Category Archives: Philosophy

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)

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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)

Recovering Modernity

“Post-modernism” is not something I’ve previously really engaged with as a concept or got to grips with what it means, other than in a superficial way. Which is why I was interested to read the refreshingly simple description of “modernity” presented by Goran Therborn in his book “From Marxism to Post-Marxism?” against which to assess “post-modernism”:

“Modernity is a culture claiming to be modern, in the sense of turning it’s back on the past… and looking into the future as a reachable, novel horizon”

(Therborn 2018, p.121)

He then goes on to give a little more context to this basic statement:

“Rather than trivialising the concept of modernity by attempting to translate it into a set of concrete institutions , whether of capitalism of politics, or into a particular conception of rationality or agency so that it can more easily be philosophically targeted, it is more useful to deploy it solely as a temporal signifier, in order to allow it to retain its analytical edge.”

(Therborn 2018, p.121)

“Modernity” is therefore a world view focused on progress, one in which things are getting better, which looks to the future and is actively seeking ways of moving towards it. In a brief segment at the end of her book “The Origins of Capitalism: A Longer View” Ellen Meiksins Wood characterises this as developing from the Enlightenment based on increasing “rationalisation”.

“rationalisation of the state in bureaucratic organisation, the rationalisation of the economy in industrial capitalism, the rationalisation of culture in the spread of education, the decline of superstition, and the progress of science and technology.”

(Meiksins Wood 2017, p. 182)

Modernism therefore implies belief in an overarching view of the world that defines how progress happens and the mechanisms that drive change. Throughout much of the twentieth century at least two world views were available that might be thought of as upholding this view of progress, including both Soviet Communism and post war liberal democracy.

With this in mind, Postmodernism can then be defined in opposition to ‘modernity’ as:

“a questioning of, or loss of belief in, the future narratives of the modern.”

“Insofar as ‘forward’ and ‘backward’, progressive and reactionary, have lost all meaning, we have entered a post-modern world.”

(Therborn 2018, p.122)

Boltanski and Chiapello in their book “The New Spirit of Capitalism” similarly describe a postmodernist approach as viewing the state of the world as “chaos unamenable to any general interpretation”. (Boltanski & Chiapello 2018, p. 345).

This loss of belief in “the future” means the loss of a set of criteria against which to judge things. The old analyses are no longer valid, and therefore no longer provide a guide for future actions. Politically this shift was one of the factors underpinning the move of left wing parties from socialism to a “third way“. If capitalism is not progressing towards it’s eventual supercession then the best that can be hoped for is to reach an accommodation with it. With collapse of Soviet communism and the perceived irrelevance of Marxism, the left lacked any overarching analysis of the shape of the world, and therefore any view of what it was ‘for’. The only rational choice left to progressives in a post-modern world is working out how to make capitalism a bit nicer.

The end result has been a consensus of support across the political spectrum for a neo-liberal economics that has delivered a world which is increasingly unequal, polarised between asset holders and non-asset holders. There is a growing feeling of dissatisfaction, particularly among the young who have been disproportionately impacted by the implementation of nearly unopposed capitalism.

But without a strongly organised left articulating an alternative view of what is possible, that dissatisfaction has nowhere progressive to go. That doesn’t mean it disappears. Rather it migrates to political movements which are prepared to critique the current state of affairs and offer an explanation, even if it is not a rational one. In recent years this has meant Trump and Brexit.

In other words, the progressive left needs to recover its belief in the modern and find the overarching analysis of the world to underpin a call to action, and which can then be used to create a coherent manifesto for practical policies for change. I think there are some signs of this analysis developing but there’s still a long way to go.

Therborn, Goran From Marxism to Post-Marxism? (Verso, London, 2018)

Meiksins Wood, Ellen The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (Verso, London, 2017)

Boltanski, Luc and Chiapello, Eve The New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso, London, 2018)

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)