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.