Saturday, 19 November 2011

Our Friends in the North: Alex Niven's Folk Opposition

Alex Niven's Folk Opposition is a provocative, timely, and moving work. Provocative due to its unabashed endorsement and affirmation of 'folk' or regional identity against callous neoliberalism, timely due to the recent 'resonance' of populism in the US and elsewhere, and moving because if its recourse to sentiment and collectivity in an attempt to articulate  a new politics. As he puts it in his preface:
Even without taking into account the vast inequalities that exist on a global scale, it is clear that we are living in an age of profound anti-egalitarianism and loneliness. In our own country [the UK], there is an underworld of suffering lurking beneath a surface-world of consumerist fantasy and lifestyle myths. The essential assertion of the following essay is that the best way to counteract this climate of negativity and radical privacy is through a socialism that is founded in the extraordinary potential of the ordinary, the populist, the community level, the everyday, a socialism that derives its identity from the belief that we are better off in teams than we are as isolated individuals.  

It also resonates oddly for me because while Alex Niven valorises the oppositional potentialities in North-East England, notably in the pairing of T. Dan Smith's problematic civic modernism and Basil Bunting's regional poetic modernism, I come from the 'negative' region - Essex. From Thatcherite shock-troopers to TOWIE, Essex is often tracked as the 'dark heart' of neoliberalism, coupled to the useful ability to condescend and project this onto a 'working class'/Eastend community (and creating a remarkable imaginary geography of 'Essex' in the process). Certainly Niven does not invoke this stereotype and it is one that could easily be disputed, but it offers a strange displaced place (now I live here), to reflect on critical regionalism.
The problem that this book responds to, I think, is the one described by Theorie Communiste as the 'end of programmatism', that is the collapse, under the twin pressures of capitalist attack and workers' refusal, on the 'mediating' functions that affirmed workers' identity: unions, state-socialism, social democracy and the 'Fordist compact'.  While TC regard this 'cycle' of the affirmation of the proletariat as passed and now replaced by new forms of struggle that 'jump' to the immediacy of abolishing proletarian identity, Niven argues that we can re-affirm and reconstruct this 'affirmative' resistance through new populist articulations that draw on the remains and remnants of programmatism.

The appeal of this argument, including to myself, is that it seems to avoid the potential risk of merely ratifying defeat as the ground of new forms of struggle, and of the linked danger of simply dismissing the 'limits' of past forms of struggle. It also has the benefit of trying to work through the relation of the empirical working class to the idea of the proletariat (or other political form of left agency), while avoiding condescension and hostility to that actually-existing working class (a danger in certain forms of ultra-leftism pointed out by Alberto Toscano). Hence its relation to Owen Jones' Chavs, as both struggle against the toxic and vile discourse of hostility to working class people that permeates British society.

Its obvious difficulty is that these 'remnants' seem insufficient to galvanise a new politics, and might fall into the problematic forms of populism that Niven is careful to recognise and try to distinguish his work from. Also, TC-style arguments imply, correctly I think, that the narrowed past forms of class identity cannot respond or reply to the dispersion and mutation of 'proletarian' identity (or anti-identity). This could also be linked to the difficulties in characterising an 'elite', and the often-discussed problems of populism leading to political simplification.

At a more local level I would also note that although the book analyses how Folk music, in the form on 'nu-folk', could be used to legitimate neo-liberalism there is less on the 'uses' of Folk music as oppositional resource. Although I myself only recently encountered this, and I'm no expert at all in Folk, we could consider the career of Hamish Henderson (described by Patrick Wright in the LRB - unfortunately in a subscribers only article). Communist militant, folk musician, and articulator of an explicitly Gramscian politics of the national-popular, this suggests precedents (and the problems they encountered) that could have been considered by Niven (or, as this is an essay, might be considered in a longer work).
In fact, this opens a more problematic history for this kind of articulation, vectored from Orwell's The Lion and the Unicorn to Billy Bragg's The Progressive Patriot, via the Left's attempt to wrest nationalism from Thatcherism in the work of Tom Nairn and others. This envy of the 'motivational power' of patriotism/nationalism (similar arguments exist around religious radicalism) is obviously risky, as the reclamation can lead easily to the 'affirmation' of national belonging and exclusivity, even if cast in terms of 'better' values. Niven's critical regionalism is, I think, very alive to this risk (largely through valorising a 'working-class modernism' that is both internationalist and regional), and as the case of Hamish Henderson demonstrates it is not impossible to combine defence of certian regional values and identities with communism (or left politics), without falling into nostalgia or exclusion.

We could also raise the question of the 'monumental positivity' of the English working-class pointed out by Perry Anderson in 1964, countering Hoggart and others. Again, the reflection on the relation of positivity to negativity in the formation and destruction of class identity might involve more consideration of the complex relation between these terms. In fact, the rush to negation might need to be reconsidered within and against and the dissolutive effects of capital, as much as the rush to affirmation.

Niven is careful in his attempt to avoid these traps, even if the discussion of alternative bases of 'affirmation' is (necessarily) fragmentary and tentative. That said, I think this book is essential to a debate and to thinking about the forms of socialism that are too-often immediately considered 'out-of-date' and, as Carl semi-mischieveously noted, form a counter-proposition to 'accelerationist' forms of thinking (left or right) which declare farewell to an idea that they often never had much time for.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Strategic Melancholia: an Ultra-Left Disorder?

Presented at ‘Spaces of Capital, Moments of Struggle’, Historical Materialism Eighth Annual Conference (10-13 November 2011)

There is an existent literature on communist melancholia that takes as its focus the ‘working through’, or grieving, of the loss of ‘actually-existing socialism’ (as it used to be called) post-1989 – often summarised as ‘Ostalgie’. What concerns me here are not the pathologies, or promises, of this process, but rather the fate of the ultra-left, for whom there is little or nothing to mourn at all in the ending of what they usually prefer to see as a ‘state-capitalist’ detour. By ultra-left, an admittedly unsatisfactory designation, I am broadly referring to those traditions that Lenin notoriously condemned as ‘infantile disorders’, but in particular to the critical articulations of these currents in the 1960s and 1970s that tried to develop a non-Statist and often non-party form of communism that could remedy the failings of the existing worker-identified forms of socialism or communism. While these traditions might find little to mourn in the demise of the ‘communist bloc’, European social democracy, and various other instantiations of so-called socialism, they too have their own forms of mourning and melancholia. These metaphorical ‘disorders’ afflict the ultra-left in terms of its own nostalgia for non-capitalist forms of life – notably for the forms of the artistic and political avant-garde, certain ways of life (what we might call, borrowing from Badiou, ‘proletarian aristocratism’), and past forms of radical struggle.

Crucial to this sense of melancholia is an analysis of the tendency of capitalism to a ‘totalitarian’ dominance. In fact, this is implicit in the analysis of actually-existing socialism as an instance of ‘detour’, or capitalist cunning of reason, that operates as a form of ‘primitive’ or original capitalist accumulation. The interpretation of capitalism as the dominant horizon implies the collapse of competing power blocs for a less differentiated conception of a strongly singular process of capitalist dominance. This tendency is often vectored through Marx’s analysis of real subsumption, often taken as a periodising hypothesis, which implies the subsumption of labour and life to the internal benefit of capitalism itself. It can also be linked to the analysis of real abstraction, which implies the attenuation and hollowing-out of all forms of life under the impact of the commodity form.

To take a canonical instance of this kind of analysis, one indebted to Debord and Lukács, we could consider Fredric Jameson’s statement from his ‘Postmodernism’ essay (this from the version auspiciously published in 1984):

Examples could be multiplied and are familiar I should imagine: on the explicitly ultra-left we have Debord’s concept of the ‘integrated spectacle’ (on which more below), and Jacques Camatte’s notion of Capital as ‘Community’; beyond that, we could include Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘totally-administered world’, Marcuse’s ‘one-dimensional society’ and, at the extreme, Baudrillard’s deliberately hyperbolic ‘extermination of the real’.
This purer capitalism of our own time thus eliminates the enclaves of precapitalist organization it had hitherto tolerated and exploited in a tributary way: one is tempted to speak in this connection of a new and historically original penetration and colonization of Nature and the Unconscious.

The tension faced by ultra-left theorisations lies between this analysis of the horizontal and vertical dominance of capital and their hopes for the recomposition of revolutionary forces ‘within and against’ the forms of capital and its ‘licensed’ opposition. It is easily possible to see how this tension might collapse into ‘full-blown’ melancholia, in which the receding possibilities of escape from capitalism leave us with the melancholic contemplation of what we have lost. In fact, it is exactly this position that Jacques Rancière identifies as ‘left-wing melancholy’, which implies that we are ‘absorbed into the belly of the beast’ through recuperation of our every act of resistance. What I want to dispute is Rancière’s sweeping dismissal of such critiques as inevitably condemned to this paralysing form of melancholia.

Strategic Melancholia
What I want to suggest here is that there is a possibility for inhabiting strategic melancholia as an imperative, rather than as a state to which we are condemned. To articulate this admittedly unlikely seeming possibility I first want to turn to Walter Benjamin’s remarks on melancholia in his The Origin of German Tragic Drama (1926). Obviously Benjamin attracted and attracts charges of melancholia and pessimism, but rather than add to that litany I am more interested in his rehabilitation of a baroque thinking of mourning and melancholia, vectored through the figures of the intriguer, courtier and tyrant. This vectoring already suggests a strategic dimension to this supposed pathology, and the possibility of a political reading of these states.

Benjamin’s remarks on mourning and melancholia are enigmatic certainly, but also suggestive. He writes that: ‘Mourning is the state of mind in which feeling revives the empty world in the form of a mask, and derives an enigmatic satisfaction in contemplating it.’ In a typically baroque and Benjaminian paradox we see that the ‘revival’ of the world takes the form of the mask. This contemplative relation suggests the haut distance associated with high power-politics of the court, and the usual tropes of politics as game or theatrical spectacle. Here ‘engagement’ takes the form of analytic distance. Benjamin goes on to suggest that: ‘For all the wisdom of the melancholic is subject to the nether world; it is secured by immersion in the life of creaturely things, and it hears nothing of the voice of revelation.’ Again, we can see a dialectical doubling of immersion and withdrawal – immersion in the ‘creaturely’ (and here one could embark on an Agambenian reading) secularised in the withdrawal from any revelation.

There is, in this dialectics of mourning and melancholy (which are not distinguished along the lines Freud had made famous ), a politics that works on and with the feelings of detachment and disgust with the ‘empty world’. Benjamin notes that: ‘Melancholy betrays the world for the sake of knowledge. But in its tenacious self-absorption it embraces dead objects in contemplation, in order to redeem them.’ Now, knowledge is prioritised over the worldly and action (what we could call the ‘Hamlet-complex’), but this self-absorbed and disabused stance transforms contemplation into the act of ‘embrace’ and the promised of redemption. We could recall here Benjamin and Adorno’s later reflections on the transit through the ‘dead’ or hostile bourgeois ‘object-world’, as the site of intervention and resistance. The melancholic moves away, detaches themselves from the world, in the usual clichés of distancing and abandonment, but is also in the world, immersed in the destructive element of dead objects and creaturely life.
In both instances, and we could say dialectically, these extremes take the measure of pathology: too far from the world or too immersed in it, which might echo the fate of the ultra-left between the micrological sect and sudden world-historical instantiation. And yet, against prophets of the happy medium, dialectical thought proceeds by extremes. Hence the strategy of melancholia at once takes the distance that treats the world as a series of masks, as subject to knowledge, and immerses itself in the embrace of dead objects and creaturely things for the possibility of redemption. Benjamin recasts the usual antinomies of theory and practice, probed at length by Lukács, into a new sharpened contradiction.

The Case of Debord
I want to briefly explicate this possibility through the work of Guy Debord, who has regularly been charged with pessimism and poetic melancholia, not least for his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (1988). His articulation of the ‘integrated spectacle’ in that work combines the worst features of the ‘diffuse’ spectacle of market societies (archetypally the USA) and the ‘concentrated spectacle’ (state socialism, in particular the USSR), in the Italian misery of market plus manipulation (one not ended today). It seems to leave no way out. Debord concluded: ‘When the spectacle was concentrated, the greater part of surrounding society escaped it; when diffuse, a small part; today, no part.’ Debord would add, in his Panegyric, ‘One cannot go into exile in a unified world.’

This exemplary instance of the description of capitalist totalitarianism is also paired with Debord’s aristocratic nostalgia and melancholic recall of what has passed away due to the horizontal and vertical penetration of capitalism into the totality of the life-world. In Panegryic Debord, who would commit suicide due to the effects of an alcohol-related illness, states:

The majority of wines, almost all spirits, and every one of the beers whose memory I have evoked here have today completely lost their tastes – first on the world market and then locally – with the progress of industry as well as the disappearance or economic re-education of the social classes that had long remained independent of large industrial production, and so too of the various regulations that now prohibit virtually anything that is not industrially produced. The bottles, so that they can still be sold, have faithfully retained their labels; this attention to detail provides the assurance that one can photograph them as they used to be, not drink them.

He concludes: ‘Never in a drunkard’s memory would one have fathomed that drinks could disappear before the drinker.’

We could multiply instances of this melancholy nostalgia, from laments on the destruction of the Paris of his youth, to the sardonic reflections from his film In girum imus nocte et consimimur igni (1978) on the misery of the food and the lifestyles of the servants of the spectacle, who are even reduced to the state of filling their own cars with petrol. More seriously, Debord’s representation of the actions of the Situationist International through images of the charge of the light brigade or Custer’s last stand, suggest an ethics of heroic failure, in which doomed avant-gardes pass away in the waters of time. Debord’s final conclusion, in Comments, seems to echo Jameson’s:

Beyond a legacy of old books and old buildings, still of some significance but destined to continual reduction and, moreover, increasingly highlighted and classified to suit the spectacle’s requirements, there remains nothing, in culture or in nature, which has not been transformed, and polluted, according to the means and interests of modern industry.
And yet, Debord puts an audacious spin on this embrace of defeat. Taking up Marx’s riposte to Proudhon that history advances by the ‘bad side’ Debord argues, in In Girum, that the negativity of the project of the Lettrists and Situationists, his two groups, went so far as provoking spectacular society to produce itself as the negative image of their utopias. This ‘immersion’ in negativity consumes the consumers, sapping and eroding their own forms of domination and satisfaction from within. We might add, in baroque style, turning the empty world into the very masks that it offered as sources of pseudo-satisfaction.

Debord himself was notably obsessed with the baroque, and especially with the arts of conspiracy and the strategic conception of politics. The difficulty, which is obvious, is that although he might have conceived of his project as a negativity sapping forms from within without the revival of non-Leninist revolutionary politics the result could simply be a worsening ‘bad new’. Debord, at least, refused the possibility of revelling in this capitalist nihilism, but the alternative – melancholic contemplation – seems to result in auto-dissolution and self-satisfaction.

The Experience of Defeat
What we can see in Debord’s work is the replication of the tension of the ultra-left position: between the risk of a slide into ‘full-blown’ melancholia, in which the only hope lies in the utter misery of capitalist ‘life’ that would lead to desperate revolt, and a strategic melancholia that might offer critical reflection on the experiences of defeat and the possibilities of recomposition. The tension lies between the analysis of capital as totalitarian dominance and the possibility of a strategic analysis of the actualities or rationalities that might be reworked from it. The difficulty here lies in the concept of strategy itself, which can easily be remain at the level of manipulation and even voluntarism if not actually connected to the terrain of capitalism. Hence, we could contemplate the fate of certain ultra-left formulations, like that of Jacques Camatte’s, which tend towards a stand-off between a totalitarian capitalism and the last remaining traces of ‘human community’. Such an analysis converges with primitivist and anti-civilisation positions, as the better we trace the mechanisms of dominance the more they extend themselves, even into the past, leaving a desperate melancholia which traces the ‘fall’ further and further back into the past (the Neolithic agricultural revolution, the origin of language itself, etc.)
Strategic melancholia, then, is not precisely a ‘position’ one can stably inhabit. It can fall into this melancholic contemplation of capitalist despotism and recall of the few remaining traces of non-capitalist life. The other risk is the overestimation of strategic possibility that celebrates each new instance of revolt as the sign of coming revolution. The difficulty lies in maintaining a strategic distance and engagement that can take the measure of capitalist domination, can recognise the misery of the ‘bad new’, and articulate strategic points of disruption or attack. This, we might say, is a problem we all face. The merit, I want to suggest, of ‘strategic melancholia’ lies in its ability to grasp the effects of capital without false consolation. The difficulty lies in not falling into cynicism, despair, or false elation.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Bye, Bye, Mr Critique?

Critique is, today, not in good favour. On the one side, we have the neo-Nietzschean and neo-Spinozan currents of ‘high’ theory, which regard critique as fatally limited by being bound to what it negates and hence unable to accede to a true creation that would exceed and disrupt the mechanisms of capital and the State. Despite differences and conflict – the so-called ‘theory wars’ – there is surprising common agreement that critique is fundamentally passé, to be replaced by an emphasis on the excessive, the evental, and the ecstatic (parsed in very different forms). In the place of critique stands the affirmation of uncontrollable and unlimited powers. On the other side, we have the historicist and culturalist tendencies of the humanities and social sciences, which stress complexity and density against the supposed ‘reductions’ of critique. Now, cultural depth and fragmentation limit any ‘global’ or ‘totalising’ impulse, with the alternative of the local, the micro, the fragment, the detail, and all the mappings and connections of the shards of the social. In the place of critique stands the affirmation of the micrological and the density of the world. Too specific or too baggy, critique, it is claimed, can neither encompass the powers of creation nor the density of the life-world.

The squeezing out of critique between these forms of affirmation leaves it reified into the reductive, the negative, the old-fashioned, the miserable, the shabby and down at heel, and all that doesn’t belong to the glossy new times, despite the fact that the new itself is well and truly tarnished. Critique is characterised as mordant and miserable, and the reasons for this are conveniently forgotten. Those who cling to critique now seem like Le Carré’s Smiley’s People (that ironic name): relics from another time, fighting old battles, remembering too much, not able to forget, to move on, trapped in a theoretical ‘cold war’, unable to say ‘bye, bye, Mr Critique’. Instead, the slogan of the present moment might be that ascribed to Foucault – a ‘happy positivism’.

Happy are the victors, that’s to be expected: the sanctioning of things as they are in the faux wonderment of the reticular tracing of the ‘richness’ of the present; revisionary ‘complexifications’ that dissolve revolutions and popular movements into elite manipulations, the world of statecraft, and the refined manners of our betters; awed contemplation of the infinite depth to be found in objects and the ‘real world’; the inexhaustible creativity manifest in endless subversions and the mimicry of power; the micro-games, the formations of cultural capital, the inverted snobberies that praise the people as long as they don’t intrude too far onto the stage of history; the techno-fetishist analyses of the baroque instruments of military and financialised control, as well as that of the desperate counter-gestures of the weak; everywhere depth, density, complexity, richness, novelty, creativity, in a litany that becomes shriller as its contents become thinner.

Less explicable are the claims to happiness by the defeated. The re-articulations of radical theory, however, take on a stridently joyous tone of monumental construction, metaphysical daring, and political commencement. Joy, definitely taking on Nietzschean and Spinozan notes, is the mood we are supposed to adopt. Of course, the infinite flexibility of such ‘joy’ – given its form in the jouissance that absorbs and alchemises pain and pleasure, that takes negativity into superior processes of dissipation and excess – strikes again for an unlimited power that encompasses and affirms nearly all affects. Of course, melancholy notes are also struck, but again these tend to a new excessive affect that refuses the quotidian processes of mourning. Grand pleasure or micro-pleasures, joy unconfined, even the return of the revelling in catastrophe, only pleasure seems worthwhile.

Perhaps the irony of the moment is that, while Nietzsche is not as often invoked figure these days, this disappearance is the sign of his absorption into our very common sense. The Nietzschean suspicion of critique as mere disguised Christian moralising, the Nietzschean invocation of the will-to-power and the eternal recurrence, the Nietzschean attention to genealogy, rank, and the historical stratifications of the world and, not least, Nietzschean pathos, shorn of the more distressing elements of hierarchy, heroism and the martial, pervade the theoretical articulations of the present. A decaffeinated Nietzsche, to borrow Žižek’s phrase, although there are still some around touting variants of a fully-caffeinated Nietzsche as well.

Critique, then, seems at once too grand a concept, capturing too much, reducing too much, for the prophets of piecemeal social science and, at the same time, too limited a concept, unable to break the shackles of the present, for the taste of the theorists of excess. It is aligned with the misery of the present, with the resigned acceptance of the ‘bad new’ (although I would add that this is better than simple despair or, even less tolerable, a vile exaltation in just how bad the new can be). What has broken the possibility of critique is the waning faith in the uncomfortable space of embedded rationalities and actualities that cut across narratives of defeat and recommencement. The possibility of the rehabilitation of critique would seem to lie in the capacity to break its reifications and to attend to this strategic space.

Capitalist crisis, as Lukács remarked, reveals the unity of the capitalist system, but it appears as disintegration. This effect would seem to reopen the possibility of critique. Where once ‘capitalism’ was a dirty word – flagged at most in the nominalism of capitalisms, or the euphemism of ‘market societies’ – the effect of capitalist crisis has made its ideologues all-too happy to admit its globalising and totalising existence as an object to be saved. The global and total is readmitted as the true site and space of capital, as the untranscendable horizon of our moment. And yet the disintegrative effects of capitalism seem, now, to make ungraspable any ‘rational’ possibilities, any actualities in the midst of disintegration. The big banks, which for Lenin promised to be the basis for socialism once the capitalist integument was removed, do not seem redeemable at all, except in the cause of restarting capitalism and inaugurating a new round of creative destruction.

Irrationality was once a word once negatively associated with capitalism by the left and then, certainly in the moment of the 60s, more often reclaimed or reworked into a positive valence, now it seems to return as the hallmark of a disintegrating capitalism. What is missing is the possibility of a counter-rationality, the possibility of critique taking the measure of capital, rather than invocations of counter-sublimes or new radicalised ‘immeasurabilities’.

The rehabilitation of critique, it seems to me, lies in the capacity to break its own reifications through the attention to the strategic dimension of critique that operates in that uncomfortable space of the ‘bad new’. The key difficulty here is that of the agency of critique, as the fading of critique seems to be correlated with the forms and agencies that seemed to incarnate its historical function. The thesis of the ‘end of programmatism’ articulated by Theorié Communiste, and implicitly widespread, is that the end of identification with ‘workers’ identity’ and the political forms associated with this, should usher in a new disidentification, and new forms of radicalism not bound to those ‘old’ forms. In fact, however, the politically-engineered collapse of those forms has not produced much evidence of a ‘rebound’, and much of the affirmationism of the present either revels in this fact, promises a new radicalised alternative detached entirely from the conditions of the present, or both. A more nuanced and dialectical understanding of the ‘end of programmatism’, attuned to the fact of the political offensive of neoliberalism and of what persists in the ‘remnants’ of programmatism, is more effective than simply resigning ourselves to its defeat as the hidden sign of true progress. It also attunes us to the complexity and strategic possibilities embedded in those previous forms, as well as tracing out the necessary elements of engagement with the ‘bad new’ of workers’ identity, including the persistent identification with the working class.

The question of agency and institutional forms remains problematic of course, not least as the remnants of those forms come under continuing and sustained assault. Critique, at least as a ‘theoretical practice’, cannot be expected to simply solve this problem; if it were that simple then matters would be considerably easier and more hopeful. Instead, I would argue, the necessity of critique still lies in its probing of the conditions of the present and, to use Gramscian terms, in the continuing and unwavering critique of the ideological ‘common sense’ of domination. What I have elsewhere called the ‘grammar of neoliberalism’ – its penetration into the thinking of opposition, of counter spaces, its reuse of tropes of care, community, and implicit privatisation of personal and state functions that resist the disembedding effects of the market – must be critiqued, as an immediate task.

The invocations of radical imagination, of the valence of utopia, of transcendental ‘ideas of communism’, and so on, seem to me to forgo or forget this labour. Motivational as they may be the effect of such receding moments, whose empirical instantiations are often questionable or vague, is to offer false consolation. What they promise is the affirmation of a radical negativity or excess that never deigns to consider the forms and structures of instantiation and persistence. The momentary or the exceptional is valorised at the expense of a strategic thinking of maintaining and implementing. They perform a holding function, certainly, but one that threatens to recede into the merely utopian and hortatory. The alternative to imposed ‘happiness’, to demands for the requisite positivity, and to the outbidding power of joy, is not enforced misery or cultivated unhappiness. Breaking the reifications of critique, as nihilist or elitist destruction, or as the mordant refusal to ‘get on side’, requires that we do not accept ‘things as they are’, including the ‘good news’ of evangelical political promises. A certain stubbornness, a certain courage, a certain realism (which would not fall in its disabused cynicism), seem to me necessary virtues, to use another unfashionable word, of any future critique.

Monday, 3 October 2011

monocausal explanations

In a piece on festschrifts for the LRB (subscriber only) - in this case for once left-leaning historians (or two of these)  - Susan Pedersen notes they exemplify 'how through some opaque process of affiliation and acculturation, historians defending empiricist methods and resisting monocausal explanations float to the top of elite institutions' (32).*

Now, the process might not be completely opaque (irony is probably well-intended) as they initially seem to have gone to these institutions ('All did Dphils at Oxford') and, we could add, the obvious explanation of class politics. Complexity is for those who can afford and enjoy it, it speaks to a certain experience of that fraction, hence the plumpes denken ('crude thought') of 'monocausal explanation' (read 'Marxism'), seems so unutterably vulgar, yet so obvious to those who don't share that 'richness'.

Of course, the targeting of particular strategic moments (revolutions, popular dissent, etc.) by these 'complexifiers' indicates a precise awareness of the stakes involved, as does a 'practical materialism' about careers / academic power structures / institutions etc. Hence 'monocausalism' is both accepted as a truth and distantiated or diavowed precisely on the 'material' basis of class/social position.

* the sentence continues with this slightly snide, and typical, remark 'while those on less elevated perches stud their prose with the latest theoretical terms and pose and prophets of dissent.' There is something more to be written on the theorist as parvenu (to use Gilberto Perez's negative characterisation). Here the implication of posturing ('pose') seems to cut against academic ability and sincerity, staging theory, in Bourdieu style, as a power-game to seize academic reward. No doubt some do this, although I can't recommend 'high' theory as a tactic, but the pseudo-sociological explanation rests on that snobbery identified by Ranciere - don't get above your station, don't try any fancy (foreign) ides, you're on the make for coming from the 'wrong' class fraction... etc.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Module Handbooks

Coincidental reading after induction, Peter Linebaugh scornfully noting 'the good old days':

At Columbia University on the Upper West Side of New York, the entering history student was faced with the Historiography course (History g6000x) taught by Peter Gay, the brilliant historian of the bourgeoisie. He compared us as captives. Our problems, as students, he wrote in a brochure for each of us, were Laziness and Stupidity. ‘You are joining a profession in which competition is tough, and life is hard’. ‘In the months to come’, he warned, ‘you will hear, and perhaps tell, stories of injustice and neglect, but it might just be that not all of these stories are true.’

Friday, 16 September 2011

The Bonnot Gang avec The Ant Hill Mob

After noting the image I used for the spaghetti communism post, this avec sprang to mind, perhaps suggesting a restart for Evan's blog.


Monday, 12 September 2011

Coda to Spaghetti Communism

This is a coda to my piece on the Spaghetti Western at Mute, and was largely very kindly provided by Steve Wright (author of Storming Heaven) and Alberto Toscano. I should also mention this piece on violence, politics, and the spaghetti western which Steve drew to my attention.

We can trace the influence of the Spaghetti Western, and its close cousin the Westerns of Sam Peckinpah, directly amongst the militants of the Italian ultra-left in the 1970s. This was, appropriately, a rather fraught and difficult negotiation. Stefano Lepri, a militant from the Roman section of Potere Operaio, recalls that ‘In 1968 we didn't have a lot of time for cinema … Some liked Once Upon a Time in the West, others considered it “escapist,” as the saying then went, and banal’. He goes on to mention various films across successive years, from The Bonnot Gang to Easy Rider and Queimada, and concludes:

But some, led by Rosati and Pace, had the courage to proclaim their preference for adventure films and to exalt Butch Cassidy ... Our favourite, more than anything else, was Vamos a matar, compañeros, the political spaghetti western by Sergio Corbucci, with Tomas Milian made up to look like Che Guevara, and Franco Nero, who many, starting with Morucci, began to imitate.
This ambiguity in taste is shown in a more comic light by an article from Rosso, published in 1975:

The perfect militant FIRMLY HATES western films in general, because they are American, individualistic, involving too many weapons (used outside a correct political line). The films of Sergio Leone are to be avoided in particular, because they are violent, with lots of explosions, and above all because the director does not sign progressive petitions. Peckinpah's films are rejected for similar reasons, because they are gory, they depict petty bourgeois characters and so are ambiguous, and in the last analysis right wing ... (trans. Steve Wright)
So, the irony is that the militants too found a certain discomfort in the populist political violence of the Spaghetti Western…

This is also true of the use of Mucchio Salvaggio (The Wild Bunch), as the name given to the group Primea Linea. In another instance resonant for the question of violence, Toni Negri replied to an article criticising him as a prophet of terrorism published in the New York Review of Books in 2002 by Alexander Stille. In his reply Negri noted:

When Stille cites phrases from my old books they are all butchered and taken out of context. For example, he cites the ominous sentence “No pity for our enemies!” but fails to say that it was clearly in my text an ironic citation from a Sergio Leone spaghetti western film.
Now the Spaghetti Western is used as a defence against the charge of advocating violence.

Friday, 26 August 2011

For Badiou completists

Two quotes, taken from personal letters, and included in Emmanuel Terray's Marxism and "Primitive Societies", trans. Mary Klopper (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1972); Le Marxisme devant les societies "primitives" (Maspero, 1969). From the essay 'Morgan and Contemporary Anthropology' (5-92).

'In fact, Morgan's "structuralism," like that of his successors, was based on a positivist conception of science in which, to quote Alain Badiou:

The theory is the model, experimentation consists of isolating the empirical correlate which materializes the model; the experimental apparatus [must allow] for a separating effect exhibiting an approximate realization of the form.


'Alain Badiou believes that Marx, on the contrary, believed that:

It is impossible to set a theoretical conception of history against real history defined by its very complexity - its empirical impurity. In Marxist epistemology the complexity is constructed according to the concepts of a theory. . . . It is the proper task of a theory of history to give an account of the nature of real society.

Obviously, Badiou in his more Althusserian moment, but I'll leave parsing/explanation to the real experts...

Thursday, 25 August 2011

The Proletarian and the Poet (or dig your own grave)

'Work is not and never will be glorious. The hole into which the worker sinks is not and never will be but the vain work of taking earth from here to place it there, even if it then means taking it back again: a worthless task whose only price is the universal equivalent, the everyday gold that is exchanged for bread. This is the ordinary cycle of daily descent into a tomb, from which, for simple survival, one is reborn each day. It is the cycle of production and reproduction, of births lapsing into anonymity, into a repetition aping a simple eternity, without fold [repli]; in short, everything that is encapsulated in the very name proletarian, and that strikes with derision any rituals designed for the consecration of work.' (32)

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Friday, 24 June 2011

Anti-Marxist Vitalism

Only, when the Socialist Government had begun giving the peasants bits of land, dividing up the big haciendas, Ezequial had been allotted a little piece outside the village. He would go and gather the stones there, and prepare to build a little hut. And he would break the earth with a hoe, his only implement, as far as possible, But he had no blood connection with this square allotment of unnatural earth, and he could not set himself into relations with it. He was fitful and diffident about it. There was no incentive, no urge.
DH Lawrence, The Plumed Serpent

Somewhat ironically I only read this novel due to its footnote mention in Badiou's The Century, but if you want anti-socialist vitalism it's the place to go. Also, don't forget the hilarious dismissal of female orgasm, and the 'man is a column of blood, woman a valley of blood' either...

The Passion for the Real - All the Way Down

Regeneration of man through the red-hot iron. Plow up the old earth, tear down the old structure. Re-create life anew. And in all likelihood perish yourself.
Victor Serge, Conquered City

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

the art of crisis

trailing through the October questionnaire on 'recessional art' (i.e. art in the wake of the financial crisis) I came across this by Andrew Witt and Nathan Crompton in their reply (Badiousian largely) to October:

'Debt to the situation translates into a sense of "responsibility," like the artist who today finds him/herself in the midst of capitalism in crisis - nothing new there! - and is compelled to make art out of a sense of pathos and guilt rather than affirmation.'

Of course this is, for them, a bad thing. It's not just deliberate perversity, although that may play a part, but what's so wrong about a sense of 'responsibility' (and why the scare quotes?) and making art out of a sense of pathos and guilt? Less in favour of pathos, but guilt would be fine. Also, capitalism in midst of crisis is nothing new, well not in the technical sense but isn't this a slightly larger crisis? (perhaps leave this to Paul Mattick).

Of course I've written at length critically about affirmation, but even if one is affirmative I think the unspoken obviousness that is implied here might need a little more justification. Simply to mention 'responsibility', 'pathos' or, even worse, 'guilt', is supposed to raise post-Nietzschean hackles like an inbuilt-reflex (never made the maudlin pathos of much of Nietzsche and Nietzschean - all heroic strength while complaining about being 'dragged down' by those evil Christian / socialist / anarchist masses...).

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Irrational Exuberance: Capitalism and Rationality

One of the 'asides' of the paper 'Measure against Power' that I'll be giving at 'Whose University?' (Goldsmiths 10 June) concerns a tendency to ascribe to capital and the State the powers of 'rationality' and so, by imputation, to ascribe 'irrationality' to resistance (by those promoting resistance).

In a qausi-Weberian or Foucauldian fashion 'measure' / counting etc. is taken as the function of repression, while the 'immeasurable' is the function of resistance. Certainly, this is a broad presentation of the problem, and I wouldn't want to deny a certain function of 'governmental rationality' at work, not least in creating or constituting the conditions of the 'market' - usually considered by the ideologues of the market as an emergent 'blind' rationality operating out of 'irrationality' (from Mandeville on). That said, I think this antinomy, and its posing, needs more interrogation.

This analysis I came across by Marcuse, from A Study on Authority, seems (despite Marcuse's image as prophet of irrationality) to capture rather better the forms of the problem:

As opposed to the rational, 'calculating' character of the Protestant-capitalist 'spirit' which is often all too strongly emphasized, its irrational features must be particularly pointed out. There lies an ultimate lack of order at the very root of this whole way of life, rationalized and calculated down to the last detail as an 'ideal type', this whole 'business' of private life, family and firm: the accounts do not, after all, add up - neither in the particular, nor in the general 'business'. (10)

Marcuse goes on to argue that this irrationality at the base is figured in the theological and philosophical, such as in the function of the terrible 'hidden God' for Calvinism. Our de-theologized version seems to incarnate this kind of function in terms of luck or fate, or in a kind of pseudo-Machieavellian capacity for fortuna. Obviously, today, bourgeois society embraces a 'logic' of chaos, flux and perpetual revolution, rather than a logic of rationalization, but the return to the antinomy of the Protestant ethic as ideology demonstrates, I think, our living in its pseudo-reversal.

In terms of the dialectic of rationality it is, perhaps, time to rehabilitate Marcuse's insight that 'society's material process of production has in many instances been rationalized down to the last detail - but as a whole it remains 'irrational'' (11), precisely because it blocks the realization of reason. In fact, as Alberto pointed out to me, we could also take this point through the path of Badiou - in his insistence that representation is not the reduction of some eternally rich prior state but an excess that requires our 'measurement' to bring it under critique.

Therefore, what I am suggesting, is a more critical analysis of the alignments of 'rationality', an unpicking of the 'irrationality' at the basis of the capitalist order, because that's the case, and that to impute 'rationality', emergent or otherwise, to capitalism risks blocking the true realization of rationality - not least in the forms of rationality embedded already through struggle.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Anal/yse: Godard's Weekend

Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967)

This is not only a film found on a scrap-heap, but we might say a film found on a dung-heap, considering its relentlessly ‘excremental vision’, a veritable scatological apocalypse. This is a ‘shit film’, quite literally as we will see.

The obvious reference is to Georges Bataille, the image ‘anal/yse’ appears before Corinne’s monologue – fantasy or nightmare or reality – of scenes which deliberately mimic the anal eroticism of Bataille’s 1928 novel Story of the Eye (which makes it to wikipedia’s cultural references for the novel), and we could also add the more esoteric reference that ‘Emily Brönte’ appears as a character in the film and in one of the ‘case studies’ in Bataille’s Literature and Evil is dedicated to her work. But, at the most general level, Godard adopts Bataille’s ‘heterological’ vision he articulated in the 1920s and 1930s of ‘an irruption of excremental forces’ (1985: 92) that void value. The revolution, for Bataille erupts from the ‘materialist bowels of proletarians’ (1985: 35), while class struggle, for Bataille and Godard, is an excremental apocalypse in which everything turns to shit.[1] Here the excremental is revolutionary, the apocalyptic crisis of the bourgeois order, although Godard casts this in the satirical form of cannibal revolutionaries, producing one last ingestion of the bourgeois order and voiding we don’t know what.

In fact, as Godard’s film registers, this ‘excremental vision’ is, however, split: we have the revolutionary anality of Bataille, in which the heterological forces open a re-enchantment and re-sacralisation of reality, but also the anality of capitalist production, with its cycles of digestion and voiding in ‘creative destruction’.

Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death (1959) analyses this split vision. First, we have Jonathan Swift’s ‘excremental vision’ that reveals the anality of culture and the psyche, and Swift’s Menippean satire seems an obvious antecedent of Godard. In Brown’s words, ‘for Swift [scatological imagery] ... becomes the decisive weapon in his assault on the pretensions, the pride, even the self-respect of mankind.’ (1977: 179) And yet the revelation by Swift of the excremental core that wrecks human dignity is also the historical revelation of the anal economy of capitalism itself, as Eli Zaretsky notes: ‘Capitalism at root, Brown argued, was socially organized anality: beneath the pseudo-individuated genitality of early modern society, its driving force was literally the love of shit’ (2003), and the chapter on Weekend in the discussion between Kaja Silverman and Harun Farocki on Godard is titled ‘Anal Capitalism’ (1998: 85-142).
If the excremental is under the sign of sacred then it displays the typical equivocation of the sacred: revolutionary or bourgeois? Terminal regression or re-birth? If the ‘driving force’ of capitalism is ‘the love of shit’ then this ‘driving force’ is appropriately figured in the equivocation of the status of the car, which in Weekend is both ‘treasured commodity’ and ‘worthless junk’ (Silverman, 1998: 89). The ‘weekend’ break from production leads to the heterological space of stasis, in which production is reversed into voiding, the traffic jam the blockage of this driving force, the indigestible moment of failed flow and the accumulation of the excremental. The famous long tracking shot of the traffic jam, as Brian Henderson points out, finds its future echo in the tracking shot of the car production-line in British Sounds (1970), and figures, again, this equivocal reversal of ‘value’. Anti-production and production change places, in the oscillation of excremental vitalism.

The equivocation of the ‘driving force’ of capitalism, the question whether this anal economy of incorporation, digestion, and excretion that Bataille traces can be derailed into an ecstatic and apocalyptic voiding, is redoubled in the moment of the scatological apocalypse. Again, we equivocate on the waste of a decomposing culture, and can ask is this ‘a nourishing decomposition’? (Badiou, 2007: 45) Is Godard’s vision of the termination of capitalism, and the re-birth of a new order, or merely mired in on the scrap-heap? In Swift’s words, will we find ‘Such gaudy Tulips rais’d from Dung’? (‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’, 1732). In what sense can this rotten core revealed by Godard surpass the capitalism it relentlessly anal-yses; are we left in the shit, or can this rot manure a new order? The turn of the screw Weekend applies is that we no longer have socialism or barbarism, but barbarism per se, but is this barbarism as the way to socialism? For Farocki, ‘there is the suggestion that under the thin veneer of this “civilization” beats the heart of a more affectively vital “barbarism.”’ (Farocki, 1998: 91) For Godard’s ‘revolutionaries’: ‘We can only overcome the horror of the bourgeoisie by even more horror.’ (Godard, 1972: 98) An excremental vitalism emerges, based on the ‘nourishing decomposition’ of capitalism, the revelation of ‘a disagreeable and terminal stagnation’ destroying ‘the prestige of industrial reality’ (Bataille, 1985: 92). This is the promise that ‘Weekend is not about the end of the world – it is simply about the end of our world.’[2] (Wood, 1972: 11) In this case one world ends in horror to give birth to a new world presumably without horror, although whether this horror will operate peacably as a vanishing mediator seems unlikely in the terms of the film. Ironically before the moment of May ’68 that would lead to its re-invigoration, in Godard’s film we have a kind of terminal vision of Badiou’s ‘passion for the real’ (Badiou, 2007) – the revelation of the real is the revelation of cannibal extinction. The dialectic in this ‘passion’ between voluntarist vitalism and historicist confirmation is ruptured in Godard’s film through a regression as ‘vitality’ detaches itself from history, and pulverises history into a mythic space of social degree-zero and auto-consumption.

If capitalism is all shit, if we have an ‘anal capitalism’ that levels all into general equivalence, then the end of everything is required in a final voiding. The apocalyptic tone is required prior to some ‘future’, a full decomposition to consume that rotting culture. Godard, as Silverman notes ‘launches an extended assault upon all forms of abstraction.’ (Silverman, 1998: 96) With abstraction, itself the organisation of levelling and equivalence through value, voided, we have what appears to be another abstraction of absolute barbarism. This voiding and levelling of abstraction takes its own revenge, as a kind of capitalist nihilism or exhaustion that turns the film once again into shit. The signs equivocate again, and the ‘liberation’ of the anal, of the ‘excremental forces’, is, to again quote Silverman, ‘not the utopian sexual liberation hailed by Hocquenghem thirty years ago, but the catastrophic end of all singularity. What we might call “anal capitalism” decrees the commensurability of “male” and “female,” but only by consigning both, along with Weekend itself, to the cosmic scrap heap.’ (1998: 111) The apocalypse reveals then not another revolutionary order, the film as gate to May ’68 which redeems its hippy-cannibal revolutionaries into the ‘good hippies’ of libidinal revolt, but watched again at the point of the voiding of the capitalist order in crisis, seems also to reveal a terminal levelling of capital itself.
Does the equivocation of satire have to be met with a full politicisation to escape the relentless dialectic of reversal between satire and object? Are we forced to depart from satire to depart from this intimate dependence of satire on what it satirises? For Godard Weekend was the last film before the collective experiment of political filmmaking the Dziga-Vertov Group. Writing in 1973 Thomas M. Kavanagh argues Godard’s turn to explicitly political and didactic cinema as the only possible response:

Few films declared their horror, their contempt for the Western bourgeoisie as explicitly and as unrelentingly as did Godard's Weekend, the work immediately preceding Le Gai Savoir. Yet the bourgeoisie adored it. In spite of some critics' outrage, this film remained eminently recuperable: it had the largest commercial success of all Godard's films. Denouncing a certain way of life, its viewing became one more obligatory ritual making up that way of life. Something more had to be done, some way had to be found to shortcircuit this embarrassing complicity with an audience he no longer sought to please. If a revolutionary film was to be made, if a film was actually to embody, rather than comfortably proclaim an absolute refusal of the status quo, it presupposed a radical reconsideration of what film is: a stepping outside of all conventions, even those of parody and satire. (Kavanagh, 1973: 52)

Recuperation, re-digestion, an anal biopolitical economy à la Salo beckons. The irrecuperable ‘foreign body’ becomes an object of jouissance, of self-disgust that returns to bourgeois narcissism. Revolution itself is circular: ‘There is even the familiar suggestion, rendered concretely in the film in terms of similarities and parallels in their rituals — eggs and fish between girls’ thighs – that the revolutionary society will be another formulation of the murderously bourgeois one we knew already.’ (Williams, 1971: 13) The exit is out of satire.

And yet the collapse of Godard’s political certainties, and those of his critics, re-locate the satire or parody of Weekend in our moment: the Weekend of crisis, the bursting of the bubble, abandonment of house and car as debt-loaded ‘hostile objects’ (Williams, 2011), and excremental or cannibal hostility that shapes the decomposing culture of capitalism. The impasse of Godard’s film was to be saved through political praxis, but the decomposition of capitalism and of that praxis makes the ‘levelling’ of Weekend if not ‘radically funny’, at least necessary again.

Badiou, A., 2007. The Century. Trans. Alberto Toscano. Oxford: Polity.

Bataille, G., 1985. Visions of Excess. Ed. Allan Stoekl. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Brown, Norman O., 1977. Life Against Death. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Godard, J-L., 1972. Weekend / Wind from the East. London: Lorrimer Publishing.

Kavanagh, T. M., 1973. ‘Godard's Revolution: The Politics of Meta-Cinema’, Diacritics 3.2: 49-56.

Silverman, K. and H. Farocki, 1998. Speaking About Godard. New York: New York University Press.

Williams, C., 1971. ‘Politics and Production’, Screen 12.4: 6-24.

Williams, E. C. 2011. ‘Hostile Object Theory’, Mute.

Wood, R., 1972, ‘Godard and Weekend’, in Godard, 1972, pp.5-14.

Zaretsky, E., 2003. ‘Obituary: Norman O. Brown (1913-2002)’, Radical Philosophy 118.

[1] ‘In Weekend the class struggle is seen as a violent, anarchistic, apocalyptic clash rather than as a struggle between socialised forces.’ (Williams, 1971: 13).
[2] See also Wood’s rather touching remark: ‘The film postulates, rather convincingly, the irrelevance, uselessness, and ultimate disintegration of everything I have always believed in, worker for, and found worth living for, and I don’t think I can be unique or even unusual in this.’ (11-12)

Monday, 7 February 2011

Objective Spirit

In his Notes on Literature Adorno offers his reflections on the re-issue of Heinrich Mann's Professor Unrat ('Professor Garbage'), and notes that the re-issue has been retitled The Blue Angel after the Sternberg film that took the novel as a source (amusingly the only thing Adorno likes about the film are 'Marlene Dietrich's beautiful legs': 'The venerable film masterpiece is one of those revoltingly false and also - apart from the famous legs - fairly boring products that make the excursion into full human life only to trap customers[...]'. He speculates that this title change is the work of some committee of tycoons and filmmakers.

He then receives a reply from the publishers that no-one wanted this change of title. As Adorno comments: 'If one could lay one's hands on the committee I invented, it would presumably turn out that every individual had already indignantly rejected the title The Blue Angel and that it had been decided upon by a majority that consisted of no one.'

In a long passage Adorno anatomises this situation in which 'Although positivist science indignantly rejects the concept of objective spirit as metaphysics, this concept is becoming more and more palpable.' In the culture industry individuals experience a 'split consciousness' between what they consider correct and 'what they believe corresponds to the schema of the industry they disparage'. But they choose the schema, so there is no need for heavy-handed 'discipline', and when one attacks any concrete instance 'there is nothing one can get hold of'.

Adorno links this to a generalised dispersion of responsibility, and certainly I've been involved in more than a few meetings in which such 'decisions' have taken place. The worst decisions are made but no-one is responsible, because responsibility is displaced onto the imaginary Other. As a very minor example, virtually every book I've published has had its title changed by publishers, and not on their own behalf but that of 'prospective readers' (few enough...). Adorno goes on to note the effect of 'reified guilt' as we all become responsible for these 'decisions' that are never made by anyone and so made by all...

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Plebeianization of Theory

'No doubt the molecular labour of theory is less visible than it was previously. It has no master-thinkers comparable in renown to the old ones. It is also wanting in dialogue with a political project capable of assembling and combining energies. But it is probably deeper, more collective, freer, and more secular. And hence richer in future promise.'
Daniel Bensaid, A Marx for Our Times (p.xvi)

Fredric Jameson often remarks that postmodernity, as cultural condition of 'late' capitalism, requires a 'decline' from high modernist masters and avant-gardes, but that this might open a 'plebeianization' of culture, a democratic opening of the 'postmodern' he associates with Brecht. Linking this to Bensaid's argument could we, or perhaps only I, imagine a plebeianization of theory? No masters, but rather collective working, not in a false collapse of community (where some seem to do the work for others), but a 'community' that might take seriously this possibility to develop such a means of working with theory.
Of course we live still with a constant fetishisation of prospective masters or movements, a seemingly relentless demand for authority coupled with an iconoclasm that 'dates' a thinker, or returns them, by whim, while providing plenty of material for 'epigone critiques' for anyone foolish enough to take a thinker seriously.
In this 'project' of plebeianization I think there are a place for scholarly virtues (as I still find them): citation of revelant research, including so-called 'secondary' research; argument rather than vatic pronouncement; engagement with sincerity rather than false and malign 'debate'; an ability to try and grasp history, including very recent history, w/o a 'historicism' that would block change; simple accuracy; submission to referees (when done properly); publication of good work rather than work by X 'famous' person; and so on.

In this 'theory', lower case 'T', submits to discipline, and not the discipline of the market, the discipline of wealth or cultural capital (which so often run together - a dearth of proletarian masters...), but the discipline of thought and expression in proper research and rigour. I'm certainly not claiming I live up to this, however I do try, and I think some real articulation here might be necessary.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Le Club Filth (notes on A Serbian Film)

'it's like a cartoon for grown-ups'

this is no country for art,
one take -
live transmission of sex.

This is porn vitalism,
life is the life of a victim:
that's 'newborn porn'

pissing blood.
After death,
available object:
'start with the little one'

Sunday, 9 January 2011


Barthes's Empire of Signs might well be read as another chapter in what Federico Luisetti calls 'political Orientalism' (pdf). 'Japan' is explicitly rendered as the possibility of displacing our own narcissism, of locating 'the very fissure of the symbolic' (4), and allowing Barthes to '"entertain" the idea of an unheard-of symbolic system' (3). One of the 'flashes' Japan affords Barthes is a reflection on 'The Writing of Violence'. For Barthes the riots of the Zengakuran permit 'a writing of actions which expurgates violence from its Occidental being: spontaneity.' (103) As he goes on:

In our mythology, violence is caught up in the same prejudice as literature or art: we can attribute to it no other function than that of expressing a content, an inwardness, a nature, of which it is the primary, savage, asystematic language ... [it is] an anterior, sovereignly original force.' (103)

In contrast the violence of the Zengakuren 'is immediately a sign': expressing nothing' (103). It is intransitive, concerned to create 'a great scenario of signs' (106), and exhausting itself in its immediate expression.

Of course, Barthes's caveats don't exhaust the dangers of 'Orientalism', but here we can, along with his work in Mythologies, a neo-Brechtian reaching for the 'pure sign'; in the case violence that is not primordial but signifying, but then not signifying a meaning or use, but only the 'nothing' of its own immanence.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Negativity as a Practice

"The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood, their lot would do labour on them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them."
CLR James, The Black Jacobins (thanks to Jessica)

Negativity as a political practice, and thanks also to Jason Read for his excellent comments/review on my book. I have to say on D&G's Anti-Oedipus I'm picking up on a tendency in the book, which certainly doesn't exhaust the text. That said I don't find it personally that engaging, perhaps due to the reason Jason has identified in its 'productivism' versus representation matrix, although more obviously stylistically (for me).

In a general way the critical identifications in the book are noting commonalities and can't be exhaustive, but the chapters are designed at least to ground my arguments in the textual evidence (I can't stand arguments that fail to even read the texts they analyse and simply identify a thinker/writer by their pre-existent image, or create a 'straw-man' (it used to be 'postmodernists')). Part of the point is that each of the thinkers I analyse operates in a point of tension with negativity and, of course, my overall reading doesn't have to accepted but I would say I don't think this tension can be contested.

In some recent presentations of the book I've been a little ruder about the 'negativity of finitude' tendencies, but whether they will or deserve to see print I don't yet know.