Friday, March 01, 2024

The Production of Ignorance: Ideology or Agnotology?

Bento and books

With all of my writing and translating about Spinoza and Marx as of late I am embarrassed to admit that there is a moment of their encounter that I have overlooked. The passage in question is in Chapter Eleven of Volume One of Capital (and I am indebted to Nick Nesbitt for pointing it out). In that passage Marx writes, 

"Vulgar economics, which like the Bourbons 'has really learnt nothing,' relies here as mere semblance as opposed to the law which regulates and determines the phenomena. In anthesis to Spinoza, it believes that 'ignorance is a sufficient reason."

In the original:

"Die Vulgärökonomie, die 'wirklich auch nichts gelernt hat,' pocht hier, wie überall, auf den Schein gegen das Gesetz der Erscheinung. Sie glaubt im Gegensatz zu Spinoza, daß 'die Unwissenheit ein hinreichender Grund ist".

 The notes to the Penguin edition points towards the Appendix to Part One of the Ethics as the source to this reference. If we followed that recommendation, and that is and "if" we might look at the following passage. 

"Nor ought we here to pass over the fact that the followers of this doctrine, who have wanted to show off their cleverness in assigning the ends of things, have introduced-to prove this doctrine of theirs-a new way of arguing: by reducing things, not to the impossible, but to ignorance. This shows that no other way of defending their doctrine was open to them. For example, if a stone has fallen from a roof onto someone's head and killed him, they will show, in the following way, that the stone fell in order to kill the man. For if it did not fall to that end, God willing it, how could so many circumstances have concurred by chance (for often many circumstances do concur at once)? Perhaps you will answer that it happened because the wind was blowing hard and the man was walking that way. But they will persist: why was the wind blowing hard at that time? why was the man walking that way at that same time? If you answer again that the wind arose then because on the preceding day, while the weather was still calm, the sea began to toss, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will press on-for there is no end to the questions which can be asked: but why was the sea tossing? why was the man invited at just that time? And so they will not stop asking for the causes of causes until you take refuge in the will of God, that is, the sanctuary of ignorance.

Similarly, when they see the structure of the human body, they are struck by a foolish wonder, and because they do not know the causes of so great an art, they infer that it is constructed, not by mechanical, but by divine, or supernatural art, and constituted in such a way that one part does not injure another. Hence it happens that one who seeks the true causes of miracles, and is eager, like an educated man, to understand natural things, not to wonder at them, like a fool, is generally considered an impious heretic and denounced as such by those whom the people honor as interpreters of Nature and the gods. For they know that if ignorance is taken away, then foolish wonder, the only means they have of arguing and defending their authority, is also taken away."

A great deal could be said about this connection of the critique of political economy and the appendix. One could connect this point to capitalism as religion, or the religion of daily life as André Tosel puts it, but it is also worth pointing out that Marx's emphasis on ignorance is very different than thinking of ideology as having some sort of epistemic content, even if it is a distorted one. I think that Althusser has probably gone the farthest in positing ideology not as a set of ideas, but as some sense a relation to those ideas through the subject, an idea which is of course indebted to Spinoza. 

I would like to suggest a different direction of this particular intersection of Marx and Spinoza, one oriented not towards a theory of ideology, but of agnotology, towards a study of ignorance. I realize that the division between ideology, often defined as a kind of false knowledge, and what agnotology studies, ignorance. Moreover agnotology is a relatively niche and undeveloped area of inquiry. Much of the work that does is exists is oriented towards empirical contributions to the sociology of knowledge, such as the work on the famous campaigns by tobacco companies and oil companies to foster doubt in the carcinogenic effects of cigarettes and the reality of global warming. Posing the problem of agnotology through Marx and Spinoza suggests a way to think the production of ignorance not through the campaigns of public relations, but the way in which social relations produce ignorance of their own conditions. Franck Fischbach's little book on Marx follows a suggestive examination in this direction.  

As Fischbach argues, Marx and Engels' The German Ideology can be understood to be a text about the fragmentation of knowledge with the division of labor: the order and connection of ideas follows the order and connection of things. Framed in this way it is possible to see continuity from the concept ideology the theory of fetishism. Capitalist society is one in which there is increasing division between production and consumption. As Marx writes, "the taste of the porridge does not tell you who grew the oats, no more does this simple process tell you of itself what are the social conditions under which it is taking place, whether under the slave-owner’s brutal lash, or the anxious eye of the capitalist, whether Cincinnatus carries it on in tilling his modest farm or a savage in killing wild animals with stones." 

This ignorance is not just a lack, thought as much as nature abhors a vacuum. The absence of knowledge of the real conditions becomes the basis for the projection of all kinds of qualities, from the commodity's value to its meaning and importance within the semiotics of consumer society. As Deleuze and Guattari write, elevating Marx's comments about porridge into a general epistemological thesis:

"Let us remember once again one of Marx's caveats: we cannot tell from the mere taste of the wheat who grew it; the product gives us no hint as to the system and relations of production. The product appears to be all the more specific, incredibly specific and readily describable, the more closely the theoretician relates it to ideal forms of causation, comprehension, or expression, rather than to the real process of production on which it depends."

Or, as Spinoza argued, our ignorance about the causes of things is refracted through our awareness of our own desires so much so that we "take our desires for reality," to twist an old May '68 slogan. Our own perceptions become the basis for truth. As Marx states above, appearance replaces reality. 

The danger of making such a direct connection between social division and epistemic fragmentation is that such theses often imply a restoration of some kind of wholeness, a dream of a society without divisions and fragmentation which would also be a restoration of knowledge. Such a society has not existed since some went to hunt and others went to gather, if ever. The passage about porridge from Marx even makes this clear, fetishism might have begun with the commodity form but ignorance of the conditions of production are much older. If there can be no return to wholeness, some restoration of our knowledge, ourselves, and society, then knowledge must be a construction. The question is how to structure society so that the divisions and diversity of tasks and productive activities necessary for human survival become the basis for an increase of our knowledge rather the condition for the production of stupidity. 

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