Friday, January 02, 2015

The Class Struggle at Home: Jaquet's Les Transclasses


Perhaps the best way to approach Chantal Jaquet's Les Transclasses: ou la non-reproduction is by situating it between two caricatures of intellectual positions. On the one hand, the left one, we have studies of the "reproduction of the relations of production," the work of Bourdieu most importantly, but also Althusser, that stresses how the classes endlessly reproduce themselves, or are reproduced by the institutions of schools, media, and so on. On the other hand, the right one, we have the various theories of the culture of poverty, and more importantly, various "pulled up by bootstraps" narratives, all of which stress that individual will and fortitude can overcome all socio-economic barriers. On the one hand there is a theory of the necessary reproduction of the relations of production, while on the other there is the entire anecdotal history of exceptions.

Jaquet's goal is to theorize non-reproduction, to theorize the exceptions to reproduction. This must be done without recourse to free will, gumption, stick-to-it-ness, or any other notion which is nothing other than a thinly veiled conceptual stand in for an ideology of individual achievement and individual blame. It is necessary to conceptualize non-reproduction, the trajectory of individuals who traverse the barriers of class, race, or gender, without recourse to a concept of the will, or lapsing into a Horatio Alger story. As Jaquet writes, "The question arises of how, in the absence of a profound revolution or collective movement of reform, explain social non-reproduction and to conceive the singularity of exceptions in a history that everything seems to devote himself to the repetition of the same." I will return to this absence of revolution below, but it is important to note that Jaquet's project is to conceptualize this non-reproduction, to treat it as something other as an exception to the rule without, at the same time lapsing into conceptual alibis for the current economic order.

Jaquet is a scholar of Spinoza and thus her theory of non-reproduction passes through Spinoza's theory of the affects. This connection proves to be fortuitous, and not just the accident of biography. Spinoza's affects provide two fundamental conditions for theorizing non-reproduction. First, there is the imitation of affects, the transindividual and social basis of individual strivings and desires. Reproduction and non-reproduction both involve an imitation of the affects, the tastes and proclivities, of another. The only difference is who is being imitated. Reproduction is an imitation of the immediate tastes and desires of one's family and class, non-reproduction, or what Jaquet calls transclass, often involves an imitation at a distance of the tastes and desires of others, a teacher, a friend from a different class, or the mediated images of a different life. "The existence of transclass obeys less a logic of an exception than a logic of a gap." More important here is the Spinoza's notion of the ambivalence of the affects. As Jaquet argues every non-reproduction is fundamentally ambivalent; it is both a movement away from something, from the shame of one's class position, and towards something, the desired new class position. However, this ambivalence is often doubled. The shame of one's humble class origins are often the source of a new shame. Shame becomes internally ambivalent, divided between shame and shame of shame. Non-reproduction is a complex intersection of hopes and fears, shame and pride (as is reproduction).

As Jaquet writes, "The transclass carries two worlds in him and is inhabited by a dialectic of opposites without being assured that the oppositions can resolve themselves or that the oscillations can lead to a balance [...] Sentenced to a gap between often incompatible universes, a transclass is necessarily traversed by contradictions that are both open and subterranean."

 (A visual footnote--Imitation of Life as the melodrama of non-reproduction)

Jaquet's method offers two important theoretical transformations to the general problem of reproduction. First, she suggests that the Spinozist term ingenium, or complexion, replace the term habitus. This is not not a difference of words but a difference of logic. Complexion is less the intimate reproduction of the existing class order at the level of the individual than it is the intersection of class, familial, media, and other affects and desires in a complex, and even metastable, conjunction. The corollary of this is that class is not an identity, it is not something one is, but is situated at the intersection of striving, tastes, desires, and shames. Classes do not describe individuals, or families, but traverse both, defining both their aspirations and their fears. Class is a relation, but this relation is not just the grand battle between two classes on the field of history; it is an intimate relation that encompasses the conflicts within an institution, a family, and an individual. Class is transindividual.

Jaquet's immediate target includes such thinkers of reproduction as Bourdieu, but it could also be seen as critique of Lordon whose conception of affective composition falls into the trap of seeing individual striving as a reproduction of the social order. Individuals do not simply reproduce the affective composition of their social relations, or, more to the point, individuals are caught in the tension of simultaneously reproducing different relations, different affects at the same time, caught between the affective attachments to origins and the emulation of aspirations. This tension of multiple causes, multiple affects, and multiple desires, determines, in a singular way, both reproduction and non-reproduction. It is thus no accident that Jaquet draws most of her examples from novels and memoirs, including Stendhal, Wright, Baldwin, Larsen, and Eribon drawing from different forms of non-reproduction from passing to the nouveau rich. The trajectory of non-reproduction can only be recounted in a singular case, a concrete situation. This is perhaps her strength, but her analysis lacks sufficient attentiveness to precisely what Lordon underscores, the meta-structuring dimensions of wage labor and commodity production that underly all striving in capital. These conditions exceed the particular class identity, particular proclivities of this class, to become the conditions of the reproduction of class as such. As Jaquet argues, "every non-reproduction is in some sense a reproduction by other means," distributing individuals amongst different classes, and, more importantly, functioning as the ultimate alibi for a class based society.

This returns us to precisely what is analytically excluded from Jaquet's theory, "profound revolution." It is a matter of trying to think the conditions of a non-reproduction that would not simply be that of worker's daughter becoming an academic, but of a general refusal of society to reproduce itself. In other words, what are the affective and imaginary conditions for collective non-reproduction? How would the desires and aspirations currently attached to escaping one's class become the conditions for general transformation? 

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