You want full communism? You better sublate work, bitch

I wouldn’t usually crosspost something about Britney here, but her new song does seem to have tapped in to a current interest in the topic of work; this piece in the Guardian is typical, arguing that the song reflects a contemporary, “religious” commitment to the value of work. That’s not what the song sounds like to me; it’s not so much capitalist ideology as capitalist id. While the official capitalist ethic proposes the necessity of hard work as the ground of equality, the capitalist id glories in the reality that you have to work while (indeed, because), capital doesn’t. Hence Britney’s imperious “work, bitch!” with the subtext that, work as hard as we like, we’ll never be as good as her; and doubtless we’ve all come to terms in our own way with the fact that we’re not Britney and never will be. But, if we follow the insight of the Neue Marx Lektüre that capital is the historical subject of capitalism, we might find in the id of this historical subject some useful indications of the mutations happening to the role of work in contemporary capitalism, and thereby come up with a more dialectical anti-work politics.We need this dialectical approach because of work’s contradictory position within capitalism: official capitalist ideology extols the virtues of work, but capital hates work and wants to minimize the amount of wage labour it employs, while at the same time wage labour is the source of capital’s profits and so ineliminable. So capital is itself anti-work, but in a contradictory and destructive way. It seems to me that our response to this shouldn’t be the social-democratic one of attempting to re-valorise work (which just embeds us further within capital’s contradictory attitude to work), but instead to try and trace capital’s anti-work position out past capital. Read the rest of this entry »

Spring Breakers’ anti-human communism

spring-breakers04The New York Times describes Spring Breakers as “at once blunt and oblique,” although you might say the film spends half its time making a very obvious point and half its time not sure what point it’s making. Which doesn’t sound like much of a recommendation, but the film is actually pretty interesting. The obvious point it seems to be making at first is an analogy between the religious enthusiasm of Faith’s (Selena Gomez) evangelical church and the hedonism of spring break, emphasised by the similarity in the energized performances with which the minister encourages teenagers to get “crazy for Jesus” and the rapper Alien (James Franco) eulogises “bikinis and big booties.” If this were all the film were doing, it would be a fairly straightforward and indeed rather puritanical criticism of Schwärmerei. It would also justify interpretations of the films as entirely contemptuous of the characters and also the audience (who would be posited as a mindless Hollywood audience caught up in the hedonistic enthusiasm the film represents).

What makes the film interesting, though, is that it doesn’t just make this analogy the basis of a simple criticism: it takes this analogy seriously, or at least plays with it at length. It’s Faith, steeped in the dubious transcendence of church youth groups, who describes spring break as “the most spiritual place” she’s ever been, but the film-making seems to back this up. The bright colours, the visual and temporal distortions, skips and, repetitions, suggest  (the fantasy of) a spring break outside mundane time. This interesting review suggests the film is a “music video,” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Rather, the film produces visually the affective structure of a dubstep track (or specifically of its theme tune, “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” by some distance the best brostep track); sharply switching between an ethereal straining at the limits of reality and a brutal pulverising of it produces a kind of transcendence, or an aesthetic effect that hints towards transcendence, at least. Read the rest of this entry »

An und für sich: the TV adaptation?

I don’t want to muscle in on jms’s and Craig’s territory by posting something about TV on a Thursday, but ABC’s new show Revolution does touch on a few themes which struck me as of interest to AUFS. The show is about a post-apocalyptic future in which electricity no longer works. This is a pretty neat idea, although it falls apart at the slightest scrutiny (if “electricity” doesn’t work, how come “nervous systems” still do?); unfortunately, the show does seem to be encouraging scrutiny of the premise by making the characters’ attempt to discover how the apocalypse happened an ongoing plot thread. High concept aside, Revolution isn’t really a “good” show; its post-apocalyptic hardships are pretty off-the-shelf, as are the characters (idealistic teenagers, surly dudes with a soft heart, etc), but there are a couple of interesting things about it. One is its presentation of cities as objects of nostalgia; the main character, who was a toddler when electricity stopped working, keeps an illicit collection of post-cards of the major American cities (I’m reminded of David Simon saying he made Treme in response to people who asked him why anyone would live in the city depicted in The Wire); indeed, on one level at least, the show presents an argument against the lo-fi localism which is something of a liberal consensus. Read the rest of this entry »

Laclau’s post-foundationalist humble-brag

Let us accept that all identity is a differential identity. In that case two consequences follow: (1) that, as in a Saussurean system, each identity is what is is only through its differences from all the others; (2) that the context has to be a closed one – if all identities depend on the differential system, unless the latter defines its own limits, no identity would be finally constituted. But nothing is more difficult – from a logical point of view – than defining those limits. If we had a foundational perspective we could appeal to an ultimate ground which would be the source of all differences; but if we are dealing with a true pluralism of differences, if the differences are constitutive, we cannot go, in the search for the systematic limits that define a context, beyond the differences themselves. Now, the only way of defining a context is, as we have said, through its limits, and the only way of defining those limits is to point out what is beyond them. But what is beyond the limits can only be other differences, and in that case – given the constitutive character of all differences – it is impossible to establish whether these new differences are internal or external to the context. The very possibility of a limit and, ergo, a context, is thus jeopardized. (Laclau, Emancipation(s), 52)

This far, Laclau’s argument seems pretty reasonable, and the consequence presumably would be that, indeed, “no identity would be finally constituted,” that is, the differences that establish any identity would be indeterminate, there would be no point at which we could say we could say we “had” the full determination of the identity, and so any discussion of a particular identity would always be open to further questioning and the need for further investigation into the specificities of that identity. Oddly, though, that’s not the conclusion Laclau draws. Having “jeopardized” the possibility of a total context, Laclau nonetheless goes on to assert that a total context is possible, with the limit being provided not by a difference, but by an antagonism, which “poses a threat to (that is, negates) all the differences within that context.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Sociopathic subjects

I really enjoyed Why We Love Sociopaths, in part because of the additional perspective it gives on Awkwardness. The “fantasy sociopath” the book studies is introduced as the opposite of  awkwardness: where awkwardness is an anxiety in relation to social norms, sociopaths, at least in TV fantasy, never experience social norms as something that makes them anxious, only as tools they can use to manipulate others. But what unites awkwardness and sociopathy is that these anti-social experiences reveal something fundamental which underlies the possibility of sociality. That is to say, Adam’s project is a kind of dialectical redemption of the anti-social, in which anti-sociality, by revealing the conditions of our sociality denaturalize it and provide ways of thinking about an alternative sociality which we might choose. Awkwardness and Why We Love Sociopaths thus I think have something in common with what Judith Halberstam calls “anti-social” queer theory; the connection is perhaps clearest in the anti-familial theme that surfaces periodically through Why We Love Sociopaths.

One thing that is suggested in the book but I think it would be interesting to think about more is the possibility that the liberal subject as such is sociopathic. Read the rest of this entry »

The tension between non-violence and solidarity

The new issue of Street Spirit, a paper put together by a group of Quakers and sold by homeless people throughout the Bay Area, is mostly made up of articles on non-violence. In an astonishing (in a bad way) interview, George Lakey, “longtime nonviolent activist and trainer” manages to outdo Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau’s infamous claim that protesters linking arms is “not non-violent”:

Lakey: Running does not heighten the contrast between the activists and the purveyors of violence. The running, to a T.V. or a news photographer or a bystander just looks like a riot and it gets reported in the news, that black people rioted on the streets of Birmingham or whatever. So sometimes you need to heighten the contrasts in order to make your point, and if that means getting people on their knees so they won’t run, great.

A good example of the movement not understanding that was Chicago in 1968 in the Democratic National Convention, where demonstrators coming from all over the country were set upon by the police. They started to run away and the police chased them and bloodied them even in the lobby of the Hilton Hotel, where the police finally caught up with some of the demonstrators and beat them to a pulp inside the lobby on the expensive carpet. But the way it was covered in the media was: Activists Riot in Chicago. It took a national investigation to determine it was actually the police who rioted; it wasn’t the students who rioted. There’s no reason for Occupy people to make all of these same mistakes again.

Street Spirit: Something very similar to that occurred in Oakland. The police attacked marchers on January 28 and were terribly violent to them. But when they ran, and escaped through the YMCA, it looked to the public like they were at fault when they were just trying to escape the violence.

Lakey: Exactly.

So, a nonviolence expert assures us that running away from the police when they are beating you to a pulp is “not non-violent.” Read the rest of this entry »

Non-speaking beings

It may be a little awkward to post something that draws so heavily on Adam’s Awkwardness here, but I suppose that is itself in the spirit of the book.

W. is impressed by my stammer.—‘You stammer and stutter’, says W., ‘and you swallow half your words. What’s wrong with you?’ Every time I see him, he says, it gets a little worse. The simplest words are beginning to defeat me, W. says. Maybe it’s mini-strokes, W. speculates. That would account for it.—‘You had one just there, didn’t you?’

Perhaps, W. muses, my stammering and stuttering is a sign of shame. W. says he never really thought I was capable of it, shame, but perhaps it’s there nonetheless.—‘Something inside you knows you talk rubbish’, he says. ‘Something knows the unending bilge that comes out of your mouth’. (Lars Iyer, Spurious)

Equality is a central term for Rancière, but it is quite a circumscribed equality, the equality specifically and only of speaking beings. Which immediately raises the question, what about non-speaking beings?Animals would be the most obvious example, but there are also human beings prevented from speaking by age and infirmity, disability, oppression. Rancière might object that these examples of non-speaking don’t exclude people from the class of equals, which isn’t strictly speaking beings, but rather beings that have the logos, that have access to language; and, furthermore, it is the structure of the logos, of language, which ensures this equality. However, in the way Rancière makes his argument, speech is indeed theoretically central, and problematic. The argument for axiomatic equality occurs in what is, as it were, the primal scene of politics for Rancière, the moment at which a master gives an order to a slave. This contains the central contradiction of politics: the master presents themselves as of a different order from the slave and so as entitled to give the slave orders; but in the process of giving the order, the master assumes that the slave is capable of understanding the order, that is, that master and slave are equal in their possession of language. This argument doesn’t depend on speech literally understood – it would work if the order was handed over in written form or using sign language – but it does depend on features of speech broadly construed: the two participants must be in the same place at the same time for their equality, the possibility of the slave speaking back to the master, to manifest itself. Read the rest of this entry »

“I like to think (right now, please!)”

Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (part 1, part 2, part 3) is pretty excellent. It puts forward an ambitious and interesting thesis, which I think deserves more engagement from the anti-authoritarian left than this rather defensive response at New Left Project. To try and compress Curtis’s already over compressed argument into one thesis, he identifies the idea of a self-regulating homeostasis as a widely accepted common sense of our times, and one which makes it difficult for us to think about changing the world, either about what such a change would mean or what the role of power would be in accomplishing such a change. That New Left Project response is right to point out other traditions which influence the anti-authoritarian left and have more to say about power and radical change, but this doesn’t negate what I think Curtis is trying to do. The ideological assemblage he puts together has a certain coherence, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be exhaustive, I don’t think he’s denying that there are other elements which could be assembled in other ways.

This does, though, raise a problem with the documentary, and indeed with Curtis’s work more generally. I think he’s doing this kind of Foucaldian tracing of discourses, but I’m basically guessing, because he’s not very explicit about what he is doing. There are various things about the way the program is put together that imply certain things about the epistemology, although they’re also rather contradictory. Curtis’s signature method, the construction of a documentary largely from archive footage some distantly, some closely related to the point being made, emphasizes the intellectual configuration being constructed is partial. In particular, building the program around juxtaposition tends to push against interpreting the relationships between the elements as causal, which of course is emphasized by the jumps in time throughout the program. Read the rest of this entry »

Commodity fetishism and object liberation

A wooden box containing a wine glass, an egg, a bubble pipe, a map of the moon, and other objects.

Do Joseph Cornell's boxes imprison objects, or liberate them from use?

One of the criticisms of object-oriented ontology which has some currency is the suggestion that it is a form of, or a philosophized alibi for, commodity fetishism. I don’t want to violate the rigid Leninist discipline of AUFS by coming to OOO’s defense here, but I think this criticism is likely to mislead us about commodity fetishism. In fact, object-oriented philosophy might provide a way of analyzing commodity fetishism which we could use to provide a Marxist corrective to the banality of much leftist critique of reification (such as that of Axel Honneth).

The kind of critique I have in mind is one that sees the problem of capitalism as the “spread of the inert,” the way in which the growing concern with inert objects harms human intersubjective relationships . This line of thought tends to lead into a moralizing critique of consumerism in which the problem with capitalism is our over-absorption with consumer goods (with revolution being, presumably, the symbolic violence towards Ikea furniture in Fight Club). Read the rest of this entry »

Kicking the archefossil

It’s brave of Meillassoux to begin After Finitude with the argument from the archefossil, because it’s such a terrible argument. Indeed, Meillassoux admits that it is a terrible argument, which the correlationist will have no trouble dispatching; the reason for this, though, is that the discussion of the archefossil isn’t actually supposed to be an argument at all. When I first heard of it, it seemed to be a strange updating of Johnson refuting Berkeley by kicking a stone, with the curious addition of a complicatedly constructed hypothetical stone. But that’s not really how the discussion of the archefossil is supposed to work: the archefossil isn’t supposed to present an example of brute reality and thereby disprove idealism. It is presented and refuted as such during the course of the first chapter, but this argument is really preparing the ground for the real use of the archefossil, which is not to prove something about reality, but rather to raise a question about the relationship between thought and reality.

The point of the example of the archefossil is to “raise the question of the emergence of thinking bodies in time,” which is also “the question of the temporality of the conditions of instantiation, and hence of the taking place of the transcendental as such” (25). The archefossil is an example of ancestrality, but the real problem of ancestrality is, if space and time depend on thinking beings, how would we understand the fact that thought first arose at a specific space and time? However, this is only a question at all if there was indeed a moment at which thought first arose, that is, if thought and being are fundamentally distinct. Meillassoux accepts this inasmuch as he points out that ancestrality is only a problem for the transcendental idealist, not the speculative idealist; but he does not consider that this ancestrality is, for the same reasons, not a problem for the materialist, either. Read the rest of this entry »

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