Showing posts with label Althusser. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Althusser. Show all posts

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dialectics of the Other Other Scene: On Balibar and Macherey (with apologies to Kanye)


"Last week I was in my other other Benz"--Kanye West

While I would never want to reduce the work of Etienne Balibar and Pierre Macherey to simply being that of "students of Althusser," there is a certain way in which their work continues certain themes and problems from the latter's work. This can be seen not only in the topics chosen, the studies on Marx and Spinoza, but, as I am going to examine here, with a certain reworking of the question of the dialectic.


Friday, August 08, 2014

Taking Form: Morfino and Zourbachvili Encounter Spinoza


The translation of Vittorio Morfino's Plural Temporality: Transindividuality and the Aleatory Between Spinoza and Althusser deserves to be considered an event in its own right. Morfino is not very well known in the Anglo-American world, but those who have heard him speak at the annual Historical Materialism conference in London know how important his work is. Morfino has the rather singular talent of drawing together seemingly incongruous streams of thought into relation. Morfino is not to content to remain with the apparent points of opposition, nor does he simply declare some secret unity between disparate thinkers. In one of my favorite conference presentations, I remember Morfino declaring that the presence of Spinoza in Marx's thought was nothing but a "scholarly residue," the notebooks on the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus and other references nothing more than the dutiful work of a German philosopher in the 19th century, but that this of course makes the connection between Marx and Spinoza interesting. Since the contours of this connection cannot not be found in the typical anxiety of influence, it can only be invented in connections and relations of tendencies and presuppositions. (For examples of this invention of the Marx/Spinoza encounter see Negri, Lordon, Fischbach, etc.) 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Hijacking a Train: Revolution and its Limits in Snowpiercer


I scrupulously avoided reading any reviews of Snowpiercer once I became intrigued by the basic premise. Despite this, and not reading anything after seeing it this afternoon, I was aware, in that way we become aware of things through an almost social media osmosis, that it was quickly being heralded as a new film about the 99% and the 1%, about social inequality, and, more importantly, about revolution. In what follows I would like to explore these allegories for at least two reasons. The first, and most basic, is that the film openly invites such readings. Its particular premise, the Earth is frozen after a failed attempt to solve global warming and all of the survivors are left stranded on globe circling train, is so thin in terms of any pretense at credibility, and so packed with allusions and images, I am not sure it is even possible to watch it as "just a movie." Second, and more importantly I am interested in what it means to make or interpret a film as allegory of the present, recognizing of course that the line between making and interpreting can never be rigidly defined. (Spoilers follow)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Towards a Spinozist Critique of Political Economy


The encounter between Marx and Spinoza that ran through late twentieth century Marxist thought was primarily organized around three axes. The first, or at least most well known, is Althusser's use of Spinoza's critique of teleology, anthropomorphism, and anthropocentricism to develop the matrix of every possible theory of ideology, effectively shifting ideology from a critique of this or that content of thought to its fundamental orientation, The second, at least in terms of notoriety, is Negri's expansion of living labor into constitutive power through Spinoza's concept of the conatus. Spinoza makes it possible to see the productive labor underlying every institution and imaginary representation, becoming adequate to the age of real subsumption. A third direction could be represented by Alexandre Matheron who develops both a Spinozist account of social relations, a transindividuality avant la lettre, and an expanded definition of alienation. This set of labels is admittedly reductive, but it has the sole merit of underscoring the fact that much of the Marxist engagement with Spinoza has been on the terrain of politics or ideology rather than economy.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Is it Simple to be a Philosopher in Marxism?


In nineteen seventy-five Louis Althusser presented one of his best, and underrated essays, titled “Est-il simple d’étre marxiste en philosophie?” Intended as part of his Doctorat d’ État, and thus functioning as a summary of much of his writing up until that date, the essay outlined the conflict between the demands of philosophy and Marxism. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Centaurs and Bloodworms: Multitude and Nature in del Lucchese and Sharp’s Studies of Spinoza



We must be living in a renaissance of Spinoza studies. The “dead dog” of past generations has becoming a thriving pack. I refer not just to the often cited studies of Matheron, Macherey, Negri, Balibar, and Morfino, but the new books that appear every year. What does this turn to Spinoza mean for philosophy? Or, what does it mean to be a Spinozist today? I ask this question to interrupt the unstated stakes of nearly interpretation of a philosophy, which is often nothing other than a battle for “intellectual hegemony.” This battle takes two forms: first, one argues for the superiority of a specific philosopher, Spinoza, Hegel, Heidegger, or whoever, then one argues as to why their particular interpretation of the philosopher in question is the correct one. It is game with diminishing returns, one might gain a few new acolytes but the audience gets smaller and smaller. Despite the diminishing returns, this remains the primary business model for philosophical work.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

After Alienation: Activity and Passivity in Work and Consumption

Debates about alienation with respect to Marx tend to focus on its philosophical underpinning, its humanism and essentialism. This is perhaps due to the immense influence of Althusser. Philosophically Althusser was right in turning our attention away from the half worked out notebooks on alienation, burdened by various anxieties of influence, and towards Capital, towards exploitation and the value form. However, their is an affective dimension to alienation as well, and part of its appeal, its long history in the works of the Frankfurt School, existentialism, punk rock and comic books, has to do with the way it captured a particular sensibility, a particular structure of feeling. This particular feeling appears to have been on the wane for quite sometime.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Reproducing Relations: On Communization and its Discontents



This is not intended as a review of Communization and its Discontents. If I were to write a review of the book it would simply be: it is a good book, you should read it (hell, you can even downloaded it for free, so there is no excuse not to). This is intended instead as a series of provocations for further reflection.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Getting to 99: Between #OccupyWallStreet and Mic Check!

Signs I made for my local Occupation

The potentials and contradictions of the OccupyWallStreet movement are far too many to enumerate. They are nothing other than the potentials and contradictions of the current historical conjuncture. We should not be surprised that is has shown itself to be racist and patriarchal in places, after all we live in a racist and patriarchal society. Moreover, we should not be surprised that its anti-capitalism is highly ambiguous if not out an out contradictory, with cries of “capitalism not corporatism” coexisting alongside “Abolish capitalism.” We perhaps should be surprised that it exists at all. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Red Spinozism: Towards and Against a Spinozist Theory of Alienation


It is possible to understand the interest in Marxist Spinozism, Spinozist Marxism, or, as Alberto Toscano once put it, Red Spinozism, as a kind of funhouse mirror, where the concepts from one philosopher take on new shapes and forms when reflected through the other. The two most well known of Marx’s concepts that have made it through this hall of mirrors are ideology, which has been refracted through Spinoza’s theory of imagination and the first kind of knowledge in Althusser, and living labor, which has been expanded to an ontological level of production through Negri’s reading of the productive nature of reason and desire. Moreover, Spinoza’s concepts of structural or immanent causality have been read through the mode of production and the multitude has been read through class struggle and the autonomist hypothesis. I hastily list these different concept refractions and transformations in order to stress that has been absent, namely alienation.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Capital (The Book and the Totality): On Jameson’s Representing Capital


It is impossible not to compare Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One with last year’s The Hegel Variations: in each case it is a rather succinct reflection, a meditation on one book by a central figure for Jameson’s thought. This book too has a pedagogical quality, which is not to say that it is pedantic at all, just that it is easy to imagine the book as stemming from a seminar. Like the previous book it offers reflections on themes central to Jameson’s work, such as dialectic and history, as well as some engagements with the broader intellectual horizon, including some surprising remarks on Heidegger’s critique of technology. 

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Another Day in the Future: Philip K. Dick and the Philosophy of Science Fiction



The recent news that Michel Gondry planned to make a film based on Ubik convinced me to look at this again. It is an old piece, and one that I wrote for an undergraduate audience. I can’t really say that my thinking on the matter has changed much, however, in part because I have not have had time to revisit it, so I thought that I would post it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

"His Subconscious is Militarized": Mapping Inception


Of all of the fantastic dreamscapes that fill the screen in Inception, freight trains driving down city streets, fights in zero gravity, and cities that collapse into the sea, the most fantastic is perhaps the film’s premise. I am not referring to the idea that, through a combination of drugs and technology, people are able to enter each other’s dreams, but to the fact that in the world of the film it is supposedly easier to extract an idea than it is to plant one, the inception of the film’s title. The entire history of ideology, from those first ideologists, the priests, to the modern entertainment-military-industrial complex, would seem to testify to the contrary: it is very easy to implant ideas. However, given that the film is about just this, an attempt to implant an idea, it is possible to see the film as a narrative about the narrative articulation of ideas themselves: an idea can only be planted, can only become an inception, if it is simple enough and resonates with some kind of emotional core (I am sure that you can find those exact words in some book that claims to teach you the art of screenwriting).

Beyond this premise it is hard not to see resonances with contemporary society in this film. At its core it is a heist film. We have the first act in which the team is assembled: a group that includes, as is de rigueur, an old pro haunted by his past, who hopes to make everything right with one last job; a few new members, whose initiation will provide the necessary exposition; and a few seasoned professionals, each identified by a particular talent or skill (chemist, master of disguise, etc.). The film’s twist is what is generally makes up the background of the narrative, the obsessions and memories of the characters, are not just alluded to, but become part of the narrative as they enter each others dreams. This is especially true of Cobb (played by Leonard DiCaprio) whose absent children and dead wife have a way of showing up in the most inopportune times in the dreamwork, the latter with often deadly results.

It is worth reflecting on this dimension of the film, especially since it makes a rather drastic departure from the standard tropes of the heist film. Somewhere, I forget where, Fredric Jameson writes that the heist film is perhaps one of the few places where work, in its utopian dimension, is represented in contemporary pop culture. Heist films are about the job, the job defined not in terms of fragmentation and isolation, but in terms of a community founded in and through specialization, labor as transindividuation. There are a few directors who have made this masculine professionalism, the work of the heist, the explicit subject of their films, such as Jean-Pierre Melville and Michael Mann, and they stress just that, the professionalism of the heist, work separated from the mess of personal life. Inception is marked departure from that norm, its central character, Cobb can barely keep his life together, and the figments of his personal life show up in the middle of his work day. This of course jeopardizes the mission, but there is also the suggestion that he is good at what he does not in spite of his neuroses, but because of them. His obsession with dreams and memories makes him good at entering and manipulating the dreams of others.

In this respect it is superficially similar to Splice, another film in which work, in this case the work of genetics research, is simultaneously jeopardized and propelled by unresolved trauma. Taken together these two films can suggest a changing “affective composition” of labor. Labor is no longer marked by the rigors of professionalism, that would leave a home life separate from a work life, but is thoroughly permeated by all of one’s existence. As Nina Power writes, “From top to the bottom of the employment pool, whether one is a jobseeker being retrained for work or a CEO manipulating contacts, your bodily existence at work comes to coincide with the CV that neatly summarizes where you’ve been and how you made profitable use of your time.” This complete exposure, CV-ification of life beyond professionalization, is not without its risks. We have all heard the story of someone being fired for a facebook picture, blog post, or something on twitter. This is exactly how the scene in the film where Ariadne (Ellen Page) discovers Cobb's secret plays out: it is like she has accidentally stumbled upon some pictures on his laptop or his browser history, and wants to inform her coworkers. The work relations of the film are unavoidably personal, all too personal.

Comparisons between The Matrix and this film are unavoidable, both take place within a “consensual hallucination,” a shared dreamspace, and both have interesting innovations at the level of effects: “bullet time” in the former, and zero gravity in the latter. The Matrix was closely tied to its historical moment, the late nineties, in the way it offered an allegory of the anxieties of the early days of the internet. Everyone could go anywhere and become anything, as in the case of ultrahip avatars armed to the teeth, but surveillance was also everywhere in the form of the agents of the matrix. As I have suggested above much of the difference between these two “virtual reality” films has to do with the intimacy of the latter film, the way it breaks down any division between professional self and private self (let alone the stoic cooler than cool avatars of The Matrix) This transformation makes sense given that the internet has become all the more intimate in the ten years that separates these films: it is no longer the place where one fabricates an identity, as in the old chat rooms, but the place where one discloses one’s identity down to the most embarrassing details.

It is also possible to see a different kind of intimacy in the way in which the film deals with one of the real limits of a film set in dreams or virtual reality. One of the problems with making movies within dreams (or virtual space) is that dreams are not real and thus without consequence. There must be some sense of risk for narrative to work. The standard way to resolve this is the old “die in your dream and you die in real life.” (or die in the matrix and you die in real life) The film eschews that cliché; if you die, you wake up. This means that the real threat, the real danger is not death but harm, pain up to the limit of death. There has been a lot of discussion about torture in popular culture as of late, and there is very little of that in Inception, at least explicitly. What we get instead of torture, or the image of torture, is its generalization into the narrative of the film as a kind of biopolitics. Death is no longer an issue, but physical pain and psychic destruction are an ever-present possibility. This vulnerability is compensated for by the fact that, in the world of the film, everyone’s subconscious (the film uses this term rather than unconscious) is populated by vaguely hostile “projections.” Which can, given proper training, become militarized, rendering literal the old grafitti about a cop in everyone’s head.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film, and the one that it has the most to say, at least indirectly, about the current world is in its representation of time. Gilles Deleuze argues that montage is always an indirect image of time. Even the most clichéd montages, the training montage of the boxing/martial arts film or the falling in love montage of a romantic comedy, give us time, but time that is generally homogenous and empty, the quantitative addition of moments into a transformed situation. The standard action movie montage, the parallel action associated with D.W. Griffiths, is often based on an acceleration of cuts, and tension, that assumes a shared time. The imperiled innocent and the hero rushing to the rescue are part of the same moment, separated only by space. Inception ends with three parallel montages, three actions that must be carried out in order for the mission to succeed, but they take place within different temporalities. In the film, dream time is more intense (the brain is working faster) and thus faster than waking time, five minutes in the waking world equals an hour in the dream. The rate of time speeds up at deeper levels of dreams, in the dreams within dreams, so much so that a few hours of waking can become years in dream time. Thus, in the final moments of the film, the action cuts between three different temporalities all of which are happening at different rates, a siege of a mountain fortress takes as much time as a van falling off of a bridge. (The film incorporates two common aspects of dreams: the difference of time, a short nap can produce a dream that seems to last for hours, and that dreams are always in media res, in the middle of things, without a clear beginning.)

This disjunct temporality, which is visually compelling, becomes all the more interesting viewed through the narrative of the film itself. The final third of the film, the heist itself, all takes place on a Sydney to Los Angeles flight. Such a flight is necessary for the team to knock out, through drugs, their target, or mark, long enough to enter his dream space in order to plant the idea. At the same time, or almost, their “inception” will provoke the sponsor of their heist to make an important phone call, a phone call which will transform the legal status through a kind of incorporeal transformation. The disjunct temporality within the dream time, is reflected in the much more mundane disjunctions in every day time, in which a phone call can travel exponentially faster than a jumbo jet. (The setting in the trans-Pacific flight also draws together the unavoidable biological passivity of sleep with the modern waiting of flight, a time spent disconnected from cellphones, smartphones, and the internet: a period of interminable waiting for the modern business class who never move as fast as capital). We live not in one time, but in multiple times, multiple times which no longer add up to a unified present. The question "what time is it there?" carries more weight than we tend to think. Here the film’s different locales, the globetrotting that is required of a spy movies, Kyoto, Paris, and Marrakech, all of which are situated in their different historical moments, as parts of a disjunct world where bullet trains coexist with street cafes, and the walls of medieval cities. All of which brings to mind Louis Althusser’s critique of the homogeneity of historical time, the Hegelian moment where everything coexists in one essential contradiction. Against this it is necessary to think of the differential history, the coexistence of different times, of what could be called a past, present, and future existing all at once (although Althusser rejects those terms as well, since they suggest a standard time, a normal present from which things could be identified as past). As Althusser writes, “The specificity of these times and histories is therefore differential, since it is based on the differential relations between the different levels within the whole: the mode and degree of independence of each time and history is therefore necessarily determined by the mode and degree of dependence of each level within the set of articulations of the whole.” One could take this further, given the narrative of the film, and suggest that subjectivity, the stuff of neuroses and obsessions move at a rate that is much slower than the technological and political transformations of the world. Or, more to the point, at the exact moment that the film tries to represent absolute interiority, the different subjective times of dreaming, it actually gives us absolute exteriority, the coexistence of different rates of time that define postmodern existence. Its failures are its successes, which is the best that one could expect from a Hollywood film.



Friday, September 19, 2008

The Essence of Ideology

The following scene from The Wire is in my estimation brilliant, not just because it reveals the functioning of the drug trade, but more importantly it reveals something essential about capitalist ideology.



As Bodie states, after a lesson on the fundamentally rigid hierarchy that characterizes both the chess board and the drug trade, that a "smart ass pawn" could not only make it through the game but get to be queen. This statement describes his own perspective of his situation: a lowly soldier in the drug war who believes that his intelligence and perseverance will ultimately see him through to the end. This idea, an awareness that the odds are stacked, that most of us wont get rich, coupled with a confidence that the odds do not apply to us, is the the fundamental ideology of capitalism. It is in a sense what Althusser meant when he wrote that ideology interpellates individuals as subjects, as much as we are aware of the historical conditions that define and limit our situation we believe that they do not apply to us, that we transcend them as a kingdom within a kingdom (to cite Spinoza, Althusser's point of reference).

Althusser thought that his applied to all ideology, but it seems to be in many ways specific to capitalist ideology. After all capitalist ideology disentengles power from any specific condition, all those motley ties; one does have to be descended from a particular family, a particular race, or background to have money. The only thing that characterizes the ruling class is money. There is no barrier that keeps us from changing our class position. Thus, we all fantasize that we will one day be rich: as the New York State lottery used to say, "It could happen to you."

Many progressives or leftists are constantly frustrated that the working class fails to vote their interest, supporting tax breaks, like the "death tax," that do not apply to them. I think that this is because they, or we, do not identify with our interests, our specific position, we identify with the fantasy. We are all the "smart ass pawn," the exception, the person who makes it rich, or to take an example closer to home, gets tenure in a job market that increasingly eliminates tenure track jobs for temporary or adjunct work. This makes it very difficult to construct politics that address systematic failures, like that of health insurance or the mortgage industry; most of us believe that such bad things happen only to others.

In case you are wondering how things turn out for Bodie (spoiler alert for those who have not seen Season Four):



Thursday, January 24, 2008

Vice Versa


The following quote from Althusser is one that I am quite fond of, and have cited, or at least referred to, more than once:

I claimed that it was necessary to get rid of the suspect division between philosophy and politics which at one and the same time treats the political figures as inferior—that is, as non-philosophers or Sunday afternoon philosophers—and also implies that the political positions of philosophers must be sought exclusively in the texts in which they talk explicitly about politics. On the one hand I was of the opinion that every political thinker, even if he says almost nothing about philosophy, like Machiavelli, can nevertheless be considered a philosopher in a strong sense; on the other hand I held that every philosopher, even if he says almost nothing about politics, like Descartes, can nevertheless be considered a political thinker in a strong sense, because the politics of philosophers—that is, the politics which make philosophies what they are—are something quite different from the political ideas of their authors.” (“Is it Simple to be a Marxist in Philosophy?” pg. 206)

It appears that I am not alone in my admiration for this quote, much of Negri’s writing would follow this pattern,the ontology of “living labor,” which Negri finds in the Grundrisse and Capital; the assertion that for Spinoza “metaphysics is politics”: and the book on the “political Descartes,” all cross the division between philosophy and politics. In fact much of contemporary philosophy, from Derrida to Badiou, follows this general scrambling locating politics and ontologies where one would least expect to find them.

I wonder, however, if we can shift the angle of focus, from philosophy and politics, to philosophy and socio-historical analysis, then things get a little murky. Initially it would seem that Althusser’s fundamental insight would seem to apply: many works of “pure” philosophy have an understated reference to their social historical conditions. I am thinking specifically of the following passage from the opening of Difference and Repetition:

Modern life is such that confronted with the most mechanical, the most stereotypical repetitions, inside and outside ourselves, we endlessly extract from them little differences, variations, and modifications. Conversely, secret disguised and hidden repetitions, animated by the perpetual displacement of difference, restore bare, mechanical and stereotypical repetitions, within and without us.

But, what I am saying is not limited to that text, the discussions of “das man” and “idle chatter” of Being and Time also come to mind. On the flipside, one could argue that much of the work on Foucault tries to extract a general philosophy from a series of socio-historical analyses. With respect to the first set of texts, pure philosophical texts read for socio-historical analysis and criticism, such a reading would reorient the entire text. Sometimes I think that this would be for the better, I think that Being and Time is best read as a text on modernity, mass society, and reification. (See for example Lucien Goldmann’s discussion of Heidegger and Lukacs.) Better or worse, it opens new directions new connections; what would it mean to read Difference and Repetition for what it says about the repetitions, the repeated and identical objects that structure our existence? Such a reading would open up new connections between that text and the engagement with Marx in Capitalism and Schizophrenia, for one.

Here is where things get tricky, however, if every political, every social-historical analysis can be mined for the secret ontology, or philosophy it contains, and, if every treatise on ontology makes a reference to its historical condition, then how does one even begin to make sense of things? It would seem that all of the old and reliable methods of differentiating between context and text, history and idea, would go out the window. If Marx’s texts are read for an understanding of the production and productivity of being, can they still function as texts that help us make sense of our historical moment? Or, on the flipside, if Spinoza’s texts express something of the fundamental crisis at work in the formation of capitalism itself, the emergence of the multitude, can they still even count as metaphysics? This is a question that could be brought to bear on Negri, but more importantly it seems to be a question that is contained in Althusser’s question.

In the end it is not so much deciding whether or not it is difficult to be a Marxist in philosophy, but, as Althusser also argued, understanding that Marx entails a transformation of philosophy. Thus, contrary to the image of Marxism as a stilted and dogmatic philosophy, it is only through the destabilization of the division between politics and philosophy, between history and theory of history, that philosophy can grasp something of what it truly means to think.