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.