Review: Valences of the Dialectic

This is a magnificent book. Beginning with a basic restatement of what we mean when we talk about dialectics, with three fundamental ‘laws’ underpinning it as a thought process:

  • The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
  • The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
  • The law of the negation of the negation.

The remainder of the book is then a range of essays, often previously published elsewhere, which implement and expand on the use of dialectics across a range of philosophical and revolutionary areas of interest. Throughout Jameson is keen to emphasise the analytical side of Marx, and to avoid the retrofitting of philosophical ‘systems’ (structuralism, existentialism etc.) onto his thought. In this sense Jameson takes the same stance as David Harvey who in his work on Capital encourages us to read it on Marx’s own terms.

Much of this fascinating and extremely thought provoking. It is not however a basic introduction to dialectics, and you are I think best served coming to this book with at least something of an idea of what it is all about. Some – particularly the final two chapters based on literary criticism – is quite dense reading.

There is an extended discussion of spectrality based on the work of Derrida which is masterful, and quite an achievement to have unpicked from Derrida’s impenetrable work. Jameson also discussed Lukacs in some depth, and does a good job of rehabilitating his concepts of reification and totality as key themes. He also provides a convincing exposition of ‘false consciousness’ which belies the standard use by the worst of vulgar Marxism. The final analysis of time, narrative, and history is hard work but worthwhile for understanding the complexity involved in time as a category.

This book then is a description of the dialectical method, but more than that it is the detailed and expert use of that method in a range of insightful analyses. More than anything it is inspiring for the continued value and use of dialectics in thinking about the modern world.

I wrote more detailed notes while reading this, along with blog posts on spectrality, dialectical materialism, totality and pluralism, and sublation inspired by various sections.

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Notes from “Valences of the Dialectic”

These are some jotted notes from my reading of Fredric Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” – a fairly hefty book (both in size and density) published by Verso in 2009.

Part 1

The book is divided into a number of sections. In the first “The Three Names of the Dialectic” Jameson gives a basic outline of dialectics, divided into three sub-categories:

  • “The dialectic” is the philosophy developed by the followers of Marx, the marx-ism created by his inheritors (including Engels) that Marx may or may not have subscribed to.
  • “Many dialectics” is more broadly the use of dialectical categories and processes by a range of thinkers, and includes a useful development of the “base/superstructure” dialectic as historically contingent – that is needing to be understood on each occasion in its specific historic context rather than as an overarching law which is always the same in all situations.
  • “It’s dialectical!” is the need to express or explain dialectics themselves in a dialetical way, and how this can erupt in different areas of thought.

What I took away from this is a re-emphasis of Engel’s “Three Laws of the Dialectic” as remaining relevant:

  • The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa;
  • The law of the interpenetration of opposites;
  • The law of the negation of the negation.

But with a call to truly think through the complex implications each law brings, and in particular to avoid viewing things as separate but connected or proceeding through a neat sequence of thesis-antithesis-synthesis triplets. Instead it is a frame through which we can avoid thinking simplistically and try to see the complexity of cause and effect, change and progress.

Part 2

In the second part Jameson discusses Hegel directly, and in particular the relationship between ‘common sense’ knowledge (‘Verstand’) and more properly dialectical knowledge or ‘Vernunft’. The theme is that Verstand is a reifying vision of the world overcome by Vernunft.

Part 3

The third part walks through a number of modern critiques of dialectics.

First is a fascinating section based on Jacques Derrida’s “Spectres of Marx“. I am no fan of Derrida. But Jameson’s exposition is inspired, built around the idea of “spectrality” and it’s importance to dialectics generally and Marx specifically. What this means to Jameson is that any given moment in history, in time, is not fixed or given in isolation. The spectres of the past leak into it, are visible in it. Similarly the ghosts of possible futures can also be seen. Each point in time is then like a long exposure photograph capturing the movement from what was, to what is, to what will be. This is completely consistent with how Bertell Ollman describes Marx’s view in “Dance of the Dialectic” as studying history “backwards”.

I didn’t get so much from the section on Deleuze, so I’ll skip over that.

The next section on Lukacs is much more interesting, and I’ve written separate posts on Jameson’s use of the concept of totality to explain pluralism and the co-option of dissent in modern capitalism, and his rehabilitation of the influence of Lukacs’ thinking on class and class consciousness using ‘standpoint’ theory and the example of modern feminism. In general it seems to me that Jameson is sympathetic to Lukacs’ Hegelian Marxism, despite in general arguing against the retro-fitting of philosophical systems onto Marx’s thought.

There is then a long section on Sartre which contains some interesting material in particular on how groups come to coalesce under the influence of the ‘other’ or thirds and subsequently ossify into what Sartre describes as ‘practico-inert’.  Also a useful description of praxis. In general though I found this section to be quite dense, probably coloured by the fact that I don’t have much background in Sartre.

Part 4

Part 4 opens with a chapter on ‘commodification’ with a restatement of the importance of the dialectical nature of the commodity in Marx’s thinking before moving on to connect that to reification in Lukacs and the subsequent work of Adorno where:

“the practice and habit of consumption… gradually replace the necessity of ideological control.”

(Jameson 2009, p.266)

The remainder is a varied collection of essays bringing a dialectical analysis to subjects such as cultural revolution, Lenin, and ideological analysis. Throughout, Jameson is keen to assert that Marx did not create a philosophy, although there have been a number of attempts subsequently to bolt one onto it – including structuralism, existentialism, and a variation on Hegelian thought. Jameson rather describes Marx’s thought as demonstrating a ‘unity of theory and practice’ and compares it to psychoanalysis.

The chapter on “Persistencies of the Dialectic” brings out three characterisations of dialectical thinking: reflexivity of thinking; causality and historical narrative; and an emphasis on contradiction. Jameson reinforces a point I have often thought, that in Marx’s historical work there is none of the simplistic determinism and teleology that he is often accused of. Rather the dialectical process of his analysis delivers:

“a narrative which is at every point a perpetual and dazzling, sometimes bewildering, cancellations of previously dominant narrative paradigms.”

(Jameson 2009, p. 287)

A chapter on Lenin discusses dialectics as part of a revolutionary process, when society reaches the situation where “one cannot change anything without changing everything” (Jameson 2009, p.299). This is a thought that seems very relevant to today’s ossified society where the change that is visible in the economy and wider society seem stuck within a carapace of politics (both of left and right) which is stuck trying to resolve the problems of the previous era.

“one need not, in other words, slavishly imitate Lenin’s divisive, aggressive, sectarian recommendations for tactics, to grasp the ongoing value of strategy which consists in tirelessly underscoring the difference between systemic and piecemeal goals.. between revolution and reform.”

(Jameson 2009, p.300)

A final long section on ideological analysis draws out seven different theories that have been used to explain why ideology exists:

  • That it is required by Marxism to explain where there is resistance to its teaching;
  • Classical ‘false consciousness’ where it is used by the dominant as a means of control;
  • As reification, it is created without volition through the mechanisms of totality;
  • Through critical theory, as commodification driven by consumption;
  • Through the subsequent structuralist turn through language, via institutions which create, recreate, and enforce;
  • Following psychoanalysis (and particularly Lacan) as something which will always be needed to ‘map’ our understanding, even under socialism;
  • Finally as a derived from the priorities of ‘daily life’ displacing economic conflict (something I read as being a description of ‘identity politics’).

It is clear however that any ideology however derived cannot think beyond the confines of the social limits of it’s own period.

“the most fruitful way of approaching a utopian text or project lies not in judging its positive elements, its overt representations, but rather in seeking to grasp what it cannot (yet) think.”

(Jameson 2009, p. 361)

Part 5

The opening chapter covers the fall of “actually existing Marxism” and makes a number of fascinating points. Jameson discusses in depth the defeat of the Soviet Union and the changes wrought in capitalism at the same time. It is a fascinating essay which makes a number of points relevant to the modern world.

Jameson challenges the idea that social democracy is sustainable within a capitalist economy. For example on the welfare state its contradictions are “those of capitalism itself”.

“where it is in the process of being dismantled it will be important for the Left to seize and articulate the dissatisfactions of ordinary people… and not play into the hands of the market rhetoricians.”

(Jameson 2009, p. 382)

The alternative to this strategy from the left is a movement from the right:

“the great right wing movements… are essentially substitutes… that spring from rage and bitter disappointment at the failures of Utopian aspirations, and from the consequent, and deeply held, conviction that a more genuinely cooperative social order is fundamentally impossible.”

(Jameson 2009, p.387)

This strikes me as prescient for both Brexit and Trump (and the range of other rightist populist movements).

His key point is that Marxism was a product of the capitalism of its day, and therefore that “a postmodern capitalism necessarily calls a postmodern Marxism into existence over against itself” (Jameson 2009, p.409).

The final chapter in this section are two extensive essays on globalisation as both philosophy and politics.

Part 6

The final part is an extended discussion of narrative, time, and history. I found this hard to follow in places drawing as it does on Jameson’s background in literary analysis, and using as its basis the Poetics of Aristotle and their use in analysis by Paul Ricoeur in “Time and Narrative”.

The fundamental insight is that time is not a fixed eternal category that only works in one direction. Time is experienced on a number of different levels, and works both forwards and backwards. It is not as simple as the “present” endlessly and remorsely rolling always forwards leaving behind unchanging slices of itself as the “past”. As Slavoj Zizek says in “Less Than Nothing”:

“History only runs forward for those who look at it backwards; linear progression only in retrospect.”

(Zizek 2013)

The act of reading any narrative work (whether history or fiction) is then

“the momentary and ephemeral act of unification in which we hold multiple dimensions of time together for a glimpse that cannot prolong itself into the philosophical concept.”

(Jameson 2009, p. 532).

Jameson draws out three layers from the work of Fernand Braudel:

  • Geological
  • Institutional
  • Historical events

With a key dialectical insight in the relationships and interactions between the different layers. This is fascinating stuff, and is incredibly important for thinking about how we experience narrative and think about what is possible. As Jameson points out:

“the worldwide triumph of capitalism at one and the same time secures the priority of Marxism as the ultimate horizon of thought in our time.”

(Jameson 2009, p.607)

This is another theme that runs throughout the book. In a dialectical process, capitalism in all it’s changing incarnations brings its own opposition into being. The opposition will condition what we are able to think of as possible in the future.

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

Zizek, Slavoj Less Than Nothing (Verso, London, 2013)

Mary Poppins

Over Christmas I went to see the new Mary Poppins film with Emily Blunt in the title role. I’ve written before about the social agenda in a Disney film, and this one got me thinking again about the world view it presented to the audience.

This latest Mary Poppins made me think of a recent comment by Existential Comics on Twitter:

 

The film is supposedly based shortly after the great crash of 1929 and yet social conflict is mostly absent. A queue of working men is seen in the opening sequence which we can assume is for a soup kitchen or similar, but other than that pretty much the only working people encountered are the lamplighters and a milkman, all of whom seem very cheerful.

The working class figure more prominently as a cause supported by Jane Banks (played by Emily Mortimer) in the guise of an organisation known as “SPRUCE” or the “Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Underpaid Citizens of England”. This is presented as something worthy, a little like the protection of an endangered species perhaps. No socialist parties, strikes, or self-organisation by the working class in sight here. No, the language is instead one of protection brought to the workers from outside, something offered by a benevolent bourgeoisie. Disney cannot bring itself to use the word “socialism” never mind revolution, not even as a threat to be warded off.

Now obviously this is a family film and not a gritty historical docu-drama, so I understand that this might seem like I’m taking things a little too seriously. The point I want to make though is about how embedded the middle-class way of life (their “values” if you like) is in modern popular culture. This can also be seen in other parts of the film such as in the aversion to debt, and the careful saving which saves the day – reversing the slightly subversive desire for immediate consumption (supporting the poor bird seed seller as a side effect) in the original film.

So perhaps I should relax, it is only a film after all. But I do wonder what vision of the world we are presenting to our children, and what that means for the future. If nothing else it strikes me that this is Gramsci’s vision of hegemony in action.

Modern Capitalism, Sublation, and Corbyn

I have found the Hegelian side of Marxism fascinating for some time now, since coming across Lukacs at university. I don’t think you can truly get to grips with Marx’s analysis without some understanding of dialectics.

One of the things I find powerful about dialectics is how it approaches change, the processes by which things develop. “Sublation” is one of the key concepts which underpins this analysis of change. As things (concepts, theories) change they are gradually negated, turn into their ‘antithesis’, until at the point of change a new ‘synthesis’ appears. Crucially, this new synthesis does not simply replace its predecessor, it subsumes it. The new wholly contains the old, grows from it, can only be understood by looking both back at what came before, and by extension forward to what it will become (something I’ve written about before).

Marx also uses this idea of sublation, particularly when describing the conflict that grows between the developing relations of production and a society built on top of economic mechanisms that are being superseded. The concept runs throughout the Communist Manifesto and is stated in the simplest fashion in the introduction to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”.

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

(Marx 1971 p.21)

Fredric Jameson makes a similar point in a number of the essays included in “Valences of the Dialectic“. Counter-intuitively he uses Walmart as an example of a company which, paradoxically, has overcome the anarchy of capitalism and the market, providing the necessities of life to an increasingly impoverished public which is incapable of exercising political control (Jameson 2009 p. 422). Jameson makes a connection to Marx’s admiration for the progressive power of capitalism, evident in section 1 of the Communist Manifesto.

“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part… wherever it has got the upper hand [it] has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations.”

(Marx 2010 p.23)

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of the instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all… nations into civilisation.”

(Marx 2010 p.26)

Walmart then, for all its exploitative nature within capitalism, is a phenomenon we must ‘sublate’ and overcome rather than trying to pretend that it (and all the other features of ‘postmodern’ capitalism) never happened. Socialism can only be something that develops out of the existing state of capitalism, that subsumes and exceeds where we are now. The ‘postmodern’ age of capitalism with its global reach and advanced communication systems provides the foundation on which the future needs to be built.

“The challenge remains… to try to think a beyond of late capitalism which does not imply a regression to earlier, simpler stages of social development but which posits a future already latent in the present, as Marx did for the capitalism of his day.”

(Jameson 2009 p.408)

This is an analysis which is quite close in principle to the idea of “fully automated luxury communism” promoted by some on the modern left.

As Jameson points out, what this also implies is that Marxism is not a static solution to which we can endlessly “return”. It is a method and means of analysis based on capitalism itself. As capitalism changes, the analysis of its contradictions and instabilities needs to develop, developing and building on the foundational analysis by Marx.

“Marxism is the very science of capitalism; its epistemological vocation lies in its unmatched capacity to describe capitalism’s historical originality… a postmodern capitalism necessarily calls a postmodern Marxism into existence over against itself.”

(Jameson 2009 p.409)

So what is the link to Corbyn? One common criticism of Corbyn is that his agenda is based on the Bennite policies of the early 1980s. Much of this is commentary is plainly scaremongering with a liberal or status quo standpoint. That said I do worry that one strand of the Corbyn ‘project’ is about protecting and defending past victories (or reversing past defeats) rather than seeking to ‘sublate’ capitalism and replace it with something truly radical. Corbyn might be seen as the last social democrat, not the dangerous subversive he is often made out to be.

To put it another way I think that rather than being a dangerous radical, I believe Corbyn isn’t being radical enough.

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

Marx, Karl A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1971)

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich The Communist Manifesto (Vintage Books, London, 2010)

Spectrality

Reading through Fredric Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” there is a very interesting discussion of Jacques Derrida’s “Spectres of Marx“. I should preface this by being very clear that I haven’t read Derrida’s book, and that I have not particularly enjoyed the Derrida that I have read. That said, it prompts a fascinating section in Jameson (chapter 4 “Marx’s Purloined Letter”) on the dialectical nature of change. He makes the concept of “spectrality” central to the description of dialectics.

The reference in the title is of course to the famous opening words of the Communist Manifesto: “A spectre is haunting Europe” (Marx 2010, p.19). There is plenty of depth in Jameson’s chapter but the key point for me is the connection between past, present, and future. In any analysis of a current situation it is possible to see the spectres of both the past and the future. Change is inherent to any given ‘present’. It does not exist in isolation, but is an expanded view that takes both in what went before and what is to come as fully part of what is.

This is consistent with Bertell Ollman’s description of Marx as studying history “backwards”. Precondition and result here become part of the same process of becoming extended to encompass their interaction over time (Ollman 2003, p.117). From the standpoint of the present, we can look back into the past to see the necessary preconditions, those things that had to be in place for the movement of history to arrive just here.

“it is a matter of asking where the situation under hand comes from and what had to happen to it for it to acquire just these qualities”

(Ollman 2003, p.118)

This is not to imply determinism, other choices were possible in the past that would have lead to a different present. But by viewing this as a single process from the standpoint of what did in fact happen we can better understand both past and present, and perhaps also the future.

This same concept can been in elsewhere in Marx’s work. For example in Marx’s description of the circuit of capital, what David Harvey highlights as “value in motion”. Wealth becomes capital in the movement from money, to means of production, to a stock of commodities on the market, and back into money. Each point is a different facet of the same whole as it moves through a lifecycle.

What Jameson describes (through Derrida) as ‘spectrality’ is therefore central to the understanding and use of dialectics. As a thought process this is useful for more than just reading Marx. For example I’m reminded very strongly of a piece by Jackson Pollock called “Summertime Number 9A” from 1948. An initially random-seeming pattern of drips begins to look like a sequence of frames showing a dancer in motion. At the same time you are aware that you are seeing the frozen movement of the artist himself as he created the piece. In both senses then this demonstrates in art the ‘spectrality’ described by Jameson.

This is then a central concept for dialectics. I guess I’d better get ready to plough through that book by Derrida.

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)

Harvey, David Marx, Capital and the Madness of Economic Reason (Profile Books Ltd, London, 2017)

Ollman, Bertell Dance of the Dialectic (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003)

Marx, Karl The Communist Manifesto (Vintage, London, 2010)

Dialectical Materialism

I’ve been reading a fair amount about dialectics recently, working through both Fredric Jameson’s “Valences of the Dialectic” and Slavoj Zizek’s “Less Than Nothing“. I recently captured an interesting passage in Jameson’s book on Lukacs’ use of the concept of “totality” to understand the strategies used in modern society to envelop and incorporate dissent into the status quo (and the potential impacts of that strategy, leading to the eruption of dissatisfaction in other places). I’ll follow that up with more extensive notes shortly.

“Dialectical materialism” however has a poor reputation these days as the term used for the simplified “vulgar” Marxism of the Stalinist Soviet Union. So it was odd to read in Zizek’s book a long quote from Stalin’s “History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks): Short Course“. (I shouldn’t really be surprised, Zizek is such a consistent contrarian).

However, when summarised by Zizek this passage from the relic of the worst period of Marxism becomes a brilliant short explanation of dialectical totality:

“First, nature is not a conglomerate of dispersed phenomena, but a connected whole. Then, this Whole is not immobile, but in a state of constant movement and change. Next, this change is not only a gradual quantitative drifting, but involves qualitative jumps and ruptures. Finally, this qualitative development is not a matter of harmonious deployment, but is propelled by the struggle of the opposites … The trick here is that we are effectively not dealing merely with the Platonic dieresis, the gradual subdivision of a genus into species and the species into subspecies: the underlying premise is that this “diagonal” process of division is really vertical, ie., that we are dealing with different aspects of the same division.”

(Zizek 2012)

I should be clear that I’m not endorsing a “dialectic of nature” here. Rather the thought process that sees a subdivided whole rather than a set of linked but discrete objects.

Just as usefully, Zizek goes on to explain how this analytical concept can become in the hands of someone like Stalin a tool for monstrous political control and persecution. Quantitative change that doesn’t lead to qualitative change is, in this analysis, not true change; qualitative change that does not involve a struggle of opposites is not true change. As Zizek describes it this leads to a “more ominous” description:

“those who advocate qualitative change without a struggle of the opposites really oppose change”

(Zizek 2012)

And to refine it further:

“those who advocate the transformation of capitalism into socialism without class struggle really reject socialism and want capitalism to continue.”

(Zizek 2012)

And suddenly the potential political implications are laid bare, and how it came to be used to underpin the Stalinist terror.

Zizek, Slavoj Less Than Nothing (Verso, London, 2012)

Totality and pluralism

This is a short post to capture a superb passage from “Valences of the Dialectic”. I’m not going to add much commentary to it, but will rather quote it at some length.

Jameson is discussing Lukacs’ concept of “totality”, and in particular the post-modern turn which dismisses it as associated with Stalinism and in general the perceived destructiveness of totalising visions of the future when used as drivers for political action.

Jameson describes how modern (“late”) capitalism uses the concept of “pluralism” to express the complexity of social relations and to envelop what had formerly been disruptive non-conformist movements within the social apparatus.

This is fascinating framework within which to understand how ‘identity politics’ has become a mechanism for the co-option of dispute and its incorporation into ‘permitted’ discourse as part of a wider Marxist thought process. This facilitates the neutering of dissent, and thereby events such as the Brexit referendum result and the election of Donald Trump. More traditional channels for discontent have in other words been not blocked but diverted, opening the window for the unexpected. To mix metaphors, what the protectors of the status quo haven’t got to grips with is that in the context of class struggle closing one avenue of dissent is like squeezing a balloon – all that happens is that the challenge pops out somewhere else.

This provides philosophical depth (and a link to Lukacs’ Hegelian Marxism) to the theory of “spirits” of capitalism as a means to incorporate and control challenge and dissent expressed in Boltanski and Chiapello “The New Spirit of Capitalism“.

So that’s the preamble, here’s the segment from Jameson in full:

“Pluralism has therefore now become something like an existential category, a descriptive feature that characterises our present everyday life, rather than an ethical imperative to be realise within it. What is ideological about current celebrations of pluralism is that the slogan envelops and illicitly identifies two distinct dimensions of social complexity. There is the vertical dimension of late-capitalist or corporate institutions, and then the horizontal one of increasingly multiple social groups. Celebrations of pluralism pass the first off under the guise of the second, in whose joyous and Utopian street “heterogeneity” it decks itself out. But the complexity of institutions is also a form of standardisation (the very paradox of the system of reification as Lukacs first described it in an early stage). Meanwhile, the celebration of the diversity of the “new social movements” released by the 1960s obscures their increasing collectivisation and institutionalisation as well. The solitary Romantic rebels and nonconformists of earlier periods have all been transformed into groups and movements, each with its own specific micropolitics. The transformation marks a significant (if provisional) gain in the political power of formerly marginal or repressed individuals, who, however, thereby forfeit the power and the pathos of an older rhetoric of individual resistance and revolt.”

“Yet is is precisely by way of this new institutionalisation, marked, for example, by a new-ethnic movement in culture, in which older groups now produce their “heritage” in the form of the image, that the ideologeme of “pluralism” is able to do its work. It shifts gears imperceptibly from these new group structures to the very different structures of the corporate, which can now appropriate the celebration of Difference and Heterogeneity and harness it to the celebration of consumer goods, free enterprise, and the eternal wonder and excitement of the market itself.”

(Jameson 2009, p212-213)

Jameson, Fredric Valences of the Dialectic (Verso, London, 2009)