Before approaching the idea of “storytelling” that is at the center of Citton’s book, Mythocratie: Storytelling et Imaginaire de Gauche it is important to situate his position with respect to some of the dominant strands of Spinozism.
Friday, December 23, 2011
“Let Me Tell You of the Time that Something Occurred”: On Yves Citton’s Mythocratie: Storytelling et Imaginaire de Gauche
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Reproducing Relations: On Communization and its Discontents
This is not intended as a review of Communization and its Discontents. If I were to write a review of the book it would simply be: it is a good book, you should read it (hell, you can even downloaded it for free, so there is no excuse not to). This is intended instead as a series of provocations for further reflection.
Friday, December 02, 2011
Horrors Old and New: Remaking Reality
"Horror consists in its always remaining the same—the persistence of 'pre-history'—but is realized as constantly different, unforeseen, exceeding all expectation, the faithful shadow of developing productive forces."—Theodor Adorno
I read somewhere, I do not remember where, that Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game is the most frequently filmed, and remade, story. The story, which was first made as a film in 1932, is so simple that it is more of a template for remakes than a story. A man, a hunter, is shipwrecked on an isolated island, where he encounters a even greater hunter, an aristocrat in self imposed exile. The aristocrat shows his new guest his estate, including his trophy room, and eventually proclaims his boredom with hunting. He has hunted all of the world's game, and has come to the conclusion that man is the most dangerous game, the only one that provides sport. The hunt then begins, the aristocrat, the great hunter pursuing the lesser hunter. The tables are eventually turned and the hunter becomes the prey (again). Like I said, it has been remade dozens of times, and has been used by countless tv shows. (of course in some variations the hunter is an alien, but the basic idea holds.)
Sunday, November 13, 2011
Debt Collectors: The Economics, Politics, and Morality of Debt
Any philosophical consideration of the politics of debt must perhaps begin with the fact that the entire rhetoric of debt, owing and paying one’s debts, is at once a moral and an economic vocabulary. This point is related to, but opposed to, Nietzsche’s well-known argument in the Genealogy of Morals. Whereas Nietzsche argued that morality, guilt, was simply debt, a payment in suffering for those who could not pay the price, an examination of debt reveals how much paying ones debts, paying one’s bills, is a moral imperative as much as an economic relation.
Tuesday, November 08, 2011
Forgotten History: Finally Got the News
I do not have much to say about this, but I had to share it far and wide. It is a clip from Finally Got the News, a film about the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. It is inspirational and a reminder of how much we, all of us who are protesting Wall Street, are perhaps finally getting the news. These guys were critiquing Wall Street before it became cool to critique Wall Street.
Friday, November 04, 2011
Constituent Comics: Antonio Negri Illustrated
One of the first texts that introduced me to the Italian political traditions of Operaismo and Autonomia was Italy: Autonomia, Post-Political Politics published by semiotext(e). I found my copy at Moe’s books in Berkeley, and for years it was the pride of my little library. This was years before it was reprinted. I would show it to friends, and offer to make copies at work for whoever was interested, my personal act of auto-reduction and sabotage. I poured over the writings of Negri, Tronti, Bifo, and Virno, struggling to make sense of concepts that would change me over years to come. At the end of this book there is a comic by B. Madaudo Melville, detailing the kidnapping of Aldo Moro. This was immediately legible, brought to life in slashes of ink that immediately suggested a tumultuous time with thick strokes of ink.
Monday, October 31, 2011
The Social Individual: Collectivity and Individuality in Capitalism (and Marx)
This is the video of a talk I gave at Utah Valley University in September. It was aimed at an audience of undergraduates, so it is very pedagogical and unfortunately a bit dry.
Text of the talk, which I did not exactly stick to, is after the break (for whatever reason the endnote links do not work).
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Getting to 99: Between #OccupyWallStreet and Mic Check!
Signs I made for my local Occupation
The potentials and contradictions of the OccupyWallStreet movement are far too many to enumerate. They are nothing other than the potentials and contradictions of the current historical conjuncture. We should not be surprised that is has shown itself to be racist and patriarchal in places, after all we live in a racist and patriarchal society. Moreover, we should not be surprised that its anti-capitalism is highly ambiguous if not out an out contradictory, with cries of “capitalism not corporatism” coexisting alongside “Abolish capitalism.” We perhaps should be surprised that it exists at all.
Sunday, October 09, 2011
The Politics of Composition: A Few Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street
Photo from Maximum RocknRoll's Facebook feed
Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s After the Future opens with a question, a question that defines the current political moment. As he writes:
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Viral Morality: A Few Remarks on Contagion
Let us begin with a few often repeated arguments about horror films. These are not so much theories, but things that "everyone says," statements that appear occasionally in film reviews without justification or citation. First, horror films are the way in which a society or culture confronts its fears. Although confront is not quite the right word, since the whole point is that these fears appear only in a mediated form, masked by monsters and aliens. Godzilla is a stand in for atomic war, body snatchers for communism or McCarthy conformism, vampires for sexuality, zombies for consumption etc. Second, horror movies, as well as disaster films, allow the audience to play God, to view some people as fit to die and others to live. This dimension of films is highly moralistic and often racist (the black guy dying first is almost a meta-cliche), as the final credits close on the surviving virgin or restored family. We might call these two things the "spontaneous philosophy of the horror film."
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
I Owe You an Explanation: Graeber and Marx on Origin Stories
The story of so-called primitive accumulation is well known to readers of Marx. This story was political economy’s way of understanding the origins of capitalism, explaining how the world was divided into workers and capitalists. The story is a kind of grasshopper and ant tale, of those who save and those who squander, although Marx gives it a different literary spin. As Marx writes:
Monday, September 05, 2011
Primer for the Post-Apocalypse: The Hunger Games Trilogy
Up until now I have avoided the trend of adults reading young adult fiction. I have never read a single Harry Potter book, but I have seen a few of the movies, and I have avoided Twilight as much as possible. (Of course it is nearly impossible to completely avoid such mega-media events, I find myself picking up references to these things, to “Team Edward and “Team Jacob” by sheer cultural osmosis.) This avoidance of young adult fiction came to an end with The Hunger Games. I picked up the first book out of curiosity, having heard a few of the details through osmosis, and found myself tearing through all three fairly quickly, they were this summer’s beach reads (concealed by the blank slate of a kindle).
Saturday, August 27, 2011
"Live Every Week Like it is Shark Week": Remarks on the Ecology of the Mediasphere
Friday morning, as the local and national media went on a feeding frenzy of sorts over Hurricane Irene, complete with radar maps and rain-coated correspondents bracing themselves against the wind and rain, the following image, taken of a TV set in Miami made it onto youtube and into my facebook news feed.
Sunday, August 21, 2011
Please Be Aliens. Please Be Aliens: Limits of the Apocalyptic Imaginary
Aliens have made it the news at least three times in the last week. This is fairly impressive considering the fact that there have been no shortage of actual events to report on (stock market collapse, the fallout from the Uk riots, Syria, etc.). This could be taken as symptomatic of the usual August slow news cycle, less a reflection of an actual lack of newsworthy stories than a collective decision not to reflect on the world. Past Augusts have brought us such stories as "Shark Attack Summer." August is the month dedicated to frivolous stories that make the rest of the years sound bytes and pseudo-events look serious by comparison. Taken together, however these reports construct an interesting snapshot of our existing political imaginary, the reflection of our social and political condition in our avoidance of it.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
The House Always Wins: Austerity Breeds Austerity, Repression Breeds Repression
I have not written anything about the riots/insurrection/looting in the UK for the simple reason that I do not know enough about the context and conditions (of course this hasn't stopped others from doing so). I to not plan to change that now, but I did find an interesting response about the backlash by Owen Jones, author of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. As Jones states:
Saturday, August 06, 2011
Ape Like Imitation: Repetition and Difference in the Planet of the Apes
The Hollywood tendency towards repetition, towards reproduction of the same, which reaches its culmination in recent reboots and remakes must, despite itself, confront history. History not in the sense of fashions, dates, and technology, but the historicity that defines a moment, its structure of feeling--history at the level of subtext rather than text.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Red Spinozism: Towards and Against a Spinozist Theory of Alienation
It is possible to understand the interest in Marxist Spinozism, Spinozist Marxism, or, as Alberto Toscano once put it, Red Spinozism, as a kind of funhouse mirror, where the concepts from one philosopher take on new shapes and forms when reflected through the other. The two most well known of Marx’s concepts that have made it through this hall of mirrors are ideology, which has been refracted through Spinoza’s theory of imagination and the first kind of knowledge in Althusser, and living labor, which has been expanded to an ontological level of production through Negri’s reading of the productive nature of reason and desire. Moreover, Spinoza’s concepts of structural or immanent causality have been read through the mode of production and the multitude has been read through class struggle and the autonomist hypothesis. I hastily list these different concept refractions and transformations in order to stress that has been absent, namely alienation.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
The Road Home: Treme Season Two
After two seasons Treme still does not elicit the passion and dedication that can be found among fans of The Wire. One common complaint heard about the show is that it is dull, that it takes forever for things to happen, and in place of events or plot we get long musical numbers. I don't agree with this criticism, but I do think that it gets to the central question of the show: what is it about? and what does it mean for something to happen? As innovative as The Wire was it was still at its core a police show, and as much as it troubled the narrative logic and politics of the typical police procedural, replacing the weekly convictions of Law and Order with bureaucracy and pointless investigations, it was still punctuated by the events of the police show, arrests, convictions, and murders. As Wendell Pierce, who plays Antoine Baptiste, has agued, Treme is as much about culture, how it is produced, sustained, and destroyed, as it is about New Orleans.
Thursday, July 07, 2011
A Million Blooms: Tiqqun and Negri on the Actualization of Ontology
With the publication in English of This is Not a Program, Tiqqun brings to light a certain insurrectionist critique of Negri (and Hardt’s) position. Broadly speaking this critique takes two forms. First, there is a critique of the valorization of immaterial labor. This critique does not concern the descriptive accuracy of the term, the continued existence of material production, but its political efficacy. For Tiqqun the valorization of immaterial labor is consistent with the values of the capitalist economy. As Tiqqun write, “Proletarian self-valorization, theorized by Negri as the ultimate subversion, is also taking place but in the form of universal prostitution.” Tiqqun thus joins the chorus of those who prefer the refusal of work, the quotidian negativity of sabotage, to the valorization of the communicative capacity of contemporary labor. Second, and related, Tiqqun argue that Negri underestimates the reality of exploitation. This can already be seen in the argument about immaterial labor, which, for Tiqqun, is less the condition for revolution than subjection, but comes to the front in their critique of biopower. Quite simply, Tiqqun contest the division (Hardt) and Negri make between biopower and biopolitics (itself modeled on the division of potestas and potentia). In a vein similar to Steven Shaviro, Tiqqun contest that such a division, between transcendence and immanence, could be said to make any sense in Foucault’s analysis. Biopower was always already produced from the immanent and contingent ground, that is how it has worked.
Sunday, June 12, 2011
Periodizing the Present: Nostalgia in X-Men: First Class and Super 8
A quick glance at this year’s slew of summer blockbusters suggests a noticeable turn to other historical moments: Captain America, Pirates of the Caribbean, Cowboys and Aliens all suggest that this years escapist entertainment is trying to escape the present. Of course such period escapism is not new, but it is striking against the usual tendency of remakes, which set everything in the eternal present with the most current B-list actors, pop songs, and hairstyles. (As I suggested earlier, the remake is an evasion of history) Within this crop of movies two films stand out in that they are not just set in the past, but set in the film styles and conventions of a bygone era. These films are X-Men: First Class and Super 8.
Monday, June 06, 2011
Capital (The Book and the Totality): On Jameson’s Representing Capital
It is impossible not to compare Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One with last year’s The Hegel Variations: in each case it is a rather succinct reflection, a brief examination of one of the books that is a pillar of Jameson's thought. This book too has a pedagogical quality, which is not to say that it is pedantic at all, just that it is easy to imagine the book as stemming from a seminar. Like the previous book it offers reflections on themes central to Jameson’s work, such as dialectic and history, as well as some engagements with the broader intellectual horizon, including some surprising remarks on Heidegger’s critique of technology.
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Social Life: Towards (Spinozist) Socio-Political Thought
The socio-political, or the social, has been out of favor for some time now. Perhaps this started with Hannah Arendt’s influential critique, which defined the social as the nebulous space that blurred the necessary distinctions of home and polis. Beyond that, and closer to hand, there was perhaps the dominance, semantic and otherwise, of the ethico-political; a phrase that was initially associated with Foucault but soon spread to various attempts, including those that were anti-Foucauldian, to articulate politics with ethics. Politics would be henceforth founded on ethics, whether it be the ethics of human rights and communicative reason or the infinite alterity of the other. The dominance of this term was followed by the recent revival of the political, understood as prescription, or the axiom of equality, separated from any engagement with economy or society. This evasion of the social at the level of political thought has been doubled with rise of new materialisms that define the material is cosmological or vital terms, throwing out the “historical” or “dialectical” baby with the correlationist bathwater.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
The Affective Composition of Labor
Of all the various concepts, innovations, and interventions of “autonomist Marxism,” perhaps the most well known is the so-called autonomist hypothesis. This idea, first developed by Mario Tronti, and publicized by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, fundamentally argued that resistance precedes and prefigures exploitation. The appeal of this hypothesis almost goes without saying, it makes it possible to see not capital, or Empire, everywhere, to see living labor and the multitude in place of exploitation and domination. However, its limitations are just as clear, it is too easy to simply identify this “hypothesis” with an unproblematic assertion of the ubiquity of resistance, of an insurrection that it is all the more impotent as it is everywhere. Thus, as something of an alternative, I propose that we take a different concept as our starting point, one that is perhaps more analytical, more of a conceptual problem than a political assertion. This concept is “class composition,” which can be broadly defined as an examination of the social, technological, and political composition of class, the structure of work, its relations of command and hierarchy, as well as the political articulation of the class, its cohesion and antagonism.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Reanimating Dead Dogs: Foucault on Political Economy
It is perhaps true that every generation treats the revered thinkers of the previous generation as a “dead dog,” to quote Marx’s famous phrase. When I was in grad school I remember that Sartre in particular was dead to us, too tainted by humanism to be interesting. This was of course a shame. From a rather cursory observation of current conferences and publications it seems that a similar fate is befalling Derrida, Foucault, and Lyotard. This may just be another example of a generational shift, but it also may have to do with the revival of interest in Marx and Marxist thought. (The "dead dog" of their generation.) Thus, focusing on one of these figures in particular, namely Foucault, I offer the following two paragraphs, paragraphs edited out of a published piece, as something of a provocation.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Works and Days: Remarks on the First Season of Treme
Comparisons between Treme and The Wire are inevitable. Unlike Generation Kill, which seems more and more like a side project, Treme has the same sprawling story line, the same focus on an American city, and even some of the same actors as The Wire.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
You Have to Get Mad: Spinoza, Lumet, and the Politics of Indignation
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have remarked that for Spinoza the central question is “Why do people fight for their servitude as if it was salvation?” and I have often cited them on this point. Ted Stolze and Alexandre Matheron have argued that this is only half the question, its corollary (geometrically speaking) would have to be why do people revolt? The answer for both of these questions has to be sought on the terrain of the affects and the imagination. Revolt is founded on the political affect of indignation, which Spinoza defines as “a hate toward someone who has done evil to another.” As such indignation is grounded on the basic communication of the affects, in indignation I expand the horizon of the affects to found a common enemy, a common evil.
Sunday, April 03, 2011
“A Subjection Much More Profound Than Himself”: A Few Remarks on Source Code
Duncan Jones’ Source Code has all the telltale signs of a second movie, it has bigger stars, bigger explosions, and the requisite romantic subplot. Of course it wouldn’t be hard to outspend the rather minimalist Moon. Less is more in this case, and all of these things serve to highlight just how engaging the first film was through its minimalist aesthetic. However, what is striking about the second film is its thematic continuity with the first.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Still Anomalous After All These Years: Negri’s Latest Book on Spinoza
Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the French and Italian turn to Spinoza over the past forty years is the sheer volume of the texts produced. A volume in terms of the massive tomes, such as Matheron, Moreau, and Macherey’s studies, but also in terms of the repeated returns to Spinoza’s thought, returns that attest to what Macherey referred to as its infinite productive nature, its capacity to produce new readings, new effects. Negri’s latest book on Spinoza, Spinoza et nous (Translated into French by Judith Revel, although I could not find a corresponding Italian text) is his third book on Spinoza.
Monday, March 07, 2011
Teachers are the New Welfare Queens
I am sure that you have seen the bumper stickers before. They say things like “Keep Working Millions on Welfare Depend on You” and, more recently, “Spread My Work Ethic, Not My Wealth.” They reflect a cornerstone of conservative ideology, the distinction between those hard working real Americans and the lazy people on welfare.
Tuesday, March 01, 2011
The General Intellect Personified: More Notes on Capitalism as a Social Relation
This is a continuation of the reading of Capital I begun earlier, and a return to a passage in Capital that I have written on several times, Chapter Thirteen on Cooperation. Whereas I wrote a previous post on Cooperation in terms of Marx’s theory of social relations, my concern now is what this passage has to say about surplus value. (This is not to say that the two are separate, far from it actually: what I want to argue is that these two questions, social relations and surplus, are never separable from Marx).
Thursday, February 24, 2011
What We Write About When We Write About Movies: Or, Memory in the Age of Youtube
Jonathan Lethem’s little book on They Live (part of a relatively new series on films by Soft Skull Press, a cinematic equivalent of Continuum’s 33-1/3 books on records) offers two beginnings. The first presents the film as a dream, focusing on the things that everyone will remember even years after seeing the film, the glasses, the decoded billboards, and of course this:
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Another Day in the Future: Philip K. Dick and the Philosophy of Science Fiction
The recent news that Michel Gondry planned to make a film based on Ubik convinced me to look at this again. It is an old piece, and one that I wrote for an undergraduate audience. I can’t really say that my thinking on the matter has changed much, however, in part because I have not have had time to revisit it, so I thought that I would post it.
Saturday, February 05, 2011
Isolation and Relation: Notes on Capital
I am teaching Capital, or at least parts of Volume One. This is not the first time that I have done this, I have taught selections of it in my nineteenth century philosophy class and have taught parts of Marx, in some form or another, every year. However, this is the most of the book that I have ever taught, almost all of it over seven weeks. It is also my attempt to break with my past reading, more or less documented in the Micro-Politics book and heavily influenced by Althusser and Negri. Along these lines I have been reading some of the more or less recent interpretations by Arthur, Bidet, and Harvey, as well as collection of essays titled Relire Le Capital edited by Franck Fischbach.
Saturday, January 22, 2011
In Body if not in Spirit: Butler and Malabou on Hegel
In the history of philosophy there are some texts that are difficult to say anything new about. These texts are so dominated by one influential reading that it becomes difficult, even impossible, to say interpret anew. Paradigmatic in these respects is the brief section of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit known as the “master slave dialectic” or “lordship and bondage”.This section is so dominated by Kojeve’s canonical reading that is almost as if his words were already there on the pages of Hegel’s text.
This is one reason why Judith Butler and Catherine Malabou’s exchange on “Domination and Servitude” published in French as Sois mon corps: une lecture contemporaine de la domination et servitude chez Hegel is engaging. It is a reading of this all too well known section of Hegel’s text, but one that dispenses with the preoccupations of a previous generation in order to reread Hegel. Butler and Malabou each address Hegel from their particular philosophical commitments and engagements: Butler’s intervention is framed by her reading of Hegel in The Psychic Life of Power and Malabou continues her development of plasticity in her reading of Hegel. Which is not to say that the concerns of Kojeve are entirely absent. He is mentioned not just in name, but also in general orientation. His reading, which influenced Lacan, Bataille, etc., made this particular passage not just the genesis of self-consciousness, but an anthropogenesis, the constitution of the human as such.
In Butler’s reading in particular, this passage from animal to human becomes about attachment to the body. The title would translate into English as “Be my body,” which is the masters injunction to the slave. The slave will work and toil and the master will consume the fruits of the labor. It is worth noting, and this is something that comes up in both Butler and Malabou’s intervention, that Hegel does not speak of the body as such. Any attempt to comprehend “the body” would have to be framed by the discussion of “life” that precedes the section, and the intersections of fear, work, death, consumption, and consciousness that punctuate the passage. It is on this point, on their attempt to not just read the body, but read it through death, work, and fear, that Butler and Malabou’s intervention joins what Negri describes as a post-humanist anthropology.
Although it remains to be seen how post-humanist this anthropology is, how much it can work through the defining aspects of human existence, construed as practices and relations, without relying on a concept of the human, constituted as an essence. This problem is especially vexing given the role death, the fear, or death or finitude plays in this text, and Kojeve’s reading. Death in post-Heideggarian thought, functions as a kind of finite transcendence: it is finite, being death and all, but it avoids whether or not there might be other ways of figuring finitude and, more importantly, it functions as a kind transcendent condition, as that which exceeds and structures all experience. This is of course, Kojeve’s contribution to Hegel, of his radically interrupted reading that makes death the “absolute master,” failing to notice that it is not Hegel’s last word on finitude or negativity. This is both the challenge and the limit of their project: in some sense a post-humanist interpretation of “Domination and Servitude” is nearly impossible because it is precisely placing this section, with its drama of death, work, and desire, at the center of Hegel’s thought that constitutes the humanist reading.
Malabou and Butler both focus on the impossibility of actualizing the injunction, the separation of subjectivity from the body. The master still needs to eat, to consume, and is thus confronted by the very object that he sought to avoid. The same could be said of the slave’s encounter death: the slave flees death in the struggle for recognition only to find it again waiting, in the fear of the master. Complete detachment from the body is just as impossible as complete surrender to the demands of life, a purely animal existence, physicality and negativity, determination and intederminacy, are equally unavoidable aspects of human life. There is nothing terribly new to this reading, but it perhaps has the merit of avoiding “recognition” as its central concept.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Malabou and Butler’s confrontation is the way in which it pits their particular conceptual innovations, plasticity in the case of Malabou and subjection/attachment in the case of Butler, in relation to Hegel’s text. In each case the concept in question is developed in relation to Hegel’s thought, albeit differently. To start with Malabou’s reading of Butler, Malabou poses the question as to what extent Foucault’s problematic of subjectivity/subjection, especially once understood as an attachment and detachment to a particular kind of power differs from a dialectic, countering Butler’s Foucauldian reading of Hegel with a Hegelian reading of Foucault. The slave's subjection is nothing other than a kind of attachment, the attachment to simply living, to the body as given, and mastery is a kind of detachment, an active constitution of the self as something other than this particular life, this body.What makes this possible is her concept of plasticity, the capacity to give and receive form, which cuts through dialects and subjection/subjectivity, to think the interconnection of passivity and activity.
In the end plasticity, as the simultaneity of shaping and being shaped of consciousness, and performativity, as constraint and action, circle around the same fundamental problem: as Spinoza perhaps was the first to note, every finite thing, which is to say everything, is simultaneously determined and determining, affected by other things around it and striving to act on the world. Thinking the specific conjunction of these two aspects is to some extent the task of any materialist philosophy, which is to say any philosophy that is not hopelessly caught up in a metaphysics of freedom and freewill. Malabou and Butler’s argument about Hegel has the merit of putting some of these different concepts of servitude and mastery in relation, most notably Hegel and Foucault, but, despite itself, it also indicates the limit of a purely philosophical investigation. If Foucault’s problem of subjection, the fact that we are always saying yes and no to power, can itself be understood as a restaging of the dialectic of attachment and detachment that defines servitude and domination, then wouldn’t it be possible to say the same thing about performativity and plasticity? My point is not to confirm Foucault’s nightmare in which Hegel subsumes all attempts to escape his influence, but to pose the question of a reorientation of thought. Perhaps the task is not to conceptualize this relation, to rigorously isolate the point where passivity becomes activity, but to think the materiality and specificity of different ways in which one becomes the other. What is perhaps important is not the general dimension of the concept, but the specific modality of the encounter. This maybe the reason that Hegel’s little narrative draws us back again and again: it offers us not the general figure of negation but something of the specific contours of domination and struggle.
Wednesday, January 05, 2011
Negativity Employed: Benjamin Noys’ The Persistence of the Negative
Ben Noys’ The Persistence of the Negative is interesting to me for at least two reasons. 1) As someone whose introduction to philosophy, or theory, if you prefer, was through the intersecting texts of Deleuze, Spinoza, and Negri, I am firmly within the strain of affirmative thought that Noys critiques. Thus, the text constitutes something of a critical reckoning with my own philosophical consciousness. 2) Noys text is not just an argument for or against a particular theoretical perspective, but is ultimately concerned with a larger problem; namely, the relationship between history and theory, or, more precisely, between the real abstractions of capital and the abstraction of thought.
I initially approached the book thinking that it would be the first aspect that would be most interesting. My own particular trajectory of thinking as of late has been somewhat away from my affirmationist roots (more on this particular terminology in a little bit) and towards a reconsideration of dialectical thought, towards the problem of a materialist dialectic. However, Noys book is less about that than I imagined. Noys book is less an argument for “The Dialectic,” especially in its more rigid form, as it is concerned with the question of negativity, within and beyond its dialectical role. While this revalorization of the negative is interesting, and timely, just think of the trajectory from Adorno to Deleuze, it is Noys’ particular understanding of the intersection of theoretical positions and the vicissitudes of history that make the book particularly compelling.
As much as Noys will offer a very developed criticism of Negri in the final pages in his text, he begins with a quote from Negri, which situates the intersection of theory and politics. As Negri writes, “The clash between productive forces and capitalist relations of production, both in reality and in representation (theoretical and metaphysical, scientific and historiographical) is always linked to events, to relationships of forces, to the creative capacity of historical subjects.” It is from this overdetermined, for lack of a better word, intersection that Noys makes sense of “accelerationism.” Accelerationism is the position attributed to Lyotard, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari in which capital itself is identified with its own forces of dissolution, or deterritorialization, constantly overcoming itself. It does not create its gravediggers but is its own pallbearer. One only has to step out of its way, or push it along. Noys argues that this position is in some sense what remains after May ’68, when there is revolution but no revolutionary subject: one retains the revolutionary idea of desire, of overcoming every moral and social constraint, but one projects this onto the social forces themselves, or an indeterminate subject such as the “schizo.” On this reading accelerationism exhausts itself as the various deterritorializations of norms seem to be less and less capitalism’s undoing than its perpetual reinvention. What is the nineteen-eighties, and the rise of neoliberalism, but history’s revenge against accelerationism?
(As something of an aside, I should say that I am less than comfortable with these labels, accelerationism, weak and strong affirmation, etc. I understand their tactical value, but, to take Anti-Oedipus as an example, I have always thought that it offers more for thinking about subjectivity and capitalism than its dubious claims about the revolutionary schizophrenic tendencies of capital. If, as Walter Benjamin argues, the work is the death mask of its conception then the classification can only be its corpse. However, I do stress the tactical importance, and it is possible that these new terms, distinct from the old classifications of post-structuralism, Marxism, etc., reflect a more engaged mode of thought.)
If accelerationism can be understood as a response to a particular historical situation, a particular position of the French ultra-left, affirmationism is more ambiguous. Defined broadly it encompasses the work of Derrida, Deleuze, Latour, Negri, and Badiou, all of whom have eschewed the dialectic, negative, and critique in favor of multiplicity, affirmation, and constitution. However, if, as Noys argues, the French (and Italians) pursued metaphysics as politics, then it must be said that metaphysics makes even stranger bedfellows than politics. Affirmation joins disparate figures of thought. Most suggestive in this regard is the connections that Noys sketches between Latour, whose insistence on the ontology of networks is explicitly aimed against the reductions, criticisms, and totalizations of Marxism, and Negri for whom the networks of immaterial labor are the ontology of communism to come.
“In many ways Negri (with or with Hardt) offers the flip side of Latour’s modeling of networks. Both agree on the fundamental positivity of networks, but while Latour uses this to constrain political activity and to resist any conceptualization of capital, Negri simply takes it as a sign of an immanent and imminent communism to come. This is not only an ontologically flattened network, but also a politically flattened network. In the case of Negri it functions to give capitalism a false consistency to all the while accrue the true consistency of the side of the multitude. ‘Power is everywhere’ is a banal truism, especially when it leave us with a multitude that is everywhere without intervening anywhere.”
Noys critique of Latour is devasting in revealing the “reactionary” political positions that underlie the alluring ontology of networks. The connection to Negri then, is perhaps no less devastating. However, as the last sentences of the passages above make clear, Noys real target is less affirmation itself, than the way in which affirmation, the assertion that power, the multitude, or difference is everywhere, forecloses any real thought that would locate points of tension and transformation. For Noys affirmation is not even complicit with capitalism, since capital has its own negativity, alienations, and separations, rather it is complicit with capitalisms ideological image of itself, with the flows and networks the dominate adds for Microsoft.
Noys says less about some of the theoretical positions that would be opposed to this broad affirmationist trend, but he has some incisive remarks about the way in which finitude has functioned as a kind of alibi and justification for negation. As Noys writes:
“The inscription of negativity in the subject, usually in the form of a constitutive finitude is taken as a sign of what allows the subject to always escape or evade capitalist capture. We have a symmetrical affirmation and ontologization of resistance to high affirmationism, simply recast in different terms. The deflationary concept of the subject, however, leaves mysterious the process by which the failure of the subject will be converted into active and successful resistance.”
I wish Noys said more about this particular rendering of negativity, if only because it is so dominant in Anglo-American continental philosophy. However, that is not why I cite the passage here. The symmetry that Noys points to (as well as the symmetry to the quote about Negri above) reveals that Noys is not interested in positing an ontology of negativity against the ontologies of affirmation. Negativity is a practice, not a principle, a destruction of existing positivities.
In the end I think that it is possible to read Noys’ insistence on the negative as a practice to be an insistence on localizing thought and practices, resisting both an ontology of affirmation and an ontology of finitude. As such it is not to be confused with a simple invocation of context, the injunction to “always historicize.” This is because Noys takes seriously Sohn-Rethel’s (and others) fundamental point regarding real abstractions, the abstractions of value, the commodity form, and money. These abstractions are real in that they are constituted through practice, not just through thought, and as such they frame our world. Thus, in contemporary capitalism we cannot simply refer to the Marx’s “activity and material conditions of real individuals” in order to contextualize or specify thinking or practice because our present is defined less by the concrete content of our experience than the abstractions that evade it. In this context negativity cannot be grounded on some supposed element of finite transcendence, the insurmountable facticity of death or finitude, but nor cannot it be an ontological principle. It can only be the situated détournement, the rupture of the existing positivities. This is Noys idea of agency, of transformation, but I will argue that what is perhaps more interesting, at least to me, is the way that he makes “real abstractions” not just some point of reference for understanding capitalist society, but for understanding “theory.”
Theory has come under abuse as of late, and there has been much talk of a return to good old fashion philosophy and ethics. What Noys’ book demonstrates that at its best theory, and debates within theory, are situated at that obscure point where the contradictions of historical forces pass into thought and vice versa.
Subscribe to: Posts (Atom)