Friday, 26 February 2010

Apocalypse Now or Later

Contrary to the dire prognostications of the Bognor Regis Monster Shouter ('Are you getting slaughtered tonight? 'No', 'Well you should, the world is going to end tonight'), I/we are still here and so can read Evan's excellent piece on the lagging in advance between apocalyptic film and the economic crisis. It indicates the complication, which my piece on apocalypse fell into, of 'reading off' from cultural objects - also pointed out by cara mia re John Wyndham getting there first on a world without people.

Saturday, 20 February 2010


I'm a fan of the Verso Revolutions series, especially when they have good introductions and bring things back into print that are inaccessible. I do, however, have a few suggestions for future editions:

Ghandi / introduced by Etienne Balibar (because of his work on Lenin and Ghandi)

The Situationists / introduced either by TJ Clark and Dan Nicholson-Smith or Anselm Jappe

The Wobblies / introduced by Thomas Pynchon

Malcolm X / introduced by Mike Davis

William Morris / introduced by Perry Anderson (circa Arguments in English Marxism)

Shulamith Firestone (The Dialectic of Sex) / introduced by Nina Power (and Firestone herself?)

Paul Lafargue 'The Right to be Lazy' / introduced by Owen Hatherley

Further suggestions for this rather odd parlour game...

Also, the Daniel Bensaid archive is available at the MIA; a tragedy that he would not be able to write for this series.

Registering with the Big (Commercial) Other

The Persistence of the Negative makes it to Amazon. The usual punishing price point I know, but interested parties, especially reviewers, get in touch nearer the time. Also, any requests to EUP for a paperback gratefully received, and also any orders, again nearer the time, for library copies. Currently I am completing the copy editing, then I have the index to do, and then it's fame and fortune all the way.

On a related, and heartening note, Nihil Unbound makes it into paperback (after 3 years...).

Friday, 19 February 2010

Start with the 'Good New'?

Protesting my reserve towards them, Ginzburg advocates Brecht’s motto that it is better to start from the bad new things than from the good old ones. I’ve always been puzzled by the popularity of this dictum on the left. Why should we restrict ourselves to this simpleminded pair – what about the bad old things and the good new ones?
Perry Anderson

Although he only elaborates the point in a critique of Ginzburg's method, Anderson's request we think beyond the couplet 'bad new v. good old' (something I've quoted more than once), resonates with my wider, and undeveloped, project to try and re-think an 'immanent' or 'constructed' rationality in the historical / social processes, rather than abandoning this to the oscillations of evental ruptures or axiomatic demands (as in Badiou, often).

The striking example from Anderson is, of course, the achievements of feminism. On this, of course, see Nina's work, and we might also consider the depth of regression in this rationality - as only reported to me, the terribly depressing debate about rape on This Morning. The pitifully low conviction rates, and the fact public discourse still rotates around 'short skirts', 'asking for it', and if you're drunk that permits rape (what about if you're in a coma? Then you can see the hyper-distasteful Kill Bill), all indicates the implicit social sanctioning of rape as mechanism of 'discipline and punishment' for supposedly unruly female (and of course male) bodies.

Of course that might seem to undermine my point, but once articulated and put into practice these forms of rationality are the 'good new' against which existing 'irrationality', or simple value-reproduction 'rationality', can be assessed and critiqued. This is the power of both Nina and Mark's book: they generate a sense of recognition, the transformation, in Gramscian terms, of 'common sense' to 'good sense', by drawing out implicit forms of rationality we have got so used to ignoring, ideologically dismissing, or living as 'irrationality'.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Labour / Time

In something of a palinode, one of the questions not dealt with enough in my book is the question of the origin of negativity in a relational and social process of struggle. Here I want to try to correct that absence, and to try to think the question of class struggle in relation to the horizon of real abstraction and real subsumption.

First, my understanding of class struggle qua negativity is classical, in the sense of finding its origin in an experience of commodification and alienation that bears, primarily, on time. In Marx's classic statement from part 7, in the chapter on 'The General Law of Capitalist Accumulation':

within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour-process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour-process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital. (my emphasis)

The despotism of capital is a despotism of time, which finds it locus on the labour process through the extraction of value. Of course this is not the only form of capitalist alienation or commodification, but time is, I would argue, its privileged vector.

Capitalism, therefore, negates our experience of time, subjects that temporality to 'capture' and deployment within the value form. This capture produces the effect of negativity in this relational 'friction' as a felt need. This is true of even the most anti-humanist forms of Marxism, as we see in this statement from Althusser's Reading Capital:

In the capitalist mode of production, therefore, the time of economic production has absolutely nothing to do with the obviousness of everyday practice's ideological time: of course, it is rooted in certain determinate sites, in biological time certain limits in the alternation of labour and rest for human and animal labour power; certain rhythms for agricultural production) but in essence it is not at all identified with this biological time, and in no sense is it a time that can be read immediately in the flow of any given process. It is an invisible time, essentially illegible, as invisible and as opaque as the reality of the total capitalist production process itself. This time, as a complex 'intersection' of the different times, rhythms, turnovers, etc., that we have just discussed, is only accessible in its concept, which, like every concept is never immediately 'given', never legible in visible reality: like every concept this concept must be produced, constructed.

Capitalist time is rooted in biological time, but not identified with it; it overrides and negates this time, creating a new temporal experience of knotted times, that are never given or legible as such. Hence, at least Althusser implies, the difficulty of transition from the felt need of resistance to an actual knowledge of capitalist time.

Therefore, negativity operates in this 'frictional' relation, generated not only by the capitalist negation of time in the labour process (and more generally in the 'social factory'), but also by the felt and actual political resistance to this, i.e. class struggle, including sabotage, strikes, abstentism, and all other methods of extracting 'free time' from capitalist despotism.

The first difficulty is that why identify this with negativity and not some intrinsic 'creativity' or ontological positivity? Here first I would argue that penetration and shaping of subjectivity under capitalism, in terms of real abstraction and real subsumption, ideological operates through such 'ontological' or 'metaphysical' anthropological determinations. Second, and far more speculatively, I would argue that the 'anthropology' of the human is one of unemployed negativity (Bataille), or a fundamental discordance of lack/excess (Freud / Lacan), that when subjected to capital is subject to the 'employment' of negativity, but does not escape this discordance. Hence the 'festival' of negativity, in terms of lack and excess, that operates as the constant negation of the captured and positivised time of capitalism. There is, if you like, an intrinsic but historically conditioned, negativity.
The second difficulty is that a capitalism of real abstraction and real subsumption seems to absorb any 'anthropology'. As Daniel Bensaid notes: 'the Grundrisse and Capital present themselves as a labour of mourning for ontology, a radical deontologization, after which no space remains for any 'world beyond' whatsoever, any dual content, any dualism of the authentic and the inauthentic, science and ontology.' (116, Marx for Our Times) The 'place' of negativity would therefore seem to be closed, having no where to reside. This is only extended by Value-Form Marxism (VFM), in which the real subsumption of all relations under capitalist production, including through socially mediated abandonment (unemployment, exclusion from the market, etc), and the power of real abstractions to shape subjectivity and existence go 'all the way down'.

As I take on board this analysis it seems to leave no point of resistance or agency available at all, and no point of negativity. The working class is merely adjunct of capital, tamed negativity at the service of capital as a totalising dialectical 'machine'. Class struggle drops out of the equation, it seems, due to this dominance. Here I would stress the 'within and against' position of the proletariat, and, contrary to Hardt and Negri, and many of the VFM theorists, still stress the immanent friction of negativity in the 'immediate process of production' (including in its generalisation across the social factory). This negativity of class struggle takes the immanent forms of memories of past struggles, including traces and remnants of the achievements of such struggles in areas of relatively non-commodified life, or in acts of radical de-commodification. The 'historical anthropology' or 'ontology' of the human also maintains this frictional relation in the labour process, as we are subject to the negation of our time and struggle to negate the despotism of capital.

It is the immediacy of the relational extraction of value in labour that provokes resistance, which is vectored through 'lived experience' (historically conditioned of course), and through the necessary strategic knowledge of this extraction. This is why I would suggest the impossibility of retreating into some 'reserve' of negativity, but only its articulation 'within and against' the capitalist despotism of time, which is to say its strictly relational form.

Of course, the further difficulty is the fragmentation and destruction of the worker's movement, which did play a role in the development of capitalism through the valorisation of labour, but which did also, often despite itself or against itself, carry the utopian traces of the critique of labour itself. While we have individual negativity if you like, often in the truly negative forms of psychic or physical distress and suffering, what is truly missing is a collective articulation of this negativity. Here the labour process still, negatively, offers points of collective articulation in terms of collective resistance to the imposition of the value form, as would also consumption.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

The Dictatorship of the Lens: Notes on Gillo Pontecorvo's Queimada

The fight of oppressed people against colonialism, in any case, interests me because it’s one of the most difficult moments of the human condition. And because our entire civilization is constructed within this matrix. On the shoulders of colonial people, we draw all our strength. And our manner of thinking and our culture depend always to a greater or smaller degree on this fact.
Gillo Pontecorvo[1]

Queimada is a film of gazes: exchanged, elicited, refused, and denied. All this takes place under another gaze – the totalising gaze of the camera, which subordinates all other gazes, and which Pontecorvo identifies as the ‘dictatorship of the lens’ that we must fight against.[2] The camera, he argues, makes us ‘prisoners of reality’, or, we could say, prisoners of ‘reality’ qua the imaginary (in a Lacanian or Althusserian sense) – which is the visual ‘contamination’ of daily reality for the oppressed. To break this specular fascination, this miring into accepted reality, Pontecorvo stages this film as an iconography of gazes, a veritable dialectics of the gaze – at once Hegelian, Marxist, and Fanonian. This iconography traces a double movement: our exposure to a series of gazes between characters, looks of intensity, of literally life and death, and our exposure to gazes that direct themselves to us, the audience – in engagement, but also in hostility and indifference. This double movement is a double pedagogy, or a double subversion of pedagogy, which takes place within the film and which takes place between the film and the spectatorial gaze.
At the macroscopic level we can suggest that the entire film operates between two gazes. It begins with the downcast gazes of the chained slaves massed in the market place. A gaze either enforced or adopted for the necessity of survival, only the children retain something of the usual gaze of equality, eye to eye, although only, in this case, glancing out of frame.

It ends with another set of mass gazes – this time a direct look at the camera, at the audience by the slaves now become workers, and incipient revolutionaries, eteched by a final freeze frame. This is not the gaze of equality but of sullen hatred, of potential future revolution, which has developed through the revolutionary pedagogy of the rest of the film.
These are the gazes of the masses, as a ‘choral personage’, as a character or protagonist, which Pontecorvo had developed in The Battle of Algiers (1966). It is the epic of the masses, those masses ‘who make history’ (Mao), but enclosed within a different frame, within a different dialectic. We can imagine the whole film reduced to a dissolve between the first image and the second, a truncated Fanonian dialectic of reversal and truth achieved through the violence of refusal, a meeting of the gaze with the audience that exchanges nothing but the ‘blow for blow’, and the achievement of revolutionary consciousness.

But between these two moments we have another series of ‘gazes’, which will preoccupy my analysis, exchanged between the characters of Jose Delores (the non-professional Columbian peasant farmer Evaristo Marquez) and the British agent William Walker (Marlon Brando). It is the metonymic and microscopic ‘pedagogic’ relation of this gaze that condenses the whole dialectic traced macroscopically between the two images of the ‘masses’. The exchange between Jose and Walker is itself split and fragmented. It is not only the gaze between the professional agent provocateur and the emerging ‘professional’ revolutionary, the gaze between the one who acts as a revolutionary, but only in the service of the state, and the one who by acting becomes the true revolutionary, but also the gaze between the professional actor and the non-professional actor. To the pedagogy of revolution that takes place in the film, and the pedagogy of revolution between the film and the spectator, we can add the pedagogy of acting ‘outside’ of the film, all of which cross and become inextricable.
In his recounting of the filming Pontecorvo recalls the difficulty of working with Evaristo Marquez as a non-professional actor.[3] Chosen initially due to the fact Pontecorvo liked his face, it soon became apparent that he could not act, to the extent of not being able to move, turn around, or understand his cues. Coming close to abandoning the choice, although not able to as fifteen days of shooting had already been done, Pontecorvo, the Italian actor Salvatori, Pontecorvo’s wife and the script girl all intensively tutored Evaristo. They began to construct the performance mechanically, usually camera angles to convey moods or thoughts. To gain the effects of the direction of the gaze Evaristo was directed to look at particular points. It is also claimed that Brando too worked with Evaristo, although the working relationship between Brando and Pontecorvo was hardly harmonious.
This problematic pedagogic relation is repeated within the film in the relation of Walker to Delores – from the initial scene in which Delores carries Walker’s bags for him, placing himself in a subservient role, to Walker’s tutelage of Delores in the ways of revolution, through the gradual escalation of violent acts: from Jose Delores’s first ‘instinctive’ act of refusal and violence, to Walker’s probing of his capacities to resist, onto his training first as a bank robber, and then as a revolutionary. Alan A. Stone argues that the flaw in this relation is the assumption of the inability of Delores to assume his own capacity for revolt, his consciousness is ‘imputed’ from outside, from Walker. For Stone this ‘is a patronizing psychological assumption’ and the film argues that the slave revolt is the result of ‘the manipulation of the white man using violence for his own imperial ends.’[4] I want to suggest something more complicated is taking place in this relation, something more dialectical in fact. Derrida remarks, in Specters of Marx (1994), that the statement ‘I’m going to teach you how to live’ is ‘an irreversible and asymmetrical address, ... that goes most often from father to son, master to disciple, or master to slave’ and that ‘[s]uch an address hesitates, therefore: between address as experience ..., address as education, and address as taming or training [dressage].[5] It is this, necessary, hesitation that has to be attended to, and to Pontecorvo’s staging of an education that passes from training to experience, both for the character of Dolores and for the viewer, in terms of their own tutelage which must move from the dictatorship of the lens to the dictatorship of truth. It should be noted that this kind of uncomfortable and complex tutelary relationship is not as original as might be thought. The screenplay of the film was co-written by Franco Solinas, as Alex Cox notes:
Solinas, having written Salvatore Giuliano (1962) for Francesco Rosi, had a pedigree in political films. He wrote all or part of four different pictures, each with the theme of an uneasy alliance between a cynical gringo and a revolutionary peasant (¿Quien sabe? [1966], Tepepa [1968], A Professional Gun [1968], and Burn! [1969])[.][6]
Queimada belongs, as might already have been suggested by the Ennio Morricone soundtrack, to this ‘cycle’ of politicised films, which all concern the allegorical dimension of US intervention in Latin America and Vietnam. Of course this proximity might not be recognised because of the usual condescension to the ‘Spaghetti Western’. The singularity of Queimada is, however, that this relation is placed within the context of slavery, and within Fanon’s return of the master-slave dialectic to the dialectics of racial identity.

Contrary to Stone’s point, we should first note that Fanon’s dialectic does not assume an intrinsic or ‘instinctive’ radical refusal by the colonised as the condition for ‘purified’ revolutionary violence. In fact, the precise point of his dialectic is that the rupture of conflict and division must be produced relationally. Fanon is concerned with a pacified dialectic that results, he contends, from the fact that: ‘One day the White Master, without conflict, recognised the Negro Slave.’[7] In Fanon’s remarkable contention this lack of conflict means that there has been no dialectic of recognition, no struggle that risks death, but rather merely a passive shift from slavery to freedom (he has in mind the French situation, although seemingly ignoring the Haitian revolution, from which Queimada borrows, and of which Fanon is well aware). The result is that conflict is required to begin a real dialectic of recognition: ‘Alterity of rupture, of conflict, of battle.’[8] The dialectic of Queimada is a complication of Fanon’s dialectic of radicalised conflict, and his insistence on the necessity of forgetting the past to create the ‘new man’; what we could call, after Badiou, Fanon’s passion for the real.[9] In Fanon’s declaration: ‘I am not the slave of the Slavery that dehumanized my ancestors.’[10]

In contrast, for all its allegorical dimension, Queimada re-stages that dialectic of conflict historically, in the context of slavery that Fanon denies in the name of the future.[11] It also problematises the issue of the donation or giving of freedom, precisely through the bifurcated staging of freedom: the first freedom that is manipulated by Walker and ‘granted’ by the new politically independent but economically dependent bourgeoisie, and the second freedom which does not (fully) arrive, but is signalled by that immediacy of hatred that emerges from the ‘pedagogic’ relation of the first moment.

Again, contrary to Stone, there is immediacy on the conflict between slave and master, in Dolores’s reaction to being struck down while trying to help one of the chained slaves. He does not obey the usual attitude of the slave, as described by Simone Weil: ‘Pushed, they fall. Fallen, they lie where they are, unless chance gives somebody the idea of raising them up again.’[12] Instead, Dolores picks up a rock and is ready to strike back in an act of ‘instinctive’ rebellion. It is this which draws Walker to him as a prospective revolutionary, because, as Walker states, ‘Someone at least once in his life has thought of killing his Portuguese master’.

There is no doubt that this dialectical relation initially unfolds in the form of training and tutelage, precisely tutelage into the kind of mortal conflict that Fanon, in true Hegelian fashion, sees as essential to the dialectic of recognition. It is only after the bank robbery (of the brilliantly named ‘Bank of the Holy Spirit’) and the necessity to defend their own gains that Dolores’s group can recognise that: ‘Portuguese die to’.

And yet Dolores is not merely the pliant and manipulable ‘material’, nor Walker merely the arch-master and manipulator that we might suppose. The dialectic between them, not least the dialectic of the gaze, is a pedagogic relation for both. After the successful revolution of the colonies bourgeoisie it is Jose who remarks, ironically, that ‘it’s all the same as before, eh?’ Even the scene of departure, when Dolores carries Walker’s bags for him again, perhaps doesn’t have the same sense of subservience as before. This is reinforced by Walker’s fate after leaving – to be re-encountered years later after the film’s hiatus as ‘drop out’ from his allotted role, which suggests the necessity of this dialectic of ‘recognition’ to his self-image, or his self (as do the concluding scenes of the film). When Walker returns it is because Dolores is leading his own revolution. This revolution is not against slavery, but against neo-colonialism: ‘If a man works for another, even if he’s called a worker, he remains a slave’. In this case, although Walker successfully captures Delores, we have the final moment of achieved refusal, a true dialectical moment of ‘abstract negativity’, in which Delores refuses to be saved by Walker. This moment, utterly inexplicable to Walker, indicates true reversal of the pedagogic dialectic:

His defeat is a comparison between himself and Dolores, who grows up. His development symbolizes the maturing of the third world, a moral growth which continues to the moment when Jose Delores refuses to speak any longer to Walker. Walker is defeated because he can no longer manipulate. His consciousness is that of the European who can be very friendly, but who must always be the one who decides. Walker encounters, in contrast to his emptiness, someone who is full of purpose. And this is his great defeat.[13]

Although focused on the refusal of verbal communication Pontecorvo notes that ‘He [Walker] sees his own emptiness before his eyes.’[14] In fact, in shooting the scene Pontecorvo decided to remove the dialogue and replace it with Cantata 156 of Bach. The scene becomes visual, and the visual representation of the refusal of words and the gaze.

Of course, this might seem the usual final fate of abstract negativity, in this case hanging, rather than the guillotine, but still ‘the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off the head of a cabbage’.[15] What is striking, however, is the symmetry of the acceleration of revolutionary consciousness that has taken place in the ‘time’ of the film. Rather than the process of pedagogy requiring repetition, now, when Walker leaves the island, his bag is taken not as the act of a prospective servant or slave, but as the prelude to an act of mortal violence against him.

‘Civilisation belongs to the whites, but what civilisation and until when?’

[1] Joan Mellen, ‘An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo’, Film Quarterly 26.1 (Autumn 1972): 2-10, p 2.
[2] Joan Mellen, ‘An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo’, Film Quarterly 26.1 (Autumn 1972): 2-10, p 8.
[3] Joan Mellen, ‘An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo’, Film Quarterly 26.1 (Autumn 1972): 2-10, p .10.
[4] Alan A. Stone, ‘Last Battle’, Boston Review (April / May 2004), [consulted 12 August 2009]
[5] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), pp.xvii-xviii.
[6] Alex Cox, 10,000 Ways to Die: A Director’s Take on the Spaghetti Western (Harpenden, Herts: Kamera Books, 2009), p.116.
[7] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Charles Lam Markmann (London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1986), p.217.
[8] Fanon, Black Skin, p.222.
[9] Alain Badiou, The Century, trans., with commentary and notes, Alberto Toscano. Cambridge, UK, and Malden, Polity, 2005; ‘The Algerian nation is no longer in a future heaven, it is no longer the product of hazy and fantasy-ridden imaginations. It is at the very centre of the new Algerian man. There is a new kind of Algerian man, a new dimension to his existence.’ (p.18) Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, trans. Haakon Chevalier (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970).
[10] Fanon, Black Skin, p.230.
[11] One might argue that the film therefore addresses the point made by Françoise Vergès, that Fanon’s dialectic of violence involves the fantasy of a self-engendering ‘brotherhood’ (in the Algerian revolution), that denies the historical experience of defeat within slavery, see Monsters and Revolutionaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), pp.14-15.
[12] Simone Weil, ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force’ (1940), trans. Mary McCarthy, in Simone Weil and Rachel Bespaloff, War and the Iliad, intro. Christopher Benfey (New York: New York Review of Books, 2005), pp.3-37, p.8.
[13] Joan Mellen, ‘An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo’, Film Quarterly 26.1 (Autumn 1972): 2-10, p 9.
[14] Ibid. p.9.
[15] Hegel, G. W. F., Phenomenology of Spirit [1818], trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), p.330.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

At the Mountains of Madness

Now available HERE (and soon via Amazon)

Hideous Gnosis: Black Metal Theory Symposium 1.

Edited by Nicola Masciandaro. 292 pages. $20.00. ISBN 1450572162. EAN-13 9781450572163.

Essays and documents related to Hideous Gnosis, a symposium on black metal theory, which took place on December 12, 2009 in Brooklyn, NY.
Expanded and Revised.
"Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it sometimes a thousandfold more hideous" (Lovecraft)

“Poison yourself . . . with thought” (Arizmenda)
Steven Shakespeare, “The Light that Illuminates Itself, the Dark that Soils Itself: Blackened Notes from Schelling’s Underground.”

Erik Butler, “The Counter-Reformation in Stone and Metal: Spiritual Substances.”

Scott Wilson, “BAsileus philosoPHOrum METaloricum.”

Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, “Transcendental Black Metal.”

Nicola Masciandaro, “Anti-Cosmosis: Black Mahapralaya.”

Joseph Russo, “Perpetue Putesco – Perpetually I Putrefy.”

Benjamin Noys, “‘Remain True to the Earth!’: Remarks on the Politics of Black Metal.”

Evan Calder Williams, “The Headless Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Brandon Stosuy, “Meaningful Leaning Mess.”

Aspasia Stephanou, “Playing Wolves and Red Riding Hoods in Black Metal.”

Anthony Sciscione, “‘Goatsteps Behind My Steps . . .’: Black Metal and Ritual Renewal.”

Eugene Thacker, “Three Questions on Demonology.”Niall Scott, “Black Confessions and Absu-lution.”
Lionel Maunz, Pineal Eye; Oyku Tekten, Symposium Photographs; Scott Wilson, “Pop Journalism and the Passion for Ignorance”; Karlynn Holland, Sin Eater I-V; Nicola Masciandaro and Reza Negarestani, Black Metal Commentary; Black Metal Theory Blog Comments; Letter from Andrew White; E.S.S.E, Murder Devour I.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Apocalypse Tendency Crisis (on Mute)

With many thanks to all those at Mute, my piece 'Apocalypse, Tendency, Crisis' is now up. It was developed from the HM talk and offers a critique of the 'apocalyptic tone' in thinking on the crisis. Also, with further thanks, it will be appearing in the 'material' issue of Mute in mid-March!
Interestingly I've since found out the beginning of Hardt and Negri's Commonwealth is a critique of such a tone, although more narrowly focused. Reading the extract from the book on the website the, unsurprising, target is actually Agamben. The initial point, which I agree with, is the concentration on 'transcendent' power and violence mystifies power embodied in property and capital. This trend is a moment of apocalypticism, but then I think Hardt and Negri are not immune from a more 'gradualist' apocalypticism in the 'rupture' of the capitalist integument by the multitude.

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'.