Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Concrete v Abstract

The 'play on the words 'concrete' and 'real'' Althusser notes in Reading Capital as lying at the core of an empiricist problematic is alive and well in the 'happy positivism' (Foucault) of the present forms of theoretical and academic inquiry. Commenting on Politzer's attempt to produce a 'concrete psychology', which he acidly notes 'was never followed by any works', Althusser states: 'All the virtue of the term 'concrete' was in fact exhausted in its critical use, without it ever founding the slightest amount of knowledge which only exists in the 'abstraction' of concepts.' (42 n.18)

It is not a matter of rehabilitating 'classical' Althusserianism, a project Althusser himself problematised and critiqued. However, the abandonment of Althusser for Foucault, especially in the Anglo-American context, seems to also abandoned the problem of the 'concrete' and 'abstract'. While Althusser certainly valorised Foucault's historical analyses as models of non-linear and 'contingent' histories, the effect of 'randomisation' (Anderson) returned to afflict the politics of inscribing the 'concrete'. What Foucault provides, amongst others, and to reiterate Adorno's critique of Benjamin, is the 'crossroads of magic and positivism'.

In fact, in line with my characterisation of affirmationism, 'low' or 'popular' affirmationism, which usually rejects 'grand theory', inhabits this play on words of the concrete and real. The generalised historicism and culturalism turns on the 'material', on a doxa in which networks, nonhuman agents, and materialities, hold centre stage (and although the language is Latourian it is by no means confined to his work). Certainly the 'pull' of this empiricism and positivism also addresses disciplinary demands, reinforced by funding bodies and government agendas, for research that engages with that supreme abstraction: 'the real world'. Working on printing technologies, garbage disposal, executions, et al is somehow more 'real' and 'concrete' that 'merely' working on texts.

There is a kind of softening of theory, in which concepts that threatened to problematise this schema - from Marx's 'real abstraction' to the Derridean 'trace' (and we could note Derrida's return to Marx in the 'spectre') - are quietly dropped or re-tooled along 'material', 'concrete' lines: the 'city as text' or 'palimpsest' for example, certain forms of 'market psychogeography' (which Owen has often rightly criticised), the cultural density of the life-world, and so on. The turn to the 'concrete' can encompass a return to order, such as biographical models in literature, or 'real' objects in history, as well as a new order of re-theorised 'concreteness' - in the whole 'hodge-podge' of cultural history, history of objects, fascination with 'technics', networks, etc., in which we have a strange literalisation of Husserl's injunction 'return to the things themselves'. In this case we have a kind of pseudo-concrete, or what Alberto Toscano calls 'warm(er) abstractions'.

This is not to dimiss out of hand all such work, which would be both stupid and naive. In fact, within this kind of work we can find attempts to think ways out of this play on words. In the recent Collapse Eyal Weizman talks of 'political plastics' as a way not to treat the material as (not necessarily) 'hard' and human agency as (not necessarily) 'soft'. Reza, in the same issue, deploys the concept of 'rot' to similar effect. I still wonder, pending closer reading and analysis, about a certain (Latourian) tendency to 'equalisation' in this thinking, in which treating forms of agency (human and nonhuman) as equivalent inflates political agency, producing what I've called a 'reformist voluntarism' - reproducing the problem of the 'hard' and the 'soft' at a different level. In fact the over-attention to the State, within this kind of paradigm, risks an inattention to capitalism as a quasi-transcendental schema -with the State 'softened' but capitalism, which is itself 'soft' or 'liquid', and no less pernicious for that, left 'hard' because it both never really exists and can never really be changed - a theological motif.

The absent point, as I've noted before and above, is the concept of 'real abstraction'. In the Grundrisse Marx writes:

The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation [Anschauung] and conception. Along the first path the full conception was evaporated to yield an abstract determination; along the second, the abstract determinations lead towards a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought. In this way Hegel fell into the illusion of conceiving the real as the product of thought concentrating itself, probing its own depths, and unfolding itself out of itself, by itself, whereas the method of rising from the abstract to the concrete is only the way in which thought appropriates the concrete, reproduces it as the concrete in the mind.
Of course Marx's own remarks are notoriously cryptic, and I am no Marxologist (far from it!), nor wheeling-on Marx as 'solution'. However, to think the 'metaphysics' of capitalism, it seems to me, requires certainly the thorough critical interrogation of concepts of the 'concrete'.

While the 'concrete' and 'real' can have, as Althusser notes, polemic and critical effects in the ideological field of knowledge, as well as generating valuable empirical work (although it's worth noting the amount of such material generated by Althusserianism), their limits need considering and marking. This is especially true in the context of crisis, in which returns to the 'real' and 'concrete' (as in the real versus the speculative economy) gain a certain pseudo-leftist 'grace'. Here again, we can see the missing of abstraction being touted as the cure to the disease it caused - as in the desire to keep the bankers and return to 'normal' in the political field, after all the bankers are (supposedly) the only ones who know how the 'system' (or 'network') works...

A certain effect of bewitchment operates, which is what concerned Adorno in Benjamin's Arcades project. Contrary to usual opinion something in that criticism does seem to hit the mark, and we need to break the 'fetish' of the 'concrete'.


Savonarola said...

An excellent reflection. For some reason, it brought to mind this very darkly humorous passage of Koestler's contribution to The God That Failed ('The Initiates'):

Certain words were taboo - for instance "lesser evil" or "spontaneous"; the latter because "spontaneous" manifestations of the revolutionary class-consciousness were part of Trotsky's
theory of the Permanent Revolution. Other words and turns of phrase became favorite stock-in-trade. I mean not only the obvious words of Communist jargon like "the toiling masses"; but words like "concrete" or "sectarian" ("You must put your question into a more concrete form, Comrade"; "you are adopting a Left-sectarian
attitude, Comrade"); and even such abstruse words as "herostratic". In one of his works Lenin had mentioned Herostratus, the Greek who burnt down a temple because he could think of no other way of achieving fame. Accordingly, one often heard and read phrases like "the criminally herostratic madness of the counter-revolutionary wreckers of the heroic efforts of the toiling masses in the Fatherland of the Proletariat to achieve the second Five - Year Plan in four years." According to their vocabulary and favorite cliches, you could smell out at once people with Trotskyite, Reformist, Brandlerite, Blanquist and other deviations. And vice versa, Communists betrayed themselves by their vocabulary to the police, and later to the Gestapo. I know of one girl whom the Gestapo had picked up almost at random, without any evidence against her, and who was caught out on the word "concrete". The Gestapo Commissar had listened to her with boredom, half-convinced that his underlings had blundered in arresting her - until she used the fatal word for the second time. The Commissar pricked his ears. "Where did you pick up that expression?" he asked, The girl, until that moment quite self-possessed, became rattled, and once rattled she was lost.

RN said...

Great post, Ben. A couple of comments for now: I am not sure if decay evokes an equalization between human and nonhuman, as what is at issue here is difference and identity in the context of continuum or gradient for which the phase transition is indiscernible within both the realm of matter and idea (as Morton argues) but the extremes i.e. human agencies and non-human agencies are quite distinct. This however I think poses a threat to the concrete romanticism of the agency, basically because it unilaterally forces the interiority of the human agency to operate as an ‘asymptotic’ (neither on behalf of the non-human [naïve inhumanist puppetry] nor in favor of a return to the non-human [rabid accelerationism]) conception of exteriority which is not only intensive (i.e. non-human at its substratum) but also extensive (i.e. developed as other agencies or descendible interiorities). What we have here is a resident or insider asymptotic conception of exteriority that rather than leveling the (human) agency with a non-human excess, remobilizes human agency on a plane of complicity which despite being open to positive projects and even organization, hollows out the romantically conceived ‘interiority of the agency’ and betrays its so-called concentration of determinations or ‘concrete manifestation’. The question here is not really a reformed approach to hard and soft or concrete and abstract but the troublesome mobilization of these twofolds by the intensive and extensive articulations of exteriority which are subtractively correlated to one another (hence in the state of complicity) through the interiority of horizons (political agencies, humans, etc.) Also I second your crucial call for the interrogation of the concrete, however, I think as long as political agencies romantically stick to the axiomatic position of their interiority, they will keep getting hammered in the fashion that Guha outlines in his contribution.

RN said...

(cont.) On the other hand despite being fundamentally skeptical about the association of capitalism with an intrinsic soft or fluid modality (striking me as a closeted postmodern identification of capitalism), I agree that the emphasis on the State might mislead us to two dangerous territories: (1) Reduction of capitalism to the state: The excess and effects of capital cannot and should not be reduced to those of the state. (2) Leaving the comfort zones of global capitalism (an excess beyond the excess of the state) unharmed and unquestioned.

Despite factoring in such political dangers and intellectual risks, the current socio-economic and political ecology of the planet demands a more pro-found or rather new identification of the state to see whether ‘the excess of the state’ in the political truth procedure – as Brassier suggests -- is fixed or not or whether as Deleuze and Guattari suggest the State can easily be subsumed and politicized within the bounds posited by the principles of identity or not. My speculation is that the state does not have a fixed measure of excess – at least not in a way that the political truth procedure insists – and its limits of recognizability are indeed questionable. This brings another question: if the state like capital doesn’t have a fixed excess within the terrestrial sphere and cannot be consolidated so easily under the principles of identity / recognizability (political agencies usually invest too much on both the State’s ostensible fixed measure of excess and identitarian consolidation) then is it possible to uncompromisingly question capitalism through the unrecognizable depths of the state? In addition, in the wake of the universal ensnaring of the earth by a capitalism that has been remobilized as a nomadic process and therefore has already turned ‘the outside’ into its space of weaponization (house of war), how is it possible to reinvent new weapons against the nomadic onslaught of capitalism? Can this search for a new weapon be conducted via recourse to the non-identitarian depths of the state where the state’s interiority is asymptotic to the exterior space of complicity which is foreclosed to the axiomatic functions of capitalism and inaccessible to the governing assemblages of the state? These are some of the questions which should be carefully investigated and ultimately answered. Anyway, thanks again for the quick engagement with collapse vi (at least a part of it). Hopefully, I will gradually work on and clarify some of the discussed questions and complications.

Benjamin said...

Thanks Alberto, beware the use of concrete, and thanks Reza for the detailed reply and response. As I mentioned it was an extremely rapid response to Collapse, which I will be working through more patiently. On the identification of capitalism as soft/fluid I agree this was not the best way of putting things, the rush of the blog post... I think your point about the nomadism of the state with capital is also crucial. I was thinking of the D&G tendency, along with certain anarchist forms, to treat the state as monolith ('state thought'), versus the state's constant play of intrusion and withdrawal. As you suggest a 'political ecology' is required, although I think one that does grapple with real abstraction and the geopolitical forms of capital and the state in more detail.
Further reflections on Collapse in due course, when I have time to read...