December 2011


This morning over at Americablog I read the following remarks in a post by John Aravosis:

Okay, the connection to Goldman is interesting. But I’d like to know a hell of a lot more about just who works at that port, and whose goods are going through that port – meaning, they’re not stopping Goldman’s imports, they’re stopping imports to businesses across America (and exports from business across America) right before Christmas, and during a Depression. And what’s worse, the unions seem, at best, divided on this action (which isn’t a good thing if it’s supposedly being done in support of the unions).

More from CNN:

In addition to Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Diego protesters planned to shut down ports in Portland, Oregon; Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, Vancouver, British Columbia and Anchorage, Alaska, according to the Occupy the Ports website.

Then there’s this:

“We are occupying the ports as part of a day of action, boycott and march for full legalization and good jobs for all to draw attention to and protest the criminal system of concentrated wealth that depends on local and global exploitation of working people, and the denial of workers’ rights to organize for decent pay, working conditions and benefits, in disregard for the environment and the health and safety of surrounding communities,” organizers said on their website.

Hmm. This is starting to sound more radical than I’m comfortable with, and that’s the first time I’ve felt this way throughout these many months. And according to the article, truckers, for example, are going to lose a day of pay because of this action. I’m sorry, but that bothers me right before Christmas and in the middle of a Depression.

I guess Mr. Arovosis thinks that if we just wave our fingers at corporations and politicians that are bought and paid for by the 1% they’ll listen, stop being so mean, and will give up on those massive profits and campaign contributions upon which they rely to get re-elected. One shudders to think what he would say about the Montgomery Bus Boycott our the way in which Egypt was shut down. “What about Christmas!” “Will you think of the children!” Fortunately he’s taken to task in the comments. As Harvey observes, capitalist markets only exist in the activity of exchange. They are organized around a circulatory system. So long as that circulatory system functions there is no incentive for the corporations and the politicians they own to make any concessions or changes. Wagging our fingers does nothing if it doesn’t interrupt that circulatory system.

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This conference looks fantastic:

Materialism and World Politics
21-22 October, 2012

Abstract proposals due: 16 April, 2012

The annual conference for volume 41 of Millennium: Journal of International Studies will take place on 21-22 October, 2012 at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The theme of this year’s conference will be on the topic of materialism in world politics. In contrast to the dominant discourses of neorealism, neoliberalism and constructivism, the materialist position asks critical questions about rational actors, agency in a physical world, the role of affect in decision-making, the biopolitical shaping of bodies, the perils and promises of material technology, the resurgence of historical materialism, and the looming environmental catastrophe. A large number of critical writers in International Relations have been discussing these topics for some time, yet the common materialist basis to them has gone unacknowledged. The purpose of this conference will be to solidify this important shift and to push its critical edges further. Against the disembodied understanding of International Relations put forth by mainstream theories, this conference will recognize the significance of material factors for world politics.

Proposed panel topics include:

Affect
Biopolitics
Complexity Theory / Self-Organising Matter
Discourse and Materiality
Environmental Crisis
Historical Materialism / Marxism
Neuroscience and Politics
Philosophical Materialism
Political Geography
Scientific Realism
Technology
The Body / Gender

Individuals interested in presenting a paper are requested to submit a 300 word abstract to: millennium@lse.ac.uk by 16 April, 2012. Submissions for panels are also welcome.

Keynote speakers will be announced in the coming months.

A selection of the conference papers will be published in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, volume 41, no. 3.

I’m pleased to announce that The Democracy of Objects is now available on Amazon.

A friend of mine was kind enough to share some of his political worries with Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology. Some of my readers might find my response of interest as the question of politics comes up often in relation to SR. I understand your worries about the de-politicization of ontology, but I also can’t help but feel that Meillassoux and Badiou are making a very political point that they’re trying to ground in ontology. It seems to me that throughout the history of philosophy, one way of distinguishing the revolutionary from the reactionary is that the latter always argues that there is 1) a necessary order to the social world to the social world and that therefore 2) the social world can be organized in no other way. In other words, the reactionary always argues that the social world is either naturally or divinely decreed. By contrast, the revolutionary always argues that the social world is contingent or that things are capable of being otherwise, that our identities, classes,
modes of production are, as you put it, “historical”. I take it that when Badiou, Meillassoux (and not incidentally myself!) are interested in contingency to ground this very point: the world does not have to be this way!

I realize I’m not a target of your remarks, but I wanted to briefly clarify some of my own positions. First, the issues you raise about the project of critique in queer theory, feminism, post-colonial theory, race theory, Marxist critique, etc., are very close to my own thought and are constant themes in my own writing. I have attempted– whether or not I’m successful is another question –to develop a theoretical apparatus capable of integrating these modes of critique. In particular, chapters 4 and 5 of The Democracy of Objects attempt to develop the resources for retaining the discoveries of critical theory broadly construed, while my article “Of Parts and Politics: Queer Theory and Onticology” (forthcoming, Identities), details the application of these concepts in greater detail. I have no intention of abandoning the discoveries of critical theory or embracing some form of identity essentialism that “naturalizes” identities. In other words, all of this remains in my thought.

Second, I consider myself both a Marxist and a materialist. I have tried to argue that those that continue to deploy the nature/culture opposition have not yet followed through on the implications of the Darwinian revolution. What Darwin disclosed, in my view, is that the natural world, far from being a world of essences and necessity, is historical. This thesis has reverberated throughout the natural sciences to such a degree that even “natural kinds” such as iron are now understood to be the result of a production, a history, that takes place in the core of stars, rather than fixed and eternal essences. In other words, the reactionaries can no longer even appeal to natural ontology to ground their essentialist claims. Part of the reason for my engagement with biology and the other physical sciences has been to diffuse the residual essentialisms (such as we find, for example, in sociobiology).

So if I consider myself a Marxist materialist then why am I embracing realism? Part of the reasons arise from the very sort of critical historical meditation you bring up in your remarks. In my view, the move beyond Fordist modes of production consisted in a shift to media/knowledge/information production roughly at the behest of biopower. Nonetheless, this form of production– while itself tarrying with the incorporeal –is grounded in a physical infrastructure. Flows of capital and the ability of capital to exercise its power literally needs highways, satellites, trains, farms, land, fiber optic cables, ocean going ships, and so on. Without these channels of transportation and information transfer, coupled with sources of calories and energy to run these engines, capital is unable to continue itself for, as Harvey points out, capital only exists in the motion of capital. For me this Marxist thesis about motion and being is true of all objects. Consequently, if you wish to smash an object you have to find a way to halt its internal motion or the process by which it sustains, continues, and propagates itself.

Now, for whatever reason, it seems to me that there’s a strange way in which this shift from factory production under Fordism to immaterial knowledge-production in a post-Fordist regime has simultaneously been seen in most variants of Marxism while nonetheless remaining unseen (in much the same way that a neurotic, and especially an obsessional like Hamlet, might endlessly talk about his symptom without quite seeing it or moving to the act). Here I have in mind the shift in much Marxist theory to cultural Marxism or critique of ideology, largely forgetting the physical world or things like fiber optic cables and soil conditions. However, while I believe that ideology critique and cultural critique are absolutely indispensable, I also feel that they often lack any political efficacy because they simply tarry at the level of signs and discourses, ignoring the material infrastructure upon which this form of production relies to perpetuate, continue, and sustain itself. Thus what I’m trying to do is both retain cultural critique while also drawing attention to this material infrastructure. If we ignore that
dimension, I think, we leave the basic coordinates within which this system functions intact. We need better cartography so we develop better strategy. This cartography and the practice that accompanies it is what I’ve called “terraism”.

To get a sense of what I’m talking about, take the example of OWS. I am absolutely on the side of the OWSers, but I also find myself frustrated as it seems to me that much of it is unfolding at the level of an ideology critique (cultural Marxism) and a desire to persuade these governmental and corporate forces that is doomed to fall on deaf ears. Occupations are taking place everywhere except, I think, in the places where they would have a chance to make a real difference and produce real results. If we think of capitalist social systems as being akin to an organic body, then these social systems will have a circulatory system and a nervous system. The nervous system of a capitalist social system would be the various mediums through which information is transmitted (internet, phones, television, newspapers, etc) as well that the events that take place in those systems (images, songs, reports, narratives, articles, etc), while the circulatory system would be the various paths of distribution and production the system requires to produce this sort of social structure such as highways, trains, airports, portions of the internet used for monetary exchange, farms, shipping lanes, etc. The political goal of the critic of capitalism requires causing capitalism to have a stroke or a heart attack (continuing with the metaphor of circulatory systems). But if that’s to be done, it’s necessary to occupy not a park in front of Wall Street or a governors office, but rather the arteries capitalism needs to survive. Why not occupy the highways? Why not occupy the ports (Oakland was a good move)? Why not occupy the internets, finding ways to block commerce traffic? My view is that if all focus is on the nervous system, these infrastructural dimensions are entirely missed and we end up with a form of political engagement that is merely one more form of information production leaving the basic structure of the system intact. This is why I’m an object-oriented ontologist.

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