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?