Saturday, February 11, 2023

Team Transindividuality: on Vittorio Morfino and Bernard Aspe


Jeremy Gilbert and I sometimes joke about TOP, the Transindividual Oriented Philosophy. The reference is obviously to the phenomenon of OOO (Object Oriented Ontology) in the early part of the millennium. As much as our joke has to do with sort of doctrinaire and polemical way the former arrived on the scene and our lack of interest in any such thing. (I should say in a parenthetical that is way too late, one of the things that always troubled me about OOO is that it emerged and thrived on blogs, but blogs with their intersection of the social and the technological seemed the last thing that the last thing that the crowd wanted to think about. Part of what makes me irredeemably a historical materialist is that I think the question of understanding where one is thinking from is paramount even if a bit quixotic--one can never see the ground that one speaks from). Despite this joke transindividuality, at least in terms of contemporary writers who use the concept, less a school of thought than a series of intersecting critiques and articulations. Or, if one wanted to be clever about it, the collection of writers who work on transindividuality are all part of a general orientation that is individuated differently in each of their specif philosophical articulations. I would say more about this but I feel like this is something that I tried to say with the examination of Balibar, Stiegler, and Virno in The Politics of Transindividuality.

In that book I did not really discuss Bernard Aspe or Vittorio Morfino (at least at any length). However in the past month of so I have been reading a book by each of them that makes it clear how much they are part of the same metastable unity of philosophers. The books in question are Morfino's recently published Intersoggettività o Transindividualità: Materiali per un'alternativa  (a book I was able to work through in Italian thanks to the generous help of Dave Messing who let me look at an early draft of the English translation) and Bernard Aspe's Les Fibres du Temps  published in 2018. The two books are connected not just through their shared engagement with transindividuality, but in their use of the concept to overcome existing, perhaps even dominant, conceptions of individuality, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity. However, both books do so in very distinct and different ways, with different methods and genealogies. 

Morfino book, like all of Morfino's work, is absolutely admirable in its scholarship and erudition. Or, more to the point, Morfino's talent is an ability to combine a radical provocation with scholarly erudition. Morfino has a remarkable ability for going deep into the philological connections of a text or problem, working out all of the intersections and implications. However these investigations never seem like purely scholarly pursuits; the tasks and problems of radical politics are always close to hand.  The history of philosophy is examined for the ways in which it has led us to our particular historical moment, and what might be done if we thought and acted differently. 

As the title suggests Morfino's book on intersubjectivity or transindividuality deals with an opposition between two different ways of understanding social relations. However, this opposition is not a matter of simply picking a side. As Morfino argues, even as intersubjectivity has been the dominant way of conceiving of social relations it still has for the most part been an afterthought in a philosophical tradition that has started from the individual subject. The way that the individual subject has been figured, in terms of its interiority and subjectivity, has made it difficult to grasp its relations with others, or reduces it to the general problem of how the external world can be known. As Morfino points out, Descartes the philosopher who gave us the cogito, who claimed that he could know himself prior to knowing the world, is the same philosopher who wondered if the figures under hats and coats he saw out the window might be automatic machines. As Morfino reminds us Descartes can only resolve this problem through the same way that he resolves the problem of knowledge in general; how we know other people is no different than how we know the objects in the world. The development of interiority, which begins with Descartes, has as its corollary the creation of intersubjectivity as a perpetual problem. The subject's assertion of its own certainty posits other people and with them social relations as a perpetual afterthought. 

Morfino charts the emergence of the dominant history of interiority and intersubjectivity from Descartes through Leibniz and Hegel, while at the same time charting its alternative, transindividuality emerging through Spinoza, Marx, and Freud, to be developed further in Althusser, Goldmann, and Pêcheux. The first trajectory passes through the concepts of cogito, monad, and subject, creating a concept of identity, interiority, and teleology, while the second trajectory, that of transindividuality has a largely subterranean dimmension. Morfino's orientation with respect to all of these problems can be considered primarily Althusserian, not just because he is influenced by Althusser but because he takes on an Althusserian labor of reading. Just as Althusser saw his task as one of reading the Marxist philosophy between the lines of Marx's critique of political economy and the political interventions of Marx, Lenin, and Mao, producing the concepts of overdetermination and structural causality, Morfino is able to excavate the concept or idea of transindividuality prior to its letter by consider the problem of relation in the history of philosophy.

One of the more interesting interventions along these lines is his reading of the concept of Weschelwirking (interaction) in Marx and Engels. This concept is developed by Engels in his Anti-Dühring to complicate any linear or mechanical relation of cause and effect:

This understanding of the mutual intersection and interaction of effects and causes informs an understanding of the mode of production that is something other than the classical and mechanical action of a base on a superstructure. As Morfino cites a passage, which also appears in Althusser's "Contradiction and Overdetermination"

The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction [Weschelwirkung]  of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.

As Morfino argues this concept of interaction is not often named as such by Marx, but in some sense it is at work in other names, or other concepts such as the interaction of production, distribution, and consumption that opens the 1857 introduction. Morfino's excavation of the concept culminates in his reading of Althusser's own articulation of the concept of transindividuality without the name. In Reading Capital Althusser posits that just as forces of production cannot be reduced to technology, relations of production cannot be reduced to intersubjectivity. As Althusser writes,"While the productive forces cannot be reduced to machines or quantifiable techniques, the relations of production cannot be reduced to relations between men alone, to human relations or intersubjectivity, as they are in the historicist ideology." Beyond this assertion Morfino traces as thought of transindividuality in the disagreement of Althusser and Lucien Goldmann. Goldmann did use the term transindividuality, but, as Morfino argues Goldmann in thinking the transindividual as the "relations of production" reduces it to a collective subject, to society as a subject, returning the concept to the subject and interiority it was meant to escape. Transindividual is not the genesis of the collective, but the interrelation, or interaction, of the constitution of the collective and the individual. As such, and this is the importance of the discussion of the concept of interaction in Engels and Marx, it is as much a rethinking of causality and of relations as it is a rethinking of subjectivity and individuality. 

Aspe's book is punctuated by discussion of films including Arrival
But honestly this is here because I needed to break up the post

Bernard Aspe begins with the similar problem as Morfino's book, the priority of interiority over relation. For Aspe, however, this problem has less to do with a historical excavation than an assumed starting point. The orienting figures of our thought are that of an interiority accessible only to us, and the interiority of the other, unknown to us and only accessible indirectly. Any connection, any relation other than a kind of analogy, in which I know the other by comparing them to myself is excluded. It is precisely this excluded space that Aspe sets himself to explore, an examination of the space of subjectivation, "such a space is constituted by a play of interiorities and of relative exteriority, which do not correspond to the play of opposition between the interiority of the individual and the exteriority of the world of the other." 

Aspe's formulation of subjectivation is explicitly drawn from Simondon. (of the two books under consideration his book is more Simondonian in its concept of transindividuality while Morfino's is more Althusser/Balibarian). For Simondon the subject has to be thought as the relation between the individual and its preindividual relations that constitute the common. As Aspe puts it, "a collective is constituted by the laws that put in common the potentials carried by each, and thus, by the formation of new system..given its own proper energy." Or, to put it more directly "the group is capable of acting in the world because they already act on each other." 

The common space of our collective and individual individuation is time. Time, or a particular relation of temporality is both the constitution of individual and collectivity. This demands a discussion of the way in which time, temporality is both the site of our individuation, our specific memories, and our shared belonging.  This is true even if we do not remember what constitutes our identity and cannot situate our place ourselves in what constitutes our commonality. As Aspe writes, "The fiber of time, it is the relation between an irreparable loss and a unlocalizable persistence. Common memory, itself without support, comes in the places of this absent space, where it inscribes memory."

Aspe investigates common time by two different trajectories, first through a consideration of film. His book is punctuated by a series of inserts dedicated to films from Gaslight to Arrival. As he argues film gives us direct access to the common memory. Film is in some sense the object of a common memory, becoming part of shared references, it is also in some sense, for a limited time, a temporal object, in which the viewers experience the same images, ideas, and associations. Of course all of this is forgotten when people leave the theater (or shut their laptops), despite this loss film often documents the unlocalizable persistence of a historical moment. As Aspe writes, 

"The “new” American cinema (Aronofsky, Nolan, Anderson, but also for the intermediate generation, Cameron…) is not always convincing, but this is no doubt due to the bias that makes it special, according to which it is only by relying on déjà vu that we can produce new images. The situations that cinema takes for its point of view are willingly “archetypical.”The archetypes can be found through a return to an American mythology (the heroic entrepreneur and radical individual of Anderson’s There Will Be Blood), to the unconscious (the double as product of relation and the devouring other in Black Swan, another film of Aronofsky), to popular imaginary (super heroes)."

Aside from the odd appellation of "new" American cinema, it  is unclear if this diagnosis is as much about the individual aesthetics of the different directors than it is about a general trajectory in the production and marketing of film in which the past is seen as a reservoir of images to be mined for new films. One might say, following this remark, that the current stage of production in the age of intellectual property in which even the most forgettable movies, shows, and comic books from from the past are remade, (Watchmen, Night Court, Morbius), might not be some horrible deviation from our historical moment, but its most accurate reflection. We are living in a remake in which the conflicts of the past generations are relived and nostalgia for the immediate past has replaced hope for the future. 

Which brings us to the second consideration of common time, that of capital as the standardization of time. Aspe goes over the arguments of E.P. Thompson and Foucault on the standardization of time, adding to this discussion the point that all conflicts over labor take place within the standardization of time. Aside from Simondon, Aspe draws from an eclectic group of thinkers, Wittgenstein, Foucault, Kierkegaard, but perhaps the most surprising is Mario Tronti who often figures in such formulations as this, in which the antagonism, the opposition, between worker and capital is understood to be central, and accepting standardized time as the terrain of conflict, fighting over more work or less, is to fight on the terrain of capital. Capital can be understood as a standardization of time, space, and culture, in order to constantly expand. However, Aspe also draws from ecological thinkers such as Jason Moore and Dipesh Chakrabarty to argue that capitals exploitation of cheap nature, its treatment of everything into an externality, means that this standardization takes place against a globe that becomes more and more chaotic. Our common time is one of both unprecedented standardization and chaos.

Morfino and Aspe's books represent two fundamentally different approaches to the transindividual, one historical the other critical, one ontological and the other phenomenological. At some point it might be necessary to work out the divisions between these two ways of looking at things, team transindividual will individuate and oppose itself in terms of Balibar Transindividualists, Simondon Transindividualists, etc., However, given the predominance of individuality, interiority, and intersubjectivity over our thought and practice, I am more inclined to let a thousand flowers bloom, exploring just what happens when one tries to think outside the individual, to think social relations beyond intersubjectivity. 

1 comment:

clarinetadas said...

Quite interesting Morfino's work.

Just one point here:
" The common space of our collective and individual individuation is time. Time, or a particular relation of temporality..."

As a frustrated geographer, I am still stuck in space.

Capitalistic universality of commodities and it's circulations can somehow obliterate our sense of space differences and particularities.

Of courseits about this zeitgeist thing on movies. I got it.

But there is also a raumgeist thing.

The interrelations in time, but also in spatial contexts are important.

Toronto talks about time to somehow scape from territory control of capitalism like the difficulties in promoting a strike Ina given factory for all it's spatial enclosures.

That just it