be another example of the way in which almost any two books read at the same time will begin to resemble each other, or at least produce effects of similarity or resemblance. (This phenomena really needs a name by the way)

First a word or two about Lukács, as Timothy Murphy has pointed out in his interesting essay on Lukács and Negri, Lukács is a philosopher who is often not read simply because he is so readily comprehended. Any student of critical theory, Marxism, or contemporary social thought knows about his essay on reification, an essay that, in the words of one of my professors, pretty much invented Marx’s early texts on alienation before they were published. That little thumbnail sketch, like all thumbnail sketches, has probably done more than anything else to keep Lukács from being read. Lukács’ fate then becomes much like Althusser’s, despite their strong differences of philosophical position. Althusser too has been reduced to a thumbnail, that of the break between the “young Marx” and the mature Marx, which sums up and reduces all of his writing.

Lukács’ project for an ontology is interesting to me now for at least two reasons. First, as Murphy points out, ontology would seem to be antithetical to the materialist or Marxist project: it is after all the epitome of a philosophy that has only interpreted the world. Second, we could add that this paradox has become increasingly prevalent, to the point where it does not appear as a paradox at all: Negri, Deleuze, Badiou, Zizek, and so on have all proposed ontologies, ontologies that are supposed to be aligned with a political project.

Lukács’ social ontology is an incomplete manuscript, made up of one volume on Hegel, one on Marx, and a final volume on labor. Aside from the two named philosophers the strongest philosophical influence is Engels, whose essay, “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man,” provides much of the philosophical impetus for Lukács. As Lukács argues labor fundamentally alters the status of consciousness, constituting human consciousness. Animals may be conscious of this or that thing, but this consciousness, this memory, perishes with creature in question. It remains an “epiphenomenon of organic being.” Labor changes this, not only transforming consciousness, since labor is inseparable from the positing of a goal, from the recognition of something unrealized, but with the instruments and techniques of labor this consciousness becomes something that matters, that has effects. The social as a level of reality that has consistency, that constitutes man’s second nature, comes into being with labor.

Lukács point about the role of labor and its exteriorization plays in the constitution of humanity anticipates Stiegler’s point. They may in fact share a similar set of anthropological or archaelogical references. Stiegler’s point of reference is primarily Leroi-Gourhan who may or may not have influenced some of the anthropological and archaeological writers Lukács sites. I haven’t yet fully traced the history of this notion of anthropogenesis, especially its connections to materialist ontology. I am still trying to get my hands on Anton Pannekoek’s book on Anthropogenesis.

What is interesting is the particular sense that Lukács gives ontology, or “social being,” and the strengths and limits of this conception. Lukács focus here, as it was in his famous essay, is primarily the antinomies of bourgeois thought: antinomies which pit the abstract “ought” against mankind’s animal nature, or a world of purpose, governed by God, against utter meaningless. What these perspectives miss in their antinomies, or out and out opposition, is what passes between both sides of the opposition, and that is the social. For Lukács it is senseless to speak of mind and body, of consciousness and nature, without recognizing that the social is that which constantly passes between the two, naturalizing consciousness by making it part of nature and constituting the backdrop of a second nature. Labor constantly shifts the relation between nature and society.

For Lukács this second nature is best understood through labor, or rather through the teleology of labor. This perspective, which Lukács attributes to Marx, overcomes the limitations of philosophies that understand nature, or history, through teleology or dispense with teleology altogether. (As Lukács points out, even Spinoza had to acknowledge a teleology for human action). As Lukács writes: “It is precisely the Marxian theory of labor as the sole existing form of a teleologically produced existence what founds for the first time the specificity of social being.” Labor is inseparable from a telos, from the idea of some end, but it can only arrive at this end if it subordinates itself to the materiality of conditions. One does not master nature, but studies it and only by learning of its properties can one transform it: the history of technology from the flint axe to the computer chip are as much about understanding the immanent properties of material than about any mastery. Labor is thus a transformation of both nature and the subject. In order to work it is necessary to master oneself, to put off desire. As nature and the subject are transformed labor produces a surplus, above and beyond any product or commodity, and that is the knowledge of this process. This surplus, along with the transformation of nature and the subject that it entails, is what is called social being.

Lukács philosophy, like other Marxist philosophies (Althusser comes to mind) attempts to expand the terrain covered by Marx by expanding labor. Labor becomes the basis of not just a politics and an economics but an ontology. (Of course it is an ontology that Lukács argues was already there in Marx’s remarks about the labor process). I am sympathetic to Lukács perspective, but I cannot help but think that it generates more questions than it answers. As Lukács states the contemporary labor process is much more complicated than the simple positing of an end to be realized through a process. The ends of my actions are no longer needs, even those needs that have been transformed by society, but something that is simultaneously much more abstract and immediate, the “need” to make a living, to earn a wage. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the means of the contemporary labor process are no longer the natural world, or its laws, but encompass the social world, social being itself. Lukács repeatedly gestures to the fact that labor increasingly works on social relations as much as on material things, even making reference to Marx’s concept of ‘real subsumption.’ However, the actual difference between labor carried out in formal subsumption and in real subsumption is not really theorized.

On the one hand we have this fundamental principle: “Even the most complicated economy is a resultant of individual teleological positings and their realizations, both in the form of alternatives.” This is modified by another fundamental principle, borrowed from Hartmann, that the more complex levels of social complexes attain supremacy over simpler levels, even as the latter remain in some sense determinate. In other words, no matter how hungry we get, we do not eat dogs (social being taking precedence over natural being). These two principles, the individual teleogical positings and the determination of the simple by the complex, constitute something of a contradiction, a contradiction that marks the limits of Lukács’ text. Of course it is unfair to point to limits to an incomplete manuscript, but Lukács’ limits here are the limits of social theory itself, caught between the perspective of the individual and that of the social totality.