My approach to William James is necessarily oblique and eccentric. I am not a scholar of James or Pragmatism. My entire approach to James’ The Will to Believe is framed by a reference to it in the work of the post-autonomous thinker Maurizio Lazzarato. While such an approach is perhaps outside of the of James’ scholarship, the emphasis of on the shifting context as different philosophers and different historical moments is perhaps faithful to the spirit if not the letter of James’ writing. From this perspective philosophy is less a Kampfplatz, a particular battlefield between different positions, than a hall of mirrors in which the perspectives shift and change as time progresses.
Lazzarato’s numerous writings from the early essay on immaterial labor, to the recently translated book on debt, have one central focus: a reexamination of the division and hierarchy between base and superstructure, the production of things, and that of habits, ideas, and beliefs, subjectivity. Lazzarato defines this focus as follows, ‘Economic production and the production of subjectivity, labour and ethics, are indissociable.’ It is from this intersection that Lazzarato examines the emergence of belief as a philosophical problem. In Expérimentations Politiques Lazzarato writes:
Straddling the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and both sides of the Atlantic, a profound theoretical elaboration developed (we cite here only the names of William James and Gabriel Tarde), which defined the nature of belief and its conversion towards immanence. Religion and politics are two great “mines” or “funds” which mobilize, nourish, and stock this “motor force,” this “disposition to action,” this power of affirmation and subjective investment that one calls belief.
A few remarks about this passage, to give it context. Of the two philosophers, or theorists, mentioned, Gabriel Tarde and William James, Lazzarato has dedicated a great deal of his career in the last decade or so to the former, publishing a book on Tarde’s largely forgotten manuscripts of Economic Psychology. Here now the emphasis is on Tarde and James, and on belief, as something that exceeds a localizable tradition, encompassing Europe and the US, but is a product of history. The turn to belief is less a coincidence or even an intellectual trend than it is a reflection of the transformation of society. For Lazzarato “belief” becomes a problem, a political, and economic problem, at precisely the point where it can no longer be taken for granted. This thesis is perhaps more from Tarde than James. Tarde emphasized the extent to which the changing technological and social conditions, the dislocation of populations towards the cities and the rise of new means of communication, unmoored belief from tradition, making it an active product rather than a passive given. In this reading of history, the nineteenth and twentieth century constitute a change in the relation to belief, the destabilization of tradition confronts people with what they believe—and the possibility of believing otherwise. At the very time that belief becomes unmoored from tradition it becomes all the more important to manage and construct belief—the spread of democracy and nascent consumer society make the management of belief integral to politics and economics.
Broadly speaking the role of belief in contemporary economic life can be charted along three major transformations. First, as capitalism increasingly becomes a consumer society, producing goods and services that exceed the reproduction of physical existence, it needs to produce the subjectivities, which desire, require, and demand such commodities. Consumer society is dependent upon the industries of advertising and consumer relations that produce and circulate the beliefs and ideas that are the necessary condition for consumption. The role of belief in the economy is not just limited to consumption, to the world of advertising and marketing, however. As Lazzarato argues, financial capital, especially the financial aspects that pass through the stock markets, are as much dependent upon belief and desire as consumption. The values of stocks rise and fall with perceptions and about their future value, as well as the well being of the economy in general. The various bubbles that have inflated and burst from the internet to housing are in part sustained by belief. Finally, it could be argued that production is as much dependent on the control of belief and desires, as consumption and finance. This was perhaps always the case and, could be understood as a definition of ideology, but, as Lazzarato argues, the more production is disseminated throughout society the less it can depend upon the walls and structures of the factory for discipline. The worker of contemporary society must increasingly become an entrepreneur of the self, and most completely identify with the demands of capital. It is no longer enough to believe that the wage is an adequate compensation for labor, the precarious position of contemporary labor requires a constant belief in a future return—the next job, the next network encounter will bring a return. Consumer society, financialization, and neoliberalism are all economic changes that, in different ways, reveal the necessity the production of belief and desires, to the economy, the production of things. The twentieth century has thus seen a rise of “factories” for the production of belief from advertising firms to human relations.
In talking about the role of belief in consumption, finance, and production, we are not yet discussing belief in anything more than its conventional usage, people buy what they believe will make them happy, etc., nor are we quite discussing the politics of belief. Lazzarato draws from James an emphasis on belief as not only something other than knowledge, but something which exceeds the contours of knowledge, stretching into what is possible. Belief is not a matter of what is, of what I see or think in the present, but what I believe to be possible, desirable. It is not what I experience, but the sense or meaning of what I experience. As such it is intimately intertwined with change, with both my sense of what is possible, and my impetus to action. As Lazzarato writes,
Belief (“disposition to action”) is at one time a productive and expansive force, a “generative power” which believes in the future and its “ambiguous possibilities,” and an ethical force, since these possibilities harbor our relation to the world and others. It engages the subject in a risky action, where success is not assured in advance. It is thus the condition of all transformation and all creation. Belief establishes a connection with the world and with others that neither knowledge nor the senses are capable of instituting, since they always give us a closed world, without exteriority.
Belief is not a substitute for knowledge, some weaker form of knowledge, but actually acts at the limit of knowledge, on what I cannot know and compels me to act.
Taken together these two aspects, belief as something produced, and belief as that which exceeds what is directly experienced, define what Lazzarato calls “noopolitics.” Noopolitics is framed by a citation of nous or soul in Aristotle—noopolitics is a politics of the mind, of the soul understood in terms of vital and intellectual components. Noopolitics does not act on the body, restraining actions and individuals, nor does it act on the immediate ideas that define and delimit the present, it operates on the most abstract and elusive ideas, the sense of what is possible or what is desirable. In other words, noopolitics acts on belief. This is the paradox of noopolitics, the most abstract and indeterminate aspect of human thought, belief about what is possible and desirable, is the most determinate. To control the sense of what is possible, what is desirable, is more powerful than any attempt to control or distort what actually is, the former is intimately tied with action. As James argues, our capacity to decide, to act, hinges on what we perceive as live options, as what we belief is feasible or possible. Belief is anterior to all action, and is much more of a condition of action than facts or knowledge.
The parameters of this politics of belief is sketched out by the famous quote from Margaret Thatcher, “There is no alternative.” This political doctrine, often summed up under the acronym “TINA,” is less a statement of fact than one of belief. As much as it drew its strength from the failures of post-Stalin Soviet Union to produce a viable alternative to the capitalist order, its real function was not as a matter of fact but a profound belief about the unavoidable nature of the existing order. This weakness, this belief in the unchangeable nature of the existing economic and political order, is perhaps the lasting legacy of the twentieth century. A legacy which weaves the various atrocities of the century into one coherent narrative, one unshaking belief, of the supreme folly of any attempt to change the world, to engage in any action, collective or individual action that would alter the world. Such action is either futile, or, if successful, can only lead to tyranny or oppression. In its place, in the place of belief, in the powers of collective action, of individual, action, we have the calculated risks of self-interested action. As Lazzarato sums up the overarching sentiment of the modern world, “Be afraid and have no trust in the world, the others and yourself.” Or to draw these two lines, economic and political, together we can see that there is a production of belief, oriented towards the economy, towards commodities as the solutions of our ills and our resumes as our salvation, and a destruction of belief oriented towards politics and ethics, towards others. We believe in the market, in our human capital, in the things we bought, but fear our neighbors, let alone the crowds that constitute political action.
If we turn now from Lazzarato back to James’ text, we can see some of the ramifications of the destruction of belief in politics, ethics, and others. Beliefs are the necessary condition for action. As James writes,
A social organism of any sort whatever, large or small, is what it is because each member proceeds to his own duty with a trust that the other members will simultaneously do theirs. Wherever a desired result is achieved by the co-operation of many independent persons, its existence as a fact is a pure consequence of the precursive faith in one another of those immediately concerned. A government, an army, a commercial system, a ship, a college, an athletic team, all exist on this condition, without which not only is nothing achieved, but nothing is even attempted. A whole train of passengers (individually brave enough) will be looted by a few highwaymen, simply because the latter can count on one another, while each passenger fears that if he makes a movement of resistance, he will be shot before any one else backs him up. If we believed that the whole car-full would rise at once with us, we should each severally rise, and train-robbing would never even be attempted. There are, then, cases where a fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exists in its coming.
Beliefs condition actions, which in turn produce beliefs. The sight of others failing to act, quivering in the rail car, only reinforces my failure to act. Of course at the same time my inaction, my inability to act is not just a matter for me, but it is a condition of others action. I am not only observing the scene, I am part of it. Belief in action, in collective action, must pre-exist itself it is its own condition.
Ultimately, it is difficult to understand how we escape such a vicious circle. I need to believe in order to act, but in order to produce even the possibility of such a belief, it would seem that someone would need to act. We cannot believe without acting, or act without believing. How then to escape such a vicious circle? This question is, I would argue, very much a live one. Dissatisfaction with the existing political and socio-economic order is rampant, but what is lacking is any sense that action would be feasible or meaningful. A resigned skepticism reigns supreme. When it comes to answering this question, Lazzarato turns to Gilles Deleuze citing his assertion, “The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events which happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us.” Deleuze’s assertion is, without citing James, rigorously in line with James’ thought, at least as it has been outlined here. Belief in this world, is entirely immanent, it is not belief in some transcendent source of value or existence, but this world. However, belief in this world is not a matter of taking the existing set of facts, of the existing institutions, as is. To believe in this world is to believe in what Deleuze called the link between man and world, the space that passes between the two, defining the possibilities to act and transform. What is perhaps striking is that the assertion of this need to restore belief comes not from Deleuze’s political books, the volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia, but his two-volume study on cinema. The surprising turn to art might offer something of a way out of the vicious circle in which actions and beliefs reinforce and restrict each other. If we cannot act without believing, and require some action to set belief in motion, then the only way out of this circle is to transform our engagement with the world otherwise—to find something which breaks the circle of belief and action. Art offers one such possibility, but it is important to stress that we are not talking about “art” in some restricted and rarefied form, anything that changes our relation to the world, from film to philosophy, makes it possible to see, and thus believe, in other possibilities is itself a kind of art. As Lazzarato often remarks the slogan associated with the anti-globalization movement, specifically Seattle in 1999, “Another World is Possible,” is not just something to chant, but because part of its stakes as well. A politics of belief is not some subset of politics, but a necessary condition of any politics at all.
Presented at a roundtable on William James' The Will to Believe at the University of Southern Maine
This is an interesting piece, but I think it mistakenly politicizes James's thought. James was thinking in terms of individual liberation by undermining metaphysical thinking (he was very much inspired by the transcendentalists). What that means to a collective is important, but the political dimensions of it wasn't made explicit. I need to read some of the others you referenced here, but I wanted to depoliticize this interpretation of James, who was a philosopher of individuals, in my opinion.
A few points:
Yes, such a political reading of James is admittedly an oblique one, I thought that I made that clear.
Second, I would argue that James' entire distinction between "live options" and "dead options" contains an unexamined idea of social and historical conditions. James' examples on this point are primarily religious, but he seems clear that we do not pick the conditions of our beliefs. We cannot will ourselves into believing something that we experience as a dead option.
Finally, I am not sure about a distinction between politics and the individual. Isn't the individual a political ideal--individual rights, autonomy, etc?
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