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.