Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Category Archives: Social Movements

Outline of a Practice of Theory

Just a quick pointer to Alexei’s “Philosophy and Social Change” over at Now-Times. In this post, Alexei picks up more systematically on several of the threads from the recent discussions here and at The Kugelmass Episodes (cross-posted to The Valve) on how to conceptualise the relationship of theory and practice. A brief teaser:

Such a concepion of the import of Theory for social, ‘radical’ change, might shift the implicit question that seems to guide the current politicization of the humanities. The predominant view that the Humanities lack any immediate effect hen it comes to social and political change of certain tendencies of theory, which is concentrated in Literary studies and Philosophy, or perhaps even from Anthropology and Sociology, stems from a guilty conscience that ‘necessarily attaches to our precise social position: we can study only within a system, but the price of being able to study is effectively the renunciation of any direct, practical activity. We don’t build bridges, or even dig ditches. We don’t save lives, or even make them ‘better’ (or maybe that’s just me and my relationship to my students). And since there are only 24 hours in the day, and some of us are profoundly lazy, we simply can’t be as directly engaged as we think we ought to be. Being an academic these days amounts to a guilty conscience precisely because we are aware of our paradoxical situation. We rely upon a system we wish to change and simultaneously insulate ourselves from this very system in order to pursue our academic — and generally impractical in the short term — studies. More than anything else, I think that the burgeoning guilt of being an academic (in the Humanities) accounts for the politicization of various fields in the humanities.

Now, I’m certainly not claiming that this is a bad thing. I would, however, like to point out that no one, prior to, say, May ‘68, would have ever thought that the humanities were somehow ineffectual. And it’s this shift that needs to be investigated.

I’ll have to apologise to both Alexei and Joe, as well as to anyone else who has been following these exchanges, for not being able to dive into this discussion in greater detail: I’m in the middle of some particularly difficult conceptual work at the moment, and need to remain a bit single-minded for the next several days. So, while I may (or may not!) toss up some further contributions to the series of posts on Capital, as these posts relate to what I’m currently working on, my ability to participate in other discussions will be severely curtailed for the moment. In the interim, there’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on in the comments here without me (!), and in Alexei’s post at Now-Times – and I do promise to pick up the various hanging threads from this discussion as soon as I can free myself of my current domination by the form of Value… ;-P

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Free Associations

Sinthome from Larval Subjects has written a beautiful reflection on self-reflexivity and the formation of collectives, beginning with the lovely multi-layered play on words in its title (free associations indeed), organised around a series of reflections on Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, and ranging both widely and masterfully through concepts from critical philosophy, social and anthropological theory, and psychoanalysis. Among many, many other things, Sinthome points back to, and expands upon, some of the themes recently outlined in my own sketchy placeholder post on the concept of theoretical pessimism. Sinthome concludes:

The theory of social-formations that speaks of social structures, systems, forces, and so on and so forth is not unlike the account of the billiard ball that passively suffers the laws of mechanics. That is, agents are simply seen as props of these structures. Yet as Sartre points out, we must distinguish between the knowledge of being and the being of knowledge (CDR, 24). That is, we risk falling into theoretical pessimism so long as we fail to take self-reflexivity into account, for we come to see ourselves as passive sufferers of these social forces. Yet, to make a Pepperellesque observation, what this proposition forgets is, namely, itself: the subject enunciating the proposition. That is, this proposition forgets that the minimal condition for the possibility of enunciating the proposition that we are effects of structure is a marginal distance from structure, a minimal deterritorialization from structure, a small crack or line of flight within structure. That is, one must have in part already have stepped out of structure in order to discern structure as an operative force of conditioning in the life of the subject. Just as the symptom must come to be seen as split or divided so that the analysand might discern it as a formation of the unconscious (i.e., the analysand must no longer see the symptom as directly the problem to be solved, but rather see the symptom as signifying something other), similarly structure must already be split and fissured to enunciate the claim that we are effects of structure. What the theoretical pessimist forgets is precisely his own position of enunciation: he treats himself as being outside of structure, even as he makes the claim that he is but an effect of structure.

Yet here emerges the question pertaining to the formation of collectives. A collective, as itself a critical entity, as itself a function of the breach in structure, must either punctually or gradually have encountered this breach in structure. Yet what are the conditions, by what confluence of forces, does this breach appear? In many respects this is the ten million dollar question. The elephant in the room that no one is talking about is the old Marxist question of the conditions under which the proletariat will be awoken to its own revolutionary vocation. Of course, social structure has changed significantly and we now know that the proletariat can no longer be identified with industrial workers tout court (this as a function of the shift to post-industrial capital and the emergence of communications technologies that have changed class relations… Indeed, Capital demonstrates that “class” is a far more fluid concept than it is often made out to me). Echoing Sloterdijk’s melancholy question, “why do we continue to do it when we know that we’re doing it?” Where is that crack that might function as the impetus for the emergence of a new people? What would be the conditions under which this crack might emerge. The fact that we’re theorizing it indicates that it is already there, if only virtually or potentially. What would it take for it to become actual? As usual, I have no answers and I’m not even sure that I’m posing the questions in the right way.

The excerpt simply doesn’t do the post justice – the original should be read in full. (And anyone who has any suggestions for a less ugly term than “Pepperellesque” can let Sinthome know…)

Fragment on Theoretical Pessimism

I’ve been invited to present at an event that brings together critical theorists and activists to reflect on the relevance – or lack of relevance – of particular forms of critical theory to contemporary activism. The event won’t take place until early next year – the organisers are still finalising the details of the format and specific theme in consultation with the presenters. I’ll post more specific information to the blog when things are further along. For the moment, I’m just trying to get my head around what I might present, to give the organisers some information they can use when making decisions on format and promotion for the event.

The invitation has me thinking about the concept of theoretical pessimism – and wondering specifically how many current, “living” traditions of critical social theory are not pessimistic. It will already be clear from this question that I must mean the term “theoretical pessimism” in a very specific sense. There are many critical theoretic approaches that seek to ground some potential for emancipatory transformation – in the everyday sense of the word “pessimism”, many theoretical traditions are not pessimistic at all. My question relates more to the somewhat technical meaning of “theoretical pessimism” used in discussions of the trajectory of the Frankfurt School.

In this context, the concepts of theoretical pessimism, self-reflexivity, and socio-historical immanence are intrinsically intertwined. By theorising its own socio-historical context in a way that reveals how that context generates determinate, socially immanent, potentials for its own transformation, the theory becomes self-reflexive. Self-reflexivity, in this framework, therefore means simply that the theory can account for its own existence as a potential generated immanently by the socio-historical context it is analysing. Critical social theory accounts for itself by showing how its own socio-historical context internally generates determinate potentials for transformation, potentials that are then expressed in the ideals or values articulated by the critique. Self-reflexivity is thus intrinsically aligned with – defined in terms of – the theory’s ability to identify determinate, socially immanent, practical potentials for transformation. Within this framework, when a theory cannot identify how a specific socio-historical context generates determinate internal potentials for transformation, it ceases to be self-reflexive or immanent, and becomes a pessimistic theory – a theory whose critical objections to its own social context can no longer be linked with a determinate analysis of how that context might be transformed. This is, in fact, what happened to the first generation of the Frankfurt School.

One thing that is sometimes missed – in part because earlier forms of Marxist theory sometimes attempted to extrapolate some kind of general sociological principle from this vision of immanent critical theory – is that this kind of social critique would only ever be possible if the socio-historical context were to have very specific qualities. There is no reason to assume that all forms of human community would generate determinate internal potentials for some specific form of transformation whose character could potentially be theorised before it occurs: it’s not difficult to imagine scenarios in which something like immanent social critique wouldn’t make sense – scenarios in which change is solely aleatory in structure, or driven by human actors from outside the community being theorised, or catalysed by natural events, etc. The claim that something like an immanent and self-reflexive social critique might be possible, is therefore already a strong claim about the determinate characteristics of the particular society being analysed: only in the idiosyncratic circumstance in which a socio-historical context generates some kind of systematic potential for transformation, would this model of critique make any sense. Again, the first generation Frankfurt School theorists recognised this – and therefore drew the appropriate pessimistic consequences, when their particular theory of how capitalism might generate transformative potentials seemed no longer to apply.

Many forms of critical social theory appear to have stepped away from the vision of immanent critique sketched above – accounting for the existence of critical sensibilities in other ways, if at all, rather than attempting to locate determinate potentials for transformation that provide perspectives or standpoints that the critique expresses. Instead, the socio-historical context is often positioned as the object of critique – perhaps as something that provokes the recognition or mobilisation of certain critical ideals – but not often viewed as constitutive of the qualitative characteristics of critical sensibilities, by generating the potentials for particular kinds of immanent transformation. For this reason, many forms of social theory remain “pessimistic” in the technical sense of not identifying aspects of the socio-historical context that point beyond that context in determinate ways. This level of “pessimism” could be entirely appropriate, if our socio-historical context doesn’t have the strange characteristics required for some kind of systematic internal generation of transformative potentials. What I would like to explore in my presentation, however, are approaches that still try to “cash out” the instinct that something like an immanent and self-reflexive social critique might be possible – approaches that still attempt to conceptualise social critique as an expression of a determinate potential for transformation that is generated within our specific form of social life. More on this, hopefully, when I’m a bit less tired – and apologies for the rough and overgeneralised quality of these preliminary comments, which I’ve tossed here mainly so I don’t lose track of the chain of associations in the beginning-of-term crush.

Reproducing Ambivalence

And while I’m linking and punning on Benjamin, I meant to draw attention some time ago to the nice reading of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” posted by Ryan/Aless over at massthink. A brief excerpt:

While modern mass are has negative effects, then, its potential benefits (esp. the development of a progressive stance in the waging of social battles) outweigh them. It must be stressed, however, that these positive effects, as Benjamin points them out, are potential ones. They, first and foremost, require (which is where we began with) that art be politicized. Art must find its basis in politics and politics must permeate art (art must concern politics; politics must be concerned with art) to explicitly make it a site of ideological struggle. If Benjamin is right in his assessment that massive reception is inherently progressive, then this-the mechanical reproduction of art, its massive reception, its explicit politicization-bodes well for a progressive social program (i.e. for Marxist political goals).

This is why Benjamin feels it necessary to politicize art. It is inevitable. “The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of the masses are two aspects of the same process,” a process that has and is happening. It is inevitable that art be mechanically reproduced, that it be massively received. The age of the masses has come, and the masses demand social and artistic participation. Thus, it is inevitable that art and politics be implicated with each other. This is why we must strive to politicize art. The only other alternative is for politics to be aestheticized, which, Benjamin points out, culminates in one thing: “War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. [. . .] Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.”

This, precisely, is what fascism aims for: “Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarians masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.” Fascism finds its means of survival precisely in the aestheticization of politics: “If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. [. . .] Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.”

The demand (and energy) of the masses, in other words, along with the novel forces of technology that society has developed ((e.g. mechanical reproduction), if art is not politicized (to change property relations), finds its object in war. Hence war-politics-is aestheticized: to legitimate it, to make the masses accept it. War, in effect, “suppl[ies] the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. [. . . Mankind’s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” This-the aestheticization of politics, of war, of death-is precisely (since it does not want to change property relations) what fascism does-the only alternative, according to Benjamin, if we do not politicize art-if we do not make art, see art for what it is: a crucial site of ideological struggle. In other words: Destruction if not progress(ive social goals). Fascism if not Marxism.

R/A is on break for the moment – I’ll miss reflections like this until he returns.

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.

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.