Friday, December 23, 2011

“Let Me Tell You of the Time that Something Occurred”: On Yves Citton’s Mythocratie: Storytelling et Imaginaire de Gauche

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. 
The works of contemporary interpreters of Spinoza, especially those translated into English, can be roughly divided into two perspectives. First, there is Althusser, who wrote little on Spinoza, but whose "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" employed Spinoza as the “matrix of every possible theory of ideology.” Althusser’s used not only the Appendix to the Ethics, to articulate the subject constituted in his subordination to a Subject, but Spinoza’s distinction of the three kinds of knowledge to make ideology the entirety of quotidian experience. Althusser’s Spinoza is first and foremost a theory of human bondage, of subjection. In contrast to this, the Spinoza of Negri and Deleuze is a theorist of immanence, of potentia, in which the imagination is not ideology, but part of the creative powers of the multitude. The imagination is understood to be entirely subordinated to transcendent Power (potestas) or entirely created by immanent power (potentia). 

Citton (and Lordon, who is cited here) attempts to square this circle. To think the way in which the immanent powers of desire create and maintain their own subjection, fighting for it as if it were salvation. It is not enough to simply assert, as many readers of Spinoza (and Foucault and Deleuze have) that everything is immanent, that power flows horizontally. The immanent forces are not individuals, but are the transindividual affects and ideas that constitute both individuals and collectives. The real task is to understand how these horizontal flows create and sustain their own “transcendent effects,” their own images of verticality, images that have very real effects. The predominance of what Citton calls “soft power,” mass media and public relations make this problem even more pressing. Power is sustained by the control of attention and affects more than anything else. 

An interest in narrative and Spinoza might surprise Anglo-American readers who think primarily of the geometric method, or of Spinoza’s critique of scripture. Citton cites Proposition 10 of Part Five of Ethics, which refers to the minds power of ordering the “affections of the body according to the power of the intellect.” This reordering of affections and ideas is the power of narrative. Or, as Citton writes, paraphrasing another idea from Spinoza, we still do not know what stories are capable of. 

Combining Spinoza with such diverse sources as Lazarrato’s idea of noopolitics, work on mirror neurons, Stiegler, Diderot, Sun Ra, Wu Ming, and traditional theorists of narrative such as Riceour, Citton argues that attention and affects are shaped, channeled by stories, which in turn attune us to be receptive to the same stories. There is a certain plasticity to consciousness, to the conatus, that makes us receptive to the same narrative elements. This is one way of looking at the intersection of the transcendent and immanent, of the meta-conduct and conducts: we often shape our stories and narratives according to dominant frames. The contemporary media provides us multiple examples where the immanent horizontal powers (potentia) are actually structured by (potestas), from the crude, the editing of “man on the street” interviews; the crass, reality television; to the difficult to perceive, Wikipedia. What interests Citton about the latter, Wikipedia and Google, is there ability to render the filters and frames invisible. In Google “we produce knowledge in searching for knowledge” and channel attention through our attention. This makes the production of attention, of the stories that seem important, all the more important. (This is something that I tried to write about using sharks)

As the title suggests, Citton is primarily interested in storytelling from the left, from a politics committed to equality. He argues that the right has been quite good at constructing such stories, stories which structure political and personal narratives, such as Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” which dominates narratives in politics for thirty years. That Citton cites this, a thirty-year old narrative from the US in a book written in France, is testament to its power. Power which stems from its ability to channel feelings of frustration at an inchoate sense of exploitation and racism. The story functions by channeling these frustrations, but then becomes the frame for future frustrations. The “welfare queen” demonstrates the intersection of the interests of he dominant powers and the affects and desires of the dominated. 

It is because the narratives of the right are so dominant that Citton argues that the task of any narrative politics is “disqualification of the given,” the naturalness and unquestioned nature of the given political and economic order. Spinoza’s task may have been the “disqualification of sovereignty” and Marx may have had his task the “disqualification of appropriation,” but the contemporary task is that of the given itself. Citton argues that this can be seen though out contemporary thought, from Badiou’s idea of the event, Deleuze’s idea of the virtual, and Rancière’s distribution of the sensible. Citton, like Stevphen Shukaitis turns to Sun Ra, rather than these thinkers, to pose a politics of disruption and experimentation of narratives. 

I was partly influenced by Citton, which I had read the first few pages of, when I wrote that OWS could be understood as a disruption of the dominant narrative regarding inequality. It is from this perspective the one can perhaps chart the limits and possibilities of this disruption. No sooner is the given disrupted, exposed in its contingency and construction, then it is patched up by the existing order. Occupy Wall Street has almost been incorporated into the larger narratives of law and order and lazy "Welfare Queens" and "Hobo Kings" camping in the parks. It seems to me, and I don’t think that I am in disagreement with Citton on this point, that the task of a politics is neither to simply disrupt nor construct a new narrative, a narrative with the multitude as its subject, but to subject the very production and circulation of narratives to the power of the multitude.

I also would like to thank Citton for finally getting me to read Diderot's Jacques le fataliste et son maître. 

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