Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Always Historicise! Notes on Jameson

After the reading group on chapter one of Fredric Jameson's The Political Unconscious, hosted by the Institute, I wanted to post a few reflections. The first is that for a book with its famous motto Jameson's own references to literary theorisations seem very 1950s / 1960s: the new critics, Northrop Frye, Norman O. Brown, Greimas / Levi-Strauss. This is obviously not to condemn the book for being 'out of date' as such, but rather to note that this lag (for a book published in 1981) is not thematised as such. There is a sense, as the Institute pointed out, that the book seems to be trying to integrate an academic department with all its factions under the banner of Marxism, qua ecumenical / unifying principle.

Also striking is the theological and quasi-organicist reference to the 'whole body' as utopian trope, taken up in a quasi-Durkheimian moment and in a truly bizzare instance (in the conclusion) tracked through Marx's invocation of the Asiatic despot. This moment in Marx is made to stand-in for his lost thinking of community, which is odd considering that it can be tracked through more 'positive' moments in Marx, such as his remarks on the mir / commune, or his references to human community (Gemeinswesen) (cf. Camatte), or his references to species-being (Gattungswesen). Barring some weird residual Maoism this deliberate provocation seems to be linked to Jameson's argument for a left politics of collective alliances versus a pluralism that mimics capitalist alienation.

This also links to Jameson's constant reference to the unity of history as singular narrative, which is then used to license (in a tricksy move) the necessity for a hermeneutic that can reconstruct and mimic this unified historical narrative. Again what is strange in terms of historicisation is that this conception of history as 'what hurts', as the Real, and as the 'absent cause', only present through and in the effect of its textual traces, is not regarded as an effect of capital. Marx famously noted that 'world literature' become available as a category on the basis of capital; Jameson, instead, argues that history was whole before capital, fractured and broken-up by capital, and will be whole again - seemingly through a joint political and cultural revolution, prefigured by the political hermeneutic that can gather the limbs of Osiris.

This para-modernist reconstruction of the traces / fragments seems to depend on a model of formal subsumption in which history stands outside of capital - both before, during, and after, we could say. Gesturing already to the problematic of the disappearance of 'nature and the unconscious' that he would take up in the Postmodernism book, we could say that later work takes more seriously the problem of real abstraction and real subsumption that immanatises 'History', reduced, we could say, from Jameson's capitalisation. 'History' would no longer stand for some external standpoint, nor completely subsumed in the paranoic sense, but rather as presupposed by capital, as 'internal' resistance to it.

The final irony of historicising Jameson, which I am sure he would not be resistant to. It seems that The Political Unconscious stands not only on the threshold of defeat, hence it is an oddly 'sixties' book (a category Jameson himself has analysed), but also on the threshold between formal / real subsumption - caught in an uneasy formulation that leaves 'History' and the 'Real' as (bad) Kantian noumenal rather than internal impasse.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Capitalism on the Moon

I think, for example, of that relatively late mass cultural genre, the “space opera”; we would understand a great deal about the mechanics of mass culture and the ideological operation of this particular narrative form, if we could grasp the dynamics of that purely imaginative excitement and sense of adventure which readers derive from the contemplation of one of the most physically restrictive situations into which human beings can be thrust – if we could sense the intimate relationship between the libidinally gratifying experience of the reading of such texts and the unimaginably barren sensory privation which is their content and the “lived truth” of the experience of space flight.
Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious

Labour Metaphysics (some scattered and incoherent remarks)

We could treat the history of capital as unimportant because in 1845 (or 1867) and in 2007 it is identical in itself, and conclude that what was said of communism at its beginning is fixed in stone. But those who believe that the history of capital is without importance in the sense that, from the beginning, it is as it is in itself, have not yet managed to become Hegelian. Parmenides suffices. They leave the development alongside being as something which doesn’t form part of it, something accidental. Contrary to the Marx of 1843-46, if we can and must speak of revolution today as the abolition of work (and all the rest) we do it on the basis of the internal contradictions of the capitalist mode of production, of exploitation, of the situation of the proletariat, without any reference to the “person” of the proletariat, to a “human essence”, to “man as community”. We are in contradiction with capital on the basis of what we are, that is to say of what capital is, and not from what we could be, a potential which would somehow already exist as suffering. It is the breakdown of programmatism which, at the end of the sixties and beginning of the seventies, momentarily resurrected the very conditions of its emergence as if they could also be those of its overcoming. We momentarily all became Feuerbachians again, …some of us remained so. They have thus made of an ideology born of the failure of ’68, the eternal formula of the communist revolution.
Théorie Communiste, 'Much Ado About Nothing', trans. Endnotes

C Wright Mills famously remarked about the 'labour metaphysic' of the American New Left that made the proletariat 'the historic agency'. While this speaks to what we might call a strategic difference in terms of agential forms, it also speaks to the issue of the metaphysics of labour itself in Marx - or whether there actually is any such metaphysics. For example, Enrique Dussel treats 'living labour' as the 'creative source' of surplus-value, but rather than argue this is an immanent dynamic of the capital-relation instead he argues that living labour is in exteriority to the value totality of capitalism. [1] Dussel therefore affirms the positivity of living labour as the affirmation of otherness - an 'eternal' otherness. Hence his Shellingian critique, by drawing out Schelling's positive philosophy as the alternative to the 'negative' Hegel, appropriate for capital qua subject.
Chris Arthur follows Dussel to this point but dissents firstly on the appropriateness of the use of Schelling, although he concededs it could offer a useful analogy, and on the issue of labour as 'creative'. For Arthur labour is the source of value, but not creative of value. To be the source of value is to be that out of which capital creates value, while capital harnesses and exploits living labour to create value from this source. Capital is the 'creative' principle, but it does not create itself out of nothing. In this case labour is negated by capital, forming a 'contradictory unity' (here is where exteriority seems to lose its traction and a thinking of immanence take over, as Nicole outlines, or in a different form Theorie Communiste).

For Arthur labour is (still) the 'standpoint of critique', if the reality of this stand-point is 'historically open-ended'. In contrast, despite the backsliding identified by Nicole Pepperell, Postone insists that labour is the object of critique. In the form of their historicisation of capital Theorie Communiste would argue that these standpoints of exteriority (correlated with Schelling or with vitalism) are symptomatic of formal subsumption rather than real subsumption. That is, still conceptualising capital on its past modelling of labour as exteriority. While I think this is correct, and can only recommend Nicole's summary comment in the post below, the constant point of anxiety such models provoke is the seeming collapse of agency.

Whereas Wright Mills' point was that the horizon of the New Left was too constrained by a 'Victorian Marxism', the difficulty here seems to be the lack of forms that make-up the critique of labour / the rupture of the capital relation from within. Hence in the Historical Materialism symposium on Postone the recurrent charge that he completely evacuates agency. The difficulty here is between splitting a contradiction in unity and a contradiction that appears to only line-up on the side of capital; in the second case any standpoint of critique appears to be threatened because its immanence is always vulnerable to subsumption. This is excerbated in a time which seems to lack 'points' (to use Badiou's term).

This issue is further complicated by Virno's argument that within the current formation of real subsumption 'human nature' itself becomes visible as the site of subsumption. In this case we have not so much a vitalism, but the posing by capital (and the struggles within/against it) the question of the human in terms of the capacities that make us open to subsumption. In Virno's sense it is our very anthropological openness and dis-adaptation (our anti-nature we might say) that makes us all too suited to the 'nature' of capital as axiomatic machine of flexibility, mobility, and de-territorialisation. Again I see Nina's project as not simply 'becoming Feuerbachian' as a result of historical irony, but the attempt to think through the posing of the 'generic' human, and especially 'equality', within the anthroplogical determinations of capitalism.
It would also be on this unstable and deeply ambiguous line that projects of neuro-philosophy and eliminativism could be focused. On the one hand, styled as critiques of the self they appear as anti-humanist wedges against (why not?) bourgeois ideology, on the other hand, the flexbilisation of capital doesn't appear to have any necessary need for human subject as such, merely any form/content for accumulation. In a sense labour here as source of value within capital again comes into question; broadly whether the re-programming of our sensorium be oriented to value-extraction or in rupture with the law of value.
Here I'm sceptical of how far the second path can be taken without active struggle (itself something of a paradox in a paradigm which would regard 'will' and 'activity' as folk-psychological illusions). In a sense, as I understand it, SBA embraces this by placing the contradiction in capital; capital is a 'sorcerer's apprentice' that dissolves its own bases for accumulation. In contrast, it appears, Planomenology wants to follow the first path of critique, and it will be interesting to see how this deals with the problem of capital qua axiomatic and the seeming disappearance of agency as mere folk-relic of our psychology.

[1] The material on Dussel and Arthur is from Chris Arthur's review in HM 11.2 (2003).

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Christmas in July

Thanks to the Institute for a parcel of black metal to see me through the miserable summer and free books. As a further bonus have a read of The Italian Difference: Between Nihilism and Biopolitics, and (as usual) order for your library if you can - more details from Infinite. Also, a bonus price for Fanaticism...

Finally, again thanks to the Institute, check out this fascinating issue out of the post-split splinter of Aufheben.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Marxism as Vitalism?

Marx's comment in the Grundrisse that labour is the 'form-giving fire'; Dipesh Chakrabarty noting Marx's vitalist metaphorics of 'living labour'; Colletti noting Lukacs quasi-vitalist thematics in relation to alienation; Gramsci's use of Bergosonian thematics of will / action filtered through Sorel; Deleuze's re-coding of Marx in terms of Bergsonian problems; Negri's quasi-vitalism of singularities of excess / biopolitics; etc.

Now, I'm obviously not that happy with regarding Marxism as a vitalism, notably because of my suspicions of vitalism as a 'positive' ideological complement to capital (in fact ,its 'fit' to the value-form in implying an irreducible excess of labour always available for tapping). But it's true that there is no immediate reason to argue that Marxism isn't a form of vitalism. After all the excess of 'living labour' over any disciplining into 'abstract labour' seems to imply a vitalist thematic. The question here, I think, is one of immanence. If Marx is positing an immanent antagonism, which I think is correct, when that antagonism seems to lose effectivity then we may turn to an ontological or anthropological grounding.

Even more tricky is that Marx's arguments concerning capital's dependance on living labour for value production seems also to imply an anthropological / ontological 'surplus', in that living labour can never be fully captured. Of course, this implies an historically determined conception of the human, but, no doubt, it is not difficult to ask where this capacity comes from; is it a 'constant' or 'invariant' linked to human anthropological capacities or the 'nature of Being' (this question arose for me around Daily's Humiliation's remarks on Hallward's concept of will).

The other tendency, which I find more interesting, is what we might call an excess of the negative or an anthropology of refusal. Rather than defining the human / Being in terms of some quality of excess in and over any capitalist 'capture' here it is a matter of a strategy of refusal within the extraction / disciplining of labour. This is give a purely strategic form in Tronti, given the philosophical / ontological form of im-potentia by Agamben, and inflected anthropologically by Virno. We might call it the Bartleby option.

Again the question would be can this be given an immanent form in relation to the capital relation or does it require or imply anthropological / ontological commitments? I'm hoping the first, but the difficulty of evading the second, perhaps best thought out in Nina's generic equalitarian form of the 'human', is undeniable.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Notes on Historical and Speculative Materialism

I can highly recommend N. Pepperell's 'What's the Matter with Marx? Notes on Marx's Immanent Critique of Materialism', from the 'Immanence and Materialism' conference. With economy and elegance Pepperell established the essentially reflexive and historical nature of Marx's immanent critique of capital and indicates the explicit or residual Kantianism of existing critical Marxisms. The issue here is how Marx constructs, for example, a critique of labour not based on a transhistorical category of labour, but rather on capital's revelation of the form of labour as real abstraction that then allows a retrospective resignification of labour as a crucial form to social formations. The result is a 'presuppositionless' critique, which does not depend on transhistorical or transcendent 'material' categories, but on the analysis of abstractions that are created in practice and produced as social realities. Marx is concerned with 'how this specific kind of materiality [real abstraction] is actively produced by historically specific forms of interaction between humans and other objects'. We therefore don't have a constrast between real material categories and 'merely' socially-specific materiality, but rather the historical determination of social and material determinations.

Of course from the position of speculative materialism / realism all this may sound (or be) highly correlationist. The difficulty it raises, however, is how to be materialist (or realist) if one cannot grasp the 'reality' or 'materiality' of real abstractions, precisely as historically-generated forms that both undercut or 'deconstruct' the usual distinctions of material / immaterial or real / unreal, and which also play determining roles in our thinking of materiality or reality. In that sense Marx does privilege one form of 'materiality' or 'reality', because these real abstractions shape thought and practice itself under capital, not because they are always and everywhere (more) true or (more) real. Of course, as Pepperell notes, this not just to build a better theory, 'but rather to articulate theoretically, insights that arise from a practical process that makes available certain concepts and certain practical realities which have the ability to explode capitalism from the inside.'

To paraphrase Horkheimer, if one' wishes to speak of metaphysics or ontology, one must first speak of capital'.

i.m. Giovanni Arrighi

See here

Real Horrorshow

Thanks to Reza for bringing to attention the new download of Collapse IV; I second Reza's votes on what to read and include his piece (but not mine... don't bother).

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Further Reading / Listening

A few things to note for those in search of summer reading and listening:

1. Filozofski Vestnik International Edition is online with downloadable PDFs; I'm currently going to be reading through the issue on 'Nothing' although I can also recommend the issue on 'Radical Philosophy?'.

2. 21st Century materialism MP3s from Zagreb - I've been slowly catching up on these, one of the ironies is that no one really seems to be a materialist...

3. Peter Hallward's article on the 'Will of the People' from RP, pdf here (thanks to Daily Humiliation for bringing this to my attention - I bought the issue (I'm not always cheap)).

4. Staff texts from CRMEP at Middlesex.

5. Texts from the QMU Immanence and Materialism conference. I've read Matteo Mandarini's, which I thought was excellent - a model of economy and style (why can't I write / give papers like that?).

6. Parallax Ranciere texts now available here, thanks to prologus for bringing this to my attention.

Monday, 6 July 2009

The Parallax View

Further to my piece below, Nina Power has a new piece in the latest issue of Parallax on Ranciere / Feuerbach / and equality. Anyone want to post me the pdf of the issue please do, as we don't get it and I'm too cheap to pay for it... I'd also be interested to read the piece by Bram Ieven (a friend), and Ranciere's reply (does he get all Zizek on them? Probably not).
[Thanks to Michael and Bram for the PDFs - Ranciere does not 'do a Zizek', but instead writes about himself in the third person - he puts a lot of stress on the fact that he is not a philosopher / theorists and that his works are 'mere' interventions. I'm not sure that quite cuts it.]

Sunday, 5 July 2009

Marxism as a Culture, or Towards a New Reformation

Gillian Rose's excellent Hegel Contra Sociology (1981 / 2009) has just been re-issued by Verso, unfortunately minus the hilariously niggardly back cover comment on the Athlone original by (I think) Giddens, which (from memory) read something like 'this book is suitable for postgraduates or highly-advanced undergraduates'. It is a truly difficult book, at least for me, which I unequivocally recommend.
I want to reflect on her final conclusions and the link they make to a number of contemporary projects (not speculative realist). This is no attempt to create a 'movement' or 'group' (and no mention of Freud's 'you say this isn't my mother, so' thanks), but rather to articulate a shared problem or problematic.

In her conclusion 'The Culture and Fate of Marxism' Rose chides Marx for reproducing the antinomies (especially theory / practice) he claims to be transcending, thereby remaining Kantian or Fichtean. It is only when Marx isn't trying to be self-conscious that he approaches a more speculative grasping of Hegelian actuality / spirit. This lacuna means that Marx does not develop a true understanding of subjectivity; leaving subjects as mere 'bearers' of relations, and reducing them to these defining functions. Marx is too literal and reductive, missing the Hegelian lesson that religion and art re-present relations, including a lack of identity.

The attraction of Marx's theory of commodity fetishism is that it is closest to the truly speculative position: 'It comes nearest to demonstrating in the historically-specific case of commodity producing society how substance is ((mis)-represented as) subject, how necessary illusion arises out of productive activity.' (Rose 232) A true phenomenology of such relations would articulate an educative and cultural function of re-forming consciousness. 'Missing from Marx's oeuvre is any concept of culture, of formation and re-formation (Bildung).' (Rose 233) Marxism itself inhabits this aporia - trying to supply the lacking 'culture', and instantiating it, but without having an idea of it. Rather than Marxism being a simply deviation from the verities, we could therefore argue it constantly struggle with this absence.

Perhaps in ways that Rose would not agree with I would argue that a number of contemporary theoretical projects try to articulate this lack in Marxism as culture, especially the lack of a thinking of subjectivity as re-formation of its determinations. This would include Alberto Toscano's work on fanaticism as site of political (and anti-political) subjectivation, Nina Power's work on a post-Beckettian / Badiouian / Feuerbachian philosophical anthropology of the generic / infinite (pdf), Peter Hallward's re-formulation of 'will' as a political category (pdf), Evan Calder William's articulation of non-dialectical dialectical negativity, Owen Hatherley's new proletkult, and even my own efforts on a rehabilitation of a non-dialectical negativity.
In each case (I think) the absence of the articulation of subjectivity by Marx (or perhaps better put the limits of that articulation) are crucial. Here lies the importance of Badiou as a vector (less so obviously for Owen and Evan, but true enough for the rest). What Badiou provides is a thinking of subjectivity not attached to finitude / decay / et al. This I think animates IT's point, which we can butress with this quote from Badiou (always worth repeating):

artists, the “creative” people of our day – choreographers, painters, video-makers – track the self-evidence of bodies, of the desiring and machinic life of bodies, of their intimacy, their nudity, their entwinings and ordeals. They all adapt the inhibited, quartered and soiled body to the domain of fantasies and dreams.

The necessity of Badiou is precisely his rupture with the ideological coordinates of capitalist subjectivity, a la Lukacs, through a rationalist hostility to all neo-vitalisms. I regard Badiou's work as (partly) an askesis of capitalist subjectivity.
The counter limit of Badiou's thinking, to be brief, is the inability to articulate this subjectivity truly as a culture (again an over-statement, cf. The Century - his most Hegelian work I would be tempted to argue (the indebtedness to The Phenomenology of Spirit saturates this work)).
Here is where the question of real abstraction enters as the culture of capital, and the fact that each of these projects endeavours to articulate subjectivity within and through this real determination of consciousness, while arguing the necessity of tracking its de-formations and possibility of re-formation: 'a presentation of the contradictory relations between Capital and culture is the only way to link the analysis of the economy to comprehension of the conditions for revolutionary practice.' (Rose 235)