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.