Saturday, December 18, 2010

Winchester ’73: Destiny or Contingency


“…the American cinema constantly shoots and re-shoots a single fundamental film, which is the birth of a nation-civilization…” –Gilles Deleuze


I have often thought that one could write something of an history of American ideology in the middle of the last century through the films of Jimmy Stewart. This is in part due to his casting as a sort of “everyman,” the generic subject of mass society, but, more importantly, it is the way in which this “everyman” was cast in very different light from the black and white morality of Capra to Hitchcock’s infinite shades of grey. The shift of directors is not just a shift of style, but a fundamental shift in the understanding of subjectivity and the world. The Capra, Ford, and Hitchcock films are well known. Perhaps less well known are the Westerns that Stewart made with Anthony Mann. Mann’s films are thematically and chronologically placed between the films of Capra and Hitchcock: Stewart plays the hero but one who is often driven by an obsession, conflicted beneath his generic exterior.

Stewart may seem like an unlikely western hero, especially to anyone who has seen The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Mann seemed to be aware of this, Jacques Rancière cites him as saying that he found it necessary to follow a “series of precautions” in order to make Stewart, who is not "the broad shouldered type," believable as a man who can take on the world, precautions that define the relationship between what one can do and what one must do within the film. These precautions define the relation between the character and action, a relation that breaks with almost organic connection with a mileu that Deleuze argues defines Ford’s and Hawk’s westerns. As Rancière writes, “It doesn’t much matter whether Mann’s hero is a man of justice or a reformed criminal, since that is not the source of his quality. His hero belongs to no place, has no social function and no typical Western role: he is not a sheriff, bandit, ranch owner, cowboy, or officer; he doesn’t defend or attack the established order, and he does not conquer or defend any land. He acts and that’s it, he does some things.”

In Winchester ’73 Stewart plays Lin McAdam a brother pitted against brother, seeking to avenge his father’s murder. Cain doesn’t so much slay Abel, but his father. This fact, this crucial motivation, is only alluded to in the opening of the film: it is finally explained  much latter, during the final shootout. Initially we only know that he is pursuing a man to Dodge City with determination that borders on the murderous. Narrative completion is only given retroactively in the closing scene. Up to that point we only have a quest, a conflict without a clear sense of its stakes. This quest, with its linear obsessive determination, is immediately displaced and deferred by the rifle of the film’s title. The rifle, which is introduced before any character, the subject of the first close up,  first appears as the prize in the fourth of July shooting contest organized by Wyatt Earp. The contest, and Dodge City in general, are presented as ordered and just: the story begins in place order and descends into lawlessness, a reversal of the traditional western narrative.



The contest pits Stewart against his brother, “Dutch Henry” (an alias) as two expert marksmen, both taught by the same man (their father). As Stewart says, hinting at the murder he is seeking to avenge, they were both taught how to shoot, but not why: equal in skill, but distinguished only by a slight moral difference. Just how slight this difference is made clear in the first scene where brother encounters brother. They both simultaneously reach for their guns. There is no difference of hero and villain at the level of basic actions: they are both prepared to shoot the other in (relative) cold blood. They would have shot each other, but there are no guns allowed in the oasis of order that is Dodge City, so all they can do is reach for their thighs, grasping at absent guns. As is so often the case in this film, intention exceeds action, the logic of the film restores one to the other.

Stewart wins the shooting contest, but is ambushed by his brother and the prize gun is stolen. This crime takes place within Dodge City, suggesting as the film does repeatedly that order and authority are only appearances. The plot of the film then follows three series of events. First, there is Stewart doggedly pursuing his brother from Dodge City across the west; then there is Dutch Henry, who isn’t so much fleeing pursuit as setting off on his own attempt to rob a bank; and finally there is the gun itself, which travels from the hands of Dutch, to the gun dealer who swindles him out of it, to a Native American chief (played by Rock Hudson), to the calvary, to “Waco Johnny Dean,” a member of Henry’s gang, eventually back to Henry for the final shootout. In the end Dutch Henry is defeated by Stewart and the gun is returned to its rightful owner.

This trajectory of the rifle’s movement, from hand to hand, could be understood as a kind of test, a quest with an object at its center. Criminals, corrupt gun dealers, "Indians," and cowards all try to possess the gun, only to be deemed unworthy in the moral (and racist) logic of the film. Read this way the trajectory of the rifle overlaps with that of the moral quest for vengeance and the restoration of order. It is logic of fate: the murdering brother will be killed, and the gun will return to its rightful owner. However, the gun’s trajectory is overdetermined by the events of history itself. The film makes constant reference to the Battle of Little Big Horn, and the role that the Native American’s Winchesters played in Custer’s last stand. The repeating Winchesters were able to outgun the calvary’s single shot rifles. Custer’s defeat is presented as a kind of trauma, of a reversal of the established order based on the slight difference of a faster rifle. In the final shootout Stewart is able to defeat his brother, despite his superior gun, by tossing pebbles, distracting him to waste ammunition shooting at rocks and shadows. Underneath the moral narrative in which the gun is restored to its proper owner, and justice is dealt, there is the contingency of history, of the slight differences of technology, speed, and skill that simultaneously realize and undermine any intention.

The rifle doesn't just move from hand to hand, passing from Dutch, to the gun dealer, to the chief, and so on, it also passes between two different ways of understanding events; it passes between the moral logic of destiny and the historical logic of contingency.

Mann is most well known for introducing a noir sensibility to the Western, of bringing the conflicted and ambiguous psyche of the postwar urban milieu into the open spaces of the West. However, what is interesting about Winchester ’73 is the way in which this interior space, Stewart’s drive for vengeance, a drive that borders on the obsessive, is displaced by the pure exteriority of history. History in this case is indicated by the gun itself: it is an object that is always out of place, despite being named and dated. There is nothing to keep this gun from falling into the wrong hands: materiality is defined as that which simultaneously enables and thwarts the intentions of individuals. The gun might have a rightful owner, and there might be a rightful order of justice, but a faster gun and the luck of finding it can set everything off kilter. In the end the only way to correct this, to right things, is to toss a few pebbles into the air. Slight differences of speed and timing ultimately matter more than official differences of law and order.

Perhaps when Althusser invoked the figure of the cowboy to sketch his portrait of a materialist philosopher, the philosopher of aleatory materialism who catches a moving train, he was thinking of Anthony Mann.




Saturday, December 04, 2010

Everyone is Kettled: Lordon on Marx and Spinoza (with some reflections on the current conjuncture)


Frédéric Lordon’s Capitalisme, désir et servitude: Marx et Spinoza is not so much a book on Marx and Spinoza, on the influences and affiliations that would connect them, but a book that immediately puts Spinoza’s philosophy to work within Marx’s problematics. It is similar in this respect to Franck Fischbach’s La Production de hommes: Marx avec Spinoza. The major difference being that the while latter book is primarily concerned with ontology, with production, nature, and the subject, Lordon’s book is primarily concerned with politics and the current conjuncture.

Lordon could be understood as connecting the lines between Spinoza’s often cited question, “why do men fight for their servitude as if it was salvation?” and the general problematic of subjection in Marx. Which is to say that Lordon is interested in how it is that people not only tolerate exploitation, continuing to reproduce the system, but actively desire it. Lordon is interested in precisely the way that contemporary capitalism, or neoliberalism, has moved beyond Marx’s concepts of exploitation and alienation to involve an active participation in one’s subjection, exactly what Spinoza question, and his examination of the affects, would seem to analyze.

The general problem of society, any society, is the articulation of its particular conatus, its particular striving, or functioning, with that of the individuals and collectives that constitute it. For society to function we must desire to do so, and we do this because we must believe that it is the necessary condition of our desires. Lordon dubs this problem, or its solution, colinearization. One of the most important factors of colinearization in capitalism is money itself. For Spinoza anything that is believed to be the cause of joy, of the increase of one’s power, is an object of love. Thus, it is possible to consider money as the “universal equivalent of desire,” as the object which is seen as the cause of any possible joy, any possible desire. Money captures desire and imagination.

Perhaps one of the most interesting remarks that Lordon makes has to do with precisely how he understands the politics of the imagination. Lordon cites the passage from Spinoza in which he argues that there is no opposite of excessive self-esteem. It is possible to overestimate oneself, and to some extent this overestimation, mankind as "kingdom within a kingdom" is the human condition. As Spinoza writes,

“For no one, out of hate, thinks less highly of himself than is just. Indeed, no one thinks less highly of himself than is just, insofar as he imagines that he cannot do this or that. For whatever man imagines he cannot do, he necessarily images; and he is so disposed by this imagination that he really cannot do what he imagines he cannot do this or that, he is not determined to do it, and consequently it is impossible for him to do it.”

Thus, to use the language of pop psychology, there is thus no such thing as “low self-esteem.” If one thinks that one cannot do something, then one effectively cannot do it. The imagination is a material force that determines one’s conduct.

There are thus two strategies for colinearization, for making the desire of individuals conform to society. The first is a kind of imaginary fullness, as in the case of money as the object of desire. It is full because through it the given social order represents itself as the possible realization of every desire. The second draws the limits of what is possible, curtailing modes of thinking and living. These limitations, the poverty of the imagination, has real material effects,.The central message of any social order, reflected in its practices, ideologies, and actions is “everything is here, nothing else is possible.” Society, or should we say capital, is the kettling of the imagination.

The determining and delimiting of the imagination is not alienation. It is one of the merits of Lordon’s book that he is so attentive to Spinoza’s position with respect to the bourgeois homilies of self, interiority and freedom. He argues that Spinoza’s capacity to “affect and be affected” is always realized, always actualized. There is no reserve in Spinoza’s ontology. Lordon follows Pascal Sévérac in arguing that Spinoza’s merit is in abandoning all themes of alienation or separation, themes that still show up in Deleuze (not to mention Fischbach), in favor of fixation. No one is every really separated from the powers, from their capacities; these capacities are just fixated into particular objects and goals, objects which are defined by the poverty of the social imagination.

The outside of fixation, of a limited and curtailed imagination, cannot come from a reservoir of freedom, from a subject outside of history. It must come from within the order itself. Lordon’s answer to this is Spinoza’s concept of indignation, “the hate towards someone who has done evil toward another.” Indignation, expanded to encompass the affective hatred for the existing order, is something precarious, produced by a series of encounters and frustrations, extending throughout the social body through a series of encounters. Indignation does not come from the outside, from outside of the social order, but is produced internally, by any orders limited conception of desire. As such it is not some return to an originary freedom, but only a “détournent du détourement,” a deviation of the already established goals of society to something other.

That is precisely the question: what is this something else? Or, more importantly, how can it be produced? Spinoza’s immanence reminds us that our minds our limited by our imagination, which are in turn limited by our bodies, which are in turn limited by our minds, and so on. The intersection of all of these determinations is also the intersection of different sites for transformation. We imagine that nothing is possible, that nothing can be done, but only up to the point that someone actually does something. Once that happens, once there is an opposition to an existing order, a Paris Commune, a May '68, etc., In such moments the very limits of the world, of what is possible, are redrawn. However, these fleeting moments of possibility, the indignation of the moment, need new thoughts new bodies to sustain them. According to Lordon, the transformation of bodies by the imagination and the extension of indignation into organization is the work of politics.

David Graeber's remarks on politics, the cuts to the university, and the imagination inspired much of this, and are well worth listening to.


Friday, November 26, 2010

The True Meaning of Thanksgiving



Every year, at least since sometime in the middle of the last century, the President of the United States pardons a turkey. The ceremony, which could be described as a kind of sovereignty kitsch, is covered by the media, becoming part of the general holiday pablum along with the stories of the new floats at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and "what to do with holiday leftovers."

There is something so obviously absurd about this ritual that it is almost pointless to point it out. There is of course the question of guilt, of what crime the turkeys are being pardoned for, other than their rather unfortunate luck of coming into this world as a domesticated turkey. There is however, a symmetry between the pardon of the turkey and the holiday in general. The turkey is spared just before millions are cooked in a massive consumption of a single species: it is an idyllic symbol of peace between man and beast just before the true slaughter. Thanksgiving is supposedly the celebration of a peaceful cooperation between colonists and Native Americans: as we all know, this peaceful celebration, if it existed, comes before genocide. Each ritual is a staging of a just world that we know to be a lie.

One question remained, however, what happens to these turkeys after they are spared. I found the following statement in The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, The Death of Teddy's Bear, and the Sovereign Exception of Guantánomo by Magnus Fiskejö:

"The birds are then, in proverbial fashion, said to live happily ever after. In reality, however, they are usually killed within a year and stand-in turkeys are supplied. This goes on year after year. The chosen birds are killed because they have been engineered and packed with hormones to the point that they are unfit for any other purpose than their own slaughter and consumption. They are fast-forward turkeys. Presidential turkey caretakers have explained that most succumb rather quickly to joint disease—their frail joints simply cannot bear the weight of their artificially enhanced bodies. The sturdiest survivors may live a little more than a year. But the birds are always finally put out of their growing misery. Then they are buried nearby in a presidential turkey cemetery—the ritualistic significance of which remains to be explored. (May the archaeologists of the future excavate it!)"

The reason that these turkeys are so ill suited for their lives of freedom is that they are supplied by the National Turkey Federation. They are products of industrial farms, bred to grow fat quick rather than live long. Much could be said about the fact that corporate lobby's interests trumps even the symbolism of the ceremony, making even the pardon itself a lie within a lie. The whole thing is so overdetermined, a "turducken" of empty symbolism, sovereign authority, and corporate power. However, my mind remains fixated on that cemetery of (what I imagine to be) unmarked graves where the birds go, unable to bear the weight of their supposed freedoms. They are creatures designed for the cage, and no decree can change that. Yep, the holiday really symbolizes the nation.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Transindividuality as Critique: Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx

Wordle: work in progress
The long philosophical cold war has almost completely evacuated any conception of collectivity from political and social thought. On the one hand, we have the individual, the unquestioned basis of possessive and methodological individualism, of liberalism both classical and “neo”; while on the other hand, we have the spectre of totality, of the state as a nightmare in which all jumpsuits are grey. Etienne Balibar has suggested the term transindividuality to conceptualize that which both sides of this alternative occlude: relations as mutually constitutive of the individual and collective. The term is drawn from the work of Gilbert Simondon, who contested the privilege Western thought gave to the individual, developing an ontology, or ontogenesis, of individuation. Balibar has suggested that this term could be used to make sense of various figures in the history of philosophy, Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx, whose thought refuses the binary of individual or totality. Following Balibar, but moving beyond his suggestive remarks, this paper seeks to examine the critical dimension of transindividuality. By critical I mean the way in which each of these philosophers provides not just an account of the constitutive dimension of social relations, but more importantly, how the experience of these relations fundamentally effaces their collective dimension. In other words, Marx’s to be precise, it is a matter of understanding how “the most developed social relations” produces the “standpoint of the isolated individual.” The three thinkers assembled here offer different critical accounts of this problem, focusing on its ontological, political, and historical aspects. By examining them in conjunction it is possible to produce not only a critique of the inadequate idea of the individual, but a new conceptual vocabulary to comprehend the production of collectivity.

A snapshot of what is meant by transindividuality as critique can be gleaned from the passage that I have already referred to from Marx’s Grundrisse. In that passage, Marx criticizes political economy for writing only Robinsonades, for placing the isolated individual at the beginning rather the end of history. To which Marx offers the following corrective,

"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."

Critique in this context is not the sterile opposition of the true to the false, of a correct to an incorrect view of society; the true account, the history of the mode of production, must be able to account for the genesis of the false. The isolated individual is not simply a false way of grasping social relations, but is itself a product (and condition) of those relations. Critique is not denunciation, but a materialist account of conditions.

This general strategy can be found in Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx, but its terms and objects change, along with the historical moment and specific practice of philosophy. Spinoza’s critique is oriented primarily towards the ontology of the individual, man as a kingdom within a kingdom; Hegel critiques the idea of the autonomous individual that is the starting point for social contract theory; and finally, as we have already stated, Marx’s critique is aimed primarily at the Robinsonades of bourgeois political economy. Thus the examination of the different philosophers is not the simple repetition of the same basic formula, but its transformation into the different levels and domains of ontology, politics, and political economy. These domains overlap as ontology, political philosophy, and political economy coalesce around a particular ontology of the individual.

Any exploration of transindividuality in Spinoza must begin with the conatus, the general striving to persist in its being that defines everything. Far from an assertion of an irreducible atomism, this striving is always determined by other strivings, other relations. Everything is compelled to produce an effect in a certain and determinate manner. This is to some extent “the anti-human condition” for Spinoza: anti-human because it is a general situation of all things and ideas, striving and finitude, and because it is precisely what counters the humanist tendency to see individuals as a “kingdom within a kingdom.” Despite this general condition there is a difference specific to thought, which transforms this striving into desire. This difference does not so much place us above the world of causality and conditions, but further immerses us in it. We are born “ignorant of the causes of things…and conscious of our appetite.” The combination of inadequate and adequate ideas produces the mutually constitutive fictions of the autonomous individual and the anthropomorphic God: the autonomous individual is the vague consciousness of our appetite, and God is nothing other than the sum total effect of out ignorance of causes. It is because we do not adequately grasp the transindividual conditions of our desire that we believe ourselves to be free, to truly desire what we desire, and it is because we believe ourselves to be free that we do not adequately grasp our transindividual conditions. In Spinoza’s thought there is a connection between the transindividual conditions of our desire and the opacity of the self. However, it is precisely because it is the condition of every finite thing to be conditioned and determined by another in a certain and determinate manner, to be relational, that this cannot be considered any statement of even the anti-human condition in the transcendental sense of the term. Or rather, the only thing that we can say about humanity in general is that we strive and are affected. The particular orientation of our striving and the particular affects that define it are defined by and define a socio-historical condition: in Spinoza’s time, the forces of superstition and prejudice.

The critique of man as kingdom within a kingdom and the spontaneous theology of the individual constitutes a kind of degree zero the transindividual constitution of individuality, the inadequate of idea of autonomy. Spinoza builds from this, demonstrating how the primary affects of joy and sadness and their infinite permutations into love and hate with their accompanying representations constitute specific individualities and collectivities. Love and hate are extended to their apparent cause and durations over time, constituting a particular character, a particular subjectivity. Just as they are extended intensively, through the time of memory that frames a causal exchange of associations, they are extended extensively, encompassing more and more individuals that love and hate the same thing. These extensive and intensive constitutions are themselves split between inadequate and adequate ideas, passivity and activity; which is to say that sometimes the connections are the purely situational effects of the conjunction of encounters, seeing Paul in the morning etc., and sometimes they reflect a real causal connections, common notions. This perhaps nowhere more clear than in the case of social relations. As Spinoza argues according to the guidance of reason nothing is more useful to man than man, the formation of some kind of collectivity, of some kind of social relation, is based on a common utility. However, this rational basis is simultaneously underwritten and undercut by the affects, by the desire for a imagined agreement, that others would love what I love (EIVP37). The latter desire is fundamentally ambivalent, since the desire that others love what I love is caught up with the unavoidable jealousy that follows (something that can be seen in the love of one’s country). As Balibar writes, “Sociability is therefore the unity of a real agreement and an imaginary ambivalence both of which have real effects.” What is true of the community, that it is constituted by both inadequate ideas (imaginary connections) and adequate ideas, is equally true of the individual, of any individuation, which is always simultaneously imagination and reason. As Spinoza argues in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, the social contract is overdetermined by the rituals of belonging that constitute a people as a people, defining a collective identity through rituals.

While for Spinoza the transindividual critique is framed between ontology and theology, between the fiction of the autonomous self and the fiction of an anthropomorphic God organizing the world, Hegel’s Philosophy of Right frames its transindividual critique between civil society and the state. The common connection between Spinoza and Hegel, despite the differences of history, ontology, and logic, is that in each case it is a matter of a critique of a “spontaneous philosophy,” of a philosophy that emerges from practices and relations. For Hegel the relations in question are those of civil society, the world of commerce, the market, and work. The spontaneous philosophy of civil society is the individual of all Robinsonades, from the state of nature to the maximum/minimum hypothesis of neoliberalism, seeking its individual realization in a world where everything counts as a mean to this end. Civil society is place between the family and the state, between the affective immediacy and conceptual universality, as such its presentation is inseparable from its education. Thus, to revise the initial formulation, self-interested particularity emerges from the conflict and competition of market relations, but no sooner does it emerge than those very same structures compel it to begin to recognize its relations and connections. In choosing from the variety of goods available on the market, rather than what is given, determined by the contingency of place, one necessarily chooses according to social criteria, the recognition of others. Labor follows the same fundamental logic, moving from immediacy and particularity to mediation and universality through socialization and technology: as I am forced to work with others, and with the forces of machines, my work loses its one sided and rough character to become universal. Both consumption and work overcome the immediate particularity of individuality, the self-interest of civil society, but they do so in opposed ways. They are both transindividual individuations, the one pushed towards individuality, the other towards interchangeability: consumption is the moment of individuation, of differentiation, the particular in the universal, while labor is the moment of discipline, the universal in the particular. Misrecognition is given only to pass necessarily into recognition. Here misrecognition concerns individuality, the subject of civil society sees him or herself as autonomous and others merely as means. The education of universality ultimately undoes this perspective: work and desire remain all too subject to the contingencies of early capitalist existence, the contamination of commodities and uncertainties of work, and the self-interested individual must ultimately recognize itself in the structures and institutions of the state. It must consciously will the universal, rather than simply see it as means to its particular end. Civil society passes into the state.

Hegel and Spinoza each offer a critical account of individualism, of the isolated autonomous subject that much political thought, not to mention contemporary common sense, takes to be a natural given. This account is critical in that it exposes the transindividual conditions of this perspective. For Hegel it is rooted in the practices and relations of civil society, which isolate individuals while relating them behind their backs. For Spinoza these practices are primarily religious, the rituals and practices that produce the imaginary of an autonomous individual, anthropocentric God, and chosen community. This difference is less one of philosophical and political position, a fundamental argument about the centrality of economy or religion, base or superstructure, than it is a difference of historical moment, the difference of over one hundred and fifty years, from the dominance of religion to that of civil society and capital. Which does not mean that there are not overlaps and points of contact. Matheron has suggested that Spinoza’s general remark about the communication of affects, the constitution of objects through desire, and the critique of finalism provides a basis for an understanding of economic alienation. What is money but the universal object of love, the cause of every possible joy, an object that imposes its finality over other particular strivings. This somewhat anachronistic, and underdeveloped critique, is useful in underscoring an important difference between Spinoza and Hegel. As criticial as Hegel is of civil society, or its atomistic perspective, it remains for him a moment, a moment that will pass as individuality recognizes the necessity of the state. Misrecognition necessarily passes to recognition. For Spinoza, however, there is in general no such progression. The imagination, whether it takes its object God or money, the universal object of desire, is as much a part of human existence as reason. There is no telos, no necessary progression from an inadequate conception of one’s connections and relations to an adequate one. Instead there is a necessary ambivalence between the transindividual dimensions of desire and rationality.

It is at this point, with the problem of money as an object of desire, that we can return to Marx, who in some sense defined our problem. The point is not simply to add another terrain, and another historical moment, to those provide by Spinoza and Hegel, to add the critique of political economy to the transindividual critique of the spontaneous theology of the individual subject or the spontaneous ideology of civil society. First, of all because the overlap between Hegel and Marx is too significant to over look, and secondly, but less obviously, this overlap returns us to the transindividual constitution of imagination and reason and the point of difference between Spinoza and Hegel. To begin with the point of overlap, Hegel and Marx each engage in a critique of political economy, at least in terms of its particular ontology of individuation, its Robinsonade. Hegel, however, situates this critique within a Bildungsroman in which the particular self-interest is educated through work and consumption into the perspective of the universal. Marx interrupts this transition by demonstrating that there is no passage from the particular to universal in political economy: no way in which the perspective of isolated self-interest is forced to confront the limitations of its perspective and recognize its constitutive relations with others. The name of this interruption, this impasse, is commodity fetishism: fetishism understood not simply as a critical statement about the limits of bourgeois political economy, but as a critical perspective on consciousness in capitalism. The “perspective of political economy” generates a point of view in which the economy appears to be independent and autonomous. It is no longer seen as the sum total of the effects of individual actions, as a sphere of human activity that can be transformed and acted on, but as a quasi-natural phenomena with its laws, its own crises and transformations. As Marx writes, reflecting on the relation of individuals to the economy, their own economic activity: “To them, their own social action takes the form of the action of objects, which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.”

This reevaluation of the “perspective of political economy,” could be understood as just another historical moment: in the years between Marx and Hegel it perhaps became less and less possible to see the universal emerge from the conflict of particular wills. More importantly, however, Marx divides what Hegel unifies: whereas Hegel presented labor and consumption as two sides of the same basic transindividuation, as two sides of the same process of individuation and collective constitution, Marx argues that consumption and labor, the sphere of circulation and production are fundamentally distinct in terms of their perspective. The first presents an image of society as an “eden of the innate rights of man,” of freedom, equality, and Bentham, while the second reveals the exploitation that subtends the former. The difference is not just the difference between the false appearance of equality and the reality of exploitation, but two different conditions of transindividuation. The sphere of circulation allows for the appearance of isolation and separation: commodity fetishism is not just the particular condition of the appearance of value, but an appearance made possible by the fact that we confront each other’s labor in isolation. In contrast to this, labor is irreducibly transindividual, not just in terms of cooperation and the social relations of the labor process but also in terms of its irreducible mental component. We simultaneously inhabit two different individuations, two different collectivities, the first based on formal equality and isolation, the other on conflictual relation. We could follow Spinoza and argue that the first is imagination, an inadequate idea of our relations, and the second is reason, an adequate idea, revealing the production of things, but of social relations as well. The analogy holds, to a point: it is perhaps more accurate to say that each sphere, production and circulation, which is to say each collectivity, has its imaginary and rational components, its fictions and its common notions. What is more important, however, is that there is no telos, no necessary resolution of the sphere of consumption into production, of imagination into reason. They are each constitutive of perceptions, desires, and relations, and constituted by practices. However, we could add that what Marx adds to this situation, or at least emphasizes, is the idea that in order to pass from one to the other, from inadequate to adequate, it is necessary to change practices as much as thoughts. This practical dimension was perhaps already there, in the spontaneous philosophy of theology and civil society identified by Spinoza and Hegel, Marx foregrounds it through the switch from critique to revolution. Such a revolution presupposes as much as it makes possible a change of ideas: it is a matter of becoming active in the full sense of the world.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Post-apocalyptic Now: Evan Calder Williams' Combined and Uneven Apocalypse



The following statement from Fredric Jameson is well known and often cited, becoming something like a pithy formulation of the contemporary political imagination, "It seems to be easier for us today to imagine the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism; perhaps that is due to some weakness in our imagination." One way to read Evan Calder Williams’ forthcoming Combined and Uneven Apocalypse is as an exploration of the concealed conjunction in what Jameson’s statement disjoins: what is the connection between all these images of the end of world, these post-apocalyptic wastelands, collapsing cities, and worlds overrun by zombies, and the end of capitalism, the end that we imagine and desire? Not the end of the world or the end of capitalism, but both at once (and one through the other).

Williams’ book covers many of the themes that I have covered on this blog, zombies, Wolfen, and of course the post-apocalyptic genre. However, where I have dabbled in these topics, scribbling a few lines here and there, Williams brings a focused investigation, continuing the Zero Books tradition of merging sustained intellectual engagement with an attention to popular culture. Williams’ book is a work of post-apocalyptic criticism: it reads the various images of the end, examining them for how they envision or fail to envision the end of the world, but it also examines us, our preoccupations, from this end. It asks what will remain of this world, our commodities, our obsessions, ourselves, after it comes to its inevitable destruction. It is thus an enterprise of salvage, of constructing another world from the gutted remnants of this one.

The book deserves a lengthy response, more than I have time to dedicate to it here and now. It also seems odd to review, in any thorough sense, a book that has not been released yet. There is after all no possibility for critical discussion. So I thought I would offer a few remarks on a few citations, citations coupled with their corresponding visual elements. The book is very good at reading films, paying close attention to their logics and visuals. Thus it seemed fitting to pair image and text in order to do just to the book's attentiveness to the intersection and disjunction of each.

That the book discusses The Road Warrior, perhaps goes without saying: the film has such a massive influence on the entire apocalyptic imaginary, and is being remade again and again. What is interesting, however, is the attention that Williams brings not to the familiar aspects, the mohawks and motorbikes, but to the often overlooked opening montage.



“What’s striking here neither the severity of the envisioned apocalypse nor its ideological inconsistencies, but the way that it salvages established narratives of the war against fascism and social progress and uses them otherwise. In this case, to inscribe an anti-modernization polemic in which all roads end in gasoline-obsessed hoodlums prowling the post-oil desert. So, in turns out, the slaughter on the Normandy beaches and the Maginot Line were about the panic of disappearing “black fuel.” The barricades of May 68: what are they if not a “firestorm of fear,” the frantic clawing of the masses in the “nothing” that follows the end of affordable oil? Furthermore, the films are not set in the future: the historical images are drawn from and lead up to the time in which the film was made. As such, they aren’t a projection of the far future, but a reinscription of previous events so as to make the “real world” present genuinely apocalyptic and to enable a flight into another type of fantasy.”

Williams is not interested in this as prophecy, as peak oil avant la lettre, but as the way it imagines the present. After all, the series of images end with the present in both senses, with the present of the film's date (the early nineteen eighties) and the present depicted in the film as a “white line nightmare.” The introduction rewrites history as a history of warring tribes, in some sense naturalizing a battle of all against all. Williams does not comment on what has always struck me about this introduction and that is what is conspicuously absent from it; namely, the familiar mushroom cloud of atomic war. This will be included in the third film, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome when a different history of the present is given, one that is not a cinematic montage but a mash-up of different historical modes of narrative and visuals: storytelling, cave art, radio sound effects, View-Master. I have always found that little bit of rewriting curious. Why not include the iconic image in the second film? Or why does everyone assume that the bomb has been dropped in the second film? Is it possible that the second film was simply received as post-nuclear war because that fit into the anxieties and fears of the eighties? If nuclear war is not part of the trilogy's narrative, then why included in the third film? Is it a matter of rewriting the narrative to conform to everyone’s expectation?

That the bombs never fell, or The Bomb never fell, in the second film is its most utopian dimension, suggesting that the demise of society is more about our fascinations with cars, property, and weapons than the world becoming unlivable. The locations of the two films suggest this as well: the first is shot in the outback, which is still populated, as much as it ever was with rabbits, snakes, and dingoes. It is still relatively green. The third film, however, is shot in the desert, a desert where nothing lives, or could live (with the exception of the oasis where the children reside).

Williams returns to this reading of The Road Warrior later in the book, contrasting it to the closing credits sequence of Wall-E.



“This sequence only makes full sense when compared with its inverted partner in crime, the opening of The Road Warrior discussed earlier. In both cases, a rescripting of inherited cultural images is used to situate the present of the film in terms of a constructed lineage of Western history as such. Yet while the peak oil catastrophe image story of The Road Warrior describes its present moment (the time of the film’s narrative and the early‘80s historical moment when it was released to the “real world”) as the descent into the apocalyptic collapse, the cooptation of art styles serves to describe a different arc in Wall-E. It’s telling that it does not include any approximations of painting after Van Gogh: like the gentle techno-ethos of steampunk, the narrative it tells never gets to the full technocracy, chaos, and pollution of the 20th century, resting instead in the slow pastoralism of its last image before black. And furthermore, we’ve already seen the final image in the story, the entire film of Wall-E itself. Retroactively, the film we have seen itself becomes the last image in the sequence, a clue to the lurking darkness behind the move forward. A move forward that, like the conclusion of the Mad Max trilogy, means going back, starting over, and “getting back to basics,” even as the post-post-apocalypse it describes is a return to the normal of late capitalism.”

Here the continuity is not that of Hobbesian conflict, which is presented as our past, present, and future, but that of technology. Technology is the disease and the cure in Wall-E: it has made us docile, passive, and pathetic, but it is only through it that we can claim and repopulate the earth. Williams criticizes this failure to engage with the apocalyptic, to think about how far we have already gone over the cliff, and how much we will have to change, socially, politically, and aesthetically.

Williams also points to the fascist themes of homeland and soil, of a cleansed and reborn race, that animates this segment. This is one theme that I wish there was more of in the book. Brian Massumi once called survivalism a uniquely American form of fascism, and it too is part of the post-apocalyptic culture. Ultimately, The Road Warrior and Wall-E can only indicate politics, economics, and social relations negatively, it is at the limit of their oddly circular and thoroughly naturalized histories, in which the past is the future and vice versa.

There is also a great reading of Return of the Living Dead.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Combined and Uneven Socialization: Remarks on The Social Network

Several years ago, I taught at a small liberal arts college. The college was over an hour away from where I lived. Not an especially long drive, but the drive through the frozen tundra of central Maine was boring as hell. So I tried books on tape to deal with the commute. I was teaching Philosophy of Film one semester, basically a Deleuze course, and I thought it would be interesting if I found some book on film to listen to while I drove. I basically wanted to offset my theory with something a little more concerned with the practical matter of making film. The best that the library could offer was something by Sidney Lumet. I am a fan of Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict, so I decided to listen to it. I do not remember much of the book, mostly stories about the making of various films, but Lumet did talk about how much he hated what he called “Rubber Duckie Stories”; simple stories of single event offered as psychological motivation. Basically, someone steals a child’s rubber duckie and he becomes the rubber duckie killer, or something to that effect.

As I have written here and elsewhere (numerous elsewhere’s in fact), Marx’s critique of “so-called primitive accumulation” could be understood as a critique of psychological causality. The idea that moral qualities, such as thrift and greed, are themselves sufficient to drive history, to constitute the formation of capitalism. I will quote the entire passage here just because I love it so (Marx can write some dull passages, but when he hits it, he really hits it).

“This primitive accumulation plays approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology. Adam bit the apple, and thereupon sin fell on the human race. Its origin is supposed to be explained when it is told as an anecdote about the past. Long, long ago there were two sorts of people; one the diligent, intelligent, and above all frugal elite; the other lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living. The legend of theological original sin tells us certainly how man came to be condemned to eat his bread by the sweat of his brow; but the history of economic original sin reveals to us that there are people to whom this is by no means essential. Never mind! Thus it came to pass that the former sort accumulated wealth, and the latter sort finally had nothing to sell except their own skins.”

What does this have to do with The Social Network? First, it is necessary to contextualize the film a little bit. One can reasonably imagine that behind the film there is a massive drive to turn every social phenomena, every fad, into a major picture: break dancing, skateboarding, and even the forbidden dance of the Lambada (did anyone actually do that?) have had their respective films. There have been rumors of a facebook film in development for years, most of which, like the rumored facebook stalker film, sounded ridiculous. Although it is worth noting that part of the reason that a facebook movie sounds ridiculous is that the internet is just a much more efficient machine at capturing attention, at turning activities into webpages and hits. Texts from Last Night, Cats that look like Hitler, Passive aggressive notes, ugly tattoos, there is a website for all of them. Movies might try to capture trends, putting parcour in a James Bond film, but they are generally too slow, lumbering dinosaurs compared to the fleet footed internet.

David Fincher’s film answers this corporate demand, but does so in the form of what is largely a biopic. However, as the film’s trailer suggests, this story of Mark Zuckerberg (facebook’s founder) is supposed to be a story of us, revealing something of how we have been changed by social networking. Zuckerberg’s obsession with status and almost pathological inability to connect are supposed to explain our tendency to confirm that friend request from someone we hardly know and the fact that all of these “friends” leave us feeling very alone. History is psychology.




This is especially true in the scenes that bookmark the film. In the first, which has been discussed countless times, Zuckerberg’s girlfriend breaks up with him, telling him that he is an asshole. Much of the rest of the film is dedicated to confirming this conclusion. This traumatic break-up drives Zuckerberg to create Facesmash, a website that allows men to rate women based on their looks. This basic thesis, that the internet is driven by misogyny (its original sin) is confirmed latter in the film when we meet Sean Parker (creator of Napster) who also has a break-up story. The internet is presented as compensation for lost love. Zuckerberg’s particular failed romance also concludes the film. The last scene shows him, successful but alienated from his friends, looking up the girlfriend from the first scene, and clicking “Add as Friend.” Friending an old girlfriend is the new Rosebud.

I actually like the last scene. It is one of the few points in the film that actually touches on something of the social experience of facebook. Its tendency to render every social relationship present: we don’t have memories anymore, even regretful ones, we have embarrassing search histories. There is something tragic to the image of the creator of facebook hitting refresh again and again, waiting to see his request for a friend confirmed. All of his wealth and power means nothing at this point. ("A friend request, a friend request, my kingdom for a friend request.") However, for the most part the actual “social network” remains off-screen. What motivates and drives it, and drives our participation in it, is only alluded to in the psychology of the characters. We cannot completely fault the film for this, a film of people checking their email status, looking at pictures of their secret crush, and “liking” LOL cats would be horribly boring.

This is not true of all of the scenes in the film. The scene in which Zuckerberg unleashes Fasesmash is interspersed with scenes from one of the legendary parties of the final clubs in which women are bused into campus to party with the future elite. The camera cuts from isolated men, or men in small groups, rating women on the internet to actual women, ready and available to the frat boys. This scene could be read as part of the film’s Revenge of the Nerd’s plot, a more high concept staging of the eternal struggle of nerds versus jocks, in which the latter always get the girls. However, it also could be read as a statement about the internet itself. Not just how much of it is driven by sex, or the spectacle of sex in a kind of pervasive voyeurism, as Matteo Pasquinelli has argued, but how social networks are driven by the fantasy of actual sociality. Everyone appears to be having more fun than us, and we forget that we are part of that appearance too. When Zuckerberg says he wants to put the college experience online he does not just mean the social relations in college, but the interplay between inclusion and exclusion, the constant feeling of missing out: the idea that the next click could get you to the real interesting party.

It is in scenes like this that the film departs from its “Rubber Duckie” narrative, situating the social network within the social relations that it exploits, and the social drives that it cultivates. These are always secondary, however, to the pathologized psychologies of its protoganist. Which raises the following question: given that the film has been universally praised, not just as well shot and acted, but as revealing something of the present, as our Citizen Kane (?), why are we so willing to recognize ourselves in this image? Why do we, or at least most of the critics, see ourselves in Mark Zuckerberg?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Generation and Corruption of Subjectivity: Dialectic and Anti-Dialectic in Balibar and Lazzarato



Several months ago, I wrote that I was struck by the fact that three different corruptions of the common offered by Commonwealth, family, corporation, and the state, are the three different institutions/concepts of civil society in Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. The same figures are repeated, but the massive, some would say overpowering, dialectical structure is missing.

Thus I was struck again to find something of a similar return, only more explicit, in Etienne Balibar’s Violence et Civilité*. Balibar considers Hegel’s Philosophy of Right under the general rubric of civility, the third of his three concepts of politics, after emancipation and transformation, and the one most explicitly concerned with the problem of violence and anti-violence. (All translations here are mine)

“…The idea that is at the heart of the problematic of Sittlichkeit is that of a dialectic of deconstruction and reconstruction of belonging, which profoundly defines a certain modality of political subjectivation: from this point of view, the life and liberty of the individual consists in what is effectively a permanent play between two poles which cannot be abstractly opposed to each other and which also provide an immediately transindividual character to self-consciousness, making the constitution of the “self” a function of its relation to the other”

For Balibar, family, civil society, and the state are as much particular modalities of subjectivation, particular articulations of the transindividual, as they are institutions. Balibar’s reading of Hegel is not without its critiques and reservations. These reservations take on a historical, almost empirical, dimension. As Balibar argues Hegel underestimated the violence contained in civil society, a violence that requires an equally violent, or excessive, nationalism in order to hold it in check. There are thus echoes of Balibar’s claim that Marx should be understood as an active incompletion of Hegel’s politics, interrupting the smooth transition from the particular to the universal with the violence of class struggle. This violence cannot be subsumed, or converted, by any philosophy of history: it is not history advancing by its bad side.

“The reading of Capital, coming after the Hegelian philosophy of history, appears thus as an immense demonstration of the fact that much of the violence at work in history has been ignored, or denied by Hegel, as by all of the representatives of the ideology of progress, despite their dialectical ambitions.”

The dialectic is simultaneously affirmed and denied: one divides into two. It is affirmed as a transindividual constitution of subjectivity, as the generation and corruption and subjectivity, without telos or end. It is criticized, however, as a matrix for the interpretation of history, one that subsumes all violence into the order of history. There is no passage from the conflict of particularity to the universality of the state, just the constant interplay between citizen and bourgeois, “man without qualities” and “man of qualities.” Balibar’s reference here is to Marx’s “On the Jewish Question,” suggesting that the bourgeois, civil society, is not the truth of the state, but one pole of identity that is torn between quality and universality, civil society and state. (This is similar to Jameson’s recent book)

What is striking, beyond the revival of the Philosophy of Right, a revival that is somewhat different than the much touted philosophy of recognition, is the way that this general formula, the destruction and generation of subjectivation, also makes its appearance in philosophies which are explicitly anti-dialectical, namely Foucault, Deleuze, and Guattari. This tendency is taken to its extreme in Maurizio Lazzarato’s Expérimentations Politiques. As Lazzarato writes, drawing from Guattari and Duchamp:

“It is in order to activate and put to work this creative potentiality that [Félix] Guattari makes an appeal to artistic techniques insofar as they are techniques of “rupture” and “suture,” of desubjectivation and subjectivation, abandoning of roles and functions that we are assigned, and seizing new realities and subjectivities. What in the turn towards these techniques is useful for the process of subjectivation in general? In the traditional workers movement, the rupture was overdetermined by a dualism (worker/capitalist) which delimited its possibilities. It acted as a totalizing and predetermined break, the outlines of which were, in a certain fashion, already traced. History has been the history of class struggle since the very beginning, and it would be abolished by the same class struggle. The question of suture (of organization, of the composition/constitution) would follow from this rupture. It would already be traced, since class struggle not only defined the conditions of rupture, but also the conditions of composition, of its evolution and development, the passage from class in itself to class for itself, to resume the terms of its original formulation. In contemporary capitalism, alongside the dualistic divisions, it produces fractal and differential ruptures, which are open to partial liberties and subjectivations that are not predetermined by any “structures.” Artistic practices can thus aid in seizing the unpredictable developments of these ruptures and works through always partial compositions.”

There is much of Lazzarato’s book that I like: the emphasis on the aesthetic dimension of the constitution of subjectivity, in which aesthetic is as the general transformation of sensibility and perception (hence the importance of Duchamp). However, in this latest book, as in the earlier Les Révolutions du Capitalisme, Lazzarato takes as a polemical opponent a Marxism, and a dialectic, that almost no one actually believes in. It is a strawman, and it definitely lacks a brain. It is governed by the stark oppositions between subject/object and worker/capital, oppositions which always overdetermine the sheer plurality of existence.

My intent here is not to make Hegel inescapable once again, to show that he has anticipated and answered all objections in advance. I want to simply propose that “subjectivation” and “desubjectivation” are not the outside of Hegel’s thought. More to the point, I would like to argue for nuance in relation to dialectical thought, to put an end to categorical opposition to THE dialectic, which is only ever a caricature, produced ironically by those who claim to espouse philosophies of difference. It is also to argue for a materialist dialectic in multiple senses. As Balibar argues, Marx’s interruption of the Hegelian dialectic is less about dualism or teleology than it is about contesting the smooth transition from civil society to the universality of the state. Which is not to dismiss the materialist dimension of Lazzarato’s critique, of the emphasis on the constitution of subjectivity through sensibility, belief, and desire. Hegel’s description of the family and the state encompasses some of this, but it must be liberated from its progress and telos, to encompass the multiple intersections of structures, subjectivations, and contradictions.

*= Violence et Civilité is largely made up of Balibar's Wellek library lectures, the same series that Judith Butler gave her lectures on Antigone and Jameson gave his lectures that became The Seeds of Time. Balibar's lectures were recently published in French, but have yet to appear in the series by Columbia University that has published past lectures.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Everyday I Write the Book: Macherey on Hegel, Marx, and Debord


Of the five who participated in the original edition of Lire le Capital, Louis Althusser, Etienne Balibar, Jacques Rancière, Pierre Macherey, and Roger Establet, Machery is not very well known in the US. While Rancière has become one of the French thinkers of the moment and Balibar is regularly translated, only the sociologist Roger Establet is less well known. This is unfortunate because it might be possible to argue that of the four, not counting Althusser, Macherey has been concerned with philosophy must explicitly. This might sound strange to those in the Anglo-American world who primarily know of Macherey from his translated works on literature, For a Theory of Literary of Production and The Object of Literature. However, this focus on philosophy can be seen in his published monographs, Hegel ou Spinoza, the five volume study of Spinoza’s Ethics, and the short books on The Theses on Feuerbach, as well as the essays in Histoires du dinosaur, which continue Althusser’s theses regarding philosophy as a practice and class struggle.

Since the publications of those books, and during it, Macherey has been teaching a seminar titled Philosophe au sens large (“Philosophy in the large sense”), which is dedicated to various themes that traverse philosophy, literature, sociology, history, and political economy. This is in sharp contrast to the Anglo-American practice which could be described “philosophy in the smallest possible sense,” reducing philosophy to a set of limited normative and logical questions until it could be safely drowned in the bathtub. The courses, which include lectures by Macherey as well as guest lectures by other philosophers on everything from Einstein to Judith Butler are a great resource for anyone who reads French.

A selection of these lectures, Macherey’s contribution, to the year (2004-05) devoted to the concept of the "everyday" (quotidian) has been published as a book, Petits Riens: Ornières et derives du quotidien. The lectures cover the usual suspects associated with the concept of “everyday life”: Lefebvre, Debord, de Certeau, and Freud; as well as Pascal, Hegel, and Marx; and such literary figures as Joyce and Leiris. The book is structured around a series of lectures, and I must admit that I have not read all of them. I started the book to read the lecture on Hegel, since I am curious about Macherey’s recent turn to Hegel, but I found it difficult to put down.

What follows are a series of observations/provocations from this book:

First, Macherey frames the problem of the “everyday” or “everyday life” through two dialectics. The first could be called the “Thales/Heraclitus dialectic” drawn from the two classical figures named. Thales, as the story goes, was so preoccupied with looking towards the heavens that he fell into a well. In contradiction to this there is the story of Heraclitus, who declared, when a group of visitors were surprised to see the philosopher warming himself by the fire, “The Gods dwell here also.” Philosophy distances itself from the everyday, or attempts to discern the hidden logic of the most mundane activities. There is thus a fundamental ambiguity to this attempt. As Macherey writes:

“There is an equivocal dimension of the reality of lived daily life that is impossible to eradicate, which condemns the quotidian to the status of a quasi-object, not susceptible to being examined directly: the consequence of this is that, if one engages in a philosophy of everyday, there is the risk of thinking instability, movement, flow, where only partial synthesis operate, immediately placed in question, and where the results cannot easily be made the object of a global synthesis.” (apologies for the sloppy translation)

The second dialectic has to do with how the “everyday” is conceived: either as passivity, as pure repetition of customs, habits, and patterns; or as pure activity, as a thousand tiny inventions. This dialectic, also ambiguous, of activity and passivity can be seen in the political philosophies of the everyday, Lefebvre, Debord, and de Certeau.

As I have noted, the first lecture/essay, after the brief thematic introduction, is on Pascal. This might seem strange given that “everyday life” is often understood to be a concept of modernity, an experience that takes place against the backdrop of abstract labor and standardized commodities. This is explicitly the case in Lefebvre and Debord, but is even implied in Heidegger, mentioned only in the introduction, whose “Das Man” and circumspect comportment always read like a critique of modernity smuggled into the ontological investigation. Pascal then would seem to be out of place historically. However, Macherey locates in Pascal an essential aspect of the thought of the everyday: diversion. Diversion is the simple fact that mankind is occupied, distracted even, by a variety of interests and tasks. This is mankind’s fallen nature, but this capacity to be preoccupied in this or that amusement is mankind’s transcendence of any specific given nature. This inessential essentially, the absence of any determined task, defines humanity, Macherey refers to it as “anthropo-theological,” the proximity of being fallen and saved. In the first case we are dealing with a theme that runs throughout the history of philosophy, in which mankind is defined by a certain indetermination, a deficiency of environmental stimuli, to put it in Paolo Virno’s terms. As Macherey latter argues, returning to Pascal in some of the subsequent lectures/essays, the everyday shares some of these same qualities with this definition of the human, especially in the work of Lefebvre for whom the everyday is untotalizable totality. It is what remains after the specific activities and objects of human life have been abstracted, art, science, etc., but this remainder is essential.

Macherey’s reading of Hegel focuses on the ruse of reason, which is not what I expected. One would expect any discussion of Hegel and the everyday to focus on Hegel’s discussion of the quotidian dimensions of the family and civil society in the Philosophy of Right. This is especially true of Macherey, who coauthored a slim volume on Civil Society with Jean-Pierre Lèfebvre. Macherey argues that the “ruse of reason” is Hegel’s philosophy of the everyday; it is precisely the process by which a limited action, focused on its specific means and ends, brings into existence something other than itself. The passage that Macherey turns to is §209 from The Encyclopedia Logic: “Reason is as cunning as it is mighty. Its cunning generally consists in the mediating activity which, while it lets objects act upon one another according to their own nature, and wear each other out, executes only its purpose without itself mingling in the process.” This teleological logic, as Lukacs has argued, is the logic of labor itself, which must surrender itself to the limits of the tools and material to produce anything. Labor does not so much master the world, as mastering it by surrendering to it, transforming the world by learning its principles and causality. This makes possible a specific staging of the Marx/Hegel encounter. For Macherey, Marx’s objection to Hegel has little to do with “rational kernels and mystical shells,” rather it has to do with the transition from Chapter Seven of Capital: Volume One between the “labor process” and the “valorization process.” In the first case we are dealing with a teleological logic between a subject, instrument, and object: the subject transforming the object, and ultimately the self, through the intermediary of the instrument. The valorization process, which is to say capitalism, decenters this intentionality, fragmenting work to the point where the worker becomes a “conscious organ.” There is no longer a telos of intentionality, at least one that rests in the mind and hands of a worker. Thus, we can ask with Macherey, if labor is our model of rationality, of the ruse of reason and historical process, what has the transformation of labor done to the very idea of rationality.

Macherey doesn’t directly ask this question, moving onto other figures of the everyday. However, the ruse of reason does return in the later lectures; in fact, it is possible to read Macherey’s lectures on the critical turn towards everyday life in the works of Barthes, Lefebvre, Debord, and de Certeau, which make up the final section of this book, as one long meditation on this ruse. Which is to say that all the thinkers consider everyday to be the point where daily struggles confront the larger rationales and structures of social existence. This confrontation is riddled with ambiguity of activity and passivity referred to above. As Lefebvre writes of his project, “Our particular concern will be to extract what is living, new, positive—the worthwhile needs and fulfillments—from the negative: the alienations.” What emerges in these critical works, and this has everything to do with their historical moment after the second war, is everyday life as a sphere of life characterized by a sharper duality than the ambiguity of passivity and activity, it is colonization versus rebellion. It is Debord that pushes this tension the furthest, the spectacle is nothing but the colonization of daily life. I am not going to go into all of Macherey’s reading of Debord, but there are some interesting remarks regarding Debord and Feuerbach as well as Sartre. What is most striking, given the earlier section on Hegel’s ruse of reason as a logic of everyday life, is the manner in which the situationist strategy of détournemount, altering the texts and images of the various commodities of the spectacle, returns as a kind or ruse of reason, a negation of negation, but an incomplete one. With détournemount one works with definite materials, with the inherent limitations, but what emerges is not a realization of reason. At best the “detouring,” the shift, opens the gap between the spectacle and everyday life, between the passivity of everyday life and its invention.

That is all I have for observations. By way of a conclusion I offer a scene from one of my favorite works of detournement, Can Dialectics Break Bricks?



Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bigger than Life: Nicholas Ray films Anti-Oedipus


It seems to me that a fundamental point has perhaps been lost in all of the writing on Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus. Deterritorialization, body without organs, desiring machines, codes, and axioms have been debated, clarified, and discussed, becoming part of contemporary jargon, but the fundamental critique of psychoanalysis has passed by the wayside. This criticism can be summed up as follows: the conditions of the production, and reproduction of subjectivity, exceed the confines of the family, encompassing all of history. That is what it means to be “anti-oedipal” to have a fundamentally different ontology, or ontogenesis, of subjectivity, one that is more materialist, moving beyond the confines of desire in the family. Against the tendency of psychoanalysis to reduce everything to the family, to see father figures lurking behind every boss and president, Deleuze and Guattari explode the family triangle seeing the political and historical dimensions underlying it, to see politics where psychoanalysis see only Oedipus.

“The father, the mother, and the self are at grips with, and directly coupled to, the elements of the political and historical situation—the soldier, the cop, the occupier, the collaborator, the radical, the resister, the boss, the boss’s wife—who constantly break all triangulations, and who prevent the entire situation from falling back on the familial complex and being internalized in it.”

This must be the case not only of those “extreme situations,” the political conflict that cuts through a family, but those situations where Oedipus would appear to be most applicable, where it is just a father and a son in conflict. Deleuze and Guattari demonstrate this in their book on Kafka, arguing that even Kafka’s conflict with his father has to be seen as political. Thus using Kafka to restate their position.

“The goal is to obtain a blowup of the “photo,” an exaggeration of it to the point of absurdity. The photo of the father, expanded beyond all bounds, will be projected onto the geographic, historical, and political map of the world in order to reach vast regions of it: ‘I feel as if I could consider living in only those regions that either are not covered by you or are not within your reach.’ An Oedipalization of the universe. The Name of the Father encodes the names of history—Jews, Czechs, Germans, Prague, city country. But beyond that, to the degree that one enlarges Oedipus, this sort of microscopic enlargement shows up the father for what he is; it gives him a molecular agitation in which an entirely different sort of combat is being played out.”

The best cinematic version of this process, of this blow-up, is perhaps Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life.

It is tempting to subject Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life to a psychoanalytic interpretation. Paired with the well-known Rebel without a Cause, it functions as a kind diptych: one on the father, the other on the son. Thus it is possible to see each film, which were made in the mid-fifties, right after each other, as completing two sides of an Oedipal triangle. Which is not to say that Rebel is not about fathers. As Ray argues, in that film Jim Stark (James Dean) is searching for some kind of guidance from his father (Jim Backus), who “fails to provide the adequate father image, either in strength or authority.” In fact all of the misfits of the film have daddy issues: Judy (Natalie Wood) just wants her father to love her (perhaps a bit too much) and Plato (Sal Mineo) just wants his parents to be there at all. It is odd that this film, a film that is supposed to document the early stages of a generation of rebellion, is ultimately about a bunch of kids looking for a proper parental relationship. (However, I will leave aside for a moment the question as to whether or not it is possible to extract an Anti-Oedipal reading of that film to focus on Bigger than Life).

Bigger than Life is the story of a schoolteacher in an unnamed suburb, whose life self destructs due to his increased addiction to a drug that he has been prescribed for a rare illness. James Mason, a British actor best known for playing Humbert Humbert in Kubrick’s Lolita, plays the teacher, Ed Avery. This casting introduces a bit of old world class and distinction into the suburban egalitarianism of nineteen-fifties America. A point that is reinforced by the layout of the Avery home, the walls of which are decorated by maps and travel posters of Barcelona and Greece. These posters suggest both the past, the weight of history, and middle class aspirations of travel and luxury. The latter are undermined by the presence of an exposed water heater in the Avery kitchen. The rusty and malfunctioning heater stands out as a kind of Zizekian anamorphosis, a stain that actually puts the whole scene in perspective. We quickly learn that the middle class comfort of the Avery household is just a veneer, Ed Avery works as a taxi dispatcher after school hours to make ends meet. He keeps this secret from his wife, generating suspicion.

Most of the initial clues of conflict are subtle, functioning at the level of casting and sets, demonstrating Ray’s often cited control, but all of this begins to explode, moving from subtext to text, as Avery begins to unravel. His unraveling stems from a drug that he is prescribed to treat a rare condition, a drug that has serious psychological side effects. However, I think that it would be as much of a mistake to see this as cautionary tale about drugs as to see it as an Oedipal drama. The drug is something of a Macguffin, setting the plot in motion. Ray later said that he regretting naming the drug in the film, reducing the crisis of the film to a single knowable cause. As much as the drug sets the conflict in motion, turning Avery into a grotesque parody of paternal authority and middle class aspirations, it is their precarious class position that maintains it. Even as he spirals out of control, his wife refuses to call the doctor for fear of what another medical bill will do their finances, or what the stigma of going to see a psychiatrist will do to his job. Avery’s addiction to the drug sets in motion a spiral of delusion and delirium that crosses through class, politics, and religion.

First, in an initial bought of megalomania, Avery takes his wife and son to a high-end department store. His wife immediately protests this transgression of the class position. The scene that follows prefigures the dress-fitting scene of Vertigo, a man violently demanding that “his” woman look a particular way. Only in this case the ideal is not a melancholic lost love object, as in Hitchcock's film, but a desired class position. Avery’s second noticeable outburst takes place during “parent teacher” night at his school. He refuses to play the faux-egalitarian game of hanging every student’s artwork, of acknowledging that every child is a special little snowflake, and gives a tirade against collapsing standards. As Avery states, “Childhood is a congenital disease - and the purpose of education is to cure it.” Ultimately warning that, “We're breeding a race of moral midgets,” in a remark that will be heard again and again in authoritarian philosophies of education from Plato to Bloom. Half of the audience of parents reacts in horror, offended to hear their children spoken of in such ways, as idiots in need of discipline, while the other half openly embrace the new authoritarian standards. The posters of Europe, of Barcelona, take on a new significance: they are no longer symbols of middle class aspirations, but of the possibility of fascism. After the debacle of the PTA meeting Avery returns home, focusing his efforts on his son. Privatizing his desires for discipline and authority. This is arguably the most Oedipal dimension of the film, and the one most caught up in a particular middle class ideal of “wanting a better life for one’s children.” Avery looms over his son in a monstrous scene of parental discipline. When his son fails to perform, fails to become an instant genius, Avery turns to the Bible, specifically the story of Abraham, for parenting advice, deciding that his son must be sacrificed. When his wife reminds him that God stayed Abraham’s hand, Avery declares, “God was Wrong!” With the exception of this last heretical remark, the film prefigures a particular American form of fascism (in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense) based on consumption, family, and the Bible.



Avery’s blasphemous declaration completes the sequence of megalomania, passing through class, politics, and ultimately religion. Oedipus is blown up until it encompass all of history and the cosmos, revealing its social and political dimensions. What follows in the denouement, the happy reconciliation of the family, can only be understood as the imposition of the era’s ideological demands. What is more important is the film illustrates that every familial conflict encompasses all of society and history, there is no demand for an authoritarian father without a demand for authority, that every desire for a better future for one's children is the projection of one's own frustrated economic aspirations. Thus, the unconscious is political and economic before being familial and libidinal.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Roundtable on Marx's Capital

The Society for Social and Political Philosophy is pleased to issue a
CALL FOR PARTICIPANTS
for a Roundtable on Marx’s Capital
{ Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas, February 24-27, 2011 }
Keynote address by Harry Cleaver
Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Texas at Austin,
and author of Reading Capital Politically

The SSPP’s second Roundtable will explore Volume One of Marx’s Capital (1867). We chose this text because the resurgence in references to and mentions of Marx – provoked especially by the current financial crisis and global recession, but presaged by the best-seller status of Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Marx’s surprising victory in the BBC’s “greatest philosopher” poll – has only served to highlight the fact that there have arguably not been any new interpretive or theoretical approaches to this book since the Althusserian and autonomist readings of the 1960s.

The question that faces us is this: Does the return of Marx mean that we have been thrust into the past, such that long “obsolete” approaches have a newfound currency, or does in mean, on the contrary, that Marx has something new to say to us, and that new approaches to his text are called for?

The guiding hypothesis of this Roundtable is that if new readings of Capital are called for, then it is new readers who will produce them.

Therefore, we are calling for applications from scholars interested in approaching Marx’s magnum opus with fresh eyes, willing to open it to the first page and read it through to the end without knowing what they might find. Applicants need not be experts in Marx or in Marxism. Applicants must, however, specialize in some area of social or political philosophy. Applicants must also be interested in teaching and learning from their fellows, and in nurturing wide-ranging and diverse inquiries into the history of political thought.

If selected for participation, applicants will deliver a written, roundtable-style presentation on a specific part or theme of the text. Your approach to the text might be driven by historical or contemporary concerns, and it might issue from an interest in a theme or a figure (be it Aristotle or Foucault). Whatever your approach, however, your presentation must centrally investigate some aspect of the text of Capital. Spaces are very limited.

Applicants should send the following materials as email attachments (.doc/.rtf/.pdf) to papers@sspp.us by September 15, 2010:
• Curriculum Vitae
• One page statement of interest, including a discussion of a) the topics you wish to explore in a roundtable presentation, and b) the projected significance of participation for your research and/or teaching.
All applicants will be notified of the outcome of the selection process via email on or before October 15, 2010. Participants will be asked to send a draft or outline of their presentation to papers@sspp.us by January 15, 2011 so that we can finalize the program.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Transindividuality, Equaliberty, Short-Circuit: Notes on the Recent Thought of Etienne Balibar


Two words, or concepts, stand out in Etienne Balibar’s recent philosophy. The first that comes to mind, although it is not the most conspicuous, is transindividuality. This term, although associated with the work of Gilbert Simondon, is positioned by Balibar between two ways of understanding the relation between the individual and society. The first considers the individual to be immediately given, society, or the state, is then nothing other than the sum total of the effects of individual wills, actions, and decisions. Opposed to this idea is the conception of society, culture, or the state as an organic or functional totality, determining and constituting the individuals and subjects it requires. Balibar traces these two positions throughout the history of philosophy, in which the myriad different positions in philosophy were cast into two poles: the individual or society, freedom or totality.

More to the point for Balibar is the idea that transindividuality is a way out of this impasse, out of this deadlock, which posits the individual or society as the starting point, reducing everything to its will or functions. Transindividuality is not so much a third way, but a way of thinking the unavoidable interrelation of the other two. Transindividuality underscores the fact that individuation is always individuation in and of a particular collectivity. Balibar develops this argument specifically with respect to Spinoza (in part influence by Alexandre Matheron’s monumental study, which developed the idea of “transindividuality” avant la lettre), but he also finds the idea in Marx, Freud, and (with some reservations) Hegel. Spinoza’s thought, with its general orientation of “not opposed but different” seems to be a useful and necessary figure for overcoming persistent dualisms; with Balibar’s focus on transindividuality we can add individual and society to the more well known oppositions between God and nature and mind and body, the oppositions that Spinoza overcomes, or at least displaces through his anomalous position. As Balibar argues there is a certain sense in which Spinoza argues that everything that exists is an individual, defined by its particular conatus, or striving, but this individual is itself affected to act in a determinate manner by its relations with others. The individual is not opposed to the collective but is a modification of it, and vice versa.

The second, and much more prominent concept, is equaliberty. Unlike transindividuality, which is situated across the long durée of philosophical anthropology, equaliberty is specifically set against the philosophical cold war in which equality and liberty were seen as opposed political values: either one had equality and one did not have liberty (in the case of the Soviet Union) or one had liberty without equality (the US). Balibar develops this idea by showing how each of these ideas ended up contradicting themselves in practice. Equality without liberty negates itself, there are always “those more equal than others,” the party officials who are entitled to the goods and services denied to the regular members of society. The same could be said of liberty without equality; here we could take as our example the US, the myriad rights, to speech, to run for office, for a fair trial, all of which mean very different things, or little at all, given unequal access to resources and money. As much as one might search for an origin of equaliberty in the hallowed texts of political philosophy, Balibar’s favorite example is the overlap of “man” and “citizen” in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” it is a concept which is actually based on the history of struggles, a history which has demonstrated the impossibility of liberty without equality and vice versa.

That is the insurrectional side of this history, Balibar also argues that there is a constitutive side, in which various third terms are presented as mediations of this tense relationship, community (or fraternity) and property as ways of holding together equaliberty. However, I am less interested in this now than in pointing out a particular similarity between equaliberty and transindividuality. As Balibar argues with respect to equaliberty, underscoring the connection between equality and liberty, even those liberties, those rights, that remove one from the state, the rights to privacy and property, are only possible given a collective insurrection, in their initial construction, and collective support and recognition, in their ongoing institution. The right to privacy, to separation from the eyes and ears of the community, requires a collective recognition of this right. There is thus a transindividual basis of this right. However, Balibar generally restricts the problem of transindividuality to the consideration of the texts of Spinoza and Marx, preferring to relate the discussion of equaliberty to the conflictual history of the citizen. There is a structural echo of sorts between the two concepts, between the ontology of transindividuality and the politics of equaliberty, but they are primarily demonstrated and developed separately. (I should point out that this statement is not based on a thorough survey of Balibar’s works. I recently read La Proposition de l’égaliberté but have not read Violence et Civilité yet. Both books came out in the last year). However, and I am considering this as more of a hypothesis, the ontology does not so much found the politics as refracted from a different perspective. Equaliberty is not based on some essence, but the actual existing limitations of practice, but these limitations can only be seen through a fundamental shift in vocabulary, or ontology.

All of this is complicated by the addition of the economic, or political economy, as a third term to ontology and politics. Included in the book on equaliberty is Balibar’s essay on Macpherson’s concept of “Possessive individualism.” (This essay, like a few others in the book, has appeared before and was even translated into English. The published version here has been revised.) Balibar discusses Marx as one of the reversals of “possessive individualism” noting that for Marx, unlike Locke, labor is an originally transindividual. There is no work without cooperation, reflection, and a division of tasks. To argue that labor is originally transindividual, rather than the foundation of individual activity and property, does not so much resolve the issue, mediating between the ontological and political, but opens up new problems. As Balibar demonstrates with respect to his remarks about neoliberalism, the economic as much as the political is the site of the contestation and destruction of transindividuality. The transindividual relations of work can always become the basis for exploitation and private appropriation. Or to cite one of Balibar’s earlier passages, itself based on a reading of a dense passage from Volume Three of Capital, work as a transindividual relation is also a political relation, even if the terms of struggle and conflict are different.

“...the work relation (as a relation of exploitation) is immediately and directly economic and political; and the form of the “economic community” and the State “spring” simultaneously (or concurrently) from this “base”...In other words, the relations of the exploitation of labor are both the seed of the market (economic community) and the seed of the state (sovereignty/ Servitude). Such a thesis may and must seem blunt and debatable when looked at from a static perspective...However, the thesis can become singularly more explanatory if the notion of “determination” is given a strong sense, that is, if it is considered as the conducting wire to analyze the transformational tendencies of the market and the bourgeois State in the past two centuries or, even better, following the best “concrete analysis of Marxism, to analyze the critical conjunctures which punctuate this tendentious transformation and which precipitate its modifications.”

I do not have a conclusion here, and the problems that I am developing are intended for a larger project, but it seems to me that the problem has to do thinking the relation of separation and identity of the transindividual: transindividuality not so much as ground, but as transversal problem, crossing ontology, economy, and politics.