Sunday, February 11, 2018

Losing Strategies: Negative Solidarity as Practice

Once in class a student said, "Bernie Sanders wants to give free tuition to everyone: I can't pay for everyone else's tuition I am having a hard enough time just paying for my own." My interest in this statement has less to do with the merits of Bernie Sanders campaign, or such promises, than its strange logic. I admit that I almost had a stifle a laugh when this was uttered in class. I wasn't trying to be mean, but I thought that the student must by joking. When I saw that he wasn't, that he did not grasp the contradiction at the heart of what he was saying, it struck me as a stunning example of negative solidarity. 

Negative solidarity is not just an ideology. It is not just the absence of any solidarity or collective action, but is a particular strategy. It is a strategy in precisely the sense that Laurent Bove outlines in his book, La Stratégie du Conatus. As Bove argues, all thought is strategic, which is to say oriented, and all strategy, all striving, necessarily has an intellectual component. The two sides of this formulation come together in the ambiguity of striving. As Spinoza writes, "Both insofar as the mind has clear and distinct ideas and insofar as it has confused ideas, it strives for an indefinite duration, to persevere in its being and its conscious of this striving it has" (EIIIP9). As is often the case with Spinoza, the implications of this proposition stem from the manner in which it combines indifference and difference. The mind, like everything, strives to preserve itself. In that way everything, everyone, is like everything else. This striving takes on a different direction, different orientation, depending on the adequate or inadequate ideas. 

The passionate attachment to inadequate ideas, or, what Lauren Berlant calls, "cruel optimism," seems to be the most important, albeit often overlooked part of Spinoza's claim. It is not just that, as Spinoza writes, "one sees the better and does the worst," but that one actively clings to the worst because it is the only way one can imagine striving at all. Two fairly recent books reviewed on this blog illustrate this point, Jennifer Silva's Coming Up Short  and Malcolm Harris' Kids these Days, can be read as accounts of losing strategies. Both books are about the current generation, although in some sense split by class: Silva examines the inward turn of working class young adults denied the conventional markers of success while Harris puts the relentless self-marketing of upper class millennials in the context of their shrinking job prospects. Neither book is Spinozist, but both follow a kind of Spinozist logic, grasping the causal conditions of a perspective that my otherwise be subject to mockery. Infinite introspection or relentless self marketing are less foolish if one understands the current social and economic conditions that have destroyed any possible imagination of collective political action. "Inadequate and confused ideas follow with the same necessity as adequate, or clear and distinct ideas" (EIIP36) These are not just bad ideas, or generational conflicts, but strategies pursued in light of decreasing options. 

The strategic dimension of thought, and conversely the conscious nature of strategy, means that everyone strives to maintain or expand their existence according to their understanding (or imagination) of their conditions. I stress "their understanding" because it is necessary to see in this condition the combination of real conditions and their imaginary representation, which is also to say the effects that conditions have on representations and vice versa. Everyone is always strategizing, trying to maintain or expand the conditions of their existence, and this strategy is based on how one understands the possibilities for action or change. 

Spinoza in some sense squares a particular circle. Rather than conclude, in a knowing pessimism that is nothing other than an apology for the existing order, that the masses are doomed to forever be ignorant, irrational, and tribal, or rush to the judgement that rational liberation is necessary, Spinoza combines both views, positing both the intransigence of illusions and the possibility of their overcoming. As André Tosel puts it in a passage that sums up Spinoza's break with either of these options:

"Spinoza unites somehow two traits that are incompatible in all other philosophies. He corrects one conception by the other through a confrontation that exceeds them both. On the one hand, he distances himself from a conception of finitude forbidding man any fantasy of mastery and referring him to his mortal condition and his passionate servitude, a conception that is generally a property of religions which found their authority and domination on this weakness. On the other hand, he redefines an active and productive conception of this finitude; it has become a means for man to affirm and increase his power to think and act properly, a conception peculiar to the modern and humanist tradition, sustained above all by the Enlightenment and by philosophical idealism. But Spinoza rejects the Promethean pretensions that make man a kingdom within a kingdom. This is a strange philosophy that unites the infinite and the finite and finds no reason to despair or hope in the true idea that nature is indifferent to the ends that man proposes, but that does not prevent man, like any other mode, from striving to realize his causal power."

That is a good summation of the anthropology at work here; the question remains, however, how to move beyond this as a theoretical statement, or left in its own context of superstition versus the enlightenment, to ask what kind of politics it makes possible now? A version of this question underlies all current debates about populism and the intransigent racism of the white working class. Although it is hard to find much evidence of the other side, of some kind of enlightenment rationalism opposed to this, at least in any large scale. What we have in its place are several pseudo-rationalism, neoliberal meritocracy that dreams of markets free of prejudice and opportunistic claims of rationality that label any opposition as irrational. The more promethean forms of rationalism have been relegated to the peripheries of radical thought, maybe it is just Alain Badiou at this point. Nonetheless, it still seems that Spinoza offers a timely way out of the impasse between the finitude of irrationalism and the infinity of rationality. 

It seems to me that one has to think politics from the conflict and antagonisms of different strategies. Think the classroom for example. This space is neither neutral nor new to those who enter it. This history carries with it an affective tenor, a tenor that is in turn overlaid with the affective composition of the present. Or, to put things more bluntly we cannot expect the anxiety about jobs and student debt to be absent from the classroom, nor dismiss them as failures of students to become true critical thinkers. People necessarily strive in the only way they know how. This includes academics, who often turn a blind eye to their own opportunistic striving for vanishing positions and funding while bemoaning the careerist drives of their students. One cannot simply blame students of the era of crushing debt and precarity for failing to act as if historical conditions were different, if they could throw themselves into the life of the mind when their bodies are being ground up and spit out by a crushing profit squeeze. 

If we want people to strive differently, to aspire for something other than one of the few remaining crumbs of security in the existing world, and I guess I am talking about pedagogy and politics at this point (probably a mistake to miss the two) if is not enough to subject the current conditions to ruthless criticism, there must be something else to strive for, something that seems possible or realizable lest we remain trapped in "theorizing the better but practicing the worst."

Since I began this piece with a criticism of something one student said it is only fitting to end it with something I learned from students. Increasingly when I teach what could be broadly considered as the Foucauldian critique of neoliberalism, the notion that neoliberalism is a production of subjectivity in which everyone becomes an entrepreneur of themselves, the response I get from students is "yes, we hear that message of entrepreneurialism all the time, but none of us really believe it. We are not so much investors in human capital, as doing what we need to in order to get buy." It is more sad affects of fear than joyful affects of desire that drive the current order.  Negative solidarity demands a critique that does not so much add to the sad affects, we are all doomed, but must manage the difficult task of imagining a joy that is a transformation of the system. 


Mathew Arthur said...

I want to pick up the thread of "practice" in the title here. More than affect, practice as an analytic has something to say (for me) about the asymmetries you're describing. Isn't it a set of practices that allow tenured professors to wake up on time while I'm always sleeping latw? Union practices. Social proprieties. Writing and presentation conventions. Grant-writing practices but I'm only trained to write polemic or a blog post. What to wear? If what I'm wearing demonstrates professionalism. As if professionaliam isn't already a set of practices that are enabled in a way of life (which, I'm glad you name in this post). What I think is needed is a beyond-affect theory of positive or negative solidarity (there are more practices of solidarity than two). Even what gets called "affect" is made-mobile in practices that inhibit other ways of life: economies of publishing, big names, etc.

Mathew Arthur said...

Picking up on "practice" in the title, isn't it sometimes a more useful analytic than affect? Because: tenured folks can wake up on time, they get paid on time, they don't worry about what to say. Meanwhile I worry about what to wear. Is it professional? But isn't professional just a set of practices that enables whatever shirt to have authority? By sending me home to shave if I'm "unkept?" In practices, there are more than two kinds of solidarity (positive, negative), sometimes it just means leaving the house without brushing my teeth–I was too tired and can't afford fluoride-free toothpaste. I worry that affect has been so over-associated with what co-opts affect (capitalism, corporate culture, etc...) that my everyday resistances which aren't affective, just happen by accident–I forgot to log my hours–dont matter anymore.