Thursday, 31 July 2008

Lacerate the Fabric

Mario Tronti is most well-known for his series of seminal essays collected in Operai e Capitale (1966), which argued for a Copernican revolution in Marxism:
[w]e too have worked with a concept that puts capitalist development first, and workers second. This is a mistake. And now we have to turn the problem on its head, reverse the polarity, and start again from the beginning: and the beginning is the class struggle of the working class. (from Lenin in England 1964).
What is slightly mysterious is that although these early essays are available in translation and online (and a new translation of the entire work is due from mayfly books), there is a comparative lack of discussion of Tronti's later career. This is partly remedied by the tantalising article by Matteo Mandarini 'Not Fear but Hope in the Apocalypse'.
Crucial is the "turn" in the work of Tronti and others associated with the journal Contropiano (Alberto Asor Rosa and Massimo Cacciari). This involved an insistence on the "autonomy of the political" and a return to the PCI. Overturning his earlier insistence on a direct antagonism between labour-power and capital (maintained by Negri, who split from the group), Tronti now insisted on the political as mediation - "political mediation that the party expresses at the institutional level." (Cacciari) To simplify, we might say "organised autonomy" saw the possibility of leadership developing outside the PCI through the new forms of worker radicalism, and would later, in some instances, dissolve itself into the movement. On the other hand Tronti and his comrades regarded the PCI as necessary mediator, and saw more signs of fading of working-class power.
This was the call to organise class power politically rather than economistically (and we might add this economism has been a problem haunting Negrian analyses). Tronti's take in 1978 indicates the difficulties:
There are two conditions for the centrality of the working class to function politically. The first necessity is that factory workers are surrounded by a large penumbra of social consensus, the second that their effect on the political and their relationship to institutions remains stable over a long period. It must be made evident and perceptible, with practical actions, that this state must be simultaneously defended and changed. What must be defended are the formal guarantees, the constitutional mechanisms of equilibrium and the significance of the political agreement between the democratic parties. What has to be changed is the significance of power, the functioning of the decision-making mechanisms, the guidance of the economy, and the control, consumption and application of social wealth.
This "politics in the institutions" obviously risked substituting the party for the class - "the autonomy of the political" leading back to the realism of politics.
Drawing on the indications in Matteo's article I want to suggest that the continuing functioning of the thesis of the "autonomy of the political" in Tronti's work, especially as an acerbic critique of democracy, has a functionality that this quasi-reformism would seem to vitiate. Despite his dropping of the direct antagonism of labour-power and capital it appear that Tronti still maintains the negative vocation of his early theses against their positivisation in Negri.
Taking a similar theoretical path to Cacciari (although more Heidegger / Schmitt than Benjaminian) Tronti remains linked to the concept of "minoritarian agency" and working-class partisanship, rather than Cacciari's own "mystical" turn. Here then is a rare example of a negative thought still committed to a conception of political agency and not conceding to the mystical or to the various "new positivities" of the affirmationist consensus. Tronti maintains the necessity for a ruptural "Nothing" and the right to rebel.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Many Mays

To read some analyses, you would think that 1968 took place in the heads of a few Parisian intellectuals. We must therefore remember that it is the product of a long chain of world events, and of a series of currents on international thought, that already linked the emergence of new forms of struggle to the production of a new subjectivity, if only in the critique of centralism and its qualitative claims concerning the ‘quality of life’. On the level of world events we can briefly quote the experiment with self-management in Yugoslavia, the Czech Spring and its subsequent repression, the Vietnam War, the Algerian War and the question of networks, but we can also point to the signs of a ‘new class’ (the new working class), the emergence of farmers’ or students’ unions, the so-called institutional psychiatric and educational centres, and so on. On the level of currents of thought we must no doubt go back to Lukács, whose History and Class Consciousness was already raising questions to do with a new subjectivity; then the Frankfurt school, Italian Marxism and the first signs of ‘autonomy’ (Tronti); the reflection that revolved around Sartre on the question of the new working class (Gorz); the groups such as ‘Socialism or Barbarism’, ‘Situationism’, ‘the Communist Way’ (especially Félix Guattari and the ‘micropolitics of desire’). Certain currents and events have continued to make their influence felt.
Deleuze, Foucault (1988: 150 n.45)

My (late) contribution to the May 68 "celebrations": the monstrous coupling Lukács-Deleuze.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Make it New

Oliver Feltham's Alain Badiou: Live Theory (2008) offers an elegant and ingenious solution to introducing Badiou: tracing the way in which his work thinks change. He traces this through three sequences: the Althusserian, the Maoist, and set-theoretical. Why I found the book particularly engaging was that it foregrounds the question of the historical in Badiou's work. It does so through a rather strange bestiary, in part (I'm guessing) derived from Bataille's "The Old Mole and the prefix 'Sur'". We have the eagle: the figure of decisionism and abrupt rupture. Feltham's elegant (and Derridian) solution to the problem of whether Badiou is decisionist or not is instead to argue that this one stratum or moment in his texts. We have the old mole: the figure of patient tracking and analysis of situations (and the figure favoured by Feltham). Finally, we have the "owl" (Minervan obviously): the figure of the long-distance vision of change.

It is this final figure that interested me, partly because I have tended to associate Badiou more with conjunctural rather than long-term perspectives and partly because it intersects with my own project on longue durée Marxism. The owl seems to play a strange role in the text; on the one hand it can lead to a "right Badiousianism", in which interventions and truth procedures pass on one to another, leading to new situations but seemingly without much sense of progress. This is something like the accusation of the "randomisation of history" Perry Anderson levelled at post-structuralism (yes, he will appear in every post...). On the other hand this perspective of the owl is one from which "the occurence of events is assured; they may not happen everywhere and all the time, but events have occurred and will occur." (105) In a sense then the "owl" guarantees change. So, we have a play of three moments and this, interestingly, seems to correlate (in a way) with Braudel's division of time into structure [owl], conjuncture [mole] and event [eagle].*

There is far more to Feltham's book than this, including some fascinating remarks on the evental site and a re-writing of Badiou's de-throning of philosophy in terms of overlapping incompletions. There is also a highly amusing, if rather short, interview with Badiou himself. This is one of the debits, along with a lack of full discussion of LM** (perhaps due to reasons of space), some problems in the bibliography and rather odd indexing. These problems should not discourage you from buying or otherwise "obtaining" the book. After Peter Hallward I had thought another introduction to Badiou would be pointless; Oliver disproves this.

*This division could also be linked to Immanuel Wallerstein's recent paper on the future, in which he suggests political strategies for operating at these different temporal "levels" (a paper I will discuss in a future post).
** advertised as the "sequel" to Being and Event - prompting Alberto to joke perhaps they will advertise Theory of the Subject as the prequel...

Mao-Beckett: pseudo-couple

‘Fight, fail, fight again, fail again, fight again … till there is victory; that is the logic of the people.’

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Creative Work

"For far too long the accent was placed on creativity. People are only creative to the extent they avoid tasks and supervision. Work is a supervised task - its model: political and technical work - is attended by dirt and detritus, intrudes destructively into matter, is abrasive to what is already achieved, critical toward its conditions, and is in all this opposite to that of the dilettante luxuriating in creation."
Walter Benjamin, 'Karl Kraus'

Benjamin's comment offers a powerful articulation against the "beautiful soul" form of the creative ideology, in which the creator is somehow immune from assessment or measurement while all the time really engaged with the new discourse of creative production (otherwise known as "Having your cake and eating it").

Of course we could argue that that Benjamin's Brechtian "productivism", which runs against his image as a dilettante artist of fragments (the "W G Sebald effect" as Owen has remarked), risks recuperation in the new discourse of the "creative industries". Here "creativity" - qua the perpetual parade of false novelties required by capitalism - is placed under supervision through the usual mechanisms, not only of the market but also of various funding bodies and academic metrics. Here then "technical work" is equated with work for the market and supervision with conformity to funding requirements.

I would argue, however, that it this discourse of "productivity" or "value creation" in the arts that is what makes operative the "luxuriation in creation"; in the fashion identified by Žižek the ideology of creativity operates by allowing a cynical distance towards production, which is what then preserves that creative industry. As a "free" artist I engage in my process of creation at some supposed distance from work and the market, all the while with an eye on that market. After all, in the end, what is left to judge the worth of creation except money? That is how the doxa has it.

In this situation Badiou's point becomes all the more true: "It is better to do nothing than to work formally toward making visible what the West declares to exist."

In a sense Benjamin's over-identification with technical work disrupts the minimal distance of the creative ideology - it suggests a guide to disrupting the existent regime of visibilities. It does so, precisely, by articulating an effect of negativity (being "attended by dirt and detritus, intrud[ing] destructively into matter, [and] abrasive to what is already achieved"). This is what overturns the relentlessly positivities of creativity, whether encoded in the figure of the artist dilettante or the reconvened under the sign of measures and financial reward. This is truly the labour of the negative against the ideology of creativity.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Blame the epigones

It's always the epigones isn't it? Those annoying intellectual pygmies who take the thought of the master too seriously and try to extend and develop it. Obviously, not being masters they always get it wrong and even if they should by some miracle get it right they are merely unoriginal. There is something that I find highly distasteful and deeply suspicious about such lines of argument - I think that I've only once used the word and then it was to state that various thinkers were extending an existent line of thought in the original thinker.

A number of more critical points could be made about such arguments. First, it's often a useful way of disavowing the attack, or picking on the weak (pick on someone your own size). What's also interesting is the refusal to 'name names' - again I'm not calling for gratuitous insult but what always used to annoy me about assaults on "postmodernism" was that it was always "postmodernists say this", who? where? and analyse why they are wrong. Second, we could take Žižek's Hegelian point that such "realisations" are part of the original theory. Stop searching for supposed deviations and treat Bourdieu's Secret Admirer in the Caucasus as part of the unfolding of Bourdieu's theory. Third, how would we make sense of Badiou's concept of fidelity without the epigone? Of course the epigone is taken as meaning 'lesser' or 'minor' follower, but why should we regard it as necessarily something to be treated as negative? Of course we could perform a Deleuzian re-reading of the minor as one place to start, and we could also interrogate the implicit concepts of originality and novelty at work here (as well as mastery).

That said, obviously we do need ways to distinguish good work from bad. I'm not for some levelling, but rather a sense of refinement and probity in these kinds of accusations / arguments. Trying to think of positive epigones its interesting that my immediate thoughts are of psychoanalysis and marxism - those two strange discursive fields in which to return to the original texts ‘constitutes an effective and necessary task of transforming the discursive practice itself’ (Foucault). Still, in psychoanalysis Ferenczi, Winnicott, Lacan, or in Marxism, Benjamin, Lukacs, Bordiga (to choose my personal favourites from long lists) suggest 'epigone' could be a category to be re-valued (as Dave Beech and John Roberts have done with the 'philistine'.

Having been an epigone (of Derrida should you be wondering) and never being someone who will reach the dizzy heights of 'master' then I would say this.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Insulting the Audience

What happened to the lost art of (Marxist) insult? The past master of this art was of course Guy Debord. This is a classic:

One of us remembers him at the College de France in 1966, sitting in on Hyppolite's course on Hegel's Logic, and having to endure a final session at which the master invited two young Turks to give papers. "Trois etapes de la degenerescence de la culture bourgeoise francaise," [three stages of the degeneration of French bourgeois culture] said Debord as the last speaker sat down. "Premierement, l'erudition classique"[at first, classical erudition]-he had in mind Hyppolite himself, who had spoken briefly at the start of things-"quand meme base sur une certaine connaissance generale. Ensuite le petit con stalinien, avec ses mots de passe, 'Travail,' 'Force' et 'Terreur.' Et enfin-derniere bassesse-le semiologue." [even if based on a certain general knowledge. Then comes the little Stalinist cunt, with his words from the past, 'Work,' 'Strength,' and 'Terror.' And finally - the last degradation - the semiologist].

In the same article TJ Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith do their best to revive the art, and I particularly like this comment on Eric Hobsbawm (and anyone else who has read his insufferably pompous autobiography might sympathise):

Eric Hobsbawm's "history of the short twentieth century"-his "report," as one wag put it, "to a Central Committee that just isn't there any more." The very idea of pressing too hard on Hobsbawm's omissions and excuses as a historian was denounced a priori by NLR as "anti-Communist." One law for young-Hegelians, it seems, and another for unrepentant Stalinists. To have been over-optimistic about the revolutionary potential of the Watts proletariat is one thing; to have spent one's life inventing reasons for forced collectivization, show trials, the Great Terror, the suppression of the East German and Hungarian uprisings, and so on ad nauseam, quite another. The former is the ranting of primitive rebels, the latter the hard analytic choices of Marxist history.
In fact in reply to one of their barbs Peter Woollen objected their essays "bile and flashes of sectarianism", "their incessant jabs and slurs", and, in true school-teacher style pronounced "I can see no place for the old S.I. habit of ad hominem personal invective, which T. J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith still seem to value. I cannot believe it encourages better understanding of anything. In truth, I am really surprised they wish to keep it alive." Refusing the usual propition Clark/Nicholson-Smith replied "If such counterattacks are ad hominem, that is because it is people who misrepresent and keep silent - not just "signs and meanings.""
What prompts my concern and interest in the loss of this art - or its marginalisation - is that I regard it as implying an effect of political disorientation. The inability to pin a thinker down politically in such a fashion seems to imply loss of confidence in such positions (or the usual fear of being "reductive"). This concern has been spurred by my own work on Latour and Savonarola's comment; as well as completing a review essay of which it has been simultaneously suggested that I could have been harsher and that I was becoming an "old curmudgeon" (becoming?).
Of course, we could say with Peter Wollen this is an art well lost; being both (potentially) childish and presupposing a ridiculous level of political confidence. Personally, to add to the irony, I have a mortal fear of being insulting (although, perhaps because of that, I am often inadvertantly insulting). What's lost, however, is the capacity to identify and critique with great rapidity and so to avoid the way in which textual complexity can be deployed against political or theoretical judgement. In the case of Latour, from his published positions, he's pretty obviously right-wing in a fairly repellent (to me) manner. This doesn't obviously invalidate everything he says / does, but the fact this politics doesn't seem much discussed or pointed out seems to me an indication of lack of confidence from the "left".
In fact, the more one examines the political positions taken by thinkers in theory (my field) the more disquieting it often becomes - especially because of a common running together of political and theoretical radicalism often leads to the occlusion of awkward questions of what people did politically. Of course we are all familiar with the endlessly debated "grand" cases - but here if any rapid insulting or positioning gets done it is usually from the liberal centre (or what I would regard as the liberal right...). The exception that proves the "rule" (until my speculative contention is blown out of the water) is Žižek - who is constantly subject to such labelling (in fact it would be amusing to compile a full list of such ad hominem insults and the range of political and other quirks they embody - I'm guessing it would cover a wide range). Žižek himself doesn't engage in the practice and seems bemused and irritated about how he attracts such criticisms - although he is certainly an excellent critic and not inclined to mercy. This is true of In Defence of Lost Causes (2008), although complicated by his statement about frienship at the beginning that invites the reader to sift which vicious criticisms are truly personal and which comradely. An odd moment which I don't know if anyone out there has attempted or can guage.

The exception on the side of engaging in such political positioning is Perry Anderson. While light on actual insult his work exemplifies a mode I much admire - the "slow blade" (cf. Dune), in which a devastating critique is dressed in the guise of positive or neutral report. In terms of actual political insult I hear that Ian Birchall is such a practitioner, and certainly he writes a very stylish review - as in this monumental effort on French trotskyism.
In fact, to call for the return of the insult as an art is precisely to avoid the use of it to end thinking - a true insult (political or otherwise) makes us think and, at the same time, exposes thought to ridicule. No doubt this carries risks but sometimes the endless care and respect of the usual forms exhausts itself and functions conservatively (as an intellectual practico-inert). The (relative) absence of the art, to recurr to an over-used term, does seem to me "symptomatic" and (two for the price of one) "problematic" as well.

T. J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Why Art Can't Kill the Situationist International", October, Vol. 79, Guy Debord and the Internationale Situationniste (Winter, 1997), pp. 15-31 available here as well
Peter Wollen, T. J. Clark and Donald Nicholson-Smith, "Letters and Responses", October, Vol. 80, (Spring, 1997), pp. 149-151.

Friday, 18 July 2008

When to eat salmon mayonnaise (a brief note on the strategy of exodus)

"The skeletal structure of the exodus [abrupt deviation in the axis of discourse] is faithfully reproduced, though in the Lilliputian dimensions, by the countless jokes I have examined before. Let us recall at least one of them. A gentlemen in financial distress obtains a small loan from an acquaintance. The following day, his benefactor chances upon him in a restaurant eating salmon and mayonnaise. The gentlemen reprimands him resentfully: "Is that what you've used my money for?" "I don't understand you", replied the object of the attack; "if I haven't any money I can't eat salmon mayonnaise, and if I have some money I musn't eat salmon mayonnaise. Well, then, when am I to eat salmon mayonnaise?"
(from Freud)"*

This is Paolo Virno on the strategy of exodus from his latest work to be translated Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation (discussed at length in an excellent post by Steve Shaviro). I really just don't get the strategy of exodus. Of course I understand the idea of (line of) flight, displacement from existing structures, the evasion of factory labour, and (god help me) the flight of the Israelites from slavery (if only I'd paid more attention in Sunday school now I would be more likely to be an internationally-famous theorist). I'd simply like to hear about more concrete examples, especially in the current context - in particular what we might call self-consciously political strategies rather than 'objective' instances of exodus (ie form of economic migration).**

Even in terms of the joke it's hard to see it as a simple instance of successful displacement, but rather a recognition of the imposition of the impossibility of displacement. Within the framework set-up by the self-styled donor what the recipient registers is that they can never eat salmon mayonnaise (although of course they are - perhaps that's the displacement). It reminds me of "jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, never jam today".

* in case this has made you hungry here's a recipe for salmon mayonnaise
** I find particularly unconvincing the reading of such instances as really being examples of political activity:
"I do not believe that these migrants are only trying to escape poverty; I believe they are also seeking freedom, knowledge and wealth. Desire is a constructive potenza and is particularly powerful when it is implanted in poverty: poverty, in fact, is not simply misery, but is also the possibility of very many things, which desire indicates and labour produces. The migrant has the dignity of the person who seeks after truth, production, and happiness. And this is the strength that breaks the enemy's capacity to isolate and exploit, and which removes, together with the supposed Prometheanism, every heroic and/or theological tendency from the behaviour of the poor and subversive." (Negri, Reflections on Empire, p.30) While not denying any agency to migrants, and seeing them as passive subjects of capitalist processes, one has to inquire into how exactly this agency will form itself into resistance. On these problems in the context of internal migration in China, see this.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Marx & ANTs

This could be interesting. I'm a paid-up Latour sceptic, and I've just drafted my critical chapter on Latour for The Persistence of the Negative. Due to that, and previous interventions, I've read a hell of a lot of ANT material (once, a long time ago, I did my UG thesis using ANT and could have, in an alternative life, ended up as an ANT sociologist). It's all piled in my office and although 'no academic work goes unwasted' (claimed sage ex-friend of my partner), I really feel like I should have done more with it, but can't really face writing a book on networks / complexity etc.; mainly because it would be a hatchet job, frankly (where is our Lukacs circa The Destruction of Reason?),
For reasons PN will explain at length I sceptical about this whole kind of 'object' related direction ('affirmationism' as I call it), while at the same time having a kind of residual empirical pull towards it (I actually did Psychology instead of Philosophy as a UG because I wanted to do something more 'practical' - what a naive young man I once was). Of course if we sceptics / critics put in papers then we'd decide the direction of the conference. Perhaps the Badiou-style 'brigade of intervention' needs to be re-discovered. (I think Vincennes in the 1970s would have driven me to despair - I'd have wanted some proper teaching, it's all right for all those normaliens).
Still the place is also organising this, which makes me feel sick just to think about. And, looking at the list of topics, we could all be back in the cyberpunk hell of the 80s / 90s, particularly traumatic for technologically incompetent male theorists of a certain age...

:: Call for Papers, Presentations, and Interventions ::
The State of Things: Towards a Political Economy of Artifice and Artefacts
April 29th to May 1st, 2009
Centre for Philosophy and Political Economy, University of Leicester
Keynote speakers:
Tiziana Terranova, University of Naples L’orientale
Natalie Jeremijenko, New York University
Nick Dyer-Witheford, University of Western Ontario
In a more wistful moment, Marx asked what commodities would say if they could speak. Surely, if he listened long enough, they would have announced the various traumas of their exploitatative and violent birthing to him. Eventually, one imagines, they would have described the nature of the various forms of labour necessary for their production as the apparitionally elementary components of the capitalist mode of production.
So would the commodity’s autobiography be the same now, one wonders.

Today we live in a much different state of things: the artifice of artefacts is evident all around us. A parliament of communication technologies, from RFIDS to bluetooth devices, constantly exchange information and network all around and through us. Wireless networks of communication, control, and cooperation proliferate in mysterious ways, all speaking an infra-language of organization, inscribing new techniques of governance. But these networks have become all the more indiscernible by the open secret of their appearance.
Developments in Actor Network Theory and autonomist technoscience studies have made a turn towards the economic. What does this bode for the field of organization studies? Will these two movements join in an encompassing view of posthuman economic institutions? Will ANT provide the definitive answer to the interrelation of economics, politics and objects? These two yet separated strands of economy and politics might provide a good opportunity to revisit the problematics of objects and their commodification, combining them with more traditional approaches.
This conference therefore proposes a return to the study of objects and artifacts and the various logics and dispositifs that underlie the formation of their fields of power, while combining them with modern and more classical forms of political economy. Themes could include, but are not limited to:
- Protocols and networked governance
- Diagrams and control
- The return of resistentialism and insubordinate objects
- Army ANTs and the bones left behind
- ANT and the networks of economies
- Imaginary futures and technological dis/utopian visions
- The affective states of machinic interaction
- Anachronous inquiries and steampunk dreams
- P2P commons, conflict, and governance
- Interpretative labor and semantic webs
- Extended minds and their cognitive scaffolding
- Posthuman artificing
- Artefacts, black boxes and governance
- The art of commodifying the artificed Network
- Immaterial politics of networking
- The estrangement of networks
- Marx’s Laboratory Life vs. Engel’s Scallops
Please send proposals to Jenni Hern ( of 500 words or less by November 28th, 2008. Notification of acceptance will be provided by February 4th.
For more information go to or e-mail Simon Lilley (

Game Over Man

It has happened, at least according to Mike Davis (and the twenty-one members of the Geological Society of London commission). We have departed the Holocene - a 10,000 year inter-galcial warm period that happens to encompass the history of human 'civilisation' (cue Ghandi's joke) -for the Anthropocene - a new 'stratigraphic' interval dated from 1784 and the invention of the steam engine. The result, Davis forecasts is that:

the current ruthless competition between energy and food markets, amplified by international speculation in commodities and agricultural land, is only a modest portent of the chaos that could soon grow exponentially from the convergence of resource depletion, intractable inequality, and climate change. The real danger is that human solidarity itself, like a West Antarctic ice shelf, will suddenly fracture and shatter into a thousand shards.

I won't dispute the science, because of a lack of ability, or Davis's diagnosis, which seems to indicate the existent tendencies - an abandonment of large swathes of humanity coupled to retreat into the 'Evil Paradises' of neoliberalism by the rich. Of course it gives an entirely new meaning to Rosa Luxemburg's alternative of socialism or barbarism. Not only does this 'choice' imply barbarism will operate in the absence of socialism, it now implies barbarism can bring an end to habitable existence for most of humanity and so the possibility of socialism. In Luxemburg's formulation the choice was uneasily tied to historical necessity. [1] If we doubt that necessity - immanently operating through the existent contradictions - then the prognosis is bleak. The Pasclian wager on revolution, whether activist or not, has its own expiry date.

Worse than that, if Davis is correct (and contra optimists like Negri) the existent tendencies are steadily eroding any possiblity of human solidarity that would be necessary to stop barbarism - whether that took the form of 'revolution' or any other sort of collective action for equality. The 'historical necessity' then appears (and I'd be happy to be wrong) to be moving in the opposite direction.

That said, and perhaps fiddling while Rome burns, I always find something disturbing about the tone of the work of Mike Davis. His work displays a taste for the apocalyptic and an evident interest in the technical details of destruction. He displays, to quote Guns n' Roses (never thought you'd see that) an 'appetite for destruction'. Thinly veiled by diagnosis it seems that a desire for destruction and apocalypse seeps through - car bombs on the streets of Los Angeles, 'burn, Malibu, burn', and the 'anarchist avengers'. One has to suspect that this is a result of the seeming disappearance of agency in the face of historical defeat. The recourse of Davis to biological metaphors here (and not only bio-history which is perfectly fine) disturbs because it threatens a good-old naturalisation of social relations. The 'typical', or at least typical of his worst books, Davis passage, involves summation of others research re-written in the style of William Gibson coupled to the techno-thriller via the new complexity theories. Everything is 'viral', 'coiled in DNA', or latched on to technical specifications (his Buda's Wagon (2007) makes him the Tom Clancy of the Left).

I can't say that I'm immune to the attraction of this discourse myself, through a toxic combination of childhood militarism (coupled to 80s nuclear anxiety), adolescent nihilism, and baseline pessimism.


[1] "We now realize the absolute truth of the statement formulated for the first time by Marx and Engels as the scientific basis of socialism in the great charter of our movement, the Communist Manifesto. Socialism, they said, will become a historical necessity. Socialism is inevitable not merely because proletarians are no longer willing to live under conditions imposed by the capitalist class, but further because, if the proletariat fails to fulfil its duties as a class, if it fails to realize socialism, we shall crash down to a common doom."

Monday, 14 July 2008

Fear of Flying

Ulm 1592.

Said the Tailor to the Bishop:
Believe me, I can fly.
Watch me while I try.
And he stood with things
That looked like wings
On the great church roof-
That is quite absurd
A wicked, foolish lie,
For man will never fly,
A man is not a bird,
Said the Bishop to the Tailor.

Said the People to the Bishop:
The Tailor is quite dead,
He was a stupid head.
His wings are rumpled
And he lies all crumpled
On the hard church square.

The bells ring out in praise
That man is not a bird
It was a wicked, foolish lie,
Mankind will never fly,
Said the Bishop to the People.
Berthold Brecht, The New Reasoner 3 1957-58

Lucio Magri's article 'The Tailor of Ulm' in the latest New Left Review presents a depressing conspectus on the present fate of Marxism. While in Brecht's parable the Bishop was proved wrong and the tailor right the allegorical reading in relation to communism produces some disturbing questions:
"Can we be sure that if the tailor of Ulm had been crippled rather than killed by his disastrous fall,he would immediately have got to his feet to try again; or that his friends would not have tried to prevent him doing so? And secondly, what actual contribution did he make to the subsequent history of aeronautics? In relation to Communism, such questions are especially pointed and difficult—above all because, at its theoretical formation, it had claimed to be not an inspiring ideal, but part of a historical process already under way, and of a real movement that was changing the existing state of things. Communism therefore always entailed a factual test, a scientific analysis of the present and a realistic prognosis of the future, to prevent it dissolving into myth." (48)

The New

Also, if you can you should order this for yourself, or for your local / university library. I didn't personally know Sam but I have read a little of his work on Badiou, which raises key questions especially around my own current thinking of the negative. Also, re-press fast seem to be turning into the 'good' semiotext(e), which is rather nice to see.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

If Wilbur Whateley had Pay-Pal

He'd buy this:and he would have saved himself this:
"The thing that lay half-bent on its side in a foetid pool of greenish-yellow ichor and tarry stickiness was almost nine feet tall, and the dog had torn off all the clothing and some of the skin. It was not quite dead, but twitched silently and spasmodically while its chest heaved in monstrous unison with the mad piping of the expectant whippoorwills outside. Bits of shoe-leather and fragments of apparel were scattered about the room, and just inside the window an empty canvas sack lay where it had evidently been thrown. Near the central desk a revolver had fallen, a dented but undischarged cartridge later explaining why it had not been fired. The thing itself, however, crowded out all other images at the time. It would be trite and not wholly accurate to say that no human pen could describe it, but one may properly say that it could not be vividly visualized by anyone whose ideas of aspect and contour are too closely bound up with the common life-forms of this planet and of the three known dimensions. It was partly human, beyond a doubt, with very manlike hands and head, and the goatish, chinless face had the stamp of the Whateley's upon it. But the torso and lower parts of the body were teratologically fabulous, so that only generous clothing could ever have enabled it to walk on earth unchallenged or uneradicated."
Reza's work operates a radicalised "thought of the outside" (Foucault), in which the subject is subjected to the "torture" of "being opened by" the negative. Against "affordance" in all its forms (which I tend to parse as an ontological "recuperation"), this is metaphysics as politics - "twisted affirmation" that concedes nothing to the current affirmationist consensus, by inscribing nothing through subtraction at any and all points.

Let me tell you about my mother...

The excellent new issue (although some of the proofing / translating is very poor on the texts I've looked at) of The Symptom includes not only the essential "Extimity" by Jacques-Alain Miller, but also a very strange (to me) text by Alain Badiou on his own philosophical biography. Better if you read it that if I summarise. Perhaps it is simply that I find such "revelations" embarrassing and slightly distasteful (which is itself odd due to my own interests in psychoanalysis). Certainly Badiou, as one would expect, links these biographical elements to the formal elaboration of his own philosophy, but at some level I prefer the inhuman image of the philosopher (or writer, artist, musician etc.). That is why I was quite happy to write my first book on a thinker who was dead, and while working now on living thinkers I have little or no desire to meet any of them.

All along the watchtower

His aloof­ness, in these as in other matters, gained him the reputation of "the Olympian"; and the label was not always meant to be flattering. But his Olympian appearance was due least of all to an inner indifference to the fate of his contemporaries. It veiled his drama: his incapacity and reluctance to identify himself with causes, each an inextricable tangle of right and wrong.
Isaac Deutscher, 'The Conscience of the Ex-Communist' (1950)

Perry Anderson: éminence grise of the New Left Review / Verso, historian, contributor to the LRB, and looking here, to my mind, somewhat like Alec Guinness as George Smiley.

What exerts a fascination for me is his resolutely "extraterrestrial" stance (the line is Gregory Elliott's). His scanning of the times always inhabits a disabused longue durée, that never fails to irritate and annoy others on the Left (including myself). The spatial and temporal metaphorics that inhabit his work, and the commentary of others on him, always suggest distance, if not absence - to quote Ian Birchall, "Anderson is a somewhat reclusive individual (as one who has been active on the left for over 45 years, I have seen Anderson in the flesh just once)".

To grasp the style we can take a recent example "Jottings of the Conjuncture" - a typically modest title - in which Anderson examines the state of the times and four alternative narratives of the left (Tom Nairn's Faces of Nationalism, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt's Empire, Giovanni Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century and Adam Smith in Beijing, and Malcom Bull's 'States of Failure'). His summary of these efforts might well stand for his own stance: '[t]hese constructions form a set of imaginative enterprises, which seek to look beyond the epiphenomenal headlines of the period at longer-term logics of the world-historical changes we are living through.' (35) What differs is his conclusion. 'In this becalmed universe, the cry "Another World Is Possible" risks sounding increasingly desperate.' (10)

Supposedly, when challenged in 2000 on the question of rise of the anti-globalisation movement Anderson remarked "one swallow does not make a summer". We might take this as typical of Andersonian aloofness except that his very lack of enthusiasm seems also to indicate a certain analytical acumen. When the journal /collective Turbulence posed the question "What would it mean to win?" in 2007 what was noticeable, as Franco "Bifo" Berardi pointed out, is that none of the contributors could imagine an answer. (We might also add that Anderson has not endorsed the kind of pessimism that Berardi has succumbed to; the very "strength" of the Olympian stance is to neither indulge present enthusiasms or counsels of despair).

Of course such a stance is understandable anathema to large sections of the left, especially those concerned with activism. The tone of hostility to Anderson is best conveyed in a 1986 review essay by Peter Linebaugh on Anderson's In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (Verso, 1983). As Linebaugh was a one-time student of E.P. Thompson - polemical adversary of Perry Anderson - then the tone might not come as a surprise. It should be noted, however, that Linebaugh was no supine disciple of Thompson, as his memoir of his time as a student of Thompson's memorably makes clear (Linebaugh "From the Upper West Side").

The review is launched with the conceit of reading Anderson's book on a flight from Washington DC to New Orleans. This becomes the metaphor for Anderson's Olympian stance that cannot scan the class struggle operating below in the abode of production. For Linebaugh Anderson's language itself exemplifies this abstract 'stratospheric' academic position. Anderson is ultramontane, not so much the Pope of Marxism but taking orders from the Pope - his own self-construction of the classical tradition. 'He lives in an interesting time-warp: partly Baroque, partly public-school Bohemian, partly 60s-style Trotskyism.' (Linebaugh 143) A rather ad hominem construction but, to be overly psychoanalytic, can we detect the element of irritated fascination at work here?

There is much to agree with in Linebaugh's characterisation, and certainly Anderson's 'meta-Trotskyism' has never had much time for heterodox traditions of the left like the situationists. This appears to be the result of Anderson's conclusion, pre-1989, that state-capitalist theories of the USSR inevitably led to political disorientation and a shift to the right - true of certain dissident American trotskyites ("salon intellectuals"), but hardly doing justice to other traditions.
The sticking point, and this may explain Gregory Elliott's slightly halting turn to a more Andersonian position, is that Anderson's relentless scanning and refusal to provide bromides of a sudden turn for the better seems all the more resonant in the context of defeat. Whether Anderson's charting of this context may be excessive, and overly linked to his attachment to once existing "socialism"; the point still remains that in the absence of significant signs of class struggle on a scale that threatens to match the scale of capitalist "advance" the "extraterrestrial" Marxism of Perry Anderson has its own disabused actuality.
Perry Anderson, "Jottings on the Conjuncture." New Left Review 48 (Nov / Dec 2007): 5-37.

Ian Birchall, "New Left Review: The Search for Theory." International Socialism 115 (July 2007).

Peter Linebaugh, "In The Flight Path of Perry Anderson." History Workshop Journal 21 (1986): 141-146.

Peter Linebaugh, "From the Upper West Side to Wick Episcopi." New Left Review I / 201 (September-October 1993): 18-25.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

The Persistence of the Negative

A very early trail for my next book, The Persistence of the Negative: a critique of Contemporary Theory which has just been accepted by Edinburgh University Press. It's around half complete and the deadline is 2009 for completion with final publication in 2010. As I go on with it tasters, spin-offs, and other related matters will appear here. This is the 'blurb' as it stands:

The Persistence of the Negative offers an original and compelling critique of contemporary Continental theory through a rehabilitation of the negative. Against the usual image of rival thinkers and schools this book identifies and attacks a shared consensus on the primacy of affirmation and the expelling of the negative that runs through the leading figures of contemporary theory: Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Antonio Negri, and Alain Badiou. Not confined to theory this affirmationist consensus has echoed across the humanities, in which an emphasis on historical context, materiality, and the complexity and density of social relations have become the agreed doxa. While positioning the emergence of affirmative theory as a political response to the corrosive effects of contemporary capitalism and the waning of political agency, this book argues that all too often affirmation is left re-affirming the conditions of the present rather than providing the means to disrupt and resist them. Refusing to endorse an anti-theory position that would read theory as the symptom of political defeat The Persistence of the Negative traverses these leading thinkers in a series of lucid readings to reveal the disavowed effects of negativity operating within their work. In a radical new approach this subterranean current of negativity is developed to provide the conditions for thinking a disruptive sense of agency that can fracture the supposedly ‘smooth’ unfolding of global capitalism. Overturning the limits of recent debates on the politics of theory The Persistence of the Negative vigorously defends the return of theory to its political calling.