It’s hard to know exactly who the audience is for this small book, the fifth in Semiotext(e)’s Intervention Series, and an uneasy bedfellow with its immediate predecessor in the series, Tiqqun’s Introduction to Civil War. Taken broadly, it’s an overview of the concept of the machine/machinic as formulated by Deleuze and Guattari, combined with post-autonomist Marxist thinking and an emphasis on contemporary ‘creative’ activism and political art practices, as in Raunig’s previous Art and Revolution (reviewed in Radical Philosophy 148). It moves through six chapters: cultural depictions of bicycles; contrasting conceptions of the machine in Marx and in Deleuze and Guattari; machinic thinking in the theatre from Ancient Greece through to early Soviet Russia (Meyerhold and Eisenstein); the concept of the ‘war machine’ and its material forerunners in Roman military technology and tactics; the ‘precariat’ of the European Mayday celebrations/protests; and Raunig’s own theory of ‘abstract machines’ against state and community.
The book is at its best when it’s grounded in a discussion of particular things: discrete ‘machinic’ intersections of humans and things, as well as the social relations behind them. None of this is new historical or theoretical research, but Raunig offers nuanced and condensed accounts, and, if nothing else, one might read the book as an introduction to a wider body of notoriously difficult texts about capitalism, machinic assemblages, abstraction, instrumentality, and so on.
Until you consider how it’s written, at which point the question of who it’s for, what it’s trying to do and whether it offers us anything new becomes a lot harder to answer. There’s an unsettled coexistence of different modes of research, focus and argumentation. Worse, barring the most hardcore devotees of a Deleuze-andGuattari-inspired writing style, most readers, including those with a serious interest in precisely the issues covered here, will likely find the prose both frustrating and tired, so overburdened at times with a certain breed of jargon as to become nearly incoherent. A representative passage:
I understand abstract machines as transversal concatenations that cross through multiple fields of immanence, enabling and multiplying the connections in this field of immanence. … They do not exist before and beyond, but rather on this side of the separation of assemblages of signs and assemblages of bodies, forms of expression and forms of content, discursive and non-discursive dispositifs, what is sayable and what is visible.
Aside from the strange decision both to keep dispositif in French and not to investigate its meaning – a telling oversight for a book of machinic thinking: not to deal with an inherited concept of the apparatus/device, even as it repeats it again and again – such a mode of writing and terminological tendency basically limits the readership to those already in the Deleuze and Guattari camp. This isn’t, however, flatly to dismiss it; certainly not because of a disagreement with the effects of this style. Rather, it is important to take Raunig’s project on its own terms and consider its mode of thinking and writing as symptomatic of the tendencies, assumptions and consequences of a political and philosophical orientation of which Raunig’s work is but one manifestation.
The central argument of the text is that as ‘early as the nineteenth century, a machinic thinking emerged which actualized the concatenation of technical apparatuses with social assemblages and with the intellect as a collective capacity, and recognizes revolutionary potentials in this’. Such a thinking cuts against the ‘commonplace concept’, developed in the thirteenth century and taking shape especially since the seventeenth, that understands the machine as a ‘technical object’, a tool and an instrument that, however internally complex, acts as an extension of the body. Conversely, from a loosely Marxist standpoint that would miss the subtlety of Marx’s theory, machines come to be the dominant term in the production process, abstract alien powers to which we submit: we become incorporated as extensions of the machine. Raunig’s move is to sketch an overcoming of this concept, drawing on three main resources: etymological roots tying the machine back to the machina of theatre and war; Marx’s now notorious and relentlessly cited ‘Fragment on Machines’ from the Grundrisse; and
Auto-sabotageGerald Raunig, A Thousand Machines: A Concise Philosophy of the Machine as Social Movement, trans. Aileen Derieg, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2010. 120 pp., £9.95 pb., 978 1 58435 085
9. ^ the new perspective outlined by Deleuze and Guattari, with more emphasis on the work of the latter.
The account Raunig gives of Marx’s theory is on target, even if you can sense the urge for all roads to end in Guattarian machinic assemblages of concatenation. Raunig sharply draws out the way in which Marx’s writings on the question are not to be falsely equated with a simple dynamic of instrumentality and labour-saving/worker-dominating. (All the more, I would argue, in the less celebrated narrative of machinic development in Capital, Volume 1.) Rather, as Raunig describes the Marxist model, the machine not only forms its subjects, it structuralizes and striates not only the workers as an automaton, as an apparatus, as a structure, as a purely technical machine in the final stage of the development of the means of labour; it is also permeated by mechanical, intellectual and social ‘organs’, which not only drive and operate it, but also successively develop, renew and even invent it.
This is indeed the critical aspect of Marx’s account:
the doubled fact of the workers as dominated by this ‘purely technical machine’ and as incorporated into it, inseparable from what can only appear as a structure alien to them. In Marx’s description of the stages of increasing complexity of machinic labour, the machine functioned initially as an imitation of the worker’s task: not yet a complicated assemblage, it imitated the predetermined task of the worker.
As the speed, force and complexity of the machines increased, the factory itself had to be reorganized, its circuits of manufacturing remapped to account for the productive capacity of the machines. At that point, workers toiled to the speed, rhythm and pattern of the machines, becoming biomechanical caricatures of the machines. In short, labour became an imitation of an imitation. The uncanny specificity of this is reflected in Marx’s ‘Fragment’, which strangely speaks of the ‘automatic system of machinery’ as ‘set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself’.
One might wonder if this isn’t the very character of the machinic for which D&G, and Raunig with them, are searching: neither an extension of what already exists nor an addition of things that produces a whole that wasn’t there, it is instead the chaining together of forces, materials and knowledge which coheres only in accordance with an abstraction of itself. A ghost in the not-yet-formed machine, the automaton that drives the automatic system may be only the concept of machine that makes such binding and construction possible in the first place.
Leaving behind Marx, what do Deleuze and Guattari, according to Raunig, want to undo in the commonplace version of machine thinking? Raunig writes: ‘For Deleuze and Guattari, becoming a piece with something else means something fundamentally different from extending oneself, projecting oneself or being replaced by a technical apparatus.’ In brief, their concern is to take the concept of the machine and dephysicalize it, debiologize it and deinstrumentalize it. It’s not just, or ever, the material machine itself (i.e. without the workers, forces and flows that make it ‘machinic’), it’s not an alien organ extension of the body, and it frequently works against its potential tool-purpose (the war machine that threatens its state, for example). Instead, it’s about the ‘flowing of its components’, exchange and communication:
The question should certainly not be: What is a machine? Or even: Who is a machine? It is not a question of the essence, but of the event, not about is, but about and, and concatenations and connections, compositions and movements that constitute a machine. To be sure, we shouldn’t dismiss the importance of the line of thinking Raunig picks up, especially in so far as it complicates a sense of machines as that which either uses or get used. However, a problem already present in this model becomes unmistakable here: the question shouldn’t be what is a machine, but what, for this philosophy, is not a machine? Arguably the central blindspot of the book is a casual and troubled slippage between ‘actual’ machines and relations that are machinic, with an accompanying dismissal of the former. (Such a slippage is apparent in the specificity of the title: machine as social movement, yet which also remains concerned with machines for social movement.) In rejecting the material or even ‘metaphorical’ specificity of actual machines, the concept of the machinic becomes spread inchoately wide. Given that its dominant criterion is the ‘concatenation’, it’s nearly impossible to discern either what exactly it designates or what is gained by this insistent designation. We have the negative definition – machinic is distinct from a model of the organism or the ecological – yet lack a positive sense of why to call it a machine when it can include such an enormous range. Furthermore, the specifications that we do get, such as the ‘nonconforming concatenation of differences, singularities and multitudes’, come close to including nearly everything, if only we widen our perspective. Raunig writes of abstract machines that they ‘have no form, are formless, amorphous, unformed’. The same must be said of the concept itself. In its frisson of concatenation and transversal movement, nothing links up and takes shape, and not in a monstrous way that opens the potent antagonism envisioned in these machines of communication and possible dismantling.
That’s too bad. Because in the initially legitimate attempt to leave behind the overly literal, it covers over something compelling: the possibility of a thought grounded in the figurations of ‘real machines’ or even particular configurations of force and matter that deserve to be thought of as machines for secession and for sabotage. There are plenty of such figures here, and the chapters on war and theatre machines especially offer intriguing figures not fully followed out: the Trojan horse, the Meyerhold machine-actor, and, most striking, the currodrepanus clipeatus, a Roman device that spurs a horse on automatically after the rider has fallen, driving it forward. As such, we can glimpse the edges of another form of machinic thought that passes through the specificity of the machine without freezing it as mere instrument or extension. Rather than a philosophy of the machine, how can philosophy – and politics and aesthetics – sharpen itself via a binding to the particular figuration of distinct machines? What would it mean for politics to think itself through the ecstatic cream separator of Eisenstein’s Old and New?
Or philosophy as siege engine, speculation as the autohorse spurrer charging its gates?
Raunig begins with the bicycle, and, as the final example of the ‘abstract machine’ that ‘flees, avoids and betrays’ the concepts of state and community, describes a 2007 Vienna ladyride in whichThere was not only sight-seeing along the route, thought, but also collective traffic calming and spontaneous street blockades. ‘Honk, if you love us!’ was a motto then, or ‘Wer ist der Verkehr? Wir sind der Verkehr! [as Raunig notes, ‘Who is the traffic/intercourse? We are the traffic/intercourse!’] This is then described as the ‘insistence of a dissonant power, a monstrous potency and enjoyment’ and ‘ambiguous re-invention of Verkehr as a nonconforming concatenation’. I’m utterly unconvinced that ‘traffic calming’ and asking drivers to honk ‘if you love us’ constitutes anything close to a ‘dissonant power’ or ‘monstrous potency’. And one need not slide all the way to a Terminator-style vision of our machines turning against us to grasp this difference.
Jacques Tati, a favoured example for Raunig, shows us in Mon Oncle the horror of machinic assemblages, the threat of the mechanized house barely suppressed by the laughter.
The major machine absent in Raunig’s account is the car, perhaps because it feels less like a Guattarimachine and more like that auto-horse spurrer, massive blocks of steel, glass and restrained explosions. If he raises the Themroc example of the two workers riding side by side ‘mutually support[ing] one another as one machine’, why not expand it to that horrifying hybrid assemblage, traffic itself, the swarming machine of cars–bikes–humans? Sadly, one of the most common reasons for cyclists to ‘concatenate’ in the street, and intervene in the traffic, is when someone has been hit by a car and killed. There is no if you love us… There’s a ‘ghost bike’, painted white and left to remain unridden at the site of the accident: a broken machine.
Raunig’s book can’t grasp a chaining together with what is not just different but fundamentally opposed, not just a transversal motion but a flight that can’t leave, secession that goes nowhere. Cars and bikes do not coexist: they constitute traffic, and traffic is nothing but the temporary deferral of a collision, accelerated yet suspended violence. Truly monstrous thought and action have to grapple with a binding to the hostile, the machinic assemblage that cannot exist with itself. A thousand ghost bikes without riders, crashing through lines of traffic to sabotage the auto plant. Now that would be a monstrous potency.
Evan calder williams
RoséJean-Luc Nancy, Identité: Fragments, franchises, Galilée, Paris, 2010. 69 pp., €14.00 pb., 978 2 71860 820 4.of the extreme-right Front National, which had until then been in decline, something attributed to Sarkozy’s co-opting of populist stances on immigration and crime since his time as Interior Minister. The ‘debate’ on ‘national identity’, it seemed, was one triangulation to the extreme right too far.
Nancy initially presents Identité as a corrective to both rightand left-wing approaches to the ‘causes’ that would render any debate on national identity somehow necessary. Of course it is simplistic to complain, as does the right, that ‘these people don’t want to let themselves be integrated into the national identity’; but so, he says, is the left assertion that ‘the conditions given to [these people] do not allow them even to work out their own identity’. If this might give the impression that Nancy wishes to escape a right–left political spectrum, Nancy’s description of ‘the most visible causality’ should quickly disabuse this:
Without work, without places or conditions of life other than the by-products of an urbanism without urbanity, without education or training conceived as more than the patching up of an outdated model, it is impossible even to envisage a horizon of ‘identity’. … Let’s be deliberately simplistic: either there is work, or there isn’t. If, by structure, there must not be any – or enough – we need to be open about this and take into account what the structure engenders.
If by contrast there could be work – but in a reformed, transformed, structure, … we need to bring it [i.e. reform or transformation] about.
If companies, in other words, are going to be able to lay off workers in times of recession as a means of keeping afloat, then so be it, but then we have to accept the social consequences. And if the most vulnerable are also going to be from secondor thirdgeneration immigrant families, trained for non-existent jobs and then left to fend for themselves in glorified ghettos where they’re rendered invisible, then don’t be surprised if they ‘don’t want to let themselves be integrated’ into the very society that has conferred this fate upon them. Any attempt to resuscitate the political concept of ‘identity’ must start from this fact, and from its corollary: ‘In either case, we’ll have to make room for what cannot be compressed: not work, nor capital, but people, all of us included.’This latter gesture is striking, given that most recent questioning of the concept of ‘identity’ – especially on One of the ironies of the ‘debate’ launched in late 2009 by the French government on national identity is that it has been ‘French thought’ that has done so much to call the concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘identity’ into question over the last century. This irony is one not lost on Jean-Luc Nancy, whose own œuvre has constituted a singular contribution to such thought.
Indeed, he writes, it generated the ‘stupefaction’ that led him to intervene in the ‘debate’ with the handful of ‘fragments’, cast off ‘in haste’, that make up Identité.
Yet if the ostensible aim of these fragments is simply to prevent the debate ‘from going round in circles’, there is a far more ambitious thread running through them:
a possible recuperation of the concept of ‘identity’ for left philosophical thought.
The government-stage-managed ‘debate’ on national identity is one of the sorriest chapters in recent French political life. On 2 November 2009 President Nicolas Sarkozy, with one eye on the upcoming regional elections, instructed his minister of immigration, integration, national identity and development (the link between the various briefs of the ministry being itself questionable), Eric Besson, to inaugurate a debate that would take place in town halls across the country.
Besson himself is a highly divisive figure: a Socialist deputy, he was campaign manager for Ségolène Royal’s 2007 presidential campaign before jumping ship three months before the election with a highly personalized parting shot directed at Royal. Sarkozy rewarded him with a place in his government, and he has recently been at the heart of some of the most aggressive measures designed at repatriating illegal immigrants, or sans-papiers. The ‘debate’ itself coincided with the ban on Muslim women wearing the burqa, and both measures were widely seen as an attempt to play on insecurity and latent xenophobia in order to save Sarkozy’s ailing UMP party from defeat in the Régionales, in particular by scapegoating French Muslims for the country’s various economic and social ills.
Predictably enough, the subsequent town hall meetings, boycotted by groups on the centre and the left, became a platform for unreconstructed racist vitriol directed towards immigrants, and especially towards the ‘Islamicization’ of France; amid much consternation with the direction it had taken, the ‘debate’ was abruptly called off in February. The upshot of all this was electoral disaster for the UMP, and the resurgence the part of that ‘deconstruction’ with which Nancy is, perhaps precipitately, associated – has also generally belonged to a ‘post-’ or ‘anti-humanist’ current in philosophy. It is also striking because, turning towards ‘people’ and away from work and capital, Nancy apparently wishes to distance himself from a Marxian Left that would interpret problems of ‘national identity’ as symptoms of a primarily economic predicament.
Nancy’s claim is that even if such problems of identity arise from an economic structure that treats ‘these people’ as surplus, they are subsequently irreducible to this structure and must be approached from the perspective of ‘identity’ itself.
Nancy’s aim is thus to recuperate the concept of ‘identity’ as a political category for the ‘Left’, in the light of that current in ‘French’ thinking which has spent over half a century probing questions of ‘the relativity of identities, the intimate interweaving of this notion with an internal difference, the impossibility of assigning shatterproof identity markers as much to a “territory” as to a “culture”, a “person”, a “language”’. But he also suggests that ‘identity’ as a concept has for a long time been particularly fraught within France, above all, and to this end Nancy not only offers a genealogy of a self-identity already aware of its internal alterity, but points to France’s singular place within Enlightenment universalism, and to the ‘republican’ values born of the 1789 Revolution.
When this universalism realizes that it is not quite as universal as it thought, a country that defines itself by such universality finds itself shaken to the core.
the thinking around identity … was not an intellectual fashion: it took on that which European culture had called into question. This was a series of identities all of which were in solidarity with one another, that of man, of woman, of animals, of God, of a rational order founded on a ‘principle of identity’, and that of a Europe that had never before identified itself this much – distinguished itself from others and recognized itself – as when, before it propagated this desire for ‘nationalities’, it had believed itself able to impose itself on the world as the very identity of civilization.
At the same time, there is a second myth of origins that implicates France in particular in questions of identity: its status as the country of the Franks (le pays des francs). Nancy plays on this word to argue that one can only identify oneself by being ‘frank’ in two senses. To assert one’s identity requires both (i) that one assert it truthfully, that one be ‘frank’ (franc), honest, to the point, open; and (ii) that there be ‘a free space [une zone franche] in which no authority is exerted’ in which to make the assertion, a franchise. This is not merely etymological opportunism; rather, franchise directs Nancy towards thinking an openness in which we can trace identity as an identificatory movement. This sets in motion a train of thought that one might feel tempted to dismiss as a series of standard deconstructionist tropes: we must ‘enter into the interstice, into the dehiscence that identity opens from itself into itself’, and thus find an ‘inscription’ at the source (Nancy’s preferred term is point de chute, literally ‘point of falling’, but with the colloquial meaning of a ‘port of call’ or temporary abode) of this identificatory movement, a ‘point of infinite leakage, gathering, and dispersal’ which ‘frays a path’ into singular–plural identity(ies), and yet which, dispersing infinitely, ‘we can never reach’. Yet Nancy aligns this ‘excess of origin’ with ‘a far more originary profusion: that of existing [éxister]’.
Simply by existing, that is, we, as ‘individuals’ and as members of a ‘people’, are involved in plural identities, plural not only because each identity is defined in relation to other identities, but also in that each identity is plural internally, a tension or movement, reflecting the fact that ‘being is plural or it is nothing’.
The question of identity is thus traced back to an originary plularity in ‘being’, such that Sein is conditioned in advance by the Mitsein through which it can articulate itself.
This means that a second ‘deconstructionist’ concern is also refigured with specifically political valence: how to ‘name’ identity in such a way as not to deprive it of the movement that characterizes its excess over origin or point de chute. If identity is nothing ‘extractable’ from a person or people, as this would be to tear it from the tensions and processes through which it identifies – if, as Nancy puts it, it enters into language never as ‘a thing nor a unit of meaning’ but as the tracing of a multidirectional movement – then we find a tension between the identificatory movement that happens simply by virtue of existing, and the civil identity through which the subjects of a nation can be ‘placed’. Whilst insisting that this is not in order to set up a ‘Manichean’ scheme around these kinds of identity, or of the analogous distinction between a self-identifying ‘people’ and an institutionalized ‘nation’, the civil state is nevertheless, Nancy argues, ill-equipped to grasp the infinite excess of human existence. The current fashion for official documentation, ‘identity cards’ and the like, if anything, makes this more, and not less, apparent – and more, not less, inevitable.
Any attempt to fix ‘identity’ as the object of a ‘debate’ will thus prove not merely fallacious and irresponsible, but obsolete. In this light, Nancy subjects to close analysis an instruction Sarkozy reportedly gave his ministers: Je veux du gros rouge qui tache (I want cheap red plonk that leaves a stain). Gros rouge, Nancy points out, no longer exists, a consequence of commercial pressures from globalization and changes in drinking habits which have led French wine producers to improve the quality of their produce (the gros rouge that remains, he notes, is almost exclusively the preserve of alcoholics swigging on the streets).
Beyond the violent tone and the obvious exclusion of those people, notably Muslims, who do not drink (although, in fact, Sarkozy is himself reputedly teetotal), the statement is striking for invoking a piece of France that no longer exists, and has not done for a generation. That the central tropes of French ‘national identity’ should be clichés of an irretrievable past is, however, not simply unfortuitous irony, nor the evocation of nostalgia, but arises from a fundamental misrecognition, and disfigurement, of what identity is and does. The attempt to render the metastasis of identity simplistically static contravenes the very temporality through which identity identifies itself. To ‘debate’ an identity or complex of identities is necessarily to deal in anachronism.
The fragments that make up Identité, then, for all their modesty, demonstrate the by-no-means-modest achievement of using the national identity debate as the catalyst for that which was lacking in the debate itself – a thoughtful consideration of ‘identity’ as a political category. This is a politics of identity far removed from any ‘identity politics’, a term conspicuous by its utter absence from the book, but which is the implied recipient of one choice dig: Nancy dismisses the ‘multiculturalism that a “progressive” discourse exalts like a Dionysian invention, when this feeble and clunky term was forged merely to try to hold together different strands of a patchwork whose pieces, for the most part, remain in spite of all caught in the “monocultures” whence they came’.
If each identity – of an individual, a people, or a ‘culture’ – is fatally entangled with, and conditioned by, its exposure to a plurality of identities from within and without, then the very basis of identity lies in a community or communality that would antecede ‘monocultures’. To reconstruct multiculturalism after the fact is to remain blind to the originary plurality through which the categories of culture, individual, and even person, first become possible. The project of reconstructing plurality from an individual identity is no more than the futile gesture of a ‘Left’ which will not give up its ‘liberal’ assumptions, even at the cost of remaining in perpetual self-contradiction. And here we see the ultimate stakes of Nancy’s politics of identity: a thinking of the communal that must do justice to the maxim ‘being is plural or it is nothing’; where communality is both the fundamental condition of politics and its ultimate end. No longer the preserve of liberalism of whatever stripe, identity reveals itself to depend on, and to exact, a renewed philosophical communism.
David nowell smith
Wot? No critique of the social whole?
Robert B. Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life, Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, 2008. 308 pp., £18.99 pb., 978 0 52172 872 0.
Pippin defended this conception of modernity in a broader cultural context and contrasted it with rival conceptions derived from Nietzsche and Heidegger.
In doing this he explicitly engaged with the dominant reading of Hegel in the modern European tradition as the thinker of system and identity and also challenged the claims of the philosophies of difference, drawing their inspiration from Nietzsche or Heidegger, to have dispensed with notions like freedom or the subject as the locus of intentional meaning. Central to this defence was his anti-metaphysical reading of the Hegelian concept of Geist and his interpretation of the Hegelian absolute as simply the developmental process of the self-realization of human freedom. Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life builds on these and subsequent works. It offers the most concerted and thoroughgoing account to date of what Pippin first referred to in an earlier essay as Hegel’s ‘ethical rationalism’.
Pippin summarizes Hegel’s theory of practical reason as comprising two basic components:
That for Hegel freedom consists in being in a certain reflective and deliberative relation to oneself … which is possible, so it is argued, only if one is also already in certain (ultimately institutional, normgoverned) relations to others, if one is a participant of certain practices.
In other words, it involves understanding the subject as at one and the same time self-determining and determinate. This distinctive approach to the problem of freedom runs counter to the prevalent schools of moral thought (contractarianism, utilitarianism, Kantian and deontological approaches, etc.) that, in their separate ways, have all viewed the account of how freedom is possible as necessarily entailing the switch to a level of abstraction. In Kant’s practical philosophy, for example, the various forms of right are shown to depend on what the acting subject can consistently will in abstraction from any particular context of an action.
Likewise John Rawls sought, much later, to account for the basic rationality and fairness of the principal social institutions on the grounds that they are underpinned by principles that all rational agents would agree were fair behind a ‘veil of ignorance’. By contrast, Hegel’s account involves showing how subjects come to ‘stand There are few figures from the classical philosophical canon that we could say, unequivocally, that we understand better than we did thirty years ago. The one exception to this is Hegel. One only needs to cast one’s mind back to the 1980s and 1990s – for anyone studying philosophy or the cognate disciplines in the UK at this time – to recall his almost complete absence from the curriculum. Where he did occur in sub-disciplines like political philosophy it was largely through received readings of ‘organicist’ accounts of the state with illiberal and even totalitarian leanings.
Outside the mainstream, on the other hand, in the philosophies of difference that were then predominant in heterodox thought, he figured centrally. He was the arch thinker of the system, inimical to difference as such that only a constant critical vigilance could prevent one lapsing back into. And while such readings represented altogether more substantial engagements with Hegel than those evidenced in the analytical tradition, more often than not they functioned as pretexts and offered limited assistance for those concerned with demystifying the central categories of his thought.
Robert Pippin’s work has been central to the reappraisal of Hegel’s thought since this time. In Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (1989) he offered a pioneering reading of Hegel’s thought that demonstrated how the argumentational structure of the Phenomenology of Spirit could be understood as an appropriation and development of Kant’s theory of transcendental apperception. Instead of the absolute being presupposed at the outset as many commentators (including Heidegger) maintained, all that was necessary to get this account of the phenomenology of shapes of consciousness going was an acceptance of Kant’s account of the reflexive structure of consciousness: that all consciousness was a simultaneous determinate taking of oneself to such awareness such that the subject could be described as spontaneously determining itself in accordance with a rule. It is this structure, Pippin argued, that generates the determinate failures, or negations, of a concept of an object in general to capture the sort of object awareness that it purported to, so characteristic of the Phenomenology of Spirit.
In Modernity as a Philosophical Problem: On the Dissatisfactions of European High Culture (1991), behind their actions’ and recognize them as truly their own. This, in turn, involves showing how, on the one hand, practical reason is bound, primarily, to specific institutional contexts for Hegel; that we deliberate as members of families or civil societies or as citizens of modern states; that only in abstraction from this – ethical life – do we reason as ‘abstract individuals’ or as ‘moral subjects’ acting in accordance with their conscience. On the other hand, it involves showing how these institutions, as forms of objective spirit, are the outcome or product of our own social-historical work which embody or objectify our collective notions of freedom. This distinguishes Hegel from thinkers like Hume and Burke who also insisted that ethical thought was tied to social institutions but via an appeal to custom and tradition rather than freedom and reason.
Pippin’s book, which is largely an extended exploration of this Hegelian ‘third way’ – between an abstract rationalism and a naturalism – is divided into three parts. The first looks at claims around spirit: (i) the relation between spirit and nature; (ii) the claim that spirit ‘is a product of itself’; and (iii) that norms be understood as self-legislating or self-actualizing. Of particular interest here is Pippin’s account, in Chapter 2, of the rooted character of ‘spiritual’ life in nature.
Part two considers the psychological and social dimensions of self–other relations. The final part looks at the theory of sociality underpinning this in Hegel’s theory of ‘recognitive status’ and ‘institutional rationality’ and focuses specifically on the political dimension of Hegel’s practical thought.
There is much to recommend here for anyone with a stake in the Hegelian project, whether positively or negatively. While Pippin would probably reject the moniker, his reading will be recognizably ‘leftHegelian’ for many readers. The main reason for this lies in the centrality he accords to the 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit and his general scepticism towards the very idea of a ‘Science of Logic’. Moreover, in his account of the convergence of subjective reason and objective spirit, in the claim that the intention of the action only becomes manifest retrospectively after the deed itself, and in his insistence that practical reason is ineluctably the reason of a participant in social practices, there are rich pickings for theorizing praxis. At the same time, however, this would have to be set against Pippin’s insistent defence of Hegel against Marx, in Chapters 4 and 9, that philosophy can only comprehend the world in retrospect, not change it. This is a claim that, at least in so far as it applies to Marx, patently needs further elaboration. If ‘practical reason’ cannot – at least not without distortion – be abstracted from ‘thick’ institutional contexts and if, in order for free action to be possible, there needs to be an adequation of subjective reason and objective (institutional) rationality, then why wouldn’t this be practical (i.e. ontologically generative) with respect to the object? As will be seen, the reason why not, for Pippin, turns on his qualification of the Hegelian claim to the rationality of the objective social order. However, to make such a claim stick he would, at a minimum, have to engage with Marx’s concept of praxis and perhaps later reconstructions of this by Lukács.
In fact, the left-Hegelian tradition represents something of a blind spot for this study more generally. This is odd and as a consequence some of the discussions appear arbitrarily curtailed. An example of this can be found in Pippin’s critique of Neuhouser’s reading of Hegel for retaining the distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’. As Pippin astutely observes, in maintaining that individuals realize themselves when they find the source of moral authority in themselves rather than in something external, Neuhouser retains the inner–outer distinction that the primacy of ethical life over the sphere of morality was supposed to throw into question. The import of this would appear radical: what would it be like to no longer understand one’s agency in this way? Yet whenever Pippin fleshes this out it appears anything but radical.
Over the page he offers a view of Hegel’s contribution to ‘critical theory’: Even though the structure of ethical life is overall coherent [the] tensions, pulls and counter-pulls in Hegel’s account are essential to the continuing need for reflective subjectivity in one’s engagements. The departure of children from the family, the limits on the pursuit of private ends established by civil society and even more by the state, the claims by the state for the young for its wars, and so forth, are not treated by Hegel as seamless moments in an over-arching whole. A good deal of reflection will be needed to understand just what one’s role calls for and what it does not.
But might we not expect more from Hegel’s critical legacy than a capacity to reflect on our roles as parents, private individuals and citizens, and the boundaries that constitute these in a rational social whole? Has not Hegel-inspired critical theory already gone much further than this in questioning the rationality of the social whole and questioning whether the realization of freedom can be adequately ‘housed’ in the characteristic institutions of modernity?
Much depends on Pippin’s deflationary account of Hegel’s claim for the objective rationality of the social order. Whilst the substantive institutional conditions for the realization of human freedom are not formal, they are, he suggests, ‘somewhat “light” in content’. This enables Pippin to defend the rationality of the social whole while acknowledging the ongoing need for reflection at the level of specific social role. Thus while the family, civil society (comprising free markets) and the state as forms of objective spirit represent the realization of human freedom and as such the ineluctable backdrop for the modern subject, Pippin can remain non-committal on the specific character of these institutions (e.g. what state or corporate body regulates the pursuit of private interest and to what extent?). This is a perfectly consistent and defensible position in the contemporary context and an important addition to the roll-call of ‘liberalisms’ that Pippin offers in Chapter
8. ^ In my view, however, Pippin’s argument is significantly impaired by a seeming reluctance to engage with the left-Hegelian tradition, extending from Marx to Adorno, that has questioned the rationality of the social whole and insisted, in various ways, that the realization of human freedom cannot ultimately be separated from the capacity for ontological innovation at the institutional level.
The ghostly doubleNick Nesbitt, Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville and London, 2008. 261 pp., $22.50 pb., 978 0 8139 2802 9.
One of the more shocking aspects of the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince on 12 January 2010 was the manner in which the catastrophe was reported, especially in France and the USA.
Leaving aside the lunatic but influential religious Right in the USA, who saw in the earthquake the wrath of God visited upon a land of pagans, the media generally threw themselves with relish upon the weary old theme of Haiti as the land of the cursed. One might have hoped that Voltaire’s Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne – written fully 250 years ago – had once and for all burst the bubble of that rhetoric of providence and malediction, but such does not appear to be the case. After 1804, the year of its self-declared independence, Haiti swiftly became the rhetorical locus of barbarity: a place whose existence served to comfort the West in the certainty of its own ‘civilization’ and ‘enlightenment’. Two centuries on, the rhetoric may be less brutal, but it seems that this land-that-God-forgot still has a useful role to play for our western liberal democracies.
The bicentenary of Haitian independence in 2004 prompted a flurry of academic conferences and publications revisiting the events leading up to 1804.
At the same time, however, the overthrow of Haiti’s democratically elected president shortly after the muted bicentennial celebrations (the bicentenary was snubbed by nearly every world leader), in a coup financed and orchestrated by the former colonial power and the contemporary hemispheric hegemon, suggested that an independent Haiti was as unthinkable in 2004 as it had been in 1804. Nick Nesbitt’s new book, Universal Emancipation, sets out, among other things, to answer the question as to why Haiti remains as ‘scandalous’ today as it was two centuries ago.
The starting point for Nesbitt’s book could well be summarized in a question asked by the 2004 Debray report on Franco–Haitian relations: ‘How many French people know that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was initiated in Paris but instantiated in Saint-Domingue, where human rights became, almost without our knowledge, truly universal?’ Nesbitt presents the Haitian Revolution as the culmination of the radical Enlightenment: whereas the American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 had, ultimately, subordinated universal freedom to property rights (the slave population of the United States actually tripled between 1776 and 1820; the after-tremors of 1830 and 1848–52 in France served merely to consolidate the rights of the bourgeoisie), in Haiti alone were human rights universally and unconditionally implemented.
If the thesis itself is straightforward enough, the way that it unfolds in Nesbitt’s book is rather more convoluted. Universal emancipation is an idea with a history and with a future, and a sizeable proportion of the book is devoted to tracing the lineage of the notion – from Spinoza, through Diderot and the Encyclopédie, to the revolutionary rhetoric of Robespierre, and beyond, in the work of Kant and Hegel (here, Nesbitt picks up and develops Susan Buck-Morss’s Hegel and Haiti). The futurity of the notion pulls in much more recent political philosophers, such as Rancière, Badiou, Habermas,
Laclau and Mouffe. Other chapters deal with how the idea was disseminated, how it landed in SaintDomingue, how it was understood and how it came to life, growing rapidly into a Frankenstein’s monster that destroyed its creator. In all of this, the slaves of SaintDomingue emerge as the ‘unintended readers’ of the Déclaration, eavesdroppers on a conversation taking place above their heads, but who had the audacity to believe that the words homme and liberté applied to them. Nesbitt has the slaves as jazz musicians avant la lettre, ‘improvising’ on the ‘theme’ of the Déclaration; one could perhaps equally well think of them as Lévi-Straussian bricoleurs.
The path that Nesbitt proposes is not always easy to follow. This may be due in part to the genesis of the book: most of its chapters have been published previously, in whole or in part, and there are some problems of continuity and repetition that should have been ironed out by a keener editorial eye. It is probably also due to the interdisciplinary nature of the approach. Nesbitt’s interest and expertise lie in political philosophy and the history of ideas. But he is also interested in how the idea of universal emancipation was made concrete, how it passed into acts – in how it became instantiated, no matter how briefly, at a particular historical moment. It is clear that, despite claiming that Universal Emancipation is not, even secondarily, a work of historiography, the author cannot avoid, sooner or later, becoming implicated in the messy business of who actually did what to whom, and when. There are some minor historical inaccuracies, and some claims that, I believe, would need further substantiation (for example, I am unaware of anything stronger than circumstantial evidence to support the claim that Toussaint was a Freemason, let alone a ‘high-ranking’ one), but more striking is the ‘reverse teleology’ of Nesbitt’s account of the events after 1791.
Because he already knows who the ‘revolutionary heroes’ of the Haitian Revolution will turn out to be, he fails to fully evaluate the contributions of other historic actors. For example, the affranchis Ogé and Chavannes merit only a couple of mentions, yet the exemplariness of their punishment surely indicates the scale of the threat to the plantation system that they posed, and an individual such as Sonthonax, who after all abolished slavery in Saint-Domingue in 1793, is given a bit-part compared to the leading role ascribed to him in C.L.R.
James’s classic account of the revolution. It is probably historians of the period in question who will be least satisfied with Universal Emancipation.
The central idea that informs this book (that the idea of universal emancipation was made concrete in Haiti) could itself appear puzzling as well. After all, as is well known, Toussaint – and after him Dessalines,
Christophe and Pétion – wished to reinstate the latifundia system, forcing the erstwhile slaves back onto the plantations in an attempt to rebuild the shattered economy of Saint-Domingue/Haiti, while Toussaint’s 1801 constitution scarcely provided the blueprint for an egalitarian utopia. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot and others have shown, the Haitian state that emerged after 1804 was a ‘predatory state’: little more than an agent for extracting surplus profit from the labours of the peasants. To that extent, the Haitian Revolution was a dramatic failure. But Nesbitt’s claim is that the idea of universal emancipation was made concrete not in the Haitian state but in what Trouillot referred to as the nation: the Bossales (African-born slaves and their descendants, as opposed to the Creoles), who rejected the reimposition both of slavery (they formed the mass of the indigenous army that defeated Leclerc’s expeditionary force) and of wage-labour (they ignored Toussaint’s efforts to re-create the plantation system by, quite literally, taking to the hills in an act of mass marronnage). Known as the moun andeyò (the outside people) – paradoxically, as they constituted upwards of 90 per cent of the population of Haiti in 1804 – they withdrew to the mountainous hinterland, isolated, unrepresented, perhaps unrepresentable. Relying heavily on Barthélemy’s seminal 1990 study of the Haitian peasantry, he sees theirs as a radically egalitarian, democratic society, viscerally hostile to liberal individualism and wage-labour: the true torch-bearers of the revolutionary ideal of universal emancipation that had been betrayed by others well before Haiti achieved its nominal independence in 1804, and, to their misfortune, a glaring anachronism in today’s global capitalist system.
Scorned, ignored and exploited for two centuries, under Jean-Claude Duvalier the Haitian peasantry found their unique society under attack from even further afield: a succession of neoliberal structural adjustment programmes imposed by a US-led IMF and World Bank have seriously undermined the peasants’ capacity to feed themselves, let alone to feed the cities or produce a surplus for export. Cheap, subsidized US agricultural imports have devastated large swathes of the Haitian peasant economy, accelerating both the rural exodus and the ecological disaster playing out in the Haitian countryside. The moun andeyò started to emerge from political isolation in the 1980s, but today, despite the interlude of Aristide’s Lavalas, they remain as much ‘on the outside’ as they always were, as the USA and the rest of the ‘international friends of Haiti’ decide how to ‘rebuild’ the country at conferences from which the very people who will have to live with that reconstruction are systematically excluded.
As Nesbitt remarks, the animus of the USA towards independent Haiti should logically have ceased in 1862, when slavery was finally abolished there, too. How, then, does one account for the numerous episodes of interference, destabilization and outright persecution that have set the tone of the USA’s various dealings with its tiny neighbour? Nesbitt’s book suggests an answer to that question: Haiti is the ghostly double, the scandalous reminder of a freedom that could have been – a freedom converted from the very moment of its enunciation into a rhetorical construct, and which is used today to justify the oppression of others across the globe.
As I have already suggested, Universal Emancipation is not without its problems. It suffers from compositional and structural defects that sometimes dilute the force of its own arguments. It does not always convince when it attempts to line up the history of ideas with a specific history in which those ideas were supposedly embodied. It raises more questions than it is able to answer, but the very fact that it raises those questions now makes this a book that should be read by everyone who believes that it is urgent to find ways of thinking past the contemporary neoliberal hegemony.
Sisters grimSara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness, Duke University Press, Durham NC and London, 2010. 315 pp., £16.99 pb., 978 0 82234 725 5.‘I just want you to be happy.’ The strangeness of this ubiquitous desire for the other – one’s partner, one’s child – should alert us to the vexed question of contemporary happiness. What does it mean? What is it for? Can one be happy? Should happiness be part of a good life? Does it even exist? Ahmed’s overview of the paradoxes of this desire for a thing that lacks any definitive content is timely and nuanced: the ‘science’ of happiness has reached new levels of academic respectability, and, as Ahmed points out, even David Cameron has spoken about happiness ‘as a value for government’, whatever that might mean in an era of enforced austerity, mass unemployment and widening social inequality. Ahmed is ultimately not at all on the side of happiness as it is currently understood, as something to ‘aim’ for, or composed of various ‘happy’ objects or relations (marriage, children, wealth, and so on). Her main aim, on the contrary, is to excavate figures of unhappiness – a rather pleasing triumvirate of feminist killjoys, unhappy queers and melancholic migrants – in order to defend both a kind of politicized rage and the ‘hap’ of happiness, its contingent qualities, happiness as a ‘happening’ in an unexpected sense.
Ahmed’s approach may be broadly termed ‘queer phenomenology’ (indeed, she previously wrote the book on it, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others in 2006, reviewed in Radical Philosophy 143).
What this involves is a kind of non-normative reading of texts and films that pays attention to the strange moments – the lines that don’t quite fit, the sentiments that don’t correspond to our usual understanding of love and relationships, and so on. Ahmed’s queer phenomenology involves a feel for awkwardness that aims not to smother or universalize singularity under the weight of philosophical generalization. Nevertheless,
Ahmed wants to draw out certain stereotypical figures, namely the feminist, the queer and the migrant, in order to explore their role in a generalized economy of happiness, and what it is they are supposed to be lacking in relation to and stealing from the mainstream.
After a brief summary of the history of happiness in philosophy, and the idea of happy objects, Ahmed introduces her troubling figures, beginning with the feminist killjoy.
To her credit, Ahmed has no truck with the kind of post-Deleuzean affirmative philosophy that adopts the language of Spinozan affect in relation to happiness: ‘I wonder what it means for joy to become a desirable mode, a way of transcending negative passions, which are assumed to be reactive.’ Ahmed is right to be suspicious of such a tendency, particularly in relation to feminism. Ahmed’s feminism remains gloriously stroppy: ‘To kill joy … is to open a life, to make room for life, to make room for possibility, for chance.’ Harking back to older, and now rather unfashionable, models of feminism, Ahmed argues that ‘earlier feminist languages of “consciousness-raising” and even “false consciousness” may be useful in an exploration of the limitations of happiness as a horizon of experience.’ The feminist killjoy is the heiress to a tradition of speaking out about unhappiness (Betty Friedan’s problem that has no name, Wollstonecraft’s attack on Rousseau’s deeply conservative model for female education): ‘The history of feminism is … a history of making trouble.’ The troublemakers Ahmed identifies – Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot’s The Mil on the Floss, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway,
Claudia in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Audre Lorde’s account of her experience of breast cancer – are all unhappy in more or less extroverted ways:
The figure of the female troublemaker … shares the same horizon with the figure of the feminist killjoy … Feminists might kill joy simply by not finding the objects that promise happiness to be quite so promising. The word feminism is thus saturated with unhappiness … the feminist killjoy ‘spoils’ the happiness of others; she is a spoilsport because she refuses to convene, to assemble, or to meet up over happiness.
By identifying the link between troublemaking and killing joy, Ahmed provides a useful way into linking feminist concerns up with race, something that has been missing in many recent theoretical accounts of feminism: ‘we can talk about being angry black women or feminist killjoys; we can claim those figures back … there can be even be joy in killing joy.’ At the same time, however, there is a kind of political joy in feminist unhappiness, and we are reminded of Shulamith Firestone’s excellent call for a ‘smile boycott’: ‘the feminist who does not smile when she is not happy wants a more exciting life.’ Refusing to be happy in a conventional way opens up possibilities not visible from the standpoint of conventional heteronormativity or from within the passive acceptance of gender inequality.
Ahmed’s second figure of discontent, the unhappy queer, involves readings of Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness, Léa Pool’s film Lost and Delirious, and If These Wal s Could Talk 2, directed by Jane Anderson, Martha Coolidge and Anne Heche, whose final instalment features Sharon Stone and Ellen DeGeneres deciding to have a baby together, via a sperm donor.
This ‘happy’ queer film, though not one without its own frustrations (‘And now in order to get pregnant I have to have another man or at least part of the man in the bedroom and it is not fair so I hate it more’ says one of the characters), is the culmination, Ahmed argues, of a ‘longer genealogy of negative queer affect and activism’, not simply an assimilation of queer desire to presiding heterosexual norms. This kind of teleology might be questionable, however, if politics drops out of the frame altogether. Consider Lee Edelman’s polemic No Future (2004), also a queer phenomenology of sorts, or at least a queer reading of various films and novels which is simultaneously viciously anti-political. Ahmed raises the question of ‘whether all forms of political hope, all forms of optimism as well as utopianism, all dreams of “some more perfect order,” can be described as performing the logic of futurism’, which is an important point, but rather underexamined here – is Ahmed defending a negative teleology of unhappiness that nevertheless carries the seeds of new forms of unexpected happiness? (Ahmed concludes the book by suggesting that ‘silliness’ might be something to defend – I couldn’t agree more.) An extended polemic against Edelman would have been welcome here, as the question of the temporality of happiness and unhappiness is left rather open, whilst, alternatively, the discussion of happy objects is much more filled out. Similarly, Ahmed’s abrupt use of Lukács (‘Consciousness might be about how the social is arranged through the sharing of deceptions that precede the arrival of subjects’ is how she paraphrases his argument) represents too much of a leap from the individual to the collective: we are left with a tentative queer Marxism that is stuck with the language of alienation and false consciousness, but it is not clear that this adds much to the nuanced queer readings of films and books that fill the rest of the book.
Ahmed is on much more solid ground when she turns to the figure of the ‘melancholic migrant’, where happiness is seen as the reward for ‘loyalty to the nation’, and an inability to give up on other narratives and identities is cause for both the unhappiness of the non-assimilable migrant and the native non-migrant.
Migrants, she argues, ‘are increasingly subject to what I am calling the happiness duty’: If in the nineteenth century the natives must become (more) British in order to be recognized as subjects of empire, in a contemporary context, it is migrants who must become (more) British in order to be recognized as citizens of the nation. Citizenship now requires a test: we might speculate that this test is a happiness test. Ahmed’s psychoanalytically inflected account of the figure of the unhappy migrant gives us the clearest vision of the structural role of happiness in ideas of nationhood and identity, and Ahmed fuses her accounts of feminism and queerness with a broader discussion of racism and cultural difference: this is the major strength of her approach as a whole, which precisely allows her to link these different figures of unhappiness together in the wider political context. Ahmed strives to rescue something interesting from the desire for unhappiness, which perhaps indicates that, in the end, unhappiness is not the opposite of happiness, but rather that unhappiness is the opposite of boredom.
Ahmed makes a fine plea for the contingency of politically inflected happiness that comes off the back of a history of pain, and a very interesting plea it is too.
Long live misery!
Vampire squidAndrea Fumagalli and Sandro Mezzadra, eds, Crisis in the Global Economy: Financial Markets, Social Struggles, and New Political Scenarios, trans. Jason Francis McGimsey, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2010. 256 pp., £13.95 pb., 978 1 58435 087 3.
The ‘metaphysical subtleties’ of globalized finance have only, ironically, become fully visible in their moment of crisis. Signifiers emptier than any poststructuralist could dream, these frozen abstractions preside over a denuded social landscape of de-valorization, nonreproduction and insolvency. In reaction critics and theorists have found the language of apocalypse, the horror film and social devastation irresistible: ‘crack capitalism’, ‘zombie capitalism’, ‘disaster capitalism’, Matt Taibbi’s description of Goldman Sachs as ‘a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money’; it is Marx’s Gothic metaphors which are getting up to dance. While it is hard not to feel some measure of Schadenfreude at capitalism’s 1989, any concomitant politicization and rebound to alternative socialist or communist forms of agency appears, so far, to have been lacking. The very language of horror itself threatens to reinforce and return to a fantasy of capitalism as all-powerful, as if, in its collapse, the end of capitalism is equivalent to the end of the world (to put another spin on Jameson’s remark that we can better accept the end of the world than the end of capitalism).
In response we should welcome this collection of responses to the crisis that emerges from the tradition of Italian operaismo, a tradition that has been preoccupied with the centrality of working-class agency as both the motor and the potential ruination of capitalist accumulation. Crisis in the Global Economy originated as part of the ‘UniNomade’ project, which is, inevitably, a ‘network’, and drew together researchers at seminars held at the University of Bologna, the Sapienza University in Rome, and a squatted social space, also in Rome, between 2008 and 2009. Its guiding thread is the historical novelty of the current financial crisis, and the need to think through new political scenarios in its wake, including, in a startling formulation, ‘to experiment with the synthesis of an unprejudiced use of reformism’.
Unfortunately one initial cautionary point has to be made, which is that the rendering into English, without my being able to comment on the actual translation, is poor. Such phrases as ‘a presumed glorious heredity of the past’, included in an ungrammatical sentence, and a persistent and deeply irritating use of ‘capitalistic’, when ‘capitalist’ appears the only possible choice, hardly inspire confidence. This uneasiness is only increased when reading the translator’s note that defines operaismo (‘workerism’), as ‘a name given to different trends in left-wing political discourse, especially anarchism and Marxism’. Such basic failures, especially considering the density and precise theoretical language of much post-operaismo, leave the text deeply suspect.
To return to the project, as this is articulated collectively and ends with a common programme, rather than identify and analyse individual positions I will treat it in collective terms. We can identify a number of fundamental propositions on the crisis, and on new possible forms of resistance. At the core is the insistence that the financial crisis that emerged in 2008 is of a qualitatively new type, and does not belong to the cycle of switching between finance and production typical of this history of capitalism (according to Braudel and Arrighi). The singularity of the current crisis is that it indicates the erosion and disappearance of the distinction between the ‘real economy’ and the ‘financial economy’, in a new configuration of accumulation. Finance, it is argued, is consubstantial with goods and services, with credit card and mortgage borrowing financing consumption, for example.
To those familiar with post-operaismo this leads to the unsurprising conclusion that the financial crisis has put in stark relief the new form of cognitive capitalism or biocapitalism, in which valorization is not drawn simply from labour in the production process, but from a diffusive extraction of value from knowledge and life. In terms of the relation to financialization, which of course operates through forms of ‘knowledge’ and prediction deeply tied to life (most obviously in the case of insurance or the mortgage), this is visible through the ‘becoming-rent of profit’ (Carlo Vercellone). Capitalism extracts value through enclosing and controlling the forms of knowledge and life, through patents, titles, shares, and so on, and so draws profit from these ‘rents’ by privatizing the social cooperation which produces surplus-value. This accumulation regime rests on ‘new enclosures’, repeating the ‘original accumulation’ of early capitalism in new forms of colonization and subsumption of the productive forces that have resulted from capital’s own subsumption of life and labour.
What the financial crisis reveals, it is claimed, is the exhaustion of capital’s own productivity and its essentially parasitic nature in drawing value from the enclosure of the ‘power’ of the general intellect – capitalism itself as ‘vampire squid’. This analysis offers the strange spectacle of passing through the ‘mature’ Marx’s analysis of real subsumption – in which labour is fully integrated into capitalist production – to return us to an analysis of life and labour that echoes the claim of the ‘young’ Marx that ‘I am nothing and I should be everything’. The critique of capital seems to rest on it not living up to its claim to world-historical dynamism, which is fair enough (and recently stated by Gopal Balakrishnan in New Left Review 59), but with the implication that the multitude can burst through this integument to release new productive powers, which is less convincing.
A number of dubious assumptions are at work.
The first is that capitalism’s real subsumption, which penetrates into life and knowledge ‘all the way down’ to reorganize it for accumulation, engenders a situation in which capitalism is left as merely external and secondary to the productive powers of the multitude.
Capitalism creates its own gravediggers not through the negating agency of the proletariat, but from an accumulation of powers that it can neither measure nor control. The second assumption is that this situation becomes evident in the crisis of capitalism, producing the opportunity to shuck off the ‘vampire squid’ of capital in the name of the affirmative and vitalist powers of the multitude. The philosophical provenance of this model is not so much Marx, but Deleuze, or a certain Deleuze and a certain Spinoza. Capitalism becomes an ‘apparatus of capture’ and resistance is re-coded as an irrepressible ‘ontological’ power that results from capitalism’s harnessing of all the productive powers of life and knowledge. This model of capital as ‘exteriority’ or ‘parasite’ ignores the penetrative and shaping effects of the form of value, including its operation through forms of non-reproduction and social abandonment. At the same time, the globalized agency of the multitude is given very thin grounding, cast into eternal resistance we seem to have little traction on actual strategies of resistance. In particular what is largely left uncontemplated is a capitalism that isn’t working, but for which we still work.
We can address this difficulty by looking at the solutions proposed in Crisis in the Global Economy to the current crisis. Again these offer few surprises:
a global basic income, to detach us from labour as value generation; a new appropriation of welfare in a ‘commonfare’ that would secure health, education, and social reproduction; and finally a more general reappropriation of the new commons generated by capitalism. Of course there is nothing wrong per se with these demands. The problem is who is going to achieve them and how. On the ‘who’ the unspecified and general notion of the multitude offers little purchase on the exact forms of politicization and struggle necessary to seize these rights. In fact, in light of the crisis, if anything the turn seems to be to ‘reterritorialized’ religious and nativist identities rather than any global claims. This links to the problem of ‘how’. Like many in these currents the collection is repetitively insistent that there cannot be any ‘New Deal’, and in this they are in unfortunate agreement with the managers of capitalism. The reason they give for this is the loss of national sovereignty and the related mechanisms of global governance. The mantra of no return to Fordism, social democracy or the New Deal is irritating because the new demands of ‘commonfare’ seem firmly social democratic, but are left detached from any mechanism to implement them – that is, the state. Use of reformism, yes, but pending the emergence of a global multitude, produced by the dialectical irony of capitalist history, that is supposed to provide the means for global allocation, distribution and management of the new ‘commons’.
Nietzsche famously remarked that we have not given up believing in God because we continue to believe in grammar. Although not doubting the good intentions of the project, nor its attempts to specify the sharpness of contemporary contradictions, the key problem is that it fails to problematize the ‘grammar’ of neoliberalism, and it is not alone in this. A metaphysic of increasing flows, irreducible creativity and desire, uncapturable singularities, and so on, leaves the political terms of the crisis in place. We are called, once again, to another effort of production and acceleration out of frozen abstractions, whereas it is exactly this metaphysics of production we need to negate and destroy.
In the community Bernard Stiegler, Taking Care of Youth and the Generations, trans. Stephen Barker, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2010. 264 pp., £24.95 pb., 978 0 80476 273 1.
Bernard Stiegler, hitherto known in the Englishspeaking world as a philosopher of technology with strong Heideggerian tendencies, has undergone something of a makeover in recent years. With Prendre Soin: De la jeunesse et des générations – the title and subtitle are merged in English as Taking Care of Youth and the Generations – it is possible to see the normative aspects of this work in sharper focus. Indeed, today, Stiegler is in many ways best read as a moral philosopher, inspired perhaps by Stoicism and its ‘art of living’: one who writes of the values of attention and of care, and of ‘the attentive life of the care-ful being’.
With a nod to Marx’s theory in volume three of Capital on the tendential fall in the rate of profit,
Stiegler laments here a tendential fall in the rate of desire. By the withering of desire, Stiegler gestures towards the erosion of libidinal energy in contemporary life, the elevation of the consumer, the destruction of the classical Freudian subject, and the reorganization of this energy in terms of purely machinic ‘drives’.
What an unfortunate outcome, he cries: to lose the desires and gain the drives. For in Stiegler drives are a form of bad repetition since one always wants more of the same, while desire is a form of good repetition since the object of desire changes in alterity. (This is part of a trend in recent years for various wanings and declinations: Jameson’s theory of ‘the waning of affect’, Hardt’s essay on the ‘withering of civil society’ or Žižek’s ‘decline in symbolic efficiency’.) Still following his moral compass, Stiegler lambasts what he terms a je-m’en-foutisme (I-don’t-give-a-fuckism):
a general attitude of irresponsibility that pervades contemporary societies, as well as the rise in bêtise (stupidity, silliness, crassness), which he describes as ‘the destruction of attention, then irresponsibility, incivility, “the degree zero of thinking.”’ The former pushes us toward a generalized social irresponsibility resulting in the neglect of long-term interests for shortterm ones, while the latter accelerates the corruption of attention and brings with it a rise in incivility and boorishness. Together they engender an erosion in the art of living. Writing recently in conjunction with his group Ars Industrialis, Stiegler ultimately offers an appeal that the world needs to establish nothing less than a new ‘industrial politics of spirit’ (see Réenchanter le monde: La valeur esprit contre le populisme industriel, Flammarion, Paris, 2006). Attention and desire thus emerge as moral necessities.
Stiegler starts from an assumption that is simple but perhaps not yet fully accepted by many: one must take Deleuze seriously, not simply as a philosopher, but also as a critic of political economy. That is, one must take the late Deleuze seriously, the Deleuze of 1986 when he wrote his book on Foucault, and of 1990 when he gave us the short ‘Postscript on Control Societies’ and spoke with Antonio Negri in an interview titled ‘Control and Becoming’. What are the repercussions of this? How can ‘control’ be a political concept? How can it be a philosophical concept? The answer lies in Stiegler’s ability to move beyond the two great antimodern and anti-positivistic philosophical movements of the twentieth century: phenomenology on the one hand, and structuralism and poststructuralism on the other. The problem is that both of these traditions are born from and find their energy in a reaction to the high modern mode of disciplinary society: phenomenology in its romanticist rejection of the very terms of disciplinary society, lapsing back to the virtues of sincerity, of authenticity, of the poetry of being; and poststructuralism in its hyperbolic race to outwit disciplinary society by creating ever more complex logics, pointing out the ever more corrupt systems of organization that in the end are defeated in their naive attempts at the universal.
To triangulate the theme of control and to probe its repercussions, Stiegler deploys with some regularity the twin terms ‘psychopolitics’ and ‘psychopower’. These can be understood easily by someone familiar with the field because they have an analogous relationship to the terms ‘biopolitics’ and ‘biopower’ in the work of Foucault. That is to say, psychopower refers to the way in which power is invested in the psychological or immaterial realm; it is often construed as normatively negative. Likewise, psychopolitics is any political relationship, or possibly a political critique, that exists within that same psychological or immaterial realm; it is often construed as normatively positive. The engagement with and transformation of these terms represents the way in which Stiegler extends the work of the late Foucault, particularly by way of Deleuze’s concept of control. Stiegler’s provocation to Foucault, then, is that one must not simply think of power at the level of biological life, but at the level of mind – something which Foucault himself admittedly addresses in his work on madness and psychiatric power. This does not mean a return to idealism, for mind too is material. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations reads like two volumes revolving around a central axis.
Chapters 1–6 form a continuous argument concerning the destruction of inter-generational relations, and hence the destruction of subjects as they are properly formed via desire and memory. The second half of the book, Chapters 8–11, consists of a discussion of Foucault on the theme of taking care followed by Giorgio Agamben on the apparatus. Yet the central and most important chapter is Chapter 7, ‘What is Philosophy?’ The title alone quickly transports the reader to Deleuze and Guattari’s 1991 book of the same name.
And in some ways Stiegler is adding his voice to an ongoing French conversation – one recalls that Deleuze and Guattari were themselves partially responding to Alain Badiou’s interest in the same question in his then recently published L’Être et l’Evénement, which they took as something of an insurgency needing to be subdued. In offering his own answer to the query ‘What is Philosophy?’ Stiegler writes that the first question (and indeed the first practice) of philosophy is not being, not becoming, not technology, not poetry, not the concept, not the event, not the decision … but teaching. Perhaps this is Stiegler’s Heideggerianism shining through again, that philosophy is a pathway, a process of questioning. He instructs us that philosophy is a third mode between two dogmas: on the one hand mysticism, and on the other hand what one might simply call the pure virtuosity of being too smart (‘sophistry’ is the more technical term). Philosophy is a system of care located between dogmatic modalities: mystagogy, descending from the age of muthos, in which the philosopher calls to the logos; and a kind of knowledge that, having stopped questioning, has lost its object without knowing it, still believing more than ever that it does know. Plato calls this latter modality polimatheia (the knowledge of ‘Mister Know-It-All’: the Sophist as seen by the philosopher).
Thus philosophy, as an act of love, is as much a reaction to the lack of wisdom, the lack of knowledge, as it is a reaction to the instrumentalization of knowledge for its own ends. Mister Know-It-All is the wiz-ard, the soph-ist, the one who turns thinking into an extreme sport. The philosopher is the solicitous one, the one who cares, the friend. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations thus hinges on the powerful distinction in Greek thought, presented in the late Foucault, between the Delphic dictum to ‘know thyself’ and the alternate proscription that one should ‘care for thyself’. Stiegler agrees with Foucault that there emerged a hierarchy of knowing over caring, and thus an eventual marginalization of the latter in philosophy. The dictum to ‘know thyself’ leads philosophy away from sophism, yes, but in so doing it also leads philosophy away from care, eventually coming to privilege what is, i.e. ontology, instead of what cares, what affects, or – shall we just say – what does.
I am not sure philosophy has a name for ‘what does’ but if it did it would probably be filed under either physics or ethics, these being the two branches of philosophy that consider the doing or the practice of things, the two branches that consider the machinic energies of the world that Stiegler so avidly entreats us to cultivate. Or perhaps one wanders too far afield.
Perhaps this is simply what one calls the political.