Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Please Stand By: Or, Print Killed the Blogosphere Star

Dear friends, readers, and people who ended up here by poorly formulated search terms:

In order to complete a long overdue book project I will put my blog on hold for at least the remainder of the summer. As much as I would love to offer reviews of summer blockbusters,  the various books that I have read, and weigh in on current economic and political crises, all to the delight of dozens, I have to focus my writing energy and time on the book. So, for the summer I am eschewing the digital and its short term gratifications for print and its long term frustrations. My tentative schedule is to return at the end of Breaking Bad, because I really cannot resist writing about that. Thanks for reading. In case you are curious, I have posted a somewhat dated version of the prospectus of the book, which I am completing for Historical Materialism, below. 

Relations of Production: Transindividuality between Economics and Politics
Etienne Balibar has argued that the classical problem of the relationship between individual and society is generally split between two antithetical perspectives, Contemporary conceptions of society are torn between individualist conceptions of society that take as their starting point the self-interested individual, understanding society to be nothing more than the sum total of individual actions; and organistic, or wholistic, conceptions of society that start from some organic or functional totality, positing the individual as nothing more than an effect of this totality.[1] As much as the origins for this opposition can be found in the history of philosophy, in the opposition between the ancient, Aristotlean idea of man as a political animal, as part of the polis, and the modern, Hobbesian idea of the state of nature, which places the individual struggle for existence, the battle of all against, the opposition itself has only be intensified by philosophy’s long cold war, which pitted liberty against equality, the right of the individual against the demand of collectivity.[2] This division is thus as asymmetrical as it is antagonistic, the first, individualistic conception has become dominant in politics, social sciences, and ontology. In contrast to this, the second position, the idea of some kind of totality, is increasingly seen as not so much a position within sciences and political philosophy, but as something to be cast in the dustbin of history, along with the historical crimes of totalitarianism and Nazism.[3] In political philosophy the ascendancy of the individualist conception of society can be seen in the dominance of not only human rights, as a politics founded on the moral status of the individual, but on the general predominance of the ethico-political, the articulation of ethics and politics, over and above any conception of the socio-political, of the connection between politics, and the social relations, or the economy.[4]
            What, if anything, is wrong with this shift? Why not see it as simply the ascendancy of a correct model over and above a model that has proven faulty, or incorrect, or even morally and politically suspect? Is this not how progress takes place, the displacement of old models by new models of thought? Two fundamental problems stand in the way of question for this model of intellectual progress. First, individualist accounts of social relations and social structures do not so much explain the social as wish it away, reducing the social to nothing more than the sum total of individual actions, reducing politics to nothing other than the hashing out of various competing interest claims. What is eclipsed, or refused, is precisely what is supposedly invoked by that little word, social; that is the intersection, interrelation, and effect of multiple relations, relationality as such. The limitations of this division are not limited to the individual pole but stem from the very division between individual and society. The other pole, the wholistic perspective or perspective of totality, is equally problematic when it comes to thinking this relational dimension. This is in part due to the fact that, unlike the individualistic perspective, which is a specific ontology and methodology, it is not at all clear that the wholistic perspective is an actual philosophical position; it is a particular interpretation of the works of Spinoza, Hegel, Marx, et cetera, under the influence of an opposition between individual and collective, the aforementioned philosophical cold war. It is in part due to this, that the wholistic, or functionalistic, perspective does not so much engage with a thought of relations as it reduces all relations to effects of something larger, to a subject writ large, to society, the state, or spirit. It is possible to argue that what is eclipsed in both the individualistic and wholistic ontologies of the social is any rigorous thought of relations, of relationality, of the relations between individuals and society, constituting them both. What these two conceptions give us is the first term, the individual or society, with little or no thought of what passes in between. Words like society or collective, not to mention spirit or state, reify collectivity, or worse yet, they displace the individual subject only to make the totality itself the subject:  phrases such as “society requires…” and  “the state transforms” make the totality the grammatical and philosophical subject of social processes. Even that word, “social,” participates in such a reification, a reification that is perhaps is all the worse in that the “social” lacks institutional or historical specificity, it is neither the economy nor the state, taking on a putative consistency that exceeds institutions and politics.[5]
            This impasse is thus an impoverishment of an adequate conceptual vocabulary, an adequate ontology, which could conceptualize, and grasp collectivity. However, that does not in itself explain why this is a problem: why must collectivity be thought? The first, and most immediate, response to this question is that politics by definition requires some concept of collectivity. The assertion of a fundamental connection between politics and collectivity might seem to be redundant to the point of being tautological. However, the multiple invocations of the “ethico-political” in theoretical discussions, and the turn to a politics of human rights, would seem to underscore the importance of revisiting and reexamining this connection. Which is to say that it must be reexamined as a connection; the current opposition between individual and society poses a zero sum game in which every gain in equality is paid for in terms of a loss in liberty and vice versa. This excludes the possibility of thinking their relation, of thinking about forms of collectivity that encourage individual flourishing, and vice versa. Which is to suggest that the impasse at the level of theory is linked, as some combination of effect and cause, with the limitation at the level of politics. The second response, the second reason, as to why collectivity remains a pressing question, in need of conceptualization, is more difficult to answer. It can be approached by way of another axiom, more obscure but no less important than the previous axiom asserting the connection between politics and collectivity.  This axiom is as follows: there is no general problem of collectivity, no way to address the collectivity as such, without addressing a specific collective, a specific social formation. There is no essence of collectivity which could be lost or realized only specific instantiations of the social. Viewed in light of a general problem of a social ontology, such an assertion fundamentally alters what is meant by ontology in this context, ontology can no longer be foundational in the strong sense of the word, but must be a constitutive ontology, made and remade through practices.
            If this is true, and, up to this point, it remains a hypothesis rather than an assertion, than something must be said about the current conjuncture. First, as I have already indicated, this conjuncture can be provisionally defined by the dominance of “individualistic” conceptions of society and social relations, and thus by a lack of politics as I have defined it here. However, such a picture is itself incomplete unless one brings to light the social dimensions, the economic and technological conditions through which people relate and interact. An examination of these conditions brings to light an important point of contrast to the political conjuncture: as much as politics is defined by the image of possessive individualism, society, in its economic and technological dimensions, can be characterized by relations, by an irreducible and expanding collective dimension. This is in part what is indicated, vaguely so, by the term “globalization,” which expresses, at some fundamental level, the increased interconnections of people all over the world. However, these connections are not just global in scope, one could also describe daily life, in terms of production and consumption, by the myriad ways of being connected and related. The contradiction between these two dimensions calls to mind Marx’s description of social relations under capitalism. As Marx wrote in the Grundrisse:
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.[6]

Marx’s description critiqued the “Robinsonades” of political economy as hopelessly anachronistic, placing a seventeenth-century individual at the origin rather than the end of society, shipwrecking a modern individual outside of society. Marx’s criticism is not limited to such a denunciation, however, it also presented another account of the economy, one predicated not on the isolated individual but on the constitution and dissolution of modes of production in which the individual had to be seen as a product of history as a social individual.[7] This second conception did not displace the first, in the sterile opposition of true to false, but encompasses it, explaining how it has come about that the most developed relations produce the isolated standpoint.  In the end it does not simply critique the first, the isolated individual of political economy, but shows how the interconnectedness of relations produces this standpoint of isolation.
            As important as the general strategy of Marx’s critique is today, a critique that just not just oppose the historical to the ahistorical, materialism to idealism, but explains the genesis of the latter from the former, we would also have to acknowledge that the contradiction he has outline has only deepened since the middle of the nineteenth century. The “Robinsonades” of political economy have been replaced by the pieties of neoliberalism, which have posited individualistic competition as the sole rationality, the sole rule, defining all of existence. These theories and ideas, intimately related to policies and practices, take place against a backdrop of a production process that encompasses not just the works of individuals, but of networks of cooperation that encompass disparate and disconnected individuals working throughout the world. Marx’s contradiction has only deepened in the current conjuncture: the individual is no longer the individual of classical political economy, but an individual for whom every action can be considered an investment, can be calculated in terms of a cost and benefit, and the developed social relations no longer encompass the economy of the nation, or the productive forces of the factory, but exceed both.[8]      
             There is a fundamental foreclosure of collectivity at the level of politics and economics. Or, more precisely, there is a particular foreclosure of collectivity at the level of the political, even if, or perhaps, because, collectivity continues to function at the level of the economy. This foreclosure must be critically examined in the manner outlined by Marx’s critique of the Robinsonades. It is not just a matter of proposing how the world should grasped, of espousing some collective or communitarian ideal, but of recognizing that collectivity is less an ideal, a norm, or a project, than it is a condition: the unavoidable relational nature of our existence. Isolation, fragmentation, and alienation are not opposed to society, but are themselves a particular mode of social relations. Thus, a critical conception of collectivity does not so much propose an ideal, but seeks to comprehend the practices and relations, economic and political, that produce different subjectivities, different collectivities and individualities. It is critical not in terms of an ideal to be realized, but in terms of a materialist genesis of what already exists. The fundamental problem is not to affirm collectivity against individuality, but to escape the false binary that poses “individualism” and “collectivitism” as opposed values. Thus, ultimately, the critique cuts both ways, revealing the collective in the individual, and the individual in the collective. Such a focus moves beyond the reified substantive of the collective, of society, as much as it moves beyond the false atom of the individual, moving beyond the tendency to posit the collective as if it is a thing, something other than practices and relations. Lastly, and as succinctly as possible in the outset, it is a matter of relations, of an ontology, an economy, and a politics of relations. Relations which can only be examined in a singular case, in a specific situation.
            The concept, or problematic, from which I will examine this fundamental problem of relations is transindividuality. The term “transindividuality” is developed with the work of Gilbert Simondon, but my interest here is not restricted to the work of one philosopher. The concept or problem of transindividuality extends to those who have been influenced by Simondon, such as Gilles Deleuze, Paolo Virno, and Bernard Stiegler, as well as those who have pursued a fairly independent articulation of the concept, most notable in this second category is Etienne Balibar, who has suggested that the concept can be applied to certain figures in the history of philosophy, such as Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx, all of whom escape the binary of individual or collective referred to above. Rather than start with the individual or the totality as the primary term, transindividuality can be understood as an attempt to think the relation, the point of intersection where different individualities are constituted and different collectivities are formed. It is the point of articulation, of relation and separation of the production of subjectivity and the constitution of collectivity.
            In Simondon’s thought transindividuality, the mutual production of subjectivity and collectivity, is developed in light of an ontology that thoroughly reexamines the centrality of individuality in philosophical thought. This examination exceeds the interrogation of the binary of the individual and society, to include the genesis of multiple forms of individuality, physical, biological, and psychic, from the preindividual relations that constitute them. With respect to a political and social ontology, these preindividual relations comprise language, habits, and productive relations. They are called preindividual because in each case the aspects that we are dealing with are less things, discrete entities, than relations that define a shared field of differential possibilities. Language has been often described as a series of differential relations, and the same thing could be said of habits, and even productive comportments, which serve as the basis for the constitution of different collectivities, different individualities. Which is to say that there is always already a relationship between the preindividual and transindividual, between the conditions constitutive of subjectivity and the constitution of collectivities. This relation exceeds a strictly ontological examination of the production of subjectivity to encompass its economic, political, and cultural constitution.
            Thus as much as I will pursue an exegesis of the transindividuality, the project exceeds a discussion of the various interpretations of the concept. The philosophers who are situated here as either precursors of transindividuality, or as interpreting concept, do not constitute a tradition, or a school of thought. Rather, the different versions of the idea are also different attempts to simultaneously develop and displace the idea, recognizing that as much as transindividuality entails a rethinking of ontology, of the fundamental presuppositions of every being as a being, as an individual, it also makes possible a reexamination of the economy, society, and politics. First by exposing the ontology of individuality underlying the work in each field, then by examining the way in which each specific area, each specific dimension of society can be understood as a production of subjectivity. I will argue that the concept can only be completed by displacing it onto these different fields: ontological inquiry reveals the limitations of our existing conceptual vocabulary, but this transformation is then put into work in different fields, which is less an application of ontology to politics, or the economy, than a continued problematization, of one by the other.

Short Circuits: The Social-Political
            As I stated at the outset, this project is in part framed around overcoming a division between individual and society, a division that is as much political, which is to say ideological, as it is conceptual. The ideological dimension can be seen in the moral and political overcoding that tilts this division towards the individual as the only legitimate political and epistemological subject. The concept, or set of problems, that cuts through this particular division is transindividuality, but transindividuality as it is being explored here, as both concept and problematic, cuts through other divisions as well. As I have alluded to above, rather than argued, the focus on the constitution of subjectivity (and collectivity) that underlies a transindividual ontology, also cuts through the divisions between politics and economics, between the constitution of subjectivity in the quotidian relations of work and the events of political transformation. Transindividuality as it is developed here, through the work of Simondon, contemporary interpreters of Simondon, and the transindividual thinkers of Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx, also entails rethinking the division between history and nature, between the fundamental aspects of human nature, the capacity to speak, to feel, and to act, and the articulation, and production, of these aspects in any given social formation.
            Transindividuality is not simply a matter of culture in the anthropological sense, of language, habit, and traditions; nor is it simply a matter of the economic structures of daily life, of work and consumption (although I will argue that both Hegel and Marx understood the economy to be the transindividual constitution of individuality); nor is it finally, the collective in the overt political sense of the term, the conscious communities from ethnic belonging to political communities that people identify with, and constitute through their identifications. The operative word in each of these cases is “simply,” the putative reduction of the transindividual to one of these senses: it is all three, or at least all three, encompassing the social, economic, and political constitution of subjectivity and collectivity. Which is also to say that it includes the effects that these different dimensions have on each other. These effects could be considered a political or economic domination of one collectivity, one form of subjectivation over others. As I have suggested above, the current “neoliberal” era of capitalism could be described as the dominance of the economic constitution, or a specific economic constitution of subjectivity, generally modeled after the market or competition, rather than labor, over the constitution of other individuations or collectivities. It also can take on a relation that could be considered antagonistic, or dialectical, as the constitution of one subjectivation is in tension or contradiction with another. (The term dialectical is used here in deference to Hegel, whose Philosophy of Right is in some sense a model of viewing institutions, the family, civil society, and the state, as different productions of subjectivity). Thus, transindividuality, as I have articulated it here entails a rethinking not just of the relationship between the individual and society, but of politics and society.
            There is thus a fundamental “short-circuit” between the economic and the political: the economy and politics are not discrete spheres, or distinct fields, of social existence, but continually intersect through power, structures, and, most importantly, through the constitution of collectivity and individuality.[9] To extend this idea, or metaphor, of the short circuit, we could argue that there are multiple short-circuits, between the individual and society, politics and economy, and lastly reason and the imagination. It is for this last reason that Spinoza is a crucial thinker for the transindividual “tradition,” (the word tradition is used here in the broad sense, since it is composed of a series of overlapping problems rather than a direct relation of influence or descent.) While Hegel, and the dialectical tradition is perhaps the most well known conception of transindividuality, of an intersubjective concept of subjectivity, this concept is caught between a contradiction between misrecognition and recognition, in which misrecognition always gives way to recognition. This binary between misrecognition and recognition and its particular telos has been extended into the Marxist tradition in the form of the class in itself and for itself, the distinction between ideology and truth (or science). My point here is not to once again bemoan the influence of Hegel on Marx, or to reduce Marx to these few often repeated slogans, rather it is to argue that to the extent that transindividuality has entered into philosophical thought it is has been dominated by the sharp divide between rationality and irrationality. As I will argue, Spinoza is perhaps an exception to this rule, in Spinoza’s thought reason and imagination, affects and common notions, are all equally constitutive of collectives and individuality. They are equally transindividual conditions. The reading of Spinoza proposed here is not to suggest that he somehow got transindividuality right, but rather the open up other ways of thinking collectivity, as simultaneously imagined, affective, and rational.
            These various short-circuits, from economics to politics, from imagination to reason, is not a simple application of the concept of transindividuality to these different fields, but is a fundamental extension and displacement.[10] It as this point that the concept of transindividuality in Simondon, and its precursors in Spinoza, Hegel, and Marx, must be extended beyond the field of philosophical speculation into engagement with politics, technology, and economy. It is for this reason that the works of Paolo Virno and Bernard Stiegler are important to their project, for them transindividuality has to be located within the transformations of consumption and work in the contemporary economy. These texts are important for connecting transindividuality to the transformation of the practices of production and consumption, illustrating the point that there is no transindividuality, no collectivity, in general, only specific practices, specific articulations of transindividuality. Which is not to say that it is only with respect to these thinkers that we depart from the realm of ontological speculation, an engagement with politics and economics defines, in some sense or another, defines every engagement with transindividuality, from Spinoza to Simondon. Rather it is a matter of connecting this line of inquiry, simultaneously ontological and economic, philosophical and political, with both the defining characteristics of the current situation and recent debates, which have engaged with the question of the social.
The Common
            This project begins with the current conjuncture, the current situation, as its initial provocation. Thus, it makes sense that it would end there, but in doing so it transforms it, providing new concepts and new understandings of this conjuncture. Now the current conjuncture is not just the vague, but persistent, presence of conceptual divisions, between individual and society. The current conjuncture has to be understood in terms of particular depth and conceptual specificity regarding not just transindividuality, but its economic, political, and social articulation. I have already indicated the name, or one name, of this particular articulation, neoliberalism, which is a particular interpretation of the political, reduced to the economic; the economic, reduced to market relations; and society, reduced to a series of individual choices. A critique of this articulation requires a different conception of politics, society, and the economy, one grounded in different theories and different practices. This alternative could be called the common.
            The common, a term initially associated with the political and economic struggles at the birth of the capitalist order, has received much attention as of late: denoting both a new economic arrangement and a new social order. Without enumerating all of the myriad invocations of the common, ecological and technological, economic and political, I will say that what makes the common interesting, and perhaps an adequate figure for contemporary politics is precisely the way in which it mingles subjectivity and objectivity, politics and economics. The common is both a relationship between people and a relationship with things, a politics and an economics. As such it is inseparable from another thought of sociality, from another thought of collectivity, other than either individualism or wholism. Moreover, since the common includes not just resources and the environment, but also knowledge, language, affects, and emotions, any discussion of it returns political philosophy to that initial connection between any definition of humanity, of the fundamental attributes and activities of human existence, and political life, to the link between mankind as a speaking being and a social being that was at the foundation of political thought in the west.
            Despite this classical invocation the ultimate goal of this project is to develop a new way of thinking through the intersection of ontology and politics, philosophy and economics, one predicated not so much on the grounding of one on the other, but, as I have indicated, on their perpetual short circuit. Which is to say that ontological investigations open up new politics possibilities and politics provoke new ways of thinking about the fundamental nature of social relationships. The same chiastic formulation could be applied to the intersection of politics and economics, in which political categories make possible an interrogation of economic relations, and the transformation of economic and social structures make possible a rethinking of political relations and practices. Hence, in closing, the emphasis on relations, this is not just a matter of developing a relational ontology,  although it is that, but a relational thinking in which ontology itself is placed in relation with politics and economics.

[1] Etienne Balibar, Spinoza: From Individuality to Transindividuality pg. 9
[2] The term “philosophy’s cold war” is taken from Alberto Toscano’s Fanaticism: On the Uses of a Notion. He uses the term, without expanding on it, to refer to the particular transformation philosophical concepts underwent as they were (and continue to be) refracted through the ideological conflicts of capitalism and socialism.
[3] “The idea that the human person and community are contradictory categories has grown up with the coming to power of the bourgeoisie.” Agnes Heller Everyday Life pg. 39
[4] Franck Fischbach, Manifeste pour une philosophie sociale pg. 50.
[5] Fredric Jameson, The Hegel Variations pg. 13.
[6] Karl Marx, Grundrisse. pg. 223.
[7] Ibid., pg. 705.
[8] “The only problem is that extreme liberalization of the economy reveals its opposite, namely that the social and productive environment is not made up of atomized individuals…the real environment is made up of collective individuals.”Antonio Negri,The Politics of Subversion: A Manifesto for the Twenty-First Century, trans. by James Newell (Oxford: Polity, 1989), 206.
[9] The term “short-circuit” is derived from work of Etienne Balibar, who derives from an interpretation of Marx’s understanding of the relationship of economics and politics, a short-circuit of the economic and political. As Balibar writes with respect to Marx and Foucault, Discipline” and “micro-power” therefore represent at the same time the other side of economic exploitation and the other side of juridico-political class domination, which they make it possible to see as a unity; that is to say, they come into play exactly at the point of the ‘short-circuit’ which Marx sets up between economics and politics, society, and state…( Étienne Balibar, “Foucault and Marx: The Question of Nominalism” pg. 51.)
[10] This method could be called displacement, following Antonio Negri’s remarks in The Savage Anomaly, in which shift in Spinoza’s writing, from the Ethics to the Theological Political Treatise is paired with Marx’s remarks about research and presentation to create a method of inquiry, whereby ontology is continually situated into history. As Negri writes, “After the development of such a radical pars destruens, after the identification of a solid point of support by which the metaphysical perspective re-opens, the elaboration of the pars construens requires a practical moment. The ethics could not be constituted in a project, in the metaphysics of the mode and of reality, if it were not inserted into history, into politics, into the phenomenology of a single and collective life: if it were not to derive new nourishment from that engagement” (The Savage Anomaly pg. 84).

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