Every morning I wake up on

The wrong side of capitalism


It’s easy to forget how great the Soviet Union was:

A Negro, in the opinion of Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher and sociologist of the 19th century, is by his nature incapable of abstract thinking. [Footnote: This viewpoint, which justified inequality and and social oppression, has long since been refuted by life: young people from many Asian, African, and Latin American countries studying the the Soviet Union are making good progress in all subjects, philosophy included.]

This is from What is Philosophy? by Galina Kirilenko and Lydia Korshunova, a book published by the USSR’s foreign propoganda arm, Progress Publishers, in 1985. Marred as it is by Stalinist third-periodism and a rather simple-minded cod-Hegelian dialectical materialism, it’s still an incredibly good introduction to philosophy. I like its relative anti-Eurocentrism (we don’t start with the pre-Socratics, but with a survey of the “almost simultaneous emergence of the first philosophical doctrines in ancient India, China and Greece,” not forgetting the Aztecs). Even more, though, I like its situating of philosophy as an activity:

What is philosophy? It is a world outlook, it is a view of the world—of nature and society. and of man’s place in it—and an analysis of the possibilities of understanding and transforming it. But it is also a conviction, a belief in the necessity for action on the base of this acquired knowledge. It is a blend of knowledge and assesment, knowledge and conviction, the emotional and the rational. So, philosophy is a special form of theoretical knowledge, involving not just an objective generalisation of of the entire human experience, but also the identification of moments in that experience which are of particular significance for man.

The Marxist definition of philosophy as a form of theoretical knowledge resolving the most general issues relating to world outlook, is essentially different from all former ideas about the tasks of philosophy, as well as from its modern bourgeois interpretations.

Me, having Merleau-Ponty's concept of philosophy explained to me In the picture, you can see me having Husserl’s concept of philosophy explained to me by Ken Knies, who had delivered a very interesting paper on the topic [PDF] the previous day. It took me a while to grasp it, and I realized that was partly because it goes against a group of presuppositions so deeply ingrained I hadn’t fully realized I held them. The idea of philosophy as purely self-contained, as subordinate only to itself, is almost incomprehensible to me. This is why I’m so impressed with Badiou’s insistence that philosophy is never freestanding, that it is always conditioned. Badiou rightly rejects the historicist view that the product of any philosophy can only be of value to its time; but he emphasizes the fact that there is no task of philosophy, instead the tasks of philosophy are always intimately tied to developments outside of philosophy (he says, events in art, science, politics, and love).

This has always been how I have undertaken philosophy: one of the life changing books I’ve forgotten is Bryan Macgee’s Men of Ideas, a set of irritating and often wildly misleading interviews with leading philosophers of the ’70s, and the first philosophy book I ever read. My dad pointed me towards it after overhearing one too many irritatingly ungrounded adolescent discussions of politics between me and my friends, and somewhere that initial impetus remains. Philosophy only makes sense to me when animated by some need external to philosophy, a context which whatever philosophy I’m studing can inhabit. This approach is particularly significant in my response to the moralizing that today so often passes as political thinking. To some, dismissal of a discussion on some issue with the question “but how can we act?” is seen as the height of immorality. To communists, the opposite must be the case: a consideration of philosophy in terms of the particular problems we face is a precondition of acting, and so necessarily a precondition of acting morally. Or, in the words of Galina Kirilenko and Lydia Korshunova:

Even the issue of the preconditions of philosophy, seemingly far removed from the current problems, involves ideological struggle.


“There was never so much belief as there is today”

I was reminded of Žižek’s claim by a passage I came across in Iain Banks’s Inversions (the narrator here is a member of the pseudo-medieval society that forms the book’s setting):

“Yes, but what do you personally believe?”

I frowned at her, an expresion such a graceful, gentle face did not deserve to have directed at it. Did the Doctor really imagine that everyone went around believing different things? One believed what one was told to believe, what it made sense to believe.

And I wonder if belief isn’t a modern phenomenon tout court, at least in the sense of personal belief. If that’s right, the paradoxical belief through purported non-belief that Žižek often identifies in contemporary ideology would be the structure of belief in general. Deleuze and Guattari write of psychoanalysis and its relation to myth:

Psychoanalysis and the Oedipus complex gather up all beliefs, all that has ever been believed by humanity, but only in order to raise it to the condition of a denial that preserves belief without believing in it (it’s only a dream: the strictest piety today asks for nothing more).

What I wonder is: has anything “ever been believed by humanity” in the sense of belief that we nowadays posit in order to deny? Or is the past simply the ultimate screen for the cynic’s projection: the pre-moderns are made to believe so that we don’t have to.


“The eternal is in any case more the ruffle on a dress than some idea”

In the almost a month since I last posted anything here, I have mostly been either writing or grading papers. Interestingly, it turns out that if I’m too busy to write here, I end up sublimating ideas for posts into whatever I am writing. Hence, what was going to be a post on Benjamin and Girls Aloud worked its way into a paper on Marx [PDF]. I’m not sure I like the American academic schedule; maybe I’m just doing it wrong, but it seems like you’re expected to write a lot of papers all at once at the end of the semester, meaning you don’t really get to produce anything more than a first draft. Still, I hope this is a reasonable first draft of the theoretical basis of Marxism-Britneyism-Girls-Aloud-Thought.


“The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking which is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question”

A little while back, k-punk argued against my advocacy of what we might call something like a Marxist hospitality towards religion, or a construal of the Marxist critque of religion which doesn’t amount to a rejection of religion as false. I think our point of disagreement is summed up in Mark’s comment:

If the Marxist critique of religion is not premised on its falsity, it certainly assumes that falsity. The falsity of religion consists precisely in its denial of the claim that it arises from specific material conditions, surely.

It seems to me that Mark’s position here implies a very particular conception of truth, one which I doubt Mark actually holds, but one which it would clarify my position on ideology to think about more thoroughly. To say that Marxism conflicts with religion, and that religion’s basis in particular material conditions thereby demonstrates the falsity of religion, both seem to depend on the idea that there is a singular truth which can be understood as a relation between statements and the world without considering the (various, contingent, historical) frameworks that mediate that relationship. This is the kind of correspondance theory of truth employed by particularly naïve forms of scientific realism. But I think this account of truth is the wrong one for us to use here, for two reasons.

First, I’m not at all sure that religions need to depend on this understanding of truth, in other words that they need to deny that they arise from specific material conditions. Actually, I think it’s pretty much a necessary feature of religions that they don’t; while it’s true that contemporary American Christianity buys into this scientistic account of truth (and some Islamic fundamentalism may do as well, I don’t know enough about contemporary Islam say), that’s precisely not because it’s an essential feature of religion, but because American evangelism is radically confused about the whole concept of religion (and probably heretical, too). Besides, if we interpret Christianity in the sort of truth-functional terms which are natural to modernity, Christianity is just trivially false. It’s not even worth arguing about whether God exists or Jesus rose from the dead if these are meant in the same sense as we would say a chair or table exists; of course religion isn’t true in that sense. If religion is worth critiquing at all, that must involve figuring out how it can make assertions which function in some other way. This is something I’ve never figured out (I’m an atheist more out of bemusement than anything else), but starting with hyperstitial effectiveness seems promising.

Leaving that aside, we clearly cannot accept as Marxists that demonstrating the social basis of a belief thereby demonstrates that it is false. This reminds me of the sad fate of Foucault in American universities, where self-proclaimed Foucauldians spend their time “critiquing” claims by showing that they are outcomes of power relations and thereby false. Of course Foucault said just the opposite, that it is precisely being the result of power relations that makes a statement true; and just as well he did, because otherwise his theory would be self-undermining. Likewise, as far as I can see, Marxism gives us no room to suppose that any belief is not the outcome of particular social relations, and so cannot coherently (or even usefully) hold that identifying the social basis of a belief makes it untrue. Again, hyperstitial effectiveness seems like a better reference than truth. If the truth of Marxism has any special value, it is because Marxism is the ideological side of revolutionary practice. But that doesn’t imply anything either way about the truth of religion; that, instead, will depend on whether or not religious ways of thinking can inform revolutionary struggle.


The dangers of reading too much Chomsky

I find myself at Le Colonel Chabert’s site every now and then by following links from various people I like, but I’m always disatisfied with the analyses she offers, and I think k-punk articulates why with his snappy phrase, “moralizing liberal socialism.” I’m not sure k-punk’s ad hominems are necessary or indeed accurate, though. Surely the problem with LCC’s moralizing of capital isn’t that it allows her to position herself as a good capitalist; indeed, she tends towards the opposite, seeming to get a certain enjoyment out of her ability to assert her complicity with capitalism. Rather, the problem with construing capital in individual, moral terms is that it underestimates the difficulty not just of attacking capitalism but of even understanding it.

Moralizing critique goes hand-in-hand with Chomsky’s understanding of ideology as propoganga, in which “the facts” are simply knowable, and the role of criticism is to simply make them known against the distortions of the media. But, contra Chomsky and Chabert, ideology is not simple lies, rather it is ideology precisely because it has the power to dictate and create the facts. Chabert’s idea of keeping ones distance from ideology in order to study its distortions from a position of relative exteriority, then, is hopelessly optimistic.

Which brings me to the main thrust of k-punk’s post, which is a discussion of the Marxist understanding of the critique of religion. I mostly agree with what Mark says, but I’m not sure he pushes this far enough. He quotes Karatani, “Whether or not we believe in religion in the narrow sense, real capitalism puts us in a structure similar to that of the religious world,” but doesn’t explicitly draw what I think is the necessary conclusion: for Marx, the critique of religion (as of ideology more generally) is not premised on the belief that religion is false. This is precisely the idealist critique he attacks, and I worry that calling for “a ruthless demolition of commodity-theology” does not clearly distinguish idealist refutation from materialist critique.

The materialist critique does not assert that religion is false; indeed, it would be almost more accurate to say that the materialist critique shows that religion is true or, better, it shows in what sense religion is true, how religion arises from and so reflects material conditions. So a communist engagement with Islam would not reject Islam, but would involve figuring out how an Islamic vocabulary can articulate communist projects (and if this is not going to just be bad faith, we shouldn’t expect our own communism to come out of the encounter unchanged).

This is where we should locate a criticism of the SWP’s current engagement with Islam (and, before we begin to criticize, we need to remember that the SWP are one of the only left groups who even have a position here worth critcizing). If engagement with Muslims remains a matter of formal alliances between pre-constituted blocks (the Muslims here, the socialists there), there remains no position from which we could engage in a genuine critique of Islam. The choices in this case remain quietist endorsement or moralistic rejection of Islam, and neither is sufficient.


Against the pious excuse of ends

There’s a great deal to like in the Merleau-Ponty’s Humanism and Terror. I found particularly interesting the distinction he makes among different ways in which violence can be deployed. Merleau-Ponty’s critique of the opposition to violence from the “beautiful soul” is similar to the one Zizek has been advancing recently, but I think Merleau-Ponty is clearer about a number of points on which Zizek is disappointingly vague.

Merleau-Ponty begins by emphasizing the omnipresence of violence: “communism does not invent violence but finds it already institutionalized” (1), in the institutions he will later identify as “colonization, unemployment, and wages” (103). Already, he marks a space between his own position and that which would simply identify violence as necessary to achieve certain goals. For Merleau-Ponty, it is not even possible to decide whether or not a certain goal justifies or does not jutify the use of violence, as we are implicated in violence right from the start, and cannot simply choose not to use it. He identifies the danger in believing that violence might be simply instrumental:

The most serious threat to civilization is not to kill a man because of his ideas … but to do so without recognizing it or saying so, and to hide revolutionary justice behind the mask of the penal code. For, by hiding violence one grows accustomed to it and makes an institution of it. On the other hand, if one gives violence its name and if one uses it, as the revolutionaries always did, without pleasure, there remains a chance of driving it out of history. (34)

Merleau-Ponty’s reference here is to the Stalinist use of violence, but his characterization also seems relevant to the contemporary use of Just War Theory (particularly in reference to humanitarian intervention). Today’s wars are justified using a kind of counterfactual logic that hides violence behind the mask of good intentions: a just war would be one which did not target civilians, for example, and this is then held to justify actual wars, despite the fact that there has never been a war in which civilians were not targetted.

Still, at this point Merleau-Ponty comes close to endorsing another form in which violence can be masked, when he tells us that revolutionaries used violence “without pleasure,” and, he implies, they did so for the purpose of “driving it out of history.” The problem here comes if the lack of pleasure in violence is taken to be a justification in itself for the use of violence. When the use of violence is treated as an unpleasant but necessary means to a good end, this very unpleasantness tends to be taken as in index to the justness of the end. An acute example of this is the rhetoric of Tony Blair, who continuously presents his willingness to make “hard choices” as in itself an argument for the rightness of these choices.

However, Merleau-Ponty later makes it clear that he is aware of this problem, which he calls “the pious excuse of ‘ends’” (127). He goes further, and rejects the categories of means and ends entirely:

The Marxist does not live with his eyes fixed on a transcendent future, forgiving deplorable tactics in the name of ultimate ends and absolving himself on account of his good intentions; he is the only one who denies himself such recourse. (128)

He thus comes to the conclusion: “the means is nothing but the end—the power of the proletariat—in historical form” (128). This, I think, is the only basis on which we can think political violence without falling into bad faith. The challenge is to think a form of violence which is both means and end, which is an integral part of a political project which can be accepted for its own sake. It is at this point that Merleau-Ponty fails us, because he does not (except for a brief remark about the impossibility of facing violence, 2) provide us with a phenomenology of violence, that is, an account of the internal effects on political subjects of emplying revolutionary violence.

Here we can turn to Fanon, who, in The Wretched of the Earth, gives us an account of a violence which is not simply a means to an end. For Fanon, the experience of revolutionary violence is the “irreparable gesture” (62) which allows for the formation of a revolutionary subject:

The masses, without waiting for the chairs to be arranged around the baize table, listen to their own voice and begin committing outrages and setting fire to buildings. (62f)

In this connection of violence with subjectivity, Fanon draws together two threads which are only implicitly connected by Merleau-Ponty; the use of violence that is inherent in political action, and the implacable opposition that defines political subjectivity.

(Humanism and Terror’s discussion of Koestler also contains a few lines which seem remarkably appropriate to today’s pious “left.” How about, “for fear of having to forgive, he prefers not to understand”? Or the pleasingly bitchy: “Kostler’s essays exhibit a ’round-trip’ style similar to that of many former Communists—but annoying to others. After all, we do not have to atone for the sins of Koestler’s youth.”)


Contagion warning

During the Birkbeck Derrida lecture series, someone (k-punk? infinite thought?) mentioned the deconstructive virus. It’s a pretty accurate description of some of the worst Derridean writing. A mediocre scholar takes some concept (and it doesn’t matter what concept) and introduces deconstruction, which takes up residence and uses it to produce endless copies of some theme of Derrida’s, spreading the contagion and destroying the original concept.

I’ve spent the past couple of days mostly at a conference on Derrida and the Time of the Political. All the greats were there: Balibar, Butler, Brown (although not Badiou, unfortunately, who fits my alliterative schema; Ranciere, who doesn’t, was there, though). The deconstructive virus was, luckily, mostly absent (showing up only in a dubiously eurocentric talk on responsibility, and a panel on Algeria, of which the less said the better, probably). The best papers, indeed, steered clear of Derridology, starting off from Derrida’s work to look substantively at some issue only tangentially touched on by the man himself.

The best example of this was Wendy Brown’s paper, “Is There Sovereignty?” part of her ongoing work on sovereignty as the central concept underwriting the supposed autonomy of the political (an earlier iteration of which Sandy discussed a while back). She started by suggesting a contradiction between deconstruction and sovereignty, as deconstruction seeks to undermine all determinate concepts, while sovereignty will not let itself be rendered indeterminate (and, presumably, has the material force to prevent this from happening). This then renders deconstruction a necessarily anti-political procedure, creating difficulties in Derrida’s attempts to specifically deal with the political; difficulties which, according to Brown, he fails to resolve.

Democracy as a political system is where these problems are located. Democracy, as the rule of a heterogenous people, appears as the practical deconstruction of sovereignty; but as democracy is a politics it requires sovereignty to found the political in the first place. Thus, popular sovereignty invokes sovereignty as a supplement to democracy. Brown’s example here was Iraq, where the lack of any sovereignty renders the formal elements of democracy (voting, parliaments) irrelevant, while attempts by the occupiers and Iraqi military to establish sovereignty render democracy impossible in practice (Brown employed the ominous but apposite expression “Iraqization,” which I haven’t heard used before).

Derrida, Brown argued, follows the liberal tradition in locating this sovereign supplement in the state. He construes democratic freedom solely as individual self-determination, and so displaces politics in common onto the sovereign state, which is capable of coercing individuals to live together. However, as we have seen throughout history and are again seeing clearly, this understanding is insufficient to produce substantive democracy. Brown’s conclusion, and it was pleasing to hear her say this explicitly, was that, in his rejection of collective self rule, Derrida is not communist enough.

Jacques Ranciere was similarly critical of (though not hostile to) Derrida. He began by reiterating his claim that democracy is anarchic, in the sense of resisting αÏ?χε, authority, or any principle which dissymetrically allows some to rule over others. The δημοσ is those people who have no qualifications to rule, and thus democracy is the rule by those without qualifications. Therefore, the δημοσ is a supplement to the political structure; it is that which is not counted by the political system.

Where this becomes a criticism of Derrida is when we turn to Derrida’s account of the political subject; or, Ranciere insisted, Derrida’s failure to account for the political subject. Ranciere argued that Derrida’s explicit attack on a politics of fraternity also functions as a way of avoiding thinking the politics of equality, because Derrida allows for no substitutibility, no way of thinking that the other could be any other, that is, the uncountable others who make up the δημοσ.

What I thought was most interesting, however, which this critique doesn’t get to, was Ranciere’s positive conception of the political subject. A political intervention occours, Ranciere said, when a group takes the part of the δημοσ. The political subject acts as if it were the indeterminate, uncountable part of the political community. This has obvious affinities with Badiou’s account of the subject, but I’d be interested to see how exactly the two can be related.

Other interesting things included Pheng Cheah’s discussion of “Democracy to come,” which, somewhat in contrast to Ranciere’s criticism, argued that, because democracy is never self-identical or properly present, the democracy to come is not something to be put off to the future but exists in an untimely manner in the present. The Marxism Working Group organized a talk on Wordsworth and the commodity form, which I’m not really equipped to judge, but it seemed pretty interesting (and a good complement to our ongoing Grundrisse reading group).


The short answer is, almost nothing

Leila asks in the comments below what I know about objet petit a, and I thought I’d reply in a post in the hope that someone reading this with some significant Lacan knowledge will see it and give us the full run-down on objet petit a. I’ve never read any Lacan, so all I know is what I’ve stuck together from bits of Žižek, which is to say, the basics (and possibly a garbled version of those).

Anyway, I think objet petit a stands for the structural role of that which is “really” desired when you get what you think you want and realize that it wasn’t what you really wanted. I say “structural role”, because Lacan argues that this isn’t just a contingent mistake that people sometimes make, but a general feature of desire. So, whenever we desire any particular, there is always that sense of something missing in what we think we desire; we might try and fill that lack by saying we desire some other particular thing, but that new object will itself be lacking; objet petit a is the name for this generalized lack.

I think this is connected with Lacan’s account of how the subject is formed. Before we can use language, we just desire in general. As soon as we start using language, we are able to articulate specific desires, but this means that we are always worried that our desire is too specific, and doesn’t capture the original complete satisfaction involved in our pre-linguistic desire. Objet petit a is a symbol for this desired thing that can’t be put into words. As I understand it, this then becomes important because how one deals with this unattainable object of desire is what distinguishes the different discourses (the master, the university, the pervert, and there’s one other I can’t remember); but I don’t really know how that actually works out.

Don’t know how much that helps; hopefully, as I say, somebody reading this can explain more (there’s also an awesomely unhelpful wikipedia page).



At some point, I think we need a rigorous exploration of Žižekian logic, with it’s central connective “but,” that is, arguments of the form “P, but is it not in fact the case that not P.” An example that occoured to me today was, “It is generally claimed that America is excessively religious, but is it not in fact the case that America is not religious enough.” Look at creationism: the problem is not the religiousity of belief in creation, but the scientism of thinking that Genesis is literally, scientifically, true. This is a problem with evangelical Christianity more generally: the reduction of a narrative tradition that posits a complex relation between speech and reality (analogy, metaphor, metonymy) to truth-functional assertions. It’s bad theology. Far from being excessively religious, fundamentalist Christians do not even know what religion is. There are few things to like about the Catholic church or the current Pope, but the fact that he, like his predecessors, has a training in philosophy reminds us that historically the church has taken reasoned argument seriously (compare Pat Robertson, who says that his time at university “centered around lovely young ladies who attended the nearby girls schools”).  Catholicism, being commited to the  compatability of scripture and reason, is aware that evolutionary theory is not simply incompatible with religion.

This is analogous to a point I’ve made before about conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories which posit a driving force behind the supposed seats of power are a narrative form of making a point which is entirely correct (this driving force being capitalism as a system). The problem comes when this narrative is read not as a metaphor which reveals a structure present in capitalism, but as a descriptive account which is directly, factually true; conspiracy theorists becomeobsessed with finding evidence, no matter how spurious and unconvincing. See, for instance, this wild empiricism disguised as science (as Badiou said in a different context), which is completely typical of 9/11 conspiracy theories. A barrage of facts, unconnected or sometimes mutually contradictory, are not patiently assembled into a theory which could challenge the official account of 9/11. Instead, unexplained facts are haphazardly amassed in the hope that the sheer weight will force a resolution in terms of “conspiracy.” The argument from ignorance here is the same one that supports Intelligent Design.


“Some revolution is gonna happen today”: Reflections on Billie and Agamben

I forgot to mention another thing I like about “Because We Want To,” which is the notion, in the line I quoted, of “some revolution.” There are two, possibly related, things to like about the phrase. One is its grammatical structure, implying as it does that revolution is a bulk noun, omnipresent like water or available by the yard like cloth, rather than being compressed into one time or space. The other is the connection to Agamben’s idea of the quodlibet (translated “whatever”), “some revolution” in the sense of revolution with no predetermined content, revolution as inexhaustible potential. On which, see this article on Agamben; I suspect correcting well-meaning misreadings of Agamben will soon become a full-time job, and this article will be a great help in doing that.