Author Archives: 4harrisons

Review: Society of the Spectacle

Despite being written in the 1960’s this book feels very current. It’s depiction of a world where even time is commodified and where we are all in thrall to alienated images built to bind us into the class relations that underpin the modern world, fits well with our world of ‘reality’ television and celebrity. A world in which the abundance delivered by capitalism remains under the control of existing property relations, and as a result the majority of us remain dominated by the ‘machinery of modern consumption’. Things have only accelerated since this book was written.

In some ways this book is part of the “rediscovery” of Hegelian Marxism. Certainly it emphasises dialectical analysis and the ‘humanist’ side of Marx, the need for us to take control of our own future and create a world where we are connected to, rather than separated from, reality. It also emphasises the importance of the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it”. We can only understand how to theorise about how the world should change by actively seeking to change it.

It shows an open antipathy to Stalinism specifically and to ‘standard’ soviet communism in general, and there is an interesting critique of the communism of bolshevism and the second international. While this probably felt radical in the 1960’s when the book was written, 27 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union it feels more routine. We have moved beyond the opposition to capitalism consisting only of a single monolithic alternative state, and in that sense this book feels ahead of it’s time.

Despite it’s association with the situationist movement in art, it is in fact the sections on art which feel least successful, the most over-intellectualised. While it makes good points about the commodification of art from across history, it is unclear what a more ‘real’ art, one less in thrall to the status quo, might be composed of or how it will come about.

That said this is a fascinating reflection on the impact of modern consumer capitalism on contemporary culture, and no less relevant to today for being 50 years old.

Debord, Guy Society of the Spectacle (Rebel Press, London, 1983)

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Review: The Politics of Friendship

I know I’m supposed to find Derrida interesting and challenging and stimulating… etc.. Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough to follow his line of argument, certainly my background is not in philosophy. There is surely however an unnecessary level of obfuscation in the language Derrida uses in this book. Phrases such as:

“possibilisation of the impossible possible”

and

“the long time of a time that does not belong to time”

defy any meaning that I can uncover. This is not the language of someone trying to get complex philosophical points across to the reader, it is the language of someone showing off.

Buried underneath all this are some interesting points. The analysis of the need for an enemy in political discourse chimes well with the experience of the west since the fall of Communism. The interaction between this need for an enemy and the nature of modern warfare, and its impact on democratic politics is insightful. There are interesting points about the nature of friendship built on three separate bases: virtue, utility, and pleasure.

It’s just a shame that it is so hard to get to these points you have to wade through such a cascade of meaningless literary contortions.

While there is mention of how friendship and ‘fraternity’ influences the democratic polity this is essentially a bourgeois vision. The focus is on how the connections between individuals are created and maintained, with some discussion of what might be thought of as ‘identity’ – race, gender, etc.. What is entirely missing is any sense of solidarity, of a group finding common cause, of class.

There is no doubt that this is complex work of philosophy with insights to offer. I just can’t help thinking that the same points could have been made much easier to understand and in about half the space. And it doesn’t have an index either, which seems odd for a non-fiction book looking to be taken seriously.

Derrida, Jacques The Politics of Friendship (Verso, London, 2005)

Friends and Enemies

As I wrote in my review of it, I found Jacques Derrida’s book on the “Politics of Friendship” often jumbled and confused, full of complication that seems to be there simply for the sake of it. But buried underneath the obfuscation he does make some insightful points.

One section in particular discusses the importance of enemies in politics. This might seem counterintuitive in the context of a discussion about friendship but on reflection makes sense. Unfortunately – but not surprisingly – even after a second reading I couldn’t find a suitable quote to summarise Derrida’s thought. The key chapter is five “On Absolute Hostility”.

Post war western democracy was founded on the fear that a viable alternative existed. The communism of the Soviet Union had survived the turbulence of the Great Crash in better shape than the west, and had mobilised enormous resources to defeat Nazi Germany. The west defined itself by its opposition to the eastern bloc. Nations considered friendly were those which shared the same enemy, and included some that might not otherwise have been thought friends (and whom the west later turned on once communism had disappeared, such as Saddam Hussein).

When the communist bloc collapsed in the early 1990’s there was initial euphoria among the political class in the west, followed quickly by a palpable sense of panic. Organisations such as NATO were left wondering what their role in the new world might be. Countries including Britain and the United States struggled to define an effective foreign policy based on ethical standards rather than global struggle, leading to much hand wringing and subsequently to difficult interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Somalia, and elsewhere.

9/11 presented the United States with a new enemy and the “war on terror” provided a new sense of purpose. Once again the identification of an enemy has driven not just foreign interventions, but also who is thought of as a friend. And in a mirror of the ‘mccarthyite‘ period of the 1950’s and the fear of a ‘red terror’ this split between friend and enemy is both external and internal, with widespread and unjustified suspicion of local Muslim populations and concern about ‘domestic terrorism’.

In other words the sense of certainty, grounding politics with an understanding of what it is “for”, has returned bringing an almost visible sense of relief. Once again the west can define what it is against, who it’s friends are. Whether this represents anything more than a means to channel support into the incumbent regime is another question.

Derrida, Jacques The Politics of Friendship (Verso, London, 2005)

A Short Note on Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella

Recently I went to see Matthew Bourne’s current touring show, Cinderella, at the Lowry in Salford. I am no dance critic, so if you want to read a proper review from someone who actually knows what they’re talking about I’d suggest the one from Judith Mackrell in the Guardian. I can only add that she is correct when she says that Liam Mower is truly superb as the Angel.

The thought I wanted to capture here is my initial confusion about the setting. I couldn’t understand why Matthew Bourne had relocated the story to wartime London during the Blitz, other than to create a sense of difference for the audience in an effort to make it clear that this is a modern retelling and not the traditional fairytale.

But then near the end it all began to make sense. After Cinderella and Harry have finally found each other in hospital and headed off to get married, there is a scene set at Paddington railway station. We are shown a busy station platform with couples waiting to part and others on their own waiting for someone to arrive. There is a prominent clock in the rafters set to shortly after 12:00. A railway carriage arrives at the back of the set, some couples meet, one person is left prominently on the platform sadly waiting for someone who hasn’t arrived.

This is where the connection between Cinderella and the wartime setting became clear. Stories from the war, especially on screen, are full of meetings and partings. Couples waving a tearful goodbye at the train station, individuals waiting for the return that may never come. All governed by train timetable, by the station clock. This context is perfect for a re-telling of Cinderella, where the story revolves around a meeting, a parting dictated by a timetable, followed by an anxious rediscovery. The background of wartime Britain fits the Cinderella fairytale like a glove.

Basic Badiou

I have read some Alain Badiou before, but his short book “Ethics, An Essay on the Understanding of Evil” seems to me to be a good basic introduction and I wanted to capture some basic notes on the key elements as I see them for future reference.

One caveat, I am no Badiou scholar, and my background in philosophy is ropey at best. So if a real philosophy student should stumble across this, please forgive my naivete.

A ‘situation‘ represents the world as it is now. This is the status quo – but also the ground on which radical change can take place. Within this world as it exists ‘knowledge‘ describes how we think that world works.

The ‘void‘ of a situation is the blind spot of the status quo. Something that exists as a gap or a hole that does not form part of existing knowledge. The world as it is does not see this void and cannot address it.

An ‘event‘ is the key break in a situation – in the current state of things – that opens the possibility of radical change. An ephemeral things which but one which has high impact, it

“brings to pass ‘something other’ than the situation, opinions, instituted knowledges; the event is a hazardous, unpredictable supplement, which vanishes as soon as it appears;”

(Badiou 2012, p.67)

An event ‘forces‘ knowledge to change, causes both a rapid and a radical development of what we think we know about the way the world works.

The ‘subject‘ is then not an isolated individual or some kind of subject of history. Rather subjects are ordinary individuals who are faithful to an event and to the truth it brings into being. They then cease to be ‘mortal’ individuals and instead realise their potential to be ‘immortal’. Despite the slightly opaque language I read this as reflecting the impact of the radical break represented by an event, something that changes how people see the world and react to it. For example, after the Russian Revolution, for a long time the working class outside Russia saw their struggle within capitalism in a different light. This subject therefore does not exist before the event.

Fidelity‘ represents the ongoing and continuing break in the situation. Subjects who stay true to the event are faithful to it, and their fidelity is what drives the truth-process.

Truth‘ and a ‘truth-process‘ is then a description of the complete process. That is subjects acting in the situation but faithful to an event which drives radical change. Truth is used in the sense of ‘holding true’ to something.

There are four specific categories which Badiou sees as being subject to this procedure: politics, art, love, and science, and it is possible fairly easily to think of examples of ‘events’ and the influence that they hold over subsequent history – the revolutions of 1789 and 1917 being the most obvious in the political arena where you can see their influence echoing through subsequent history well beyond the actual historic events. The influence of both revolutions on subsequent radical struggle is clear to see.

I think this way of thinking provides a powerful way of describing progressive movements and how the driving forces behind radical change are created and perpetuated. Time to re-read Badiou’s “The Communist Hypothesis“.

Badiou, Alain Ethics, An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (Verso, London, 2012)

Review: The Year of Dreaming Dangerously

A great short volume with all the standard Zizek style. In other words it is an eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary with a vague underpinning theme. If you like Zizek then you’ll enjoy it, if you hate Zizek you’ll probably hate it.

His focus here is the various protest movements which erupted across the world in 2011, from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. When I say ‘focus’ though bear in mind that this is Zizek, so what that means in practice is a vague theme that is used as the springboard for a slightly rambling text that takes in The Wire, West Side Story, G K Chesterton, and the social taboos against smoking.

But if you enjoy Zizek’s writing then that is part of the attraction. He begins by outlining the current state of things from a basically Marxist perspective, while acknowledging that ‘immaterial’ labour is currently ‘hegemonic’ in place of the highly organised industrial workforce of Marx’s time. He moves on to make the case for resistance and fundamental change. That the attempt to preserve the remnants of or return to the mid-twentieth century post war consensus is doomed to fail. That democracy can no longer contain or control modern capitalism.

Zizek reasserts the need for a revolutionary break rather than an incremental or democratic approach. This leads him to reviews of the protest movements of 2011 and in particular Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring.

On Occupy, Zizek makes the case for it’s importance as protest, as the recognition that things are broken and must change. He refutes the common criticism that the movement didn’t express concrete goals. This would be a failure, indicating acceptance of the need to operate within the rules of the status quo when what is needed is in fact a radical rupture.

On the Arab Spring Zizek addresses the desire for the west to see the various movements as an attempt to move to western liberal democracy and not acknowledge the actual desire for change. He attacks the subsequent rise of radical Islam as a failure to allow space for radical change that is not towards western (neo-)liberalism. “We do not need a dialogue between religions (or civilisations) we need solidarity between those who struggle for justice.”

He ends with thoughts on the state of the modern left, chiming strongly with my own view that the lack of an overarching analysis as a driving force is holding back practical action. “What is conspicuously absent is any consistent Leftist reply to these events, any project of how to transpose islands of chaotic resistance into a positive program of social change.”

As always with Zizek I suspect some will not enjoy this book. But for me it is both a challenging and thought-provoking read with much to say about the state we’re in and some pointers to where progressives should look to make future change happen.

Zizek, Slavoj The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (Verso, London, 2012)

Overdetermination

Overdetermination is a concept I recall being introduced to during my undergraduate course on Marxism as part of Louis Althusser‘s “structuralist” approach. It’s not something that I ever really felt I had a grip on. Althusser’s writing feels very much in the French philosophical tradition, and isn’t helped by being read in translation.

My university notes about overdetermination say that Althusser is making the point that there is no simple deterministic relationship between “base and superstructure“. The superstructure both determines and is determined by the economic base, each part shaping and being shaped by the whole. The autonomy of the superstructure is not absolute however, and the economic base is still determinant in the final analysis.

In his monumental work on Marxism, Leszek Kolakowski is dismissive of the concept:

“The upshot is simply that particular cultural phenomena are generally due to a variety of circumstances, including the history of the aspect of life they belong to and the present state of social relations. We are not told what is so ‘scientific’ about this obvious truth, why it is a revolutionary discovery of Marxism, or how it helps us to account for any particular fact, let along predict the future.”

(Kolakowski 2008, p.1176)

My reaction to Laclau & Mouffe’s analysis in “Hegemony and Socialist Strategy” is similar to Kolakowski’s damning verdict. They analyse overdetermination in the context of their construction of a theory of hegemony, building on the work of Gramsci as well as Althusser.

Laclau & Mouffe deny a determining role for the economy and therefore also class in the structure of society . Instead they theorize society as broken down into a wide range of different interests and actors not determined or even strongly influenced by any economic relationships. In this analysis more important than class is the complex intermeshing of ‘elements’ or ‘moments’ which are ‘articulated’ together each influencing and influenced the others. In other words these elements are ‘overdetermined’. In Laclau & Mouffe’s words there are

“a multiplicity of antagonisms whose effects, converging and overdetermined, are registered within the framework of what we have called the ‘democratic revolution’.”

(Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.152)

This covers what might otherwise be considered various separate struggles operating almost in conflict with traditional working class campaigning such as feminism or anti-racism. Again in Laclau & Mouffe’s words:

“Once the conception of the working class as a ‘universal class’ is rejected, it becomes possible to recognise the plurality of the antagonisms which take place in the field of what is arbitrarily grouped under the label of ‘workers struggles'”

(Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.151)

This “overdetermination of some entities by others, and the relegation of any form of paradigmatic fixity to the ultimate horizon of theory” (Laclau & Mouffe 2014, p.91) means that while it is not possible to assume that the working class will on their own create a revolution, it is possible to stitch together progressive blocs as part of unified progressive struggle.

Wading through the complicated language, what I think this means in more practical terms is that society is complex and different groups within it interact in ways which are not solely dictated by economic relationships. Any effective progressive strategy must be aware of this, building alliances, and developing shared goals. It cannot simply wait for the tide of history to deliver a working class revolution. Laclau & Mouffe contrast this with the simplified view of orthodox Marxism.

To the extent though that Marx presented a simplified view of society as divided into just two classes, it is clear that this is an abstraction from a more complicated reality to allow him to develop his theory of the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism. When he comes to apply this theory to the analysis of real situations (in for example “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” or “The Civil War in France”) his writing reflects the more complex world.

After reading Laclau & Mouffe I do now feel that I have a better grip on what the concept of ‘overdetermination’ might mean, however as Kolakowski suggested that concept doesn’t seem particularly useful. It appears to indicate what is an obvious truth, that society is complex, but in Laclau & Mouffe it is used to support the removal from left strategy of the struggle by economically exploited classes. It is then unclear what common ground should be used to underpin the hegemony which they believe holds together the coalitions that they suggest as the way forward for progressive politics.

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantal Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, Towards a Radical Democratic Politics (Verso, London, 2014)

Kolakowski, Leszek Main Currents of Marxism (W W Norton & Company, London, 2008)