May 2008

Carl of Dead Voles has kindly (irritatingly) tagged me with a meme. I didn’t participate in the last one, so I suppose I’m obligated to give it a go this time around.

The meme is this:

“Post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures what YOU are most passionate for students to learn about.

Give your picture a short title.

Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt.”

Link back to this blog entry.

Include links to 5 (or more) educators.”

The picture I have chosen is this:

I suppose, despite Delacroix’s own wishes, I will call it “Liberty and Revolution”. In the tradition of thinkers such as Lucretius, Spinoza, Hume, and Marx, I would like to produce students who are free, who are not simply props of ideology, cliches, and superstitition (or who have the tools to question these things), and who are capable of imagining a world other than the one we live in and who act to produce such a world. This does not entail using the classroom as a platform or pulpit for indoctrinating students with a specific set of claims, but rather of giving them tools and concepts that might allow them to no longer see the world as self-evident, natural, or obvious. I can’t say whether or not I’ve had much success in achieving these aims, but certainly something like this is simultaneously why I so often find myself depressed when teaching (as I discover just how pervasive these things are), and what I ardently hope education is capable of achieving.

I tag

I Cite

Infinite Thought

Perverse Egalitarianism

Joseph Kugelmass

An und sur sich

Adam has an interesting post up asking what happened to Negri and Hardt.

Now on the home stretch of exam prep, I am going back through Empire and find myself wanting to reread it “for real” sometime soon, now that I’ve finally read many more of the works they’re referencing. I have long thought that the supposed “disproof” of their theses by the events after 9/11 was a little too easy, and reviewing the opening sections on the new configuration of sovereignty, I’m much more inclined to argue that they were describing a transition that is real and that the Bush administration is continuing. Indeed, their analyses of the politics of fear, of the new ambiguous status of war, of the use of the blanket term “terrorism,” etc., etc., all seem to directly anticipate the post-9/11 climate, to be more plausible now than they were then.

Read the rest here. Voyou follows up:

Adam asks, “what happened to Hardt and Negri?” An interesting question; the current lack of interest in them is rather surprising, given that Empire was and is pretty much entirely correct. I was reminded of this by a post on ads without products, in which:

When it gets to the stuff that lies outside of the so-called “information economy” – when it comes to the relatively minor items like a roof over your head or food on the table or a stable income, I’ll be damned if I can see how non-market social-sharing systems are going to help a whole lot.

Now this is right and, as the post and comments emphasize, open source is no threat to capitalism. But the important point of Hardt and Negri’s analysis of immaterial labor is to look at this the other way round; it’s not that open source will provide us with food and housing, but that the things that deprive us of food and housing are increasingly overlapping with issues of control over information. The science of biofuels and genetically modified corn are immaterial components in the current very material food shortages; likewise, new forms of finance capital are the immaterial specificities of the sub-prime mortgage crisis that is kicking people out of their homes. On international politics, Empire remains accurate, too; indeed, the discussion of the role of nuclear weapons in making all wars in Empire interminable could have been written to describe the choice between Hilary “Bomb Iran” Clinton and Barack “Bomb Pakistan” Obama.

The quote from ads without products strikes me as particularly stupid, as the discussion about immaterial labor was never about how suddenly immaterial labor is going to solve all of our problems or that material labor has ceased to be important or critical. Rather, in good Marxist fashion, Negri and Hardt look for those sites within our social and historical situation where change and resistance might be possible. Not only is the control of information one of the ways in which we are controlled today, but with technologies such as the internet, we also have new means of organizing that cross national boundaries and are very difficult to control through traditional statist means.

I basically got pushed back into rereading Negri and Hardt for an article that was requested from me on Deleuze (those requesting the article were very specific as to what they wanted, asking for a discussion of Autonomia and Negri and Hardt as well). The experience has been surprising. The first time I read Negri and Hardt years ago, I found myself neither wildly impressed nor dismissive. Their work just sort of slid of my back. This time around I’ve found myself deeply impacted by their work. Indeed, it seems to me that they’re more relevant and accurate than ever. Perhaps something has changed in me, perhaps something in the world situation. I don’t know. I’d be curious to know what happened to them as well.

The critiques I have heard– 9/11, criticisms of immaterial labor, etc –strike me as either missing the argument or missing the manner in which Marxist cultural analysis is deployed, i.e., through an analysis of dominant tendencies within a historical situation. Marx could have been pilloried for example the same reasons that Negri and Hardt are pilloried about immaterial labor: by critics pointing out the underveloped nature of capitalism and factory labor during his time. Nor do I see it as an either/or. There’s nothing about discussing the central role of immaterial labor that diminishes or excludes material labor and its importance. Moreover, it seems to me that the failure of the war in Iraq and the growing collapse of the American economy lend some credence to what Negri and Hardt argue about the demise of the nation state (again these are processes, not all or nothing observations). While the Iraq war looked like a return to imperial models, what it in fact shows is the last desperate and dying gasp of the imperial model, or the inability of even the most powerful military state to unilaterally impose its will in a global world. The only critique I’ve heard that somewhat hits the mark is that their proposals at the end of Empire are rather vague and undefined. Voyou argues that Negri and Hardt are too overtly political and this is why they’ve been rejected, but I don’t see this as they offer very little in the way of a concrete program. Of course, in the Marxist tradition, the role of the social theorist isn’t to propose what changes are to be made or to provide a model of the state, but to immanently locate those tendencies from whence change might emerge. Moreover, others in the Autonomia school such as Virno deal with these issues more explicitly.

At any rate, I’d be very interested in hearing what others think. What, if anything, happened to Negri and Hardt?

Jodi Dean has a short post up on critics who interrogate how much Zizek writes:

This is an old topic, much trodden in these parts. But, I’m finally getting around to writing a review that was due 18 months ago (it has now become a review essay) and so I’m returning to old themes. Why, why, why do ‘critics’ attack Zizek for writing too much? An essay in one book I’m reviewing treats the amount of his writing as a symptom. What amount is symptomatic?

Even the title of this post is interesting, for it speaks to the difference between pleasure (which is homeostatic in nature) and jouissance, which always walks the line between pleasure and pain. In our discussions of style we’ve so far discussed the manner in which certain forms of style can produce attachments and identification, the institutional apparatus in academia and how style can function to reinforce certain class distributions, and a number of issues pertaining to the relationship between style and content. I wonder if Jodi doesn’t implicitly raise another issue here. What is interesting in these critiques of Zizek– regardless of what one thinks about Zizek theoretically or politically –is the way in which they seem to treat the symptom in perjorative terms. A symptom, these critiques imply, is something deviant, something that we’re supposed to escape, something we’re supposed to overcome. A symptom is conceived here, in short, as a sickness.

Nothing could be further from the Freudo-Lacanian position. Within the Freudian framework, a symptom is not a sickness, a cancerous tumor to be excised, but is rather a solution or a cure on the part of the subject. Lacan will go one step further and claim that there is no subject without a symptom. The aim of analysis is thus not to excise the symptom– which would lead to a collapse of the subject as the symptom is the subject’s ontological support in being –but to redirect this site of jouissance elsewhere so that the subject might find less painful forms of jouissance. For Lacan, then, the symptom is not something that disappears in analysis. The symptom, for Lacan, is thus the singularity of the subject.

Nonetheless, there is something to this critique of Zizek. Here I am not referring to it’s moralistic tone, but rather to the jouissance and relation to jouissance that underlies this response to Zizek. In Seminar 23, The Sinthome, Lacan, in his discussion of Joyce, states that we are never interested in another subject’s symptom. Indeed, when confronted with the symptom of another, there’s often a sense of horror. In part this has to do with neurotic structurations of desire (the tale would be very different for a perverse subject), which functions as a strategy for evading jouissance through maintaining desire (the hysteric subject striving to keep the desire of the Other unsatisfied so as to escape jouissance, the obsessional subject striving to negate all desire by satisfying every demand, thereby deflating or undermining all jouissance). Neurosis is a defense against jouissance. The neurotic lives in a terror of being the object of jouissance.

Does this not add another dimension to discussions of certain forms of style. Is not, in part, the visceral reaction to certain forms of style in figures like Hegel, Lacan, Levinas, late Heidegger, Deleuze, Derrida, etc., a horror at the jouissance of the writer, and a terror that one’s status as a subject will fade and disappear in this encounter with style? That is, these texts drip jouissance in the sense that they seem to enjoy the signifier themselves. In this way, desire seems to evaporate and there seems to be nothing save disappearance in this jouissance. This would account for the experience so many have that a game is being played with them by these authors. Of course, this would speak to the common fantasy of being a masochistic puppet of enjoyment in many neurotics. The question, of course, would not be one of condemning these styles, but one of how we might devise strategies to overcome these neurotic responses.

Pop-matters has weighed in on the issue of difficult texts on his blog. I’m still trying to articulate what, exactly, constitutes a difficult text. I think that there are different sorts of difficulties and that they shouldn’t all be lumped together. Recently, for example, I picked up Simon Duffy’s Logic of Expression. I had high hopes for this text as it deals heavily with Deleuze’s use of the calculus in Difference and Repetition. However, I confess that I’m very disappointed with this text, despite the high praise of Smith, Patton, and Balibar. Why? I simply can’t penetrate it. This isn’t entirely Duffy’s fault. The work presupposes a lot of background knowledge in mathematics which I simply don’t have. As a result, it is difficult for me to penetrate what he’s discussing, or even know why it’s relevant. This work, I would say, is clear, but only insofar as one has a particular background knowledge. It is thus not a difficult text, though I find it impenetrable. I do think, however, he could have done a better job shuttling back and forth between concrete examples and mathematical abstractions. I’m of the view, regardless of what purists like Alexei say about metaphors and examples, that we should always use examples to illustrate points as a crutch for intuition and imagination in reaching “the concept”. This is part of what makes Badiou such a brilliant writer, regardless of what one thinks of his thought. It is also part of what makes Zizek great.

By contrast, it seems to me that there’s a different sort of difficulty that isn’t about background knowledge or familiarity, but about style. When confronting Hegel’s Science of Logic or certain texts by Derrida, the issue does not seem to be one of background knowledge, but appears to occur at the level of sentence structure itself. Marx might be added here as well, in some respects. Hegelians sometimes speak of the “dialectical sentence”. The dialectical sentence is inherently difficult stylistically, regardless of one’s background knowledge, perhaps because of how it seeks to evade the simplifications of the understanding (abstraction, thingly thought), making it very difficult to determine what, exactly the sentence is saying at all. In Marx there are similar difficulties. Marx wants to unfold the logic of what he’s dealing with, to make you experience it. Often you don’t know where you’re going or why it’s important. For example, in the first chapter of Capital, we begin with the commodity, but we have no idea how the commodity will be unfolded or analyzed or where this analysis is leading. Instead it’s as if Marx wants you to encounter the experience of the commodity itself.

Popmatters makes some good points about commodification of thought. S/he claims that any form of writing that slows down easy transmission is already a blow against the dominance of the commodity. There’s something to this very Adornoesque thought. I respect this thesis. I understand it. By the same token, as we’re struggling against a particular form that capitalism has taken today, I wonder if this is truly the most pragmatic strategy. We need weapons. We need careful analyses of our situation. There is a certain sort of style that turns you into a scholar by necessity, because you have to work through the intricacies of these mysteries. Are these stylistic approaches that we find in later Levinas, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, Adorno, etc., the most effective tools in such struggles, or do they end up inventing/making scholars that turn away from these struggles? I think, for example, that we could do better with Marx and that a certain sort of academic work should be strongly discouraged. The verdict is out for me.

A few months ago I began to feel exhausted and generally wretched all the time. Early in the afternoon I’ll feel a deep weariness sink into me. My legs will ache and I’ll feel as if I’m sinking into my chair. My thought will become fuzzy. I find it difficult to concentrate. What is this? Is it normal? Is this what it means to age? I’m only 34. I shouldn’t feel this way. Do I not exercise enough? Am I not eating the right things? Do I drink too much? Am I depressed? Is it stress?… Or is it something more frightening like cancer? For all the talk of embodiment these days, I can see why philosophers in previous centuries were so resistant to the body. It weighs one down. It is finite. It suffers. It gets sick. It gets fatigued. It distracts thought with appetites and passions. Next week I begin to swim.

I’ve already pimped his thesis in the past, but now that I’ve had the time to sit down and read it I would highly recommend Nick’s thesis on Deleuze for anyone interested in Deleuze’s ontology and complexity theory. Nick articulates Deleuze’s ontology with exceptional clarity, reading it in terms dear to my own heart– with respect to the problem of individuation –and articulates its relevance to social and political theory. One question that emerges for me is that of what theory must look like once we take seriously Deleuze’s thesis that only individuals exist (where the concept of an individual is to be conceived at different levels of scale, such that, for example, cities, nations, and various social systems are also individuals). That is, once we adopt this premise we can no longer advocate universal laws and generalities. N.Pepperell once told me that she does not believe assemblage theory is a theory. I got irritated at the time as is my custom when I’m enthusiastic about something, but in this I think she’s right insofar as the concept of assemblage is not yet a theory or an explanation of a particular field of individuation, of a particular individuation or phenomenon, but rather an ontological concept that precedes a theory. For example, Marx’s historical materialism stipulates that there are no essences of the human or society. This is a general ontological claim, not yet a theory. We have not yet proposed a theory until we engage in the arduous work of accounting for the specific regularities governing a particular socio-historical moment. Marx becomes a theory when he explains why the historical moment takes the particular form it does (i.e., when he articulates all the processes and contingencies by which particular subjects were formed, particular social relations came into being, and particular tensions or antagonisms developed) and when he envisions the immanent processes by which these historical moments are undergoing transformation. In short, what is required is not logos but immanent logoi, immanent patterns of (re)production internal to a phenomena, absolute specific to situations and their organization.