Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: July 2007

The Embodiment of Reading in the Age of Its Digitial Distributability

Adventures in jutland has a nice post up on the embodied experience of text mediated by books and digital publication. A couple of highlights:

Yet I’m also wondering about our body/our feelings in relation to pixels – how does that side of things play out? The problem is perhaps one of re-embodying our relation to text – to words and images – differently. It takes time. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it’s happening. And although we can talk about the rights and wrongs of it, it’s not something we can resist. This also had to happen with paper and print. It has to happen for each of us. As individuals (over a certain age perhaps) our attachment to books began early. Like a lot of people, I remember the first times I stayed awake in bed reading because a book. Here was something I could hold, more than that, an object that set up the world of my body and its sensations completely differently. It seemed to give me its entire attention – it “looked back at me” – precisely because it did close me in on my own world (not that different from a laptop really). I also remember the books my grandmother used to buy me. My grandmother (who came from a long line of Welsh school teachers) used to buy me “classics”, often leather (or at least pseudo leather) bound and yes, I can remember how they looked, their feel. I also remember, when a graduate student of literature, finishing Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which has a peculiarly sad ending, and getting so angry with the book – the physical object – that I threw it against a wall.

At this stage, I’d never seen a computer, and didn’t have to contemplate my relation to different forms of text, to pixels in short. Now I do. I work with text on screen for at least eight hours a day – and I’m sure this is also leading me to embody a relation to text in pixel form. It’s just as passionate. I might not have thrown my powerbook against the wall yet – but that’s only because it’s too expensive. I’ve had to stop myself a couple of times – we have a definite love-hate relationship. And I know I embody different affective ecologies with pixels, differently across different packages. Email is a shocker at the moment – my whole body shifts in expectation (for better for worse) when I open the browser for it. I can’t stand Word, although I use it (swearing) all the time. I like some other text programmes. For some reason I don’t mind writing online, especially in collaborative environments (it never quite feels so lonely). There are also an increasing number of things I like to read online, rather than offline. At the same time, like a lot of people, I can’t imagine reading a novel online – yet. Although, I like good design in paper and pixels (actually I think I prefer good design in pixels to paper now – as much as I love both).

I guess I’m repeating the point that it takes time for us – individually and culturally – to create new ecologies – complex, deeply affective ecologies of relations to our own bodies, objects and the bodies of others – in which we can embody a relation to pixels (and more importantly, the much more complex relations that we now experience across a range of forms of publishing, atom-based and pixel-based, often all at once). The story/myth goes that once (into the middle ages) there was very little silent reading. When this simple fact sinks in, you realise how important silent reading is. Much of our sense of being an individual, and a diminishing of our sense of being dependent on others – living communally – depends on it. Yet for a long time, not only could many not read, if they could, many couldn’t read without speaking the words (there is of course debate about this, although this is more than a question of literacy). Silent reading – which seems “natural”, is something that had to be learnt – culturally and individually. Learning it transformed culture. It led to new pleasures, and perhaps the a new kind of person (the individual). These new experiences were no substitute for reading aloud, which persists today, but they did add to it immeasurably. They also departed from it. And of course, this changed culture immeasurably.

Much of the same applies to the relations between pixels and paper. This is about unstable text versus more stable, and about “interactivity”, but it is also perhaps about more than this – socially at least; and affectively.

Much more in the original piece. I have a particular fondness for the final paragraph – I’ve occasionally done things like this myself:

I used to be well-known as a PhD student for always carrying around a worn copy of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (a book as a kind of talisman). This book gave me great pleasure – more than tactile, this book was a crucial part of my “umwelt”. However, after I finished my PhD I suddenly realised one day that I never finished reading it. My pleasure in the object was indeed in the object – not necessarily in reading it. On the other hand, I read a massive amount of material online now – more usually than not several things at once. I think one reason for this is precisely that I tend sometimes don’t treasure specific pixels as much as the book (or not quite in the same way). So reading can be a funny thing in relation to the objects – paper or pixels – with which we read.

The More Things Change

Classes begin today, and so I’m in a horrific rush this morning. Before I lose the thought, I just want to lift very quickly out of the comments section an important question pdxstudent asked yesterday, in a conversation about how to understand the potential for transformation. Pdxstudent has raised a deceptively complex point, in the form of an apparently simply question, which is that, in order to understand the potential for transformation, we must first come to terms with the issue: what is change?

I didn’t make an adequate response to this question yesterday, and still won’t this morning, but I just wanted to foreground that I think there are particular reasons that this question is exceptionally important within my own theoretical framework. I define capitalism as a particular structure of historical change. Structures – this was implicit in the discussion of Deleuze and Marx yesterday – become manifest to experience indirectly: they cannot be seen in their own right, but only through the movements of other things through which they are enacted, and in which they appear. In the case of the structure of historical change that interests me, the structure becomes visible through the historical transformations of other, I tend to call them more “concrete”, social and cultural institutions over time.

The structural character of capitalism already poses particular complexities for social movements seeking emancipatory transformation, as movements can become beguiled by the concrete institutions in and through which the structure is enacted at a given point in time: movements can target a particular institution, not realising that the institution may be contingent in relation to the structure itself. When the structure is also dynamic, this poses further problems, as dramatic transformations are actually intrinsic to the system a movement might be seeking to transform. It becomes necessary – and yet very difficult – for movements to assess the qualitative character of the transformation being effected. What can instead happen is that movements can easily be caught in the “collective effervescence” and feeling of power that comes with occupying the pivot point of a dramatic historical shift – without realising that such shifts can also be the form of reproduction of what they believe themselves to be overcoming.

To borrow Marx’s term, this is how I understand the “fetish” of capitalism: these structurally plausible tendencies to become distracted by concrete institutions or excited by the experience of change as such. These elements, intrinsic to the social form itself, make fundamental transformation – or even a solid understanding of the likely consequences of reform – particularly difficult. Unless, as pdxstudent has suggested, we first tarry over the question: what is change?

Updated to add: pdxstudent continues the exchange over at And Now For Something Completely Different. My favourite sentence:

The most radical question we should be asking, if we are to return to Marx’s aim of philosophy, is that which confronts change head-on and takes it seriously and not its impossibility.

Best, though, to read the whole.

Critique by Necessity: More Random Reflections on Marx and Deleuze

Jared from Sportive Thoughts has been organising a Deleuze Carnival. The first carnival is up – and Jared is also asking for feedback on some ideas for future carnivals.

I’ve been wanting to do a bit more writing on Deleuze – over my short holiday this past week I’ve been attending an excellent lecture series on Difference and Repetition and trundling through the book. Unfortunately, I’ve also come down with (yet another!) annoying illness, and have felt a bit too fuzzy to write.

While I’m thinking about the issue, I did want to toss up a couple of quick quotations to passages to capture some of what has been resonating with me in the work. I’ve been particularly engaged by Deleuze’s interest in how certain structures that clearly do have determinate characteristics, come routinely to be described as mere negatives – creating the problem of how to understand (this question should seem familiar to regular readers here) how something positive should come to be mistaken for a pure negation. Deleuze asks how should we understand the status of negation, given that he rejects the centrality often accorded to negation by other approaches:

One final consequence remains, concerning the status of negation. There is a non-being, yet there is neither negative nor negation. There is a non-being which is by no means the being of the negative, but rather the being of the problematic. (p. 202)

Deleuze’s argument here does not take the form of a simple denial – he doesn’t engage in what, in other contexts, I often call an “abstract negation” (asking forbearance for the confusion that can arise when juxtaposing what Deleuze means by “negation” and the way I use this term). Instead, Deleuze engages in what I generally call a self-reflexive form of argument: he regards it as incumbent on his theoretical approach, not simply to reject a particular conception of negation, but to explain why the conception he rejects would be a plausible position – why someone might come to hold this position, why this position is readily available, even though Deleuze will also argue that the position is inadequate. He does this by arguing that negation is a necessary appearance of the problem it both expresses and conceals:

The negative is an illusion, no more than a shadow of problems. We have seen how problems were necessarily hidden by possible propositions corresponding to cases of solution: instead of being grasped as problems, they can then appear as no more than hypotheses or a series of hypotheses. As a proposition of consciousness, each of these is flanked by a double negative: whether the One is, whether the One is not… whether it is fine, whether it is not fine… The negative is an illusion because the form of negation appears with propositions which express the problem on which they depend only by distorting it and obscuring its real structure. Once the problem is translated into hypotheses, each hypothetical affirmation is doubled by a negation, which amounts to the state of a problem betrayed by its shadow. (p. 202)

As in the reflections I posted on Deleuze’s comments on empiricism, I’m struck by the structural or formal similarity between the movement of this argument, and the movement of Marx’s analysis in Capital, which also takes the form of demonstrating how the necessary forms of appearance of a determinate structure operate to conceal the existence of the structure whose existence, however, those forms of appearance also express (cf. Postone on the structure of Marx’s argument). This similarity derives in part from the way in which both authors recognise that, once critique becomes immanent, and thus renounces access to a privileged realm of objective truth, the criticism of competing positions assumes a new form: it becomes incumbent on the critic, not simply to reject competing positions as untrue (for how could this be done, without implying a move into some realm of objectivity?), but to demonstrate the plausibility of those positions, while also criticising them as partial. It becomes necessary, in other words, for critique to become self-reflexive.

Hegel will make a first pass at developing a form for self-reflexive and immanent critique, using the organic and developmental metaphor that shapes of consciousness are successively more adequate attempts to realise the same notion – a position that both Deleuze and Marx, for their own reasons, will reject. Interestingly, in rejecting Hegel’s approach, both Marx and Deleuze then move to a similar notion that consciousness can find itself beguiled by forms of appearance that are necessary modes of expression for structures that manifest only in such forms of appearance, but that are nevertheless also concealed by the forms of appearance in which they become manifest. Deleuze argues that this self-reflexive move – which enables the appearance of negation to be grasped – is essential to a radical critique of negation:

The negative is indeed, therefore, the turning shadow of the problematic upon the set of propositions that it subsumes as cases. As a general rule, the critique of the negative remains ineffective so long as it assumes as given the form of affirmation ready made in the proposition. The critique of the negative is radical and well-grounded only when it carries out a genesis of affirmation and, simultaneously, the genesis of the appearance of negation. (p. 206)

This “radical and well-grounded” critique is what enables Deleuze to exclude negation from the Idea, by identifying the determinate conditions in which the negative will appear:

Consequently – and this is all we wish to say – the negative appears neither in the process of differentiation nor in the process of differenciation. The Idea knows nothing of negation. The first process is identical with the description of a pure positivity, in the form of a problem to which are assigned relations and points, places and functions, positions and differential thresholds which exclude all negative determination and find their sources in the genetic of productive elements of affirmation. The other process is identical with the production of finite engendered affirmations which bear upon the actual terms which occupy these places and positions, and upon the real relations which incarnate these relations and these functions. Forms of the negative do indeed appear in actual terms and real relations, but only insofar as these are cut off from the virtuality which they actualise, and from the moment of their actualisation. Then, and only then, do the finite affirmations appear limited in themselves, opposed to one another, and suffering from lack or privation. In short, the negative is always derived and represented, never original or present: the process of difference and of differenciation is primary in relation to that of the negative and opposition. (p. 207)

There are many other threads in this section I’d like to discuss – in particular, some of Deleuze’s examples of how determinate structures come to be perceived as negatives, which in some respects hug closely to things I’ve written on the blog from time to time, since my work hinges on a similar problem. This section of Difference and Repetition also offers some interesting explicit reflections on Marx, motivated by a different reading than I have used above, but pointing in interesting and suggestive ways to some of the practical implications Deleuze sees from his work. These sorts of issues should wait, though, until I’m a bit less fuzzy and can think them through in a more adequate way. This may well have been true of the comments I’ve already made above 🙂 – I’m just chafing at being ill, and wanting at least to get a bit of writing done before teaching starts up again next week… Hopefully I won’t have done too much damage to the text, in tossing up these very preliminary associations.

Cultivating – and Surviving – Networks

Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, and thoughts spinning vaguely from trying to absorb far too many new concepts during my very short mid-term break, I found myself jolted to full attention unexpectedly this morning, after stumbling across the extraordinary new blog adventures in jutland. With only a couple of extraordinary posts up at the moment, author ibbertelsen demonstrates a virtuosity with asking particularly complex and layered questions – in this case, questions about the interconnectedness of recent, interpenetrating, shifts in theory, cultural practices, and technologies that together seem to draw upon and reinforce concepts of decentred and networked models – whether applied to thought, society, or nature. Importantly, ibbertelsen recognises that the most important question to ask when confronted with these shifts is not the representational question of the truth or falsity of the models – not: are these new models an accurate way of describing the phenomena they seek to describe? Instead, given the resonance or growing intuitive appeal of such models, the key question becomes what the impact of these shifts will be – the ibbertelsen’s own words:

Whether any of this true, and which of the new models are right or wrong (scientifically), is up for grabs. My questions, however, are not along those lines. They rather concern the cultural consequences of new models for thinking, of the multiplications and clashes of “cognitive models” that don’t match, or don’t confirm our necessary assumptions, and the way these models don’t just inform but transform our thinking practices. The jury (in so far as we still have juries rather than brain scans) is out on whether culture can survive the new models, with their new practices and assumptions, whether they are right or wrong or a bit of both.

So here is my question: Can we survive dynamic, networked thought? Networked perceptions? The blurring of thought, perceptions and actions in dynamic networks? Can culture in general (I know, which culture specifically am I writing about … but that’s part of my point), can art, can democracy, science, religion, etc survive the new mobilities in perception and cognition/thinking models, practices and yes – perhaps thinking processes themselves (thinking processes that now include perception, action, affect, sensation all in shifting brain-body -world dynamics, to the point that we may no longer be able to talk about, or even assume, “our cognitive processes”).

Part of this is that as thinking/perception, sensation, affect and action all become more networked, more dynamic, more mobile, they are also more “mobilized” in Isabelle Stengers’ sense of the word, in which models and rhetorics are “mobilized” in order to stabilise certain practices, interests, disciplines, (models of affective and cognitive control in the workplace for example, or education, to help maximise productivity). Can we survive this (often “scientific”) “mobilization” of thought, perception, affect and action?

Sub-question: What are thought, affect, perception and action when they are now so obviously in such complex are fully mobilized circuits? Are they anything stable or even nameable at all? (I don’t claim to be able to answer this question, but a basic beginning might be here).

I might add a question of my own (regular readers will no doubt guess what it will be): how should we understand the resonance itself? Ibbertelsen’s non-representational insight primes this question: understanding the emergence and appeal of any concepts or metaphors is separable from determining the truth value of those concepts (if “truth” brought concepts into being and compelled people to believe them, it becomes difficult to understand the sorts of sudden, interdisciplinary shifts to which ibbertelsen is drawing attention). So the question becomes: why are we particularly attentive to the possibility of networked models, particularly receptive to metaphors of distributed processes, now? Can a better understanding of how the intuitive plausibility of such concepts is itself constructed, also help us develop a more active relationship to this resonance, such that we can shift from asking “what impacts will this shift have”, to asking “what potentials could this shift hold”?

And speaking of resonance: Stengers’ work, of course, has been “in the air” recently – I would be remiss if I didn’t also point folks to the most recent rounds of the ongoing (should one say evolving?) discussion of Stengers and Prigogine over at Larval Subjects.

A Permanent State of Beta

From the “Welcome” section of the help file for L Magee’s SOMET software, which LM has developed for one aspect of an overarching PhD project – this may be one of the best descriptions I’ve seen of the complex emotions attached to dissertation research:

SOMET is web-based software for designing and matching semantic web ontologies. It is in a permanent state of beta. It is currently part of a PhD project on measuring the degree to which ontologies and other formal systems can be matched. It is not commercial quality software in a number of respects, and should be treated with appropriate trepidation… Nor does SOMET attempt to faithful representation of all RDF and OWL constructs – in that respect it is a poor cousin to tools like Protege. Nevertheless considerable work and attention to detail has gone into its development, so – please be kind.

I should append something like this to everything I post – at least in the “Scratchpad” category.

Truncated Convolutions

Walter Benjamin’s concepts – or, probably more accurately, the concepts I draw out of Benjamin’s work – are often fairly close to the surface in my theoretical writing. I toss out isolated phrases and the occasional extended quote from Benjamin fairly often, as Gary Sauer-Thompson over at Philosophical Conversations recently noticed, picking up on one of the many times I’ve cited Benjamin’s concept that critique involves “brushing history against the grain”. Gary then runs with this notion – using photographic material to capture, and then to lift out of its original context, a moment in the reproduction of one contemporary capitalist context. Riffing off the title of my post, Gary calls this moment a placeholder – and then uses his photography to shift the placeholder from its place and to explore how this shift might equip us to reconceptualise a more active relationship to the process of reproduction – a very Benjaminian move.

While Benjamin often haunts my thoughts, I’ve been thinking about his work more actively recently, as I’ve been working through Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. There are strange and unexpected (to me) points of contact – and perhaps even stranger and more jarring disjoints – between Difference and Repetition and some of the concepts that draw me in Benjamin’s work. My thoughts on these comparisons are still too fresh and unsettled for writing – perhaps I’ll be able to come back to them at a later point. For the moment, I’m finding myself alternatively reading Difference and Repetition, and then setting it aside to flip through The Arcades Project. Probably not the most efficient way to process either author, but I am finding that the process is lending an interesting freshness to elements of Benjamin’s work with which I’ve lived for a long time. When I’ve worked through Deleuze much more thoroughly, I’d like to come back to some of the themes around which my thoughts are currently spinning: both authors’ particularly complex and counter-intuitive understandings of the ontological status of “the past” and its relationship to the “present” and future; a somewhat similar focus on thought as the product of an encounter; slightly different critiques of negation and representation; a different understanding of the term “repetition”, which nevertheless might – might – point to a somewhat similar substantive intention; what seem to be slightly offset appropriations of Leibniz (and a number of other common figures); perhaps – perhaps – wildly divergent assessments of a particular structuration of time; and the uncanny disjoint that emerges from similar concepts understood, in one case, within a social and, in the other, an ontological, frame…

Unfortunately, at this point I have nothing more than notes for notes… Hopefully something more substantive once my thoughts are settled. This may not happen quickly, however: for the moment, I’m enjoying my very, very short break from teaching and administrative responsibilities, and am using this time to… unsettle my thoughts as much as possible, hoping this will provide at least a small and sustained conceptual momentum heading into the new term.

The Right to Be Lazy

In a conversation this evening, I found myself mentioning Paul Lafargue’s (1883) The Right to Be Lazy – and then of course had to take a look to see if the text had made its way online – and then of course had to re-read it…

Lafargue’s work, for those who don’t know it, is a polemic against the concept that the “right to work” is somehow a natural or desirable political goal for the working classes. Lafargue views the glorification of labour as an ascetic ideal central to capitalism, and therefore looks with some horror on the “right to work” movements, viewing them as a deflection of working class political energies into the service of a specifically capitalist goal. He argues that such movements have taken as a revolutionary ideal, a principle worse than that offered by moralists of earlier times:

Twelve hours of work a day, that is the ideal of the philanthropists and moralists of the eighteenth century. How have we outdone this nec plus ultra! Modern factories have become ideal houses of correction in which the toiling masses are imprisoned, in which they are condemned to compulsory work for twelve or fourteen hours, not the men only but also women and children. And to think that the sons of the heroes of the Terror have allowed themselves to be degraded by the religion of work, to the point of accepting, since 1848, as a revolutionary conquest, the law limiting factory labor to twelve hours. They proclaim as a revolutionary principle the Right to Work. Shame to the French proletariat! Only slaves would have been capable of such baseness. A Greek of the heroic times would have required twenty years of capitalist civilization before he could have conceived such vileness.

And if the miseries of compulsory work and the tortures of hunger have descended upon the proletariat more in number than the locusts of the Bible, it is because the proletariat itself invited them. This work, which in June 1848 the laborers demanded with arms in their hands, this they have imposed on their families; they have delivered up to the barons of industry their wives and children. With their own hands they have demolished their domestic hearths. With their own hands they have dried up the milk of their wives. The unhappy women carrying and nursing their babes have been obliged to go into the mines and factories to bend their backs and exhaust their nerves. With their own hands they have broken the life and the vigor of their children. Shame on the proletarians! (chapter 2)

In spite of this polemic, Lafargue is clearly aware of the structural coercion that renders the concept of the “right to work” a potent political ideal:

Instead of taking advantage of periods of crisis, for a general distribution of their products and a universal holiday, the laborers, perishing with hunger, go and beat their heads against the doors of the workshops. With pale faces, emaciated bodies, pitiful speeches they assail the manufacturers: “Good M. Chagot, sweet M. Schneider, give us work, it is not hunger, but the passion for work which torments us”. And these wretches, who have scarcely the strength to stand upright, sell twelve and fourteen hours of work twice as cheap as when they had bread on the table. And the philanthropists of industry profit by their lockouts to manufacture at lower cost.(chapter 2)

Lafargue further suggests how even the manufacturers and the financiers are caught in their own web of structural constraints, with flow-on consequences that are global in scope:

If industrial crises follow periods of overwork as inevitably as night follows day, bringing after them lockouts and poverty without end, they also lead to inevitable bankruptcy. So long as the manufacturer has credit he gives free rein to the rage for work. He borrows, and borrows again, to furnish raw material to his laborers, and goes on producing without considering that the market is becoming satiated and that if his goods don’t happen to be sold, his notes will still come due. At his wits’ end, he implores the banker; he throws himself at his feet, offering his blood, his honor. “A little gold will do my business better”, answers the Rothschild. “You have 20,000 pairs of hose in your warehouse; they are worth 20c. I will take them at 4c.” The banker gets possession of the goods and sells them at 6c or 8c, and pockets certain frisky dollars which owe nothing to anybody: but the manufacturer has stepped back for a better leap. At last the crash comes and the warehouses disgorge. Then so much merchandise is thrown out of the window that you cannot imagine how it came in by the door. Hundreds of millions are required to figure the value of the goods that are destroyed. In the last century they were burned or thrown into the water.

But before reaching this decision, the manufacturers travel the world over in search of markets for the goods which are heaping up. They force their government to annex Congo, to seize on Tonquin, to batter down the Chinese Wall with cannon shots to make an outlet for their cotton goods. In previous centuries it was a duel to the death between France and England as to which should have the exclusive privilege of selling to America and the Indies. Thousands of young and vigorous men reddened the seas with their blood during the colonial wars of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

There is a surplus of capital as well as of goods. The financiers no longer know where to place it. Then they go among the happy nations who are leafing in the sun smoking cigarettes and they lay down railroads, erect factories and import the curse of work. And this exportation of French capital ends one fine morning in diplomatic complications. In Egypt, for example, France, England and Germany were on the point of hair-pulling to decide which usurers shall be paid first. Or it ends with wars like that in Mexico where French soldiers are sent to play the part of constables to collect bad debts.(chapter 2)

In Lafargue’s account, the proletariat has the unique ability to free all classes from these interlocking constraints – an ability it can exercise, however, only once it frees itself from the religion of work, and organises itself instead as the champion of the Rights of Laziness:

These individual and social miseries, however great and innumerable they may be, however eternal they appear, will vanish like hyenas and jackals at the approach of the lion, when the proletariat shall say “I will”. But to arrive at the realization of its strength the proletariat must trample under foot the prejudices of Christian ethics, economic ethics and free-thought ethics. It must return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and more sacred than the anaemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution. It must accustom itself to working but three hours a day, reserving the rest of the day and night for leisure and feasting.

Thus far my task has been easy; I have had but to describe real evils well known, alas, by all of us; but to convince the proletariat that the ethics inoculated into it is wicked, that the unbridled work to which it has given itself up for the last hundred years is the most terrible scourge that has ever struck humanity, that work will become a mere condiment to the pleasures of idleness, a beneficial exercise to the human organism, a passion useful to the social organism only when wisely regulated and limited to a maximum of three hours a day; this is an arduous task beyond my strength. Only communist physiologists, hygienists and economists could undertake it. In the following pages I shall merely try to show that given the modern means of production and their unlimited reproductive power it is necessary to curb the extravagant passion of the laborers for work and to oblige them to consume the goods which they produce. (chapter 2)

The work has a nice analysis of the odd relationship of production and consumption in capitalism, as well as some good reflections on the growing role of technology in the production of material wealth, suggesting an awareness that one of the central puzzles of capitalist society is the strange tension between the increasing role of technology in meeting material needs, and yet the perpetual reconstitution of the need to invest human labour directly in production. This analysis builds up to some delightfully playful (and some… not so delightful…) passages – including the following burlesque vision of what would happen, if the proletariat were finally to assert its Right to Laziness:

We have seen that by diminishing the hours of labor new mechanical forces will be conquered for social production. Furthermore, by obliging the laborers to consume their products the army of workers will be immensely increased. The capitalist class once relieved from its function of universal consumer will hasten to dismiss its train of soldiers, magistrates, journalists, procurers, which it has withdrawn from useful labor to help it in consuming and wasting. Then the labor market will overflow. Then will be required an iron law to put a limit on work. It will be impossible to find employment for that swarm of former unproductives, more numerous than insect parasites, and after them must be considered all those who provide for their needs and their vain and expensive tastes. When there are no more lackeys and generals to decorate, no more free and married prostitutes to be covered with laces, no more cannons to bore, no more palaces to build, there will be need of severe laws to compel the working women and working men who have been employed on embroidered laces, iron workings, buildings, to take the hygienic and calisthenic exercises requisite to re-establish their health and improve their race. When once we begin to consume European products at home instead of sending them to the devil, it will be necessary that the sailors, dock handlers and the draymen sit down and learn to twirl their thumbs. The happy Polynesians may then love as they like without fearing the civilized Venus and the sermons of European moralists.

And that is not all: In order to find work for all the non-producers of our present society, in order to leave room for the industrial equipment to go on developing indefinitely, the working class will be compelled, like the capitalist class, to do violence to its taste for abstinence and to develop indefinitely its consuming capacities. Instead of eating an ounce or two of gristly meat once a day, when it eats any, it will eat juicy beefsteaks of a pound or two; instead of drinking moderately of bad wine, it will become more orthodox than the pope and will drink broad and deep bumpers of Bordeaux and Burgundy without commercial baptism and will leave water to the beasts.

The proletarians have taken into their heads to inflict upon the capitalists ten hours of forge and factory; that is their great mistake, because of social antagonisms and civil wars. Work ought to be forbidden and not imposed. The Rothschilds and other capitalists should be allowed to bring testimony to the fact that throughout their whole lives they have been perfect vagabonds, and if they swear they wish to continue to live as perfect vagabonds in spite of the general mania for work, they should be pensioned and should receive every morning at the city hall a five-dollar gold piece for their pocket money. Social discords will vanish. Bond holders and capitalists will be first to rally to the popular party, once convinced that far from wishing them harm, its purpose is rather to relieve them of the labor of over-consumption and waste, with which they have been overwhelmed since their birth. As for the capitalists who are incapable of proving their title to the name of vagabond, they will be allowed to follow their instincts. There are plenty of disgusting occupations in which to place them. Dufaure might be set at cleaning public closets, Gallifet might perform surgical operations on diseased horses and hogs. The members of the amnesty commission might be sent to the stockyards to pick out the oxen and the sheep to be slaughtered. The senators might play the part of undertakers and lackeys in funeral processions. As for the others, occupations could be found for them on a level with their intelligence. Lorgeril and Eroglie could cork champagne bottles, only they would have to be muzzled as a precaution against intoxication. Ferry, Freycinet and Tirard might destroy the bugs and vermin in the departments of state and other public houses. It would, however, be necessary to put the public funds out of the reach of the capitalists out of due regard for their acquired habits. (chapter 4)

Lafargue ends with the question of how to convince the proletariat to set aside the goals that capitalism has instilled within them, and embrace these more revolutionary potentials:

If, uprooting from its heart the vice which dominates it and degrades its nature, the working class were to arise in its terrible strength, not to demand the Rights of Man, which are but the rights of capitalist exploitation, not to demand the Right to Work which is but the right to misery, but to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her. But how should we ask a proletariat corrupted by capitalist ethics, to take a manly resolution…. (chapter 4)

To this question – of how to convert the recognition of potential into political action – the text seems to despair of an answer.

What Is To Be Done?

Sinthome from Larval Subjects has re-emerged from a recent silence with a beautiful critical challenge:

Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not only to explain the world, but to change it. But what is it that is to be explained? What is it that is to be changed? And how is it to be changed?

Sinthome notes – and criticises – the attraction of authoritarian and anarchistic visions of transformation, and then returns to several pivotal questions:

Returning to Marx’s conception of the aim of philosophy, it seems that there are three relevant and interrelated issues:

1. What is to be changed?
2. How is it to be changed?
3. Why does the world take the form it takes at this particular point in history?

Sinthome then suggests the scaffolding for an analytical framework that would seek to analyse potentials for transformation by grasping three main elements: attractors – relatively stable, equilibrium states toward which a system is drawn; vectors – processes through which attractors come to be; and the current state of play at a particular moment in time. Sinthome suggests that different critical theories can be characterised by which of these three elements they emphasise, but argues that the main strength of this approach is not classificatory, but rather practical:

The point of these distinctions is not merely sociological and anthropological. While it is certainly the case that a rich sociology and ethnography could be developed using these concepts– indeed, it could be said that economics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, etc., study nothing but various types of attractors and vectors without using this precise language –the aim is ultimately a response to the first and second questions: “what is to be changed?” and “how is change to be produced?” At what points, in a particular social system, do disequilibriums appear, such that new attractors either become possible or appear? What dimensions of a social formation are to be targeted? Can particular attractors and vectors be strategically targeted, or is the cadence of change an inexorable process immune to social engineering? Can the formation of new attractors be targeted in a precise way, or are we necessarily faced with the demon of unintended consequences when targeting the vector-fields of a particular social system (i.e., we end up with a situation like Pol Pot)? Why is it that certain strategies of transformation are often so unsuccessful? For instance, the protests throughout the world leading up to the current Iraq war? What is it about the current social system that was able to absorb these events without a disruption of the dominant attractors, as if they didn’t even exist or occur? Why did protests have a much greater impact during the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements of the 60s? Is there a relationship, a social memory, that annulled the efficaciousness of the contemporary protest movements? Without posing questions of disequilibrium, it is difficult to pose any of these questions clearly.

I’ve condensed the post severely here – read the original for a real understanding of how the argument unfolds.

There Are Many Copies. And They Have a Plan.

There’s no reason for me to post this, other than that I keep laughing at it every time I glance at the newspaper. I’ve noticed the link URL and accompanying photo have gotten more amusing, and the article has climbed to a more prominent place on the news website, over the course of the day – probably because folks like me were emailing it to various people they knew. This is Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty discussing… er… the brave new world of policing:

A cylonMr Keelty said it was hard to estimate how much money the AFP would need to combat technology-based crime.

But he identified the use of robotics and cloning as future challenges.

“Our environmental scanning tells us that even with some of the cloning of human beings – not necessarily in Australia but in those countries that are going to allow it – you could have potentially a cloned part-person, part-robot,” he said.

My suggestion: the first budget request should be dedicated to an overhaul of whatever “environmental scanning” is. ‘Cause somehow I’m not convinced that it’s giving them the best intelligence.

Empirical Questions

As part of my attempt to recover and recharge from the term, I’ve been very casually reading through Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. I was struck by the following passage, which I will reproduce here as a sort of bookmark, without making any assumptions about whether Deleuze intends the passage in the sense that it struck me:

A book of philosophy should be in part a very particular species of detective novel, in part a kind of science fiction. By detective novel we mean that concepts, with their zones of presence, should intervene to resolve local situations. They themselves change along with the problems. They have spheres of influence where, as we shall see, they operate in relation to ‘dramas’ and by means of ‘cruelty’. They must have a coherence among themselves, but that coherence must not come from themselves. They must receive their coherence from elsewhere.

This is the secret of empiricism. Empiricism is by no means a reaction against concepts, nor a simple appeal to lived experience. On the contrary, it undertakes the most insane creation of concepts ever seen or heard. Empiricism is a mysticism and a mathematicism of concepts, but precisely one which treats the concept as object of an encounter, as a here-and-now, or rather as an Erewhon from which emerge inexhaustibly ever new, differently distributed ‘heres’ and ‘nows’. Only an empiricist could say: concepts are indeed things, but things in their free and wild state, beyond ‘anthropological predicates’. I make, remake and unmake my concepts along a moving horizon, from an always decentred centre, from an always displaced periphery which repeats and differenciates them. The task of modern philosophy is to overcome the alternatives temporal/non-temporal, historical/eternal and particular/universal. Following Nietzsche we discover, as more profound than time and eternity, the untimely: philosophy is neither a philosophy of history, nor a philosophy of the eternal, but untimely, always and only untimely – that is to say, ‘acting counter to our time and thereby acting on our time and, let us hope, for the benefit of a time to come’. Following Samuel Butler, we discover Erewhon, signifying at once the originary ‘nowhere’ and the displaced, disguised, modified and always re-created ‘here-and-now’. Neither empirical particularities nor abstract universals: a Cogito for a dissolved self. We believe in a world in which individuations are impersonal, and singularities are pre-individual: the splendour of the pronoun ‘one’ – whence the science-fiction aspect, which necessarily derives from this Erewhon. What this book should therefore have made apparent is the advent of a coherence which is no more our own, that of mankind, than that of God or the world. (pp.xx-xxi)

Many things strike me about this passage. Deleuze may not mean any of them… ;-P The notion that concepts should be understood as having a relational coherence with other concepts, but that this relational coherence must simultaneously be understood as coming from “elsewhere” – as pointing back to a “local situation” in which those concepts intervene – reminds me of some of the things I’ve occasionally written on Marx’s passing suggestions about logical deduction: Marx implies, particularly in his reflections on Aristotle and the labour theory of value in the first volume of Capital, that certain “logical” relationships become so only once a given local situation can be presupposed – only once a context has been constituted that renders a particular conceptual leap intuitive. The implication is that even the operations of logic – when these are applied to determinate content, when “deductive” reasoning is applied to phenomena in the world – cannot be understood in terms of the operation of an abstract and instrumental procedure, but instead owe their plausibility to the ways in which they incorporate substantive contents that lie ready-to-hand only in very specific situations.

The focus on the mystical nature of empiricism also reminds me of Marx – specifically, Marx’s discussions of the fetish, which revolve precisely around trying to understand how social determination in capitalism presents itself in the historically distinctive shape of an absence of social determination – in the shape of a kind of empiricist sensibility, a “view from nowhere” – Deleuze’s “free and wild state”. Marx suggests that forms of perception and thought that are qualitatively specific to capitalism appear not to be social – not to be historical, even if they are self-evidently historically-emergent – because their distinctive social character consists precisely in their claim to be devoid of social character – in their claim to be devoid of “anthropological predicates”. Thus Marx speaks of political economy as evaluating social institutions from a standpoint in which “there has been history, but there no longer is any”: as simultaneously expressing the corrosive recognition that social determinations exist, that forms of thought and practice can arise and fade away, but also veiling this recognition, by failing to apply this insight self-reflexively to thematise how this recognition itself expresses a distinctive social determination – and therefore failing to ask the pivotal question of how our “empiricist” concepts themselves manifest determinate potentials constituted in particular ways in our local situation.

Marx views political economy as a non-self-reflexive form of thought – and therefore as a form of thought limited to applying its insights negatively and in a backward-looking fashion, to other targets of critique, rather than to itself. For Marx, this means that political economy can recognise the “artificiality” of the institutions and beliefs of other times and places – and can therefore engage in an unmasking and debunking critique that declares this artificiality, that brings this artificiality “to light”. These negative and backward-looking critiques are offered, however, as if from a standpoint free of “anthropological determinations” – and, more importantly, as if the concept of a standpoint free of anthropological determinations were not itself the product of qualitatively distinctive anthropological determinations.

To move beyond this kind of negative, backward-looking critique requires, for Marx, a self-reflexive move that seeks to identify and understand the anthropological determinations that underlie the emergence of the concept of a standpoint free from anthropological determinations. The object of this kind of self-reflexive critique is precisely not to “unmask and debunk”: Marx isn’t seeking simply to point out that political economic thought is itself “guilty” of the same artificiality it discovers in competing forms of thought. The object is instead to link particular kinds of critical insights to the determinate forms of practice constitutive of a “local situation” – and thus to open that situation to a critical exploration of the generative and creative potentials the situation itself possesses.

From this perspective, the distinctive forms of perception and thought associated with empiricism can be recognised and valued for their corrosive and creative potentials – for the ways in which they prime and open us for an appreciation of dimensions of a broader natural world decentred from the human community, for how they sensitise us to the potential for the transformation of human institutions and beliefs. At the same time, we can self-reflexively remain aware that these critical insights do not themselves mean that we have stepped “outside”, into a position of neutrality or asociality – instead, these insights are themselves expressions of a determinate form of social imbrication. Understanding the determinate characteristics of our social – the distinctive forms of practice and interconnection – that open us to such critical forms of perception and thought, will help us understand and cultivate the immanent potentials for transcendence that our context generates.

I offer all of this, of course, more in the spirit of free association, than as anything substantively connected with Deleuze. While I found the passage striking for the thoughts it provoked, I am not trying here to suggest anything about Deleuze’s position – to which perhaps I can return in a more informed way, once I have read in much greater depth.