I am tired
I am tired of taxonomies of alterity, as if they were a substitute for difficult discussions of history and social activity. I am tired of questions about how oppression functions and oppressive relations are constructed being left unanswered by words like “structure” and “power”, as though the answer were either a concept or beyond description. I am tired of suffering being adopted as a legitimation for positive accounts of subjectivity that differ little from the old idealism. I am tired of the idea that one might be closer to utopia when one is entirely powerless (that is not to give up on the powerless judgment, but to say that it might sear through society, it might destroy and disfigure, rather than partaking in screaming self-effacement.) I am tired of the presupposition that relations without domination are always immediately possible, and that some theory class for grad students in art school reconciled subject and object. I am tired of the notion that those who are oppressed think better because of their oppression: as though every self-destroying struggle for survival ought to be preserved positively as unquestionable practical know-how. That’s not to say that oppression teaches nothing, but it does not lead directly to an image of freedom (do not pass go, do not collect £200). I am tired of the idea that we can or ought to just do away with whatever seems ethically objectionable, as if that were ethical (not because the world is a nice place, but because the transformation of society must also be the transformation of history if it is not to also be annihilation.) In short: I am probably too tired to argue about any of this.
Preliminary remarks on the death drive
When you put a potato in the oven it forms a hard shell to protect itself from the overstimulation of the heat. This much I have extrapolated from Freud.
"Such a shame that owls aren’t mammals. Imagine how much truth there would be in owl cheese."
"Mass unemployment is the greatest of all the modernist projects."
(This is a slightly frivolous Benjaminian piece I’ve written for a little book on negativity. Obviously fudged some questions about secular and cyclical crises and the state, to make an old point about history/determinism/voluntarism/crisis.)
“The concept of progress has to be founded on the idea of catastrophe. That things just go on as they currently do is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what is in each case given.”
— Walter Benjamin
In the final moments of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung a new generation of humans stands mutely facing into an empty future. The architecture of the old order lies in ruins; the flames of an all-consuming fire lick around a derelict world. The old laws of the gods are dissolved, their contracts unbound. The magical gold that once conferred universal sovereignty is returned to its protectors in the murky depths of the Rhine. To bourgeois revolutionaries, the appeal of such catastrophic imagery was founded on the notion that freedom would emerge from the wholesale destruction of tradition. But despite the beauty of a fire that obliterates all that exists, it illuminates only a textureless void, filled with people who have nothing left to say and no ground upon which to act.
The image betrays a secret of capitalism’s own historical relations. Whilst wealth within a capitalist society might appear as an immense accumulation of commodities, such an image explains little about the tensions within the great pile. Commodities do not just sit neatly next to each other, but attempt also to destroy each other. On the market one commodity attempts to outmode another. In this sense capitalism is truly revolutionary: every production of the technically new desires at the same time a destruction of that which preceded it. Every new commodity gazes into a future emptied of the past, each imagines its power to destroy other commodities indiscriminately. Each commodity relates with abstact negativity towards others. In the bourgeois fantasy of a catastrophic revolution nothing more is played out than the perpetual process of commodity production. Capitalism’s ideal commodity, its true revolutionary, would provide its consumer with a perfect freedom, abolishing all other commodities. Catastrophe is the dream-shape of capitalism’s inner history. But no commodity is a true revolutionary. In the very abstractness of its negation of other commodities, each one finds itself commensurate with the others. Capitalism’s dream-image of catastrophe will always remain unfulfilled by the immanent movements of capital. Instead through the abstractness of that negativity its destructiveness is hypostatised into capitalism’s concept of history: one of progress towards freedom in the invention of each new commodity.
The dream of freedom within the commodity will never be fulfilled because capitalism’s concept of freedom through progress is coextensive with the progressive technical and intellectual domination of nature and humanity. Precisely those commodities that are supposed to provide human beings with freedom are worked up out of humans and nature. The promises of freedom are produced through the determinate unfreedom of labour in the capitalist mode and human alienation from nature, both internal and external. Is the muteness and the stillness, the inability to act, of that new generation not as much an image of unfreedom as freedom? Do they not find themselves alienated from a world dead and burnt to a cinder? And alienated too from their own history? In the bourgeois image of catastrophic revolution these two processes conjoin: It contains both the universal mortification of humans and nature, and the destruction of old capitals which were once produced out of that mortification. Capitalist progress is not merely the murder of human beings but the forgetting that they ever existed: the ripping of value from their bodies and its subsequent pointless destruction.
If these two capitalist historical relations appear in contradiction – the mortification of nature against the dream of human freedom – then they are most irrationally synthesised in the productions of capitalism in crisis. In the twentieth century capitalism in crisis would find its resolution in world war and Holocaust, a danse macabre of junking, death, and industry. The capitalist dream of the destruction of the bondage of the past converges with the image of a world that is so absolutely deadened that it can be transformed into commodities without resistance. Today not even that promise remains: the age of mass-industrial warfare is over, so capitalism in crisis dreams only of universal extermination.
The shoots of recovery grow withered. We live within capitalist crisis. Our situation in history is characterised by the tailing off of profitability and living standards over the last forty years, alongside the sudden financial quakes of the last seven years. The crisis of capitalism is identical to a crisis of labour; the crisis of profitability for the bourgeois is the reflection of a crisis of unemployment for the proletarian (although one loses only his capital, the other her life.) Both capitalists who desire a return to growth and socialists who desire a return to employment demand that the progressive history of perpetual catastrophe continue ever more violently. But the contradiction of capital and labour is not to be solved by the overcoming of capital by labour. The rhetoric of crisis is understood by socialists as a moment of subjective intervention, as a cue to mount the stage composed of capitalism’s self-produced rubble. Crisis has been misunderstood by socialists as a moment of weakness for capital. Certainly it is a moment of weakness for capital’s constructive aspect, its need to grow and to accumulate; but crisis is at the same time a moment of strength for capital’s destructive aspect. Cyclical crisis justifies the mass junking of defunct capitals. To side with either its constructive or destructive aspect is to be outwitted by capitalism’s own cunning. Instead the revolutionary must struggle to transform human activity in its release from capitalist history, and to transform history in its release from capitalist activity.
If communists have rightly refused to attempt to “fix” the crisis, they have not yet rid themselves of the notion of a purely subjective intervention. Many attempt to imagine a subject who fulfils the role of the great destroyer, a Brünnhilde who will set alight the world before plunging even herself into the blaze: the unemployed and absolutely subaltern who plunder the world in the last moments of its extinction. We require a conception of catastrophe as a counterpart and counterpoint to crisis in order to undermine the subjective idealism of such an image. Ultimately this idealism discovers a subject in crisis who is already free. But to this subject is left only wrecking and wandering, abandon and abandonment. Historically she is the most unfree, doomed to follow the world into darkness and oblivion, unable to act historically.
The conviction that humans may still act historically is the convinction that such free subjects do not yet exist. To imagine them is also to deludedly fantasise away the objectivity of the history of capitalism, or to imagine that this objectivity has already fully consumed itself in crisis. The objectivity of the history of capitalism as it imposes itself as the conditions of historical action on the subject is nothing but the dead and petrified labour of the past, the wrecked and wretched attempts to master nature in toto. Capitalist objectivity is a ruined landscape of dominated nature. The revolutionary force that might redeem the world is the bringing to consciousness of this landscape; it is the subject’s reflection of its deathly affliction, of its own objectivity, from the catastrophically already-too-late. The revolutionary subject does not confirm the fate of the past, allying herself with capital’s own dream of freedom in its destruction. Instead, the revolutionary subject is to rescue the past from that fate in the recognition of her own unfreedom (which appears ideologically as her freedom from the past.) Her success rests on the recognition of capitalism’s own concept of history as one of catastrophe.
Walter Benjamin wrote in a fragment towards the end of his life that, “the course of history, seen in terms of the concept of catastrophe, can actually claim no more attention from thinkers than a child’s kaleidoscope, which with every turn of the hand dissolves the established order into a new array. There is profound truth in this image. The concepts of the ruling class have always been the mirrors that enabled an image of order to prevail. – The kaleidoscope must be smashed.” Every capitalist catastrophe perpetuates catastrophe. But in the truly revolutionary act, in place of a future imagined as an empty void, fragments of colour and mirror and glass fly chaotically through the air. Catastrophe is subverted in revolutionary action. Released from the bonds of order, and from the bounds of concept, refracted through shards of the past – dynamic, sharp and colourful – the world is illuminated in a new spectrum. History is redeemed in its brokenness, for its brokenness is its truth, rather than a justification for its destruction.
Scattered Notes on Jameson’s Talk
No doubt that Jameson’s talk at the CUNY Graduate Centre will be watched by loads of people in the next few days. Here are a few critical notes that I’ve thrown together in the middle of the night immediately after watching.
Ok, some late night quick - and probably incomprehensible - critical notes on Jameson’s talk which is now rapidly doing the rounds - or at least a failed attempt to say something that isn’t some old-fashioned Marxy grievance (of which of course one might have many.) Of course I don’t really know much about utopian studies, but I’ll give it a go and maybe we can get a proper conversation going (where the old-fashioned Marxy grievances will be equally welcome.)
1) There’s something strange about the history being given: it is significant that Jameson will choose the wholly unsuccessful Fourierian Utopia against the Saint-Simonian one (which although it fell apart when the whole thing explicitly became a church and Enfantin went off to find a female messiah in Egypt, had some big effects on the 19th century.) I should probably say that my memory of this history is fuzzy because I last thought hard about it two Christmases ago when I read all the saint-simonian lectures while getting very stoned and quite drunk. And occasionally I try to think about it when I read The Arcades, but not very hard. Anyway, this omission is significant because precisely all of the complexities of finance capital - and particularly its relationship to the state - are not, as Jameson suggests, a product of neoliberalism etc, but instead are the afterlife of the Saint-Simonian project. That is, this must, I think, be posed as a question of the role of banks and finance capital in relation to the state that is formed as the second empire - and the attempt to imagine an integrated utopia in this form without also thinking about the relation of those utopias historically to financial instruments is deceptive.) That’s a complicated question and a complicated historiography I’m posing, because when Jameson talks about the renationalisation of the banks he underestimates, I suspect, something about how integrated utopias in this sense must think about debt and credit relations. Since the saint-simonians they envisage their futures (which was played out in France not only during the second empire but indeed through the third republic too through to WWI) in terms of an integration of any future future through credit relations. That is, he underestimates the inevitabe decoupling (or strictly privatisation) of credit systems that are really at the centre of the history and historiography of saint-simonian thought from the state that they claim to be able to integrate and perpetuate. I think one could probably find some criticism in Benjamin along this line - that these utopias do not escape what Benjamin calls a Schuldzusammenhang - a context of debt - but instead offer redemption only through redeeming and repeating cyclically within such a context. To be cheeky one might even think of Keynesian counter-cyclicals as the full capitalist rationalisation of the saint-simonians’ own historiography of alternating periods of order and disorder, here regulated by a fiscal credit imaginary that is able to fully integrate the future. That is, even in its most rationalised form, it is unable to realise what it imagines (as we see since the 1970s). That Keynes begins the his theorising with his Tract on Monetary Reform with its preface directed to the French state (God, it’s been years since I’ve read this so I don’t remember clearly) at the moment of the end of the saint-simonian dominance in banking is maybe a history worth fleshing out. You get the idea. It’s late at night.
2) I should continue in the trend of degeneracy of explosive slogans into advertising slogans, into bankruptcy - a line that started once with Breton’s “Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all”, which by 2011 has become “Our feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit” and now I add my own, even lesser 2014 attempt, “utopia will be DISINTEGRATIVE and just or it will be fascist.” I am caught on the moment of Jameson’s lecture in which he talks about a moment of nihilism - about the people’s right to drug themselves into permanent oblivion. Might it not be interesting to pose against this a more radical, perhaps more serious thought: will people have the right to die? And what will those rights be like? Is the injustice in this situation not the dehumanising limit of all integrative utopias? See Adorno in the Meditations on Metaphysics on this question.
3) One last point that caught my attention. Jameson touches on the creation of a psychoanalytic bureaucracy that would at once suggest positions of employment for people in his utopia, and at the same time offer a universal group therapy (although one imagines such a group therapy would be totally alien to someone like Wilfred Bion!) Should I add my name to the list (Reich, then Adorno) in suggesting we go an look back at Freud’s Mass Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego. This is the point in Freud’s oeuvre where he considers an analytic of the psychical structures of the army, and maybe it’s worth saying just two things. Firstly any type of psychoanalytic group therapy aimed at sustaining an integrated utopia of the army would involve something quite the opposite of most therapy, that is, the mass weakening of egos. (we can have an argument of whether psychoanalytic treatments for narcissism exist and how that might interact with this question.) This is of course radically anti-Freudian, but then Jameson knows that when he would pick Rousseau on state-religion against what Freud says in The Future of an Illusion. Obviously the mass weakening of egos by a bureaucracy - even in the name of therapy - is a troubling position. This leads then to an account of what is meant by fetish in Jameson’s talk, which is something like the combination of what exists in Freud’s study of the leader and his ideal object. The question is this: is Jameson not unreasonably hopeful that the leader and the object stand opposed to any catastrophe that befalls civilisation rather than either identifying with it (regression in the psychoanalytic sense) or in fact instantiating it (fascism.)
Anyway, those are probably all too quickly vomited out to make any sense, but maybe we can have a discussion.
7 thoughts buzzing around my head about arts and humanities research at 6am this morning
1) It is striking how deep the will goes to fulfil idiotic demands from the state. I know of no single department in the UK that refuses to submit Research Exercise responses. In almost every department these exercises are a major consideration in hiring staff too. In every department there are people taking on managerial roles with responsibility for these things. We need to find ways of letting anyone who does this know that they are enemies and that we intend on destroying them.
2) The impact agenda is a means of measuring arts against sciences. It is no surprise that arts do badly, in that we don’t make medicines that save lives etc. There are two options: either we take seriously the idea that the arts and humanities can be involved in the total transformation of the world and the redemption of history (that we should say that’s what we’re up to on impact forms; including the raising of the dead and the transformation of historic suffering into eschatological justice); or, the arts and humanities should withdraw absolutely from participating in any of these measurements.
3) Participating in state strategies for measuring impact and the like is all part of a race to get one’s hands one a meagre amount of funding. Currently state funding in the UK in the arts and humanities is equivalent to the turnover of a single medium-sized university. It’s a race we should refuse to participate in, and those who continue to do so should be left to rot.
4) The institution of secondary literature ought to be abolished immediately. People who believe in sustaining it ought to be punished by being forced to read it. This is made more urgent by the current frameworks in the US and the UK (alongside the conditions for getting permanent academic jobs), which require enormous amounts of publishing, usually of very poor material.
5) The situation of thought in the arts and humanities is strange. In the last last 40 years, extremely far left and critical ideas have prevailed (my God, if one thinks of the extreme right one finds Foucault.) We should have no qualms about saying that we understand that people are given the opportunity to do research because of what they believe (rather than the myth of “being good at research”), and that this in general is in no bad thing. Just that the problem is the things you have to believe in to get a job these days are professionalism, publishing, management, shininess, arse-licking, etc, all of which run directly counter to the widely-acknowledged best thinking in the arts and humanities. This is a contradiction worthy of exploitation.
6) Fundamentally no-one has time for research. Everyone should be extremely explicit and public about the research that can’t be done under the current conditions.
7) It seems that one of the only options left for serious thought in the arts and humanities is outside of the universities. We should be starting conversations about counter- and anti-institutions. They should not take the form of the ridiculously bourgeois EGS/Birkbeck Institute for Humanities/Global Center for Advanced Studies and other ridiculous over-priced pseudo-critical finishing schools for hipsters run by already highly-paid professors. They should involve teaching courses to friends too, and learning from friends. Even a bunch of stoned people in a shed are capable today of producing critical thought far more advanced than most of what is said and done in universities.