Tag Archives: Philosophy

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)

Advertisements

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)

Review: Grand Hotel Abyss

I’ve not really paid much attention previously to the Frankfurt School and the development of critical theory after having covered them briefly during my University course and taking against the complexity, obfuscation, and negativity of their thought. This probably wasn’t helped by their entries in Leszek Kolakowski’s “Main Currents of Marxism” (the standard work covering all the main Marxist thinkers from Marx through to the 1970s). Kolakowski’s section on the Frankfurt School includes one of my favourite academic take-downs of all time, talking about Theodor Adorno’s “Negative Dialetics”, Kolakowski says of Adorno that:

“he shows no desire whatever to elucidate his ideas, and clothes them in pretentious generalities. As a philosophical text, Negative Dialectics is a model of professorial bombast concealing poverty of thought.”

(Kolakowski 2008, p.1081)

Ouch. Enough to put anyone off reading critical theory in any detail.

Stuart Jeffries book cuts through this. Told in chronological order Jeffries places each thinker in context, starting with Walter Benjamin (an inspiration for the Frankfurt School and critical theory if not actually part of the Institute for Social Research) and progressing from Horkheimer to Adorno and on to Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth.

Jeffries gives some biographical detail for each of the thinkers covered, and covers the historical context – particularly important for 1930’s Nazism and the run up to the second world war, and then again for 1968 and the influence both of the school on the revolutionary moment, and of the student radicals themselves on the Frankfurt School thinkers, especially Adorno and Marcuse.

Alongside this, Jeffries covers the theories and main lines of thought for each of them in a way that makes sense and allows you to follow the development of their critique of modern life in a clear and coherent way. The style is engaging and very readable, but still leaves you feeling that you’ve covered a reasonable summary. Jeffries is not blind to the gaps, weaknesses, and inconsistencies in the work of the school, but is clearly sympathetic in general. That said this never feels like hagiography, but rather an honest assessment of their contribution to modern thought.

If you’ve struggled with critical theory before and want an engaging introduction to who the main characters are and what it’s all about then this is the perfect book. It’s not a book of heavy theory, nor is it quite just a simple biography. It is though a good starting point. Maybe I’ll read some Adorno after all.

Jeffries, Stuart Grand Hotel Abyss (Verso, London, 2017)

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

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)

Review: In Defense of Lost Causes

This book is typical of Zizek’s style, in other words an eclectic mix of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and cultural commentary. The opening proposal is to defend a range of revolutionary thinkers and events which history looks on unfavourably. This ranges from Robespierre to Heidegger’s flirtation with Nazi Germany, to Mao and the Cultural Revolution. From this initial premise Zizek spins out across his usual dizzyingly wide frame of reference.

One theme is repetition. History is not pre-determined presenting instead a range of possibilities, some of which are retro-actively identified in the past to justify where we are today. This underpins the discussion in particular of Stalinism. Zizek urges the left to accept that Stalin represents one path out of the civil war in Russia in 1918-20 and the situation Lenin had reached by his death in 1924. But this does not make it the only possible path. It is odd that liberal thinkers who are so keen to criticise Marx for a perceived economic determinism in his approach to history also often see a direct line from Marx to the gulag. Instead, rather than trying to deny Stalin as ‘deviating’ from Marx we should accept it as one path, while seeking to ‘repeat’ Lenin so that we can seek a different outcome to the revolution. A similar point is made by Alain Badiou in his “Communist Hypothesis”.

Written in 2008, and therefore before the financial crisis, Zizek also takes aim at the liberal ‘third way’ with it’s acceptance of capitalism as the background of life, and something which we can only seek to ameliorate. The resulting failure to pursue radical outcomes ends with a gap where a progressive left ought to be, leading to all sorts of distortions from radical Islam to right wing populist demagogues. This is a common Zizek theme which he has discussed before, but which is prescient in the context of when the book was written.

The afterword to the second edition finishes by discussing the uses of violence, drawing a line between violence used in pursuit of revolution and that used to defend the existing order. I’m not sure this is entirely successful, but it certainly delivers what I suspect Zizek was aiming for, which is a provocative challenge to the standard liberal left view of the world.

If it is slightly less successful than some of his other books, that is probably for two reasons. First that having been written ten years ago it feels somewhat dated after the financial crisis. Second it includes several long sections where Zizek responds to criticisms levelled at him by other writers, which I’m sure are important to Zizek but sit oddly with the rest of the book and seem quite abstruse.

The related post I wrote on ‘repeating the past’ is here.

Zizek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, London, 2009)

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)

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)