Saturday, 13 December 2008


I've been continuing to try and worry at questions of agency in contemporary theory, not least again in a recent paper on Agamben developed out of the notes of the image I posted previously. I'm not demanding a simple-minded solution because these limits seem to be imposed by the structures of capital / contemporary social forms. One theme that has previously interested me is where themes of passivity intersect with questions of theodicy and providence, which is to say how inadvertent forms of agency seems to be relied on to produce some final working out of radical change (rather than God's plan). In the form of theodicy this supposes that all current evil will actually turn out to be for the good. As Chrissus and Odotheus sarcastically remark on Hardt and Negri: 'In fact, it is this being [the multitude] that has power even when everything would seem to bear witness to the contrary. All that domination imposes is really what this being has desired and won.'

In terms of providence it is the undercurrent of determinism in orientations that would, at first sight, to be convinced of radical contingency. I'm not theologian enough to yet analyse the interlocking of theodicy and providence, although I am interested to hear form anyone on this, and will be doing some reading myself. Purely by chance (or providence?) I came across this quote from Gramsci on determinism in Marxism:
[determinism] has been made necessary and justified historically by the “subaltern character” of certain social strata…. When you don’t have the initiative in the struggle and the struggle itself comes eventually to be identified with a series of defeats, mechanical determinism becomes a tremendous force of moral resistance, of cohesion and of patient and obstinate perseverance…. Real will takes on the garments of an act of faith in a certain rationality of history and in a primitive and empirical form of impassioned finalism which appears in the role of a substitute for the Predestination or Providence of confessional religions. (Gramsci 1971, 336)
The cleverness of Gramsci's argument is propose the historical accounting for historical determinism. Perhaps then the kind of determinism that lurks in Hardt and Negri, for example, expresses this sense of a series of defeats?


kvond said...

There is of course no greater example of theocidy than Spinoza, Negri's or otherwise. When agency is distributed across assemblages, and the question of freedom is necessarily multiple...I'm unsure what more you could ask for.

Benjamin said...

Next on my reading list - I'm concerned with how this distributed form of agency cripples actual intervention. I'd also be interested in any anti-theodicy arguments from the period, if you know of any.

Anonymous said...

I like what you're starting here: myself and SBA were just chatting the other day about reconceptualising agency in such a way that wouldn't be in thrall to traditionally marxist models, and perhaps this is one way. Needless to say, I'll stay tuned.

I was wondering also, given the concepts around which this post murmurates (agency, passivity, providence, theodicy), where you stand on the messianic and how this post relates to it in its various forms (e.g. Agamben's messianic seems to demand an abdication of agency, whereas a more deconstructive messianicity, like Derridas', claims to necessitate a certain agency in "preparing the way for that which is to come..." etc).

I imagine our friend M. Mason might explain this a whole lot better than I've just done but hopefully you see what I'm getting at...

Benjamin said...

Well more and more I see what I'm doing as trying to think agency from within Marxism, whereas perhaps previously I've felt more on the edge of this kind of discourse. This is partly due to a believe that something like the working class (re-conceptualised now doubt) is the only possible agential basis for a truly mass intervetion (for the usual reasons that labour (power) is the condition for the continuing functioning of capital).
On the messianic I have just written a paper on Agamben and reversibility which somewhat repetatively touches on the series of posts I've recently been making. My concern is with exactly the question you raise: should we believe in a 'magic' reversal between the worst and some kind of redemption? What kind of agency would 'be' or 'perform' the messianic? (pending an obvious disbelief in the actual messiah...)
A certain everyday passive nihilism makes me rather allergic to the category as well.
In Benjamin's formulation I'm concerned about how 'every moment' is the gate through which the messiah can enter. While this might refer to a general conditional possibility of revolution, it seems to me to risk a conjunctural reading that prevents thinking better/worse possibilities for such 'entrances'. I would tend to argue that a work of deactivation or negation is required for the 'redemptive' moment. I'm quite taken with what I read as Agamben's claim that this redemption is not simply the entrance to a new blessed state, but the immanent and material redemption of what is as blessed through the torsion of a deactivation that makes everything available for free use - including the usual structuring forms of difference deployed by capital.

The classless society is not a society that has abolished and lost all memory of class differences but a society that has learned to deactivate the apparatuses of those differences in order to make a new use possible, in order to transform them into pure means.
(to quote Agamben)

This does not answer how we reach that state of course...

Thinking in the Gramscian form I suggested in this post we might start to try to consider the historical conditions and attractions of the messianic as a form of agency to academics / intellectuals. It might be worth looping this back through the kind of analysis Goldmann makes of Port-Royal / Janesenism in The Hidden God. I'd be reluctant to see it as a simple index of powerlessness, ie the invocation of the messianic as relieving the intellectual of the need for action and refracting their own 'floating' class position.

Alex said...

I wrote a long post on this about the relationship of theodicy to providencein Christian theology (from the begining to today), plus the relationship of providence to economics then lost it. I'll post it again soon!