Sunday, 23 December 2007

Humane, all too Humane: A Marxist-Multiculturalist Pastiche on the Christmas Spirit and the Phenomenology of the Border


Stoke Newington Church Street a few days before Christmas: farmer’s market vibrant and bustling as ever, with yuppie couples, hippies, hipsters, pranksters, immigrants, students, and eagerly busy stall-holders smiling over jars of jam and crates of vegetables and cheeses and sold-out boxes with a few leaves of spinach clinging to the bottoms. A choir of carollers holding up a banner saying “Friends of SING for JOY: a choir for people with Parkinson’s: please give generously.” Across the street a Muslim lady in a full-face veil, all in black, walks by. Hasidic Jews, funky youngsters, artsy geeks, weirdos and town lunatics, couples with prams. I buy some jam and a chola bread and ask about the “PAPERBOY WANTED” sign at the Indian newsagent’s next to the market (aiming to supplement my meagre library income and push my solvency margin up); then stop off for some funky postcards in a second-hand bookshop advertising a large LP collection (Ocean Books) on the way to the Spence bakery, where I read a few pages of Ranciere’s The Future of the Image while sipping tea and munching on a pan di ramerino – a surprisingly tasty, chewy sweet pastry flavoured with raisins and rosemary. Next to me a seemingly mentally ill man sways back and forth while reading a book himself. Saying goodbye to the cute Italian girl working in the shop I leave, and dip into another second-hand bookshop next to Bridgewood & Neizert, the violin seller. While browsing the shelves I overhear the very English, stocky and balding, elderly bookseller enthusiastically relate to a lady of same age who has just walked in the story of Mersad Berber, a Bosnian painter and graphic artist known for his collages mixing paint on canvas with a variety of graphical elements, who apparently had an exhibition in London earlier in the year. He pulls a catalogue off the shelf and hands it to her, gasping at the prices of the works listed. My Bosnian parents knew Berber, and had a set of some very fine prints of his framed on the wall of our apartment in Cairo, years before. In the end I purchase four books: Jane Eyre, a recent Vintage edition of Homer’s Odyssey (the classic Robert Fitzgerald translation), Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, and Travesties by Tom Stoppard, a play whose main characters include Tristan Tzara, James Joyce, and Lenin, all of whom happen to have lived in Zurich during the Great War. Having just read Ranciere, I impulsively think of ways to link all these images together, to weave and cut out of these disparate elements a tapestry of co-presence...without a camera or any complex recording equipment, that is. Being composed of heterogeneous elements myself, I feel comfortable here. I want to record in language this moment, this snippet of history, immortalize a snapshot of this community of things placed alongside one another without common measure, this continual barbaric flow of the sentence-image in a heterogeneous industry of the mind that weaves together all the breaks and ruptures and disjunctions in a series of co-located images and presences.


It is with reference to multiculturalism that I part company with Žižek - at least the Žižek of Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth, who claims that although it is racist to demand an end to immigration of foreign workers who pose a threat to “our jobs”, “the influx of immigrant workers from post-Communist countries is not the consequence of some multiculturalist tolerance – it effectively is part of the strategy of capital to hold in check the workers’ demands.” (78) On a global scale, this simply cannot be the case. The fact that George W. Bush of all US presidents has done the most for the legalization of illegal Mexican workers is hardly telling – the latter event is not only overdetermined, its economic logic still rests on a fundamental exclusion and in no way entails any opening of borders, only the acknowledgment of a reality that must be dealt with, similar to a sober admission that it may be better perhaps to deal with existing drug addicts by providing rehab than by throwing them in prison. Moreover, the Bush administration has brought about the most extreme tightening of immigration policy and oversight in years - largely on the pretext of September 11, but as with the case of Afghanistan and (especially) Iraq, we should not be deterred from the conclusion that September 11 was, in the end, no more than that - a pretext.

The global position with regard to immigration is in fact quite the opposite – doesn’t the machinery of global capital at its most fundamental operate precisely by the imposition of borders and walls – not in the sense of economic protectionism per se but in the fluid contemporary economic logic of free trade zones, cheap labour, and global economies of scale? Isn’t the most basic indictment of globalization precisely in the fact that it is not true globalization, that it is unidirectional and does not comprise the opening of borders so much as a one-sided penetration of developing-world markets by the corporate conglomerates of the developed world? Beneath the surface-logic of a globalization premised on removing barriers to trade, there is a more elemental founding-logic concerned only with a different way or method of constructing barriers, one which maintains the status quo of global capital. It is not, after all, the threat of EU expansion and the hiring of newly arrived east-european workers that German automakers usually deploy in order to extract concessions from unionists in collective bargaining agreements; the key threat is the dismantling and moving of factories elsewhere, and whatever short-term benefits may be reaped by capital through EU-style expansion, in the long run the global picture would be one of neither falling nor rising wages, but one of an economic and juridical equilibrium which leaves no particular incentive to move production elsewhere. It is paradoxically and fundamentally not the lifting of barriers – economic, legal, political – but a specific technique in their imposition that functions to produce disparity and accumulate capital in the hands of an ever-shrinking global elite. It is in this register, in the struggle against the border, that the true economic interests of workers from the developed world are at one with those of workers from the developing world.

The problem of course is that any system of inter-penetrative globalization with clearly defined borders such as the EU nevertheless leaves a category of the excluded – its internal inclusiveness, however universal and expressed in the notion of ‘citizen’, is by definition a form of exclusion. ‘Citizen’ always implies ‘non-citizen’, and it is here that the fundamental paradox of the modern liberal state is to be found, the paradox of Herrenvolk democracy on which Losurdo, in the same volume as Žižek (Lenin Reloaded) expounds. It is this ultimate form of inclusion – the universal citizen of the liberal state with universal human rights granted without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, etc etc – that is also the ultimate form of exclusion, with no blurred boundaries, no indeterminacy: one is either in or out. Here we may recall as significant Badiou’s work with the sans-papieres in France…The mistake is perhaps in aligning multiculturalism with liberalism and ‘tolerance’. True multiculturalism is not about tolerance – tolerance implies a kind of grudging acceptance along the lines of ‘ok, you can live here, but…’ Real multiculturalism can be rendered neither by tolerance nor by the liberal notion of the citizen as put into practice…


Which brings us to Goethe’s theory of colour that so captivated Wittgenstein. (The link will eventually become clear) It has been claimed that Goethe would have rejected both the wave and particle theories of light (generated in classical physics by Huygens and Newton, respectively), asserting as he did that light refracted through a prism and as perceived by the human eye was not composed of different colours, but that colours were rather generated by the interaction of light and dark edges between reddish-yellow and blue-cyan. Darkness therefore is not the absence of light (rejection of the negative!) but is polar to and interacts with light. Most modern physics rejects Goethe’s theory; however Goethe’s is not so much a theory as an empirical account of how the human mind perceives light, and modern physics does not normally concern itself with how the mind comes to perceive ‘redness’ or ‘blueness’, but rather with the mathematically expressed mechanical processes that underpin our perception but are external to it, and do not have any explanatory power with regard to the human mind. Is this not precisely the Žižekian ‘parallax gap’ – the “confrontation of two closely linked perspectives between which no neutral common ground is possible” such as that between the brain as matter and the meta-substance of mind? Nothing about the ‘scientific’ notion of light as composed of different wavelengths disproves Goethe’s empirical account with regard to perception. Even if light is broken down into particular wavelengths that in some way relate to colours, is it not still possible that our perception of 'redness' is indirect; that the only two colours we can perceive as primarily arising out of light itself are those named by Goethe and that our perception of ‘redness’ is the compound result of a mingling of light and dark edges between them? (Goethe’s theory has in fact received some support from brain researchers studying human perception of colour and light.)

Moreover, doesn’t the quantum-mechanical paradox of wave-particle duality go toward restoring Goethe’s account to a certain extent, or in the least leaving breathing room for it? Light, according to quantum mechanics, is in fact neither wave nor particle, and all matter exhibits properties of both waves and particles. This alone indicates the possibility of a ‘parallactic real’ behind the visible phenomenon of light. An article in the 20 October issue of New Scientist (‘I’m quantum, therefore I am’) supports to an extent a suggestion I made in a previous post, vis-à-vis the structural homology between the Freudian psyche (as divided into conscious/unconscious) and space-time as expressed by mass-energy equivalence or E=mc2. According to a ‘quantum model’ of consciousness developed by Efstratios Manousakis of Florida State University, the ‘image flips’ performed by the human brain when faced with an ambiguous image (below – chalice or two faces) – the switching between two incompatible ways of perceiving the same image – can be explained by quantum mechanical processes. What has fascinated psychologists especially is the fact that the human brain cannot perceive both versions simultaneously: “a particle such as an electron does not have clearly defined properties. Rather, it exists in a multiplicity of mutually contradictory states represented by a wave function. It is only when an observer measures a property that the wave function collapses into one of these options.” (10) In Manousakis’ model of consciousness, the wave function is analogous to ‘potential consciousness’, while its collapse into one of a multiplicity of potential states is analogous to ‘actual consciousness’. The viability of his model even received some empirical support in experiments comparing the neuron-firing rates in brains of people taking part in ‘binocular rivalry’ experiments, and similar experiments on individuals tripping on LSD! According to Manousakis “the potential-consciousness state corresponds with our experience of the subconscious mind, which we tap into in dreams.” (11)

This on one hand brings into play Deleuze’s notion of the Idea and its actualization(s), while simultaneously buttressing Deleuze’s proto-Marxist claim that consciousness is by definition ‘false’, that it is always the unconscious that acts; and what we may take as Žižek’s corresponding claim that the nature of the real is ‘parallactic’. The real, as Deleuze again claims, is not actual but virtual. The unconscious or potential-consciousness state refers to the Idea or the real (virtual) which is therefore only fully perceived unconsciously; while actual consciousness, in being able to perceive only one of a multiplicity of potential-consciousness states at a time, is by definition ‘false’, given that the parallactic real (the Idea, virtual) is thus inaccessible to it. (Anyone who has ever watched The Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon in place of the soundtrack while stoned would get what I am talking about.)


Is this not the way to view what Žižek calls the ‘two faces of humanitarianism’, or what Agamben would (following Foucault) refer to as biopolitics-thanatopolitics? Isn’t humanitarianism the ultimate glimpse of an ambiguous or even antinomial ‘parallactic real’ that we may barely trace but hardly fully and consciously perceive in all its simultaneous and concomitant duplicity? In a talk at the Historical Materialism conference at SOAS last month, architects Eyal Weizman and Eyal Sivan expounded on precisely this element of recent developments in Israel’s occupation policy in the West bank and Gaza. Humanitarianism, according to Weizman and Sivan, has become a strategic category of Israeli occupation. They note several related phenomena in this regard, from the Israeli military’s co-opting of the language of humanitarianism and the incorporation of ‘humanitarian concerns’ in designing checkpoints, to the formation of a Humanitarian Division of the Israeli Defence Forces. Among the methods used in addressing ‘humanitarian concerns’ at checkpoints is the integration of a panoply of humanitarian staff, from representatives of Israeli human rights organizations to medical professionals from the Red Cross whose task is to vouchsafe that the same procedures carried out at these checkpoints in the past are carried out with the appropriate concerns in mind. One cannot help but recall Foucault – is this not precisely the transformation that takes place in European penal systems in the modern age: the incorporation of humanist ideals in the new technology of power, the slackening of the hold on the body and the attendant articulation of a ‘soul’ in the disciplined subject, the move from mere incarceration and physical punishment to the continuity of a whole network of institutions (schools, prisons, hospitals) and the introduction of doctors, psychologists, criminologists and other previously extraneous staff into the prison environment, which serves only to make the production of ‘docile bodies’ more effective and perfect the technology of power over the body to make it “the very principle both of the humanization of the penal system and of the knowledge of man”. (Foucault, D&P, 23) … “[T]he most important effect of the carceral system and of its extension well beyond legal imprisonment is that it succeeds in making the power to punish natural and legitimate…” (Foucault 301) Humanitarian organizations in Israel, as Weizman and Sivan put it, have as their goal the improvement of Israeli democracy, not questioning Israeli democracy. A complementary point made by Losurdo renders this even more starkly: “The international press is full of articles or attitudes committed to celebrating, or at least justifying, Israel…it is the only country in the Middle East…in which there is a democratic regime operating. In this way a macroscopic detail is suppressed: government by law and democratic guarantees are valid only for the master race, while the Palestinians can have their lands expropriated, be arrested and imprisoned without process, tortured, killed…” (245)

The lesson here is perhaps that humanitarianism as an ambiguous quantum-object of consciousness is not to be outrightly dismissed, but rather treated as such, as ‘parallactic’ – an ‘empty signifier’, or an instance of what Derrida, drawing on Plato, calls the pharmakon, in its poly- or equivocal function as both ‘poison’ and ‘medicine’; in Foucault’s terms, a discourse that functions as a ‘tactical element…operating in the field of force relations’, that can be used both by us and against us, both incorporated in the strategy of power-knowledge and in our own strategy of resistance to it. The answer is neither multiculturalist ‘tolerance’ nor the liberal melting-pot notion of ‘citizenship’; rather what is needed is a radical multiculturalism that entails a multiplicity of allegiances, an emptying and re-coding of the self, a dual participation in political and social life that embraces simultaneously the particular and the universal, a humanism that on one level goes beyond the liberal conception of ‘citizen’ and ‘state’, beyond even the simply human perhaps in order to capture the truly universal – a humanism, perhaps, that no longer calls itself humanism. To this end it would appear crucial to address what Balibar calls the ‘phenomenology of the border’ or what, following Foucault, he more specifically calls ‘the border as heterotopia’ – a place that secures the existing system of power in place, but also makes the confrontation with it possible – what I have elsewhere referred to as a ‘locating device’ akin to the polished bronze shield that enables the Greek hero Perseus to slay the Gorgon Medusa. Goethe’s theory of colour, as the empirical antidote to the scientific rigidity of classical physics, curiously insists that light refracted through a prism in human perception is not composed of the various colours, but that colours arise from the interaction of light and dark edges, at the margins or boundaries where the edges of the only two true or primary colours, reddish-yellow and blue-cyan, come close enough to overlap – differences (other colours of the spectrum) generated by the repetition of elements (two primary colours) drawn from a field of potentialities, as Deleuze would have it. This, then, may be a good starting point for a phenomenology of the border: to treat its exclusionary juridical legitimacy, the particular ‘colour’ according to which it includes or excludes, as ‘fake’ or an optical illusion – to see beyond all subsidiary or compound colours, beyond and through all conceptions of the ‘citizen’ and all particular citizenships and to fundamentally and a priori qualify all 'noble' political ideals that legitimate states and citizenships and revalue them through the operation of the two primary forms or ethical categories that distribute all borders and all citizenships: inside and outside.


Sunday, 25 November 2007

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ‘Disaster Capitalism’, PART 1

The Productive Unconscious, The Ahistorical Dialectic of Capitalism and the Second Law of Marx’s Virtual Thermodynamics

My love she speaks softly,
She knows there's no success like failure

And that failure's no success at all.

-Bob Dylan, ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit'

‘Let us beware of saying that death is the opposite of life. The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species.'
-Nietzsche, The Gay Science , aph. 109.

One of the key and most clichéd insights of Einstein's theory of relativity is known as mass-energy equivalence – the sum total of mass in the universe is proportionally equivalent to the sum total of energy, as expressed in the formula E=mc 2 , or Energy equals Mass x Speed of light(squared). Energy equals mass, in other words. The effect of this formula or one its most significant philosophical implications is that no mass can be created or destroyed; it can only ever converted from its ‘matter' form into a ‘pure energy' form; the only possible transition is from an ordered state of energy trapped in matter to a ‘chaotic' state of pure energy. Between ordered and chaotic mass, one can only ever shift quantities from one side of the equation to the other, and only in the direction of increasing entropy, which means that an isolated system will over time asymptotically approach heat death - the possible final state of the universe where no free or useful energy remains. This is the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the universal law of increasing entropy.

Do we not find in this positive equivalence a correlate of the Freudian unconscious? Could we not say that the two are ‘actualisations' of the same Idea, ‘cases of solution' emerging in different disciplines of knowledge from the same transcendental horizon, the same virtuality? In ‘mental life…nothing that has once taken shape can be lost…' Freud tells us. “We cannot forgo anything, but merely exchange one thing for another; what seems like a renunciation is in fact the invention of a substitute, a surrogate.” What appears to be an elimination of a thing present in the conscious mind is only the shifting of quantities from one side of the equation to the other, the ‘conversion' of contents from a conscious state to a (chaotic) unconscious state, where they are manifested only in a different form – the chaos of dreams, obsessions, anxieties... Adding to this Deleuze and Guattari's account of desire not as lack but a productive force (or Deleuze's account of the unconscious – ‘it is always the unconscious that acts' or produces real movement) we may generalize the process of sublimation and substitution as one of conversion into mental energy . The unconscious mind is pure, unordered mental energy not trapped in the ‘matter' of conscious rationality, mental energy in a state of productive-potential chaos.

This analogy is not meant to suggest that any local or concrete answer to the question derived from the problem posed by physics (i.e. ‘can entropy be reversed?') should tell us anything definite or concrete about the unconscious. But the correlation points to a definite characteristic of modern thought on divergent levels: its discovery, in various mechanisms and through diverse disciplines, of being as fully positive , a being of pure difference not conditioned or determined by the negative . “Opposition teaches us nothing about the nature of that which is thought to be opposed,” as Deleuze puts it. ( D & R , 256) Matter and energy are not opposites, but only two forms of energy (‘ordered' and ‘chaotic'), which together form a system in which one is progressively converted into the other; energy is not not-matter, for it is immanent in matter; and matter is not not-energy, since it is precisely the material form of energy; similarly, the conscious and unconscious, far from being opposites, are two halves of a symbiotic totality, between which ‘nothing is ever lost' – what is ‘unconscious' does not lack manifestation, it is only manifested in a different way ; (and this perhaps leads us by a side route to Foucault's critique of the ‘repressive hypothesis' in the History of Sexuality )…Therefore ‘conscious' is not the negative limit of the ‘unconscious', and vice versa – they are simply two different but non-opposing forms of manifestation of the mind's contents.

As a third case of solution we may add the dialectic in Marx's Capital – doesn't Marx (as others have claimed) transform the Hegelian dialectic based on opposition into one based on non-opposing differences ? And is not the relation of capitalism to socialism itself in Marx's account one of non-opposing difference, an antagonism not determined by opposition, the two forming instead a virtual (that is, neither historic, circular, nor inevitable, yet still real) continuity in which one is transformed into the other, not by way of opposition but by way of contingent ‘actualisations' of the Idea, according to its virtual content? One could argue that it is precisely the drive to opposition and the purely Hegelian dialectic grounded in the negative that keeps capitalism in position, that ‘freezes' the progressive development or ‘actualisation' of the Idea – among other methods, through the modicum of the democratic election. (In this sense, both the dialectic of Marx and that of Hegel are perhaps ‘forms of actualisation' of the same problematic ‘differential virtuality' or Idea and neither is historically given of inevitable, in spite of being real; and even if the latter, being within capitalism actual in the form of ‘consciousness', which is by definition false, produces only the illusion of movement…)

This may be precisely the key flaw of democracy, and precisely the reason why the choice we are presented with is often ‘false' (as yours truly suggested to Zizek at the recent Historical Materialism conference) – it is internally driven by what is, in Deleuze's terminology, the ‘false movement of [Hegelian] dialectics' – negativity and opposition. It is no coincidence that Scandinavian countries (who have a more ‘social' than ‘liberal' democracy), also tend to have proportional representation electoral systems, with a far more diverse political spectrum (and actual as such), rather than the UK and US (among others) ‘first past the post' system. Proportional representation, at least on the level of local politics, suggests a certain exclusion of negativity or simple opposition – every vote in principle counts and has a direct impact, there are no clear ‘winners' and ‘losers'; the parliamentary map is drawn more-less according to how the votes are split. In the ‘first past the post' system, on the other hand, the ‘dualism' that often results (along with the declining turnout rates, compared to the social democracies) is precisely the effect of the ‘first past the post' or ‘winner takes all' system – negativity and opposition, the principle of not-that .

It is this false movement or illusory transfer of power by democratic means that simultaneously ensures the continued triumph of capital with the support of state mechanisms, and the real transfer of power from the state to private capital. In an article in the October issue of Harper's , Naomi Klein, among other troubling revelations, points out one particular recent trend: the conventional wisdom has always been that war, natural disasters, major political upheavals, and the like, wherever occurring (but the closer to the centres of capital the worse) have a negative impact on stock markets and trade. One informal economic indicator known as the ‘guns-to-caviar index' illustrates this in the simplest terms: when sales of fighter jets (guns) increase, sales of executive jets (caviar) slump. “After September 11…the Dow Jones plummeted 685 points as soon as markets reopened…” But in the past few years the military-industrial complex has undergone such an extraordinary expansion, absorbing in its wake a panoply of related industries from private security to reconstruction and civil infrastructure construction and maintenance, disaster relief, transport, and a growing number of conventionally ‘state' operations (as demonstrated amply in the contracts doled out in the Iraq aftermath) – to the point that this is no longer the case: “…on July 7, 2005, the day four bombs ripped through London's public transportation system…the U.S. stock market closed higher than it had the day before…” This has been repeatedly confirmed since, in the wake of wars and disasters worldwide…This new development, debated extensively at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, has been termed the ‘Davos Dilemma', as summarized by Klein: “Put bluntly, the world was going to hell, there was no stability in sight, and the global economy was roaring its approval.”

Are we not witnessing the formulation by capital of a higher ‘rational principle' that turns a state of affairs into its very opposite, or that resolves the apparent contradiction between two terms, in this case ‘markets' and ‘instability/war/terrorism'? Certainly the very opposition of ‘market performance' and ‘war and instability' may have been false from the outset, but it was nevertheless actual in producing real-world effects. The movement of dialectics may be ‘false' but here it is nevertheless killing us (and now, and in the ages to come, literally so). Moreover, is it not precisely Hegel's point that the resolved contradiction is, all along, apparent or ‘false'? Isn't the notion of its own falsity already included in the resulting perspective - the Hegelian (capitalist) dialectic is precisely about this cyclic falsifying and unmasking of the false opposition in consciousness (‘boom and bust' economics comes to mind…); where it falters is in failing to see that consciousness is by definition 'false' as Deleuze claims. Therefore it is irrelevant what the particular terms are. As Deleuze and Guattari put it: “capitalism, through its process of production, produces an awesome schizophrenic accumulation of energy…it continually seeks to avoid reaching its limit while simultaneously tending toward that limit …[it] institutes or restores all sorts of residual and artificial, imaginary, or symbolic territorialities, thereby attempting, as best it can, to recode, to rechannel persons…Everything returns or recurs…That is what makes the ideology of capitalism “a motley painting of everything that has ever been believed.” ( Anti-Oedipus , p 37)

To recode, rechannel – is this not a consequence of Freud's dictum that ‘nothing is ever lost', that in the system of the unconscious, as that of space time, only conversion, sublimation, transformation is possible? It is only possible to recode the contents of the conscious as unconscious. And it is only possible to recode mass from an ordered to a chaotic state. The key question then becomes: how are these ‘cases of solution' interrelated, and what do they tell us about the virtual, the Idea they actualize?

In Asimov's story The Last Question , the question ‘can entropy be reversed?' is repeatedly posed over several epochs by various concerned individuals to a giant supercomputer that gradually acquires ever greater control over human life; the answer given by the omnipotent machine each time is that there is ‘insufficient data.' As the story progresses, all humanity is gradually transformed and finally sublimated into one big undifferentiated conglomerate bio-entity:

‘Man considered with himself, for in a way, Man, mentally, was one. He consisted of a trillion, trillion, trillion ageless bodies, each in its place, each resting quiet and incorruptible, each cared for by perfect automatons, equally incorruptible, while the minds of all the bodies freely melted one into the other, indistinguishable…one by one Man fused with AC, each physical body losing its mental identity in a manner that was somehow not a loss but a gain.'

To the very end the blunt mathematical answer given by AC is ‘insufficient data'. ‘Man' repeatedly instructs the machine to ‘collect additional data' until finally, “Man's last mind fused and only AC existed…in hyperspace.” Finally it is only at this stage, when all possible data is collected and no further actualisation can take place, in the ‘Absolute', that the calculation can be performed; only ‘all possible data' is ‘sufficient data' for all questions to be answered. Having thus learned how to reverse the direction of entropy, AC proclaims ‘"LET THERE BE LIGHT!" And there was light----'…

The subversively Messianic notion that triumphs here is neither historical necessity nor contingency, neither the one nor its opposite or negative . The absolute is not absolute – it is not an absolute finality , but only the completion of a phase (absolute only within itself), the total actualisation of an Idea that gives way to a new Idea. In becoming Absolute, the Idea annihilates itself and is no longer Absolute. The phase-transition (i.e. from capitalism to socialism) is, in a fully positive sense, neither necessary nor contingent but rather the ‘actualisation' of a ‘differential virtuality' (Deleuze) which in itself is necessary or real , even if never actually ‘actualised'. It is the Proustian ‘real without being actual, ideal without being abstract.'

Should this not tell us that Foucault's ‘analytics of power' is the true successor to Marx, being profoundly relevant in the present strategic geopolitical-economic map of the global system – does this not follow from Klein's account of ‘shock' or ‘disaster capitalism'? On one hand, the situation on the ground presents us with a ‘fragmenting of the biological domain' of biopower – the institution of ‘class racism' (involving doubly both the strict ‘racialization' of economic class, and the re-deployment of social effects of race - taken in the literal sense - in the construction of economic classes) inherent in, for instance, the growing implementation of systems where even access to essential services such as ‘disaster relief' is based on ability to pay (is this not a logical consequence of the privatization of state utilities?)…But on the other hand (and more importantly perhaps) doesn't the very encroachment of ‘privatization' and the exponential increase in the exercise of governmental functions or ‘governmentality' by private corporations (previously in schools, prisons, reconstruction contracts, and now even functions such as ‘interrogation', as in Abu Ghraib, and disaster relief) indicate that the ‘juridico-discursive' representation or ‘theory' of power is thoroughly outdated? What this shift proves is that power is not in the ‘state' or ‘law' or any particular institution to be targeted as a site of power around and which we should build long-term strategies, but rather it is

‘…the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization…the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them…Power is everywhere; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere…power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society…Power is not something that is acquired, seized, or shared…power is exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations…Relations of power are not in a position of exteriority with respect to other types of relationships (economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations), but are immanent in the latter…' ( The Will to Knowledge , 92-94)

Is this not precisely the reality of power-knowledge that Chavez is confronted with in Venezuela? He may have grabbed state power and have at his disposal all the key instruments of the law and state, all the elements of the ‘juridico-discursive' model of power; but something is clearly missing, and it is this that we must turn our attention to. It is here that we find the crucial difference between Chavez and Allende: in the global geopolitical landscape of the 1970s, the power balance inherent in the ‘strategic situation' on the ground still perhaps favoured the state. In spite of the economic downturns and slumps orchestrated by the masters of capital, Allende remained popular and gained re-election; no-one knew what would happen, and it became necessary in the interests of global capital to arrange a coup d'etat, and follow it through to the end. The situation today is clearly different: power, which is everywhere and ‘comes from below', has shifted away from the state; it is this that Chavez's kidnappers perhaps realized when they returned him to the people – this was not a ‘concession' in any sense, not a repentance and negation of a strategy, but rather a positive continuation of the same strategy by other means. (It cannot be a mere irony of history that Allende was overthrown under the direction of the last ‘realist' administration in Washington, while Chavez was ‘not-overthrown' under the most extreme neocon, neoliberal-interventionist administration of hawks to date…)

Far from being an indication that the discourse of democracy and humanitarianism is stronger today than in the 1970s, we should take all this to mean that, while this discourse has certainly proliferated, it has also grown ‘weaker', its true hold on power has lessened: those in dominant positions, with more power, are often the ones who are most insistent on the democratic discourse precisely because they increasingly exercise power from innumerable points and using ‘tactical elements' external to ‘democracy' itself, as such; in fact, one could even say, in light of the various hypocritical rhetorical deployments in the ‘war on terror' that even the discourse of democracy and human rights as deployed in the struggle is itself a tactical element external to democracy itself, to the democratic Idea…

The point at which the analogy between the Freudian unconscious, entropy, and Marx's dialectic (as mentioned at the outset) ceases may at first appear to be their respective directionality with regard to the question as posed by each in relation to their shared Idea: in a state of entropy the movement of energy is unidirectional (ordered>chaotic); in the unconscious according to psychoanalytic theory, however, it is not (what is repressed returns, or can be teased out, we are told); while the real status of Marx's dialectic on this point is unclear, but the answer appears to be that it is ‘virtual', and that therefore its progression is perhaps linear and unidirectional at the level of the virtual, but not inevitable – and therefore not linear and unidirectional - at the level of the actual. All three cases are nevertheless differenciations of the same Idea, actualisations of the same virtual content in different fields of enquiry, and appear on the same transcendental horizon.

The notion inscribed in the conclusion of The Last Question - is this not what we see at the end of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey? Does not Dave Bowman encounter a metaphorical 'heat death' in the monolithic alien universe he reaches through the Star Gate - progressing symbolically through stages of aging, seeing himself aging (Deleuze's "unconscious of thought" or "fracture in the I, which means that another always thinks in me...") only to pass through the final monolith and become the Star Child gazing at Earth? Is this final scene not precisely another form of Asimov's 'let there be light', the universal sky beyond the Absolute? The reversal of entropy at the point of 'heat death' which means that, as Deleuze (again) puts it, "In going from A to B and then B to A, we do not arrive back at the point of departure as in a bare repetition; rather...the description of the whole of a problematic field." (D&R 262) There is one crucial difference - in Odyssey, the human protagonist does away with artificial intelligence (HAL) before making the final step, while in The Last Question, 'only AC remains' at the end. This may be precisely the difference between Marx and Hegel: Man and Machine. Or, the virtual and the mechanical, the Idea and the negative or representation. ("There is no Idea of the negative any more than there are hypotheses in nature..." D&R, 253) Still, the point of both of these metaphors may well be this: from a fully universal perspective, a univocity of being that entails history, time, science, etc, but also fundamentally transcends these as ephemeral moments or actualisations of itself, nothing is ever completely determined; it is neither finite nor infinite but virtual , and every end is a beginning, even if what ends is self-contained: the entropy of a singular finite physical totality or physical system may be unidirectional , but this tells us nothing about the overall transcendental-empirical continuity of a virtual plurality of total or self-enclosed, isolated systems succeeding one another in a virtual time. The absolute is not absolute, and a totality is never total, or there is and can be no totality of totalities; each totality is only total as a self-contained system, fully immanent within itself without reference to any externality. The Absolute is a turning point, a completion of a system, not a final end of everything. The three cases of solution - universal mass, the unconscious, and actual human history - as instances of a virtual multiplicity may well be structured in the same way, actualizing the same virtual structure, different only in the timing of their epochs and reversals, their turning points: in universal time, in contrast to the time of the unconscious or the historic-actual time of humanity, reversals take place in a space of intervals far larger and within an actuality that may be too vast for comprehension, too large (neither finite nor infinite) for a thought limited by the negative totality of life-death, by death as the limit not only of being but of thought. The negative notion of 'Totality' (all opposed to not-all) may only be an expression of this failure to comprehend another totality that lies beyond, another positive sky beyond the sky that is our limit. We may nevertheless take as a starting point the question posed to universal time and re-transcribe it metaphorically into the other two realms (the unconscious and history): ‘can entropy be reversed?' Or, what strategies, and in relation to which tactical elements, are necessary in order for the sought after transformations to take place? Is it possible to formulate a resistance premised on the goal of pushing the system toward 'heat death' - and does this entail a turning point as its own annihilation in the Absolute? The question of the unconscious and that of actually produced human history are closely interlinked in this respect.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ‘Disaster Capitalism’, PART 2

Stuck Inside of Kabul with the Baghdad Blues Again: Terror as Desire and Bin Laden as Displaced Object

'Irene is a name for a city in the distance, and if you approach, it changes.'
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

It may not come as a great surprise that Paolo Coelho's cliché-crammed pop-intellectual novella The Alchemist
plagiarises a narrative poem by 12th century Persian Sufi poet and dervish Jalal al-din Rumi; the central theme of displacement in Coelho's story, duplicated with a precision that one can hardly attribute to coincidence, is fleshed out in a piece appearing in a highly regarded collection of ‘spiritual couplets' composed of six books known as the Mathanawi. Already the title of Rumi's poem - ‘In Baghdad, Dreaming of Cairo: In Cairo Dreaming of Baghdad' – poses the problem of desire, or of desire and its perpetually and by definition displaced object:

Either this deep desire of mine
will be found on this journey,

or when I get back home!

I will search for the Friend with all my passion
and all my energy, until I learn

that I don't need to search.

The knowing depends
on the time spent looking!

Does this not assimilate the notion of virtual objects as 'shreds of a pure past' which are "found only as lost" and "exist only as recovered"? The epiphany that I don't need to search is Deleuze's "Loss or forgetting here are not determinations which must be overcome...they refer to the objective nature of that which we recover, as lost, at the heart of forgetting." (D&R 127) And does it not also encapsulate the notion of learning as a process not subordinated to the result of knowledge, discussed in a previous post? The true knowing, and living (as Odysseus is told by Tiresias) is in the journey - the process, the ‘time spent looking' or striving after the displaced virtual object, not the fetish-object-result.

In Rumi's story, a man in Baghdad who inherits a fortune and quickly squanders it, hears a voice in a dream telling him to go to Cairo and dig in a certain spot where he will find his fortune. Deciding to pursue this fantasy, on reaching Cairo he is reduced to begging in the street for money. Soon he is picked up by a night patrol on suspicion of being a thief. He tells his story, and the night patrol man believes him, explaining that he had had the same dream, but dismissed it as foolish – with the twist that the night patrol's dream involved a site in Baghdad, which turns out to be the mendicant's own house. Is this what is meant by ‘acting in fidelity to the event'? This compound theme – in its Deleuzian/Buddhist incarnation (goal/fetish re-subordinated to process/virtual object) is also prominent in another mystical tradition, the Jewish kabbalah, which subversively substitutes the Messianic Biblical notion of the ‘world that is coming' with ‘the world that is constantly coming', a becoming whose Absolute is perpetually and by definition displaced in a universe in which God (a very different notion from the Judeo-Christian God as a ‘concept of understanding') is not a static being, but itself a dynamic and perpetual becoming: a concrete universal (‘Idea' or the virtual) perpetually actualized in its ‘cases of solution' or particulars – we must think of ourselves as ayin or nothingness..."forget yourself totally…if you think of yourself as something...God cannot clothe himself in you." This is Odysseus before the cyclops, pure concrete universality, pure empty space that opens the way for revolution. Dylan: “He not busy being born/is busy dying…” And Abulafia, one of the most prominent 13th century kabbalists of the ‘ecstatic kabbalah': the ‘soul' is part of the ‘stream of cosmic life' and the goal is ‘to untie the knots…free the mind from definitions, to move from constriction to the boundless…' Toward an ‘ecstatic truth' as Herzog puts it. Away from 'constriction' - is this not Deleuze's movement away from limitation and opposition, away from the negative? And toward the boundless - again Deleuze: "The world is neither finite nor is completed and unlimited." (D&R 69) The formulation of desire (Messianic, erotic, or otherwise…) and its unconscious-productive deployment is closely interlinked with a becoming premised on becoming, on the disruption of a fixed subject traced from representation and the negative.

In a lecture at the recent Historical Materialism Conference, Zizek made a passing remark that ‘capitalism no longer calls itself capitalism'. If this is the key to its success, is it not due to the full assumption of desire as a productive force? The Buddha exhorts his followers to ‘practice charity without abiding in the notion of practicing charity' – this is the only true charity, it is claimed. As an aside: this also provides a useful backdrop to Zizek's critique of charity, in relation to which he brings up the example of liberals who pay $20 a month to support an African child – this being merely another form of exclusion, for the point is precisely that the child stays ‘over there.' This is charity which does ‘abide in the notion' of charity; but contrary to Zizek's claim, it is clear that Buddhism does elevate some principles above others, and that this detachment from practice, rather than serving as an internal ‘complement' to capitalism, is a mode of functioning that can be applied externally to any ideology – more on this below…

‘Capitalism that no longer calls itself capitalism' is its most deadly form – the tacit power that practices capitalism ‘without abiding in the notion' of practicing capitalism. In this sense we should take the rhetoric of democracy and human rights not as mere disguise, an outrightly cynical perversion of the notion of democracy and human rights; for it is precisely by authentically ‘abiding in the notion' of democracy and human rights (in a consciousness that is by definition ‘false') and by just as authentically ‘not abiding in the notion of capitalism' that modern forms of power practice capitalism while slowly disabusing human rights and democracy of meaningful content. This is why the most faithful capitalists are the bible-thumping, flag-waving Americans who in their practice are neither very Christian nor particularly faithful to the Enlightenment credentials of the U.S. Constitution, but nevertheless fervently contribute to the advance of capitalism. Does this not also provide us with another way of understanding Chinese capitalism – as the product of (not) practising Communism while abiding in the notion of Communism, thus subordinating the struggle to the object of desire, subordinating action or real movement to representation?

The ‘war on terror', like its predecessors - the ‘war on drugs', the Cold War – by positing an unattainable object as its goal operates precisely within this mode of desire, and for this reason even most critique of the ‘war on terror' is misguided. Bin Laden is the displaced object – by definition displaced and never captured, or if captured, substituted. The capture of this object should therefore not be our goal, any more than it is the true goal of those who are purportedly after it. The hypocrisy of the ‘war on terror' is supposedly in the practical impossibility of attaining its ‘true' goal; one cannot eliminate ‘terrorism' we are reminded, it is just as futile as fighting a ‘war' on any other generalized social or political problem such as ‘drugs', ‘crime', etc. But this reasoning misses the point, for as Foucault demonstrates, vice

‘may have been designated as the evil to be eliminated, but the extraordinary effort that went into the task that was bound to fail leads one to suspect that what was demanded of it was to persevere, to proliferate to the limits of the visible and the invisible, rather than to disappear for good. Always relying on this support, power advanced, multiplied its relays and its effects, while its target expanded, subdivided, and branched out, penetrating further into reality at the same pace.' (The Will to Knowledge, 42)

Is this not precisely the logic of the ‘war on terror', and is it not precisely this lesson we should draw from the ‘failures' in Iraq and Afghanistan, in light of the recent surge of ‘disaster capitalism' as documented by Klein? The underlying rationale (beneath all superficial economic and political motives) of the relatively sudden shift away from the war in Afghanistan to the totally unnecessary war in Iraq can be seen in exactly these terms – as a way of avoiding the ‘limit' or ‘goal' for fear of exhausting its productive potential, a way of ‘advancing and multiplying power' by expanding its target. There is no military over-extension here, and Iraq was no failure – it is a resounding success in the project of preserving global capitalism by ‘fragmenting the biological domain' and extending the commodity form to violence and destruction itself – vectors of geopolitical time once received as market depressants, now re-instated as forms of commodity on which the market may indeed capitalize.

Rather than critiquing the hypocrisy or stupidity of this situation we should be learning from it and formulating our own strategy of resistance on precisely this ground, on the logic of desire, but (following Deleuze) desire as a positive productive force rather than a negative lack: contrary to Zizek's critique of leftists who ‘bombard the system with impossible demands'. For is it not precisely in this way that the neoliberal hegemony maintains itself in power – by continually positing ‘impossible demands' or impossible goals derived from the ideology of liberal democracy (or, if possible, constantly re-formulating or avoiding their final resolution), whether on the political or the economic front, continually reasserting a set of basic premises which will never fully be met? The final conquest over ‘drugs' or ‘terror', or the final institution of a regime of liberal human rights the world over – these are on the one hand ‘empty signifiers'; but at the same time they are also much more than that: they are also vital signposts of objects of desire, signposts that continually reinvigorate and reproduce the neoliberal capitalist struggle and engender neoliberal revolutions (i.e. in the form of democratic elections where the result these days is increasingly irrelevant in practice)… The very success of the Iraq War – given the fundamental shift in the global economy's response to war, disaster, and instability, the massive outsourcing of government and the expansion of the military-industrial complex – may be in its failure, its persistence, its lack of final resolution. On the historical surface of things, Iraq is the new Vietnam. But below this surface, through the deployment and re-deployment of market strategies and technologies of power through a whole network of related processes, capital has transformed the very notion of ‘quagmire' into only another positive instrument of its proliferation. Indeed, ‘there is no success like failure'.

Are we not, then, like Odysseus (chided by Tiresias), too focussed on the goal, or on averting the actualization of capitalism's Absolute, instead of realizing fully how capitalism succeeds precisely by never attaining the Absolute (its full development, which would be the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat') but continually tending toward it – continually, infinitely seeking by an asymptotic curve to ‘avoid reaching its limit while simultaneously tending toward that limit'? Except that, unlike Deleuze and Guattari, we should take the latter not as an internal characteristic (or difference) of capital but only as a formal (external) guarantor of its success, and appropriate it for our own use: practice socialism without ‘abiding in the notion' of practising socialism by inverting the relation of goal and process, re-subordinating the goal to the process by positing the goal as the unattainable, sublimated object of desire. The key is in the process, in becoming, in the process of learning, striving – “if you see the Buddha, kill him” we are told; this is at once a rejection of representation and an exposition of the logic of desire. It is here that the only true opposition is found, as Deleuze claims: between the Idea and representation. The Idea (Buddha, Revolution, etc) is a virtual content that cannot be represented or ‘fixed' but only actualised in a becoming, in the continuous flow of presentations of the unconscious.

Any Buddha that we ‘see' is a false Buddha, in other words. The Buddha stands for a process that can only emerge on the inside - ‘power comes from below' as Foucault puts it. Is this not the Marxian logic of revolution? The revolution is not ‘spawned', but rather, it emerges in being through the development of revolutionary (un)consciousness in a fluid social context. And is it not simultaneously the logic of the kabbalistic ayin-‘nothingness' – we must become like ayin or ‘empty vessels' in order for the concrete universal (Idea, God to the kabbalists) to ‘clothe itself in us'. And even more broadly, or further, is this notion not present in a subversive way even in Christianity – in the sublimated pagan magico-ritualistic practice of ‘killing the God' from which Frazer heretically traces the crucifixion? (in The Golden Bough, and one should note, in very Foucauldian fashion, though predating the latter by about half a century) Any Buddha, any God, any Revolution that we ‘see' manifested or represented, is not the true one; perhaps Christ is then rightly decried in Canaan for being a ‘false prophet'; and perhaps Judas is indeed the true saviour, as Borges playfully suggests in a short story titled Three Versions of Judas…"God was made totally man, but man to the point of iniquity, man to the point of reprobation and the Abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the lives that weave the confused web of history...he chose an abject existence: He was Judas."

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love ‘Disaster Capitalism’, PART 3

The God-Suicide, or Unmasking the Fetish: How to Disappear Completely as Subject and Instigate a Revolution That ‘Will Not Be Televised’

‘Folk songs are evasive – the truth about life, and life is more or less a lie, but then again that’s exactly the way we want it to be…A folk song has over a thousand faces and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff. A folk song might vary in meaning and it might not appear the same from one moment to the next. It depends on who’s playing and who’s listening…’
-Bob Dylan,
Chronicles, (71)

That there
That's not me
I go
Where I please
I walk through walls
I float down the Liffey
I'm not here
This isn't happening

When Bob Dylan ‘went electric' at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the overwhelming reaction of his horrified folk fans was that he had shamelessly ‘sold out' to the establishment and ‘gone commercial'; and in a purely superficial sense this may well be true. But turning over the content of his work from the crucial period of the mid 1960s now in retrospect, one cannot help but wonder whether Dylan's fans missed the point entirely: the transition from folk-Dylan to electric-Dylan may well be a transition from the conventional or modern form of resistance to power to an even ‘higher' one; from the modern ‘protest' song or ‘fingerpoint' song form grounded in a politics of contra-diction and opposition, to a post-modern but also more profoundly Marxian politics of ‘subtraction' or as Deleuze puts it, ‘vice-diction' – a searching out of the true antagonisms, of real movement, a formulation of resistance informed by a Foucauldian notion of power as a ‘multiplicity of force relations…a complex strategical situation in a particular society' – a notion of power in which the negative and opposition are only secondary, and in relation to which resistance must move away from representation... (Asked why he stopped writing ‘protest songs', Dylan replies “All my songs are protest songs. You name something, I'll protest about it.”)

Is this not one of the most pervasive themes of Highway 61 Revisited , in particular the title song itself and ‘Desolation Row' – while the ‘folk' Dylan made a career out of ‘sticking it' to the folks in power, the Dylan of the ‘electric' era undertook to perform a gesture of ‘sticking it' to the whole of Western civilization. In both of these songs (and others to a lesser extent), Dylan goes through a kind of inventory of cultural motifs, clichés, icons, and figures, and in ‘Highway 61' in particular, what takes place is a flattening of the horizon, a reduction of these disparate themes and characters - from the biblical dilemma of Abraham to ‘Louie the King' to ‘the next world war' – to a plane of equivalences, expelling any whiff of taxonomy: it's all out on Highway 61.

At the close of the album, in ‘Desolation Row', a basic taxonomy is re-instituted: ‘Desolation Row' is a metaphorical space of true freedom or subtraction, a space of exemption from the binary politics of opposition, negativity, and false choices. Cinderella, Romeo, Ophelia, The Good Samaritan, ‘Einstein disguised as Robin Hood', ‘Dr Filth' (one can only suspect Freud), The Phantom of the Opera, secret agents, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, are all figured in. But as we learn at the end, these are not models but real people, and they are not 'representations' either; the narrative rather constitutes an exercise of a transcendental memory – that is, neither a contingent past, nor a reminiscence, but the pure being of the past as such, in which forgetting is “no longer a contingent incapacity separating us from a memory which is itself contingent: it exists within essential memory as though it were the ‘nth' power of memory…that which can only be recalled” ( D&R , 177):

…I received your letter yesterday…[]
All these people that you mention

Yes, I know them, they're quite lame

I had to rearrange their faces

And give them all another name

Right now I can't read too good

Don't send me no more letters no

Not unless you mail them

From Desolation Row

Faces ‘rearranged' and given other names – is this not Dylan's ultimate folk rebuke of recognition, a ‘superior and transcendent exercise the faculties', sentiendum, memorandum, cogitandum ? “Each faculty must be borne to the extreme point of its dissolution, at which it falls prey to triple violence: the violence of that which forces it to be exercised [ I had to rearrange their faces ], of that which it is forced to grasp and which it alone is able to grasp, [ don't send me no more letters…unless you mail them from… ] yet also that of the ungraspable.” ( D&R , 180) The ‘ungraspable' is then that which is outside the sphere of ‘Desolation Row' and which one therefore ‘can't read too good'… Here is a definitive refusal of recognition, and models are invoked only to be lambasted. In a courteous and understated nod to Dylan's folk fan base, the first verse of the song contains a fairly detailed but concealed reference to a lynching of three black circus performers in Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, Minnesota, at the time when his father was a child… But the subtraction from the ‘spectacle', or the spectacular aspect of such moments, comes in the form of a re-contextualization:

All except for Cain and Abel
And the hunchback of Notre Dame

Everybody is making love

Or else expecting rain

The effect of this gesture is an unhinging of the imagination from the paradigm, a prototypically Deleuzian overthrow of the original or model : the primordial fratricide of the first martyr (derived from the ancient Greek ‘ witness' ) by the first murderer, which in classical Western Judeo-Christian consciousness lies at the root of all human wars and conflicts and guarantees our cursed conflicted human fate, is here removed from centre-stage and reduced simply to a function of itself: two fellas called Cain and Abel are caught in the grip of opposition (hunchback of Notre Dame thrown in for good measure), but everybody else on the social-imaginative plane of Desolation Row, Dylan tells us, is just making love or…'expecting rain.' (different non-opposing activities) “Critiques of the negative are never decisive so long as they invoke the rights of a first concept…” ( D & R , p 253) We are not the slaves of the past, imprisoned in the paradigm; we are not children of Adam and Eve, or in any sense descendants of Cain and Abel, or of Isaac and Ishmael (from whom Jews and Arabs are mythically said to be descended) – we “shall not gaze backward, but outward… fugitives from all fatherlands and forefatherlands,” as Nietzsche puts it. ( Zarathustra , ‘Of Old and New Law-Tables') The false choices we are given, the false movement of dialectics in representation and negativity, are all crystallized toward the end:

Praise be to Nero's Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn

And everybody's shouting

"Which Side Are You On?"

And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot

Fighting in the captain's tower

While calypso singers laugh at them

And fishermen hold flowers

Is this not this Dylan's ultimate mocking gesture of resistance and refusal, a swell of Nietzschean laughter in the face of Western civilization's follies? Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, the two great modern poets, roughing each other up (opposition, false movement) in the captain's tower (Titanic, the ship of Progress) while calypso singers just ‘laugh at them…and fishermen hold flowers.' The power of Dylan's metaphors – disfigurations and rearrangements, transformative gestures of a ‘verbal cubism' – is in actualising an Idea without representing, in discovering (with Deleuze) the only true opposition: between the Idea and representation; between Desolation Row as Idea or virtual multiplicity and Cain/Abel as model, paradigm, representation; between the virtual/actual positive-positive and the represented positive-negative…

This shift in fact emerged in Dylan's oeuvre long before he ever went ‘electric' – it was present from the start in a subtler form, and in a sense even the opposition of ‘folk' and ‘electric' must be questioned. Among the series of harbingers on Dylan's last ‘folk' album, Another Side of Bob Dylan , we already clearly hear a burning evanscence of the positive in what may be one of the greatest love ballads ever written, in the last verse where Dylan's writing truly sets itself apart from just the ordinary love song:

Ah, my friends from the prison, they ask unto me
“How good, how good does it feel to be free?”

And I answer them most mysteriously

“Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?”

There is no illusory negativity here, no opposition, no freedom/unfreedom, only ‘actualisation or differenciation', only ‘difference and the problematic', only freedoms or intensities of freedom – only the sky, and beyond it another sky, and beyond it yet another, and so on, nothing represented, only repetition, the Idea, the problem or Idea in its fully positive manifestation; no negative, not even limitation as such , only the question (‘are birds free…?')…This is the “infinite power to add an arbitrary quantity…a question of a throw of the dice, of the whole sky as open space and of throwing as the only rule.” ( Difference and Repetition , 248) Even the title of the song, addressing its musical-thematic structure – ‘Ballad in Plain D' – rejects the opposition of major/minor, happy/sad: the nominal key is D major, but the strong insistence of a B minor chord in the structure relays a melancholy concatenation that Dylan appropriately names ‘plain D'. This is the non-(being) of difference – pure, internal difference - “the non-being which is by no means the being of the negative, but rather the being of the problematic”. Already here the post-modern fractured (non-)subject emerges, the ‘electric' Dylan whose continually shifting, acid-flashback, stream of (un)consciousness evolving identity with his post-Symbolist word plays and permutations (recalling perhaps the Kabbalistic practice of recombining letters of the Torah “…he just smoked my eyelids/An' punched my cigarette” in Stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again ) is perhaps a real-life exemplar of what it is in Marx that Deleuze holds over Hegel:

“…in Capital the category of differenciation (the differenciation at the heart of a social multiplicity: the division of labour) is substituted for the Hegelian concepts of opposition, contradiction and alienation, the latter forming only an apparent movement…to Marx, fetishism is indeed an absurdity, an illusion of social consciousness…While it is in the nature of consciousness to be false, problems by their nature escape consciousness…Social problems can be grasped only by means of a “rectification” which occurs when the faculty of sociability is raised to its transcendent exercise and breaks the unity of fetishistic common sense …revolution is the social power of difference, the paradox of society, the particular wrath of the social Idea… Practical struggle never proceeds by way of the negative but by way of difference and its power of affirmation , and the war of the righteous is for the conquest of the highest power, that of deciding problems by restoring them to their truth, by evaluating that truth beyond the representations of consciousness and the forms of the negative …” ( Difference and Repetition , 258-260)

Beyond the representations of consciousness, the forms of the negative, and fetishistic common sense : is this not precisely what the ‘electric' Dylan is after in rejecting identity, meaning, and representation, as at the series of well-publicised and controversial press conferences following his falling-out with the folk crowd – is it not precisely about harnessing and unleashing this revolutionary power of the unconscious to reveal the true antagonisms in rejecting the ‘fetishistic common sense' imposed by critics, journalists, and other determinants of popular culture? (When asked how many ‘protest singers' like him there are in the country, he mockingly replies ‘Oh, I reckon there are about…136.') Is not the post-modern decentring of ‘meaning' and the de-throning of the ‘author' – taken as a political project – precisely the way to go about de-fetishizing culture and revealing the social relations and interactions implicit in its creation? Meaning is a social relation or set of fluctuating social relations whose true internal structure is obscured by the illusion of a unitary ‘author' or ‘consciousness'.

And even further, isn't the modern fixed self or subject itself a form of fetishism that we should rid ourselves of? The claim has never been that the fixed subject is non-existent in any sense, only that it is (like the fetish) an illusion of consciousness. There is no ‘fixed subject'; but there is an illusion of the same which exists . By instilling a ‘soul' in the body, in the process of producing the ‘disciplined body' of the modern subject (Foucault's terminology in Discipline and Punish ), by concealing behind the individual a whole set of ‘pre-individual singularities' (Deleuze), isn't modern society essentially concealing the set of social relations that constitute the individual, which far from being merely those of the mother and father (Oedipus) extend to a whole range of social influences that constitute the individual whose by-product is the ‘subject' which in this sense is neither original nor fixed? The fixed individual is a fetish, a product of capitalist society and its law: the post-structuralist project taken this way may in fact be the ultimate culmination of Marx at its purest. The commodity-fetish and the subject-fetish are both effects of capitalist power-relations, not in the sense of law and obedience, but precisely as the exercise of ‘free' choices, of “new methods of power whose operation is not ensured by right but by technique, not by law but by normalization, not by punishment but by control, methods that are employed on all levels and in forms that go beyond the state and its apparatus.” (Foucault, 89)

The ‘electric' Dylan is only the de-fetishized, de-reified ‘folk' Dylan, – and in that sense, one could say, even more ‘folk', or ‘folk' in a more fundamental sense, beyond the superficial representations of musical forms and structures – ‘Dylan' becomes simply the skeleton, the ‘empty vessel', medium, or relay, a stream of continuous perceptions (in Buddhist terms), the focal site of undisguised social relations that constitute his ‘work'…The work of an author and its meaning, the author itself, the modern subject, are finally revealed as fundamentally determined at every step by a flux of social relations :

Q: Do you think that a lot of the young people who buy your records understand a single word of what you're singing?
Dylan: Sure…[mockingly]

Q: You reckon they do?

Dylan: Sure…[laughs]

Q2: Why do you say they do? How can you be so sure?

Q: I mean there are complicated songs, aren't there?

Dylan: Yeah, but they do, they understand them...
Q: How do you know they understand them? Have they told you that they do?
Dylan: They told me! Haven't you heard that song, um… ‘She said so'…What was the singer…[laughter]

Q: Would you say that you cared about people particularly?

Dylan: Well yeah but, but, you know, I mean, we all have our own definitions of all those words… ‘care' and ‘people'…

Q: Well, we surely, I mean we know what ‘people' are…

Dylan: Well, hm, do we?

Q: How would you describe yourself?
A: I don't describe myself. How do you describe yourself?
Q: I have no idea but I don't have to sell your talent.
A: Neither do I. Write whatever you like. I'm a tree-surgeon if you like.
Q: Why have you started playing rock'n'roll?

A: Is that what they call it?

Q: Are there times when you can't stand yourself?
A: How could that be possible? I don't know myself. I don't know who I am. There's a mirror on the inside of my dark glasses - otherwise I don't interfere with my own private life.

Is this revelatory blindness, this pushing of the conscious limit in order to develop the productive potential of the unconscious, the ‘unconscious of pure thought' – is this not precisely what is needed, what is lacking in the anti-capitalist struggle today, which ultimately takes itself a bit too seriously? (and this already in the anti -) Revolution as the actualisation of the virtual originates in (as the kabbalists put it) the ayin or nothingness that spawns being ‘from nothingness and being together'…In order for revolution (the concrete universal, Idea, God, Buddha) to ‘clothe itself' in us, we must think of ourselves less as subjects and more as ‘empty vessels' or ‘streams of continuous perceptions' – Deleuzian ‘flows'. At this juncture where the subject disintegrates, Dylan's gesture of defiance is not the killing but the symbolic suicide of the god , the fetishized ‘folk prophet' – and one by which we are all the more truly given the ‘folk prophet' as a profound gift, through his own self-revelation of this mythical figure as a fetish disguising social relations of meaning, a mask that can be worn by anyone – “everything I'm a' sayin'/you can say it just as good” as he puts it in ‘One Too Many Mornings'… Dylan thus appears at this juncture as simultaneously both Christ and Judas (an irony in light of the notorious accusation by an angry fan, we could here say ‘JewDas', after the name of one radical Jewish organization) – both ‘true prophet' and the ‘traitor' who exposes the true prophet as false; both fetishized mask and the empty redeemer who, by severing the mask from the face (only to reveal more masks), lays bare the profoundly unstable nature of identity, including our own. (And one should note here a marked distinction between Dylan's gesture and that of Nietzsche proclaiming himself to be Christ and Dionysos; for Dylan in actuality performs this gesture, or completes it in action, real time and real movement– he was idolized and ‘fetishized'; and he authentically rejected the idol-mask thrust upon him...)

When Deleuze and Guattari argue that capitalism continually strives toward its limit whilst simultaneously deploying complex strategies to avoid reaching this limit, are they not simply repeating Marx? The ‘limit' is the point when a fully developed capitalism transmutes organically into socialism; and the approach of this limit is perpetually delayed by, among other strategies, ‘ not abiding [fully] in the notion' of practising capitalism (in Marx's terminology, forgetting the social relations that enter into the production of the fetishized product), sublimating capitalist processes into the productive factory of the unconscious, and relating to the Absolute as an object of desire. By tying us up as fixed subjects – by producing our truth and thereby ‘constituting us as subjects' (Foucault) in a false dialectical game of opposition, ensuring our subjection - capitalist fetishism ‘freezes' its own virtual development and actualization. Is this not why American capitalism, being in ways more ‘primitive' than say, European or Japanese capitalism, is also in a substantive way farther away from socialism? Not to mention Russian capitalism, whose primitive state is a matter of course. (One could even argue that today's Russia is the site of not only a more primitive capitalism, but that its overall virtual-historical development has substantially regressed; and this perhaps because its progress under communism was too ‘weak', too forced and artificial…) With this in mind we can view the drive to ‘privatization' of the state a as form of ‘primitive accumulation', a ‘primitivization' of capitalism, and at the same time a form of historic regression to an earlier and more secure state of capitalism; within the neoliberal corpus, the drive to ‘privatization' emerges from its libertarian (in the American sense) component – and what is libertarianism but right-wing anarchism, both being based on a rejection of the state, and this not in the progressive, communist sense (the ‘withering away' of the state through the historical development of capitalism into socialism, communism, etc), but rather in a fundamentally regressive historical sense? (Bakunin was, after all, inspired by the idyll of Russian village life)

The Bolshevik revolution which undoubtedly would have disappointed Marx, was perhaps the highest or farthest that a politics founded on opposition and negativity could reach – it was a ‘fake' revolution…The true Marxian revolution would have to be Deleuzian, in the sense of becoming, the organic and positive traversal of the limit, and the searching out of new antagonisms not traced from negativity – and here Deleuze, Dylan, perhaps Debord (at least in his early phase), Buddha, and Marx are all on the same page, together with Gill Scott-Heron: The revolution will not be televised' . It will not be televised because the true revolution cannot be ‘represented' or consciously forced into being, it can only materialize to the extent that we forget our selves and release the productive power of the unconscious by ‘ not abiding in the notion'; and even ‘materialize' is already a form of representation which suggests a false negativity . It is only by ‘abiding in the notion' of practising capitalism in going about our daily lives, by being ‘conscious' of our participation in the capitalist system, by fully developing consciousness as such (which by definition is ‘false') and taking it to its own limit, thus eventually reversing the processes of fetishism, that we unleash the productive, transformative, revolutionary forces of the unconscious to inaugurate a new historical phase. ‘Abiding in the notion' of practising socialism, opposing socialism to capitalism, posing realistic goals, only ‘freezes' historical development. The point is to ‘not interfere with our own private life' as Dylan puts it – to ‘go electric', ‘kill the Buddha' (the revolution as constituted in representation and the negative ) and become an ‘empty vessel', become ayin ; to resist the fetish of the subject and resist our own subjection to capitalism by fully recognizing that it is here, at the very level of the individual subject, in its very constitution as such, as anything, that we are subjected – ‘power comes from below' as Foucault puts it. In order to grasp this, to take hold of a force that comes from below and is composed of ‘mobile power relations' we must ourselves become internally ‘mobile'…We must focus and re-centre on this below, on the very point where power is exercised and where our subjection is ensured, at the level of its “innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations…economic processes, knowledge relationships, sexual relations.” Instead of opposing capitalism with socialism, the aim should be to develop and transform the one into the other through the revolutionary power and wrath of the social Idea emanating from the chaosmos of the entropic unconscious. (It is always the unconscious which acts, as Deleuze puts it) The point is to ‘practice socialism without abiding in the notion of practising socialism' or 'socialism that no longer calls itself socialism' in order to drive capitalism through its own internal development to the entropic point of transition, its own annihilation in the Absolute – the serpent must eat its own tail. This is the lesson learned by Luke Skywalker in the finale of Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi – rather than succumbing to the temptation to confront the ‘evil' directly in a struggle of opposites, we must realize that the Force is fully positive and that ‘evil' is only an excess of the ‘good'; therefore by confronting it directly (except for the odd skirmish here and there) with our anger, we only make it stronger. Positivity and affirmation – just as Dylan said of his own success, when confronted by aggressive reporters demanding to know the secret of his rise to fame (“I have no idea…”) – the revolution will happen, if it happens, "like anything else happens."

Friday, 2 November 2007

My Back Pages: From Cogitandum to Learning, Becoming, and Revolution, or ‘How to Teach Subversively’

This was drawn up from notes made during and in response to Infinite Thought's lecture this Wednesday titled 'The Confidence to be No One: Class, Culture and Education (with some help from Rancière and Badiou)'; and the two pieces discussed therein, particularly Ranciere's ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster'.

‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.'
-Buddhist proverb

“Some people, if they don't know, you just can't tell ‘em.”
-Louis Armstrong (with reference, I am told, to what jazz music is…)

note 1: from the production of knowledge to the (internal) process of learning; taking Ranciere by way of Deleuze

The two aphorisms above (the first of which I once used in a university admission application) illustrate precisely the insight that I think follows from Ranciere's anecdote about the Flemish students whom he ‘educated…without having taught them anything'. The teacher is not a transmitter and does not transmit or impart learning and knowledge to the learning mind; all that is imparted is language, words, numbers, raw data. But the real process of learning, of thinking and grasping, is internal to the student – the ignorant schoolmaster is a figure who stimulates the formulation of an internal difference within the learning mind, the difference between ignorance and knowledge as the mind's own difference from itself, a difference internal to the student; thus instigating an act of becoming in the individual, a becoming-itself. The teacher is an instigator, a co-formulator of this difference, a figure who causes us to know but without any necessary relation (of equality or inequality) between the knowledge of the teacher and the student. What we are caused to know, in other words, the content generated in the learning process, does not necessarily come from the teacher. In this sense the ‘teacher' fills the pre-existing role (which does not have to be a ‘person') of what Deleuze calls a cogitandum – something in the world which ‘forces us to think', a kind of violent disruptor of established patterns and givens, something that sets us on a certain path to knowledge. In this sense learning in itself has nothing to do with any external equality or inequality, or equality becomes as Jacotot puts it, something that exists ‘in the act' and for individuals, rather than something that can be imagined collectively.

There is a Socratic undertone in this, but if so, it is the true Socrates, not the master and impostor who feigns ignorance to lead the student to an already determined and legislated truth, but rather the figure whose gesture (voluntarily or not) authentically embraces ignorance and knowledge - his/her own as well as the student's – as two poles of becoming, in which nothing or little is fully determined or legislated in advance. This is not to say that all possible knowledge is somehow mystically ‘inscribed' in our minds as Socrates perhaps suggests. Rather, the true teacher is someone who, willingly or unwillingly, relates us to our own difference from ourselves and thus inspires learning, inspires an act (or acts) of thinking and grasping, a real movement of becoming. This means to restore to the process of teaching/learning its original function, before the ‘radical point of departure' as Ranciere puts it, before it becomes a matter of explaining and comprehension and mere transmission of information – the original form of learning by which we learn ‘everything in life' before we are inducted into the formalities of institutions and institutionalized learning. The teacher only ‘appears' when the student is ready – that is, when the student, having fully internalized the ‘teacher', the cogitandum , the thing which ‘forces us to think', has formulated his/her own internal differential relation of knowledge/ignorance. What follows from this ‘exercise of the faculties' in Deleuze's account is the ‘apprenticeship or process of learning.' ... “learning always takes place in and through the unconscious, thereby establishing the bond of a profound complicity between nature and mind… We never know in advance how someone will learn: by means of what loves someone becomes good at Latin, what encounters make them a philosopher, or in what dictionaries they learn to think…There is no more a method for learning than there is a method for finding treasures, but a violent training…” ( Difference and Repetition , p 205)…

By means of what loves... – or as Bob Dylan puts it in ‘My Back Pages': “Girls' faces formed the forward path/From phony jealousy/To memorizing politics/Of ancient history…' The real problem is not to find a method for teaching ‘no one in particular' while remaining aware of class and other differences, nor to find a method for teaching everyone individually or according to ‘class', in the sense of finding in the case of each ‘student' the way he or she best ‘receives information' – but rather to establish precisely the connection between nature and mind, to open a gateway; not to impart any particular information but merely to instigate a process of learning, to inspire learning – to set the wheel in motion. This inevitably and necessarily requires an awareness of social background, class, as well as other differences – but not on the level of method or content , for these are things the learning mind discovers (and re-discovers continually) on its own; but rather on the level of building a learning relationship, a learning-instigating relation which, from the moment it is set in motion, operates according to its own internal method. This is, I believe, the lesson to be drawn from the anecdote about the ‘ignorant schoolmaster' that Ranciere draws from Jacotot. Any notion of method, if we can call it that, must be internal to the student or ‘apprentice', to the learning mind which finds its own way, both of learning and of expressing learning. Another (very Gramscian) Dylan-ism: “You don't have to write anything down to be a poet. Some work at gas stations, some shine shoes…”

But this learning, according to Deleuze must be conceived of as a process, and one which is not subordinated to the result , to the production of knowledge: “It is from ‘learning', not from knowledge that the transcendental conditions of thought must be drawn…knowledge…is nothing more than an empirical figure, a simple result which continually falls back into experience; whereas learning is the true transcendental structure which unifies difference to difference, dissimilarity to dissimilarity, without mediating between them…” ( D & R, p 206) We may recall Odysseus, who upon his descent into the underworld to consult the blind seer, Tiresias, is told off by the old man precisely for focussing excessively on the goal (of returning home), and forgetting that it is the journey itself that makes up his life... But is this not also that revolutionary theme again? One could rephrase it in these terms – the true revolution must be thought of as a process , whose value is in and of itself, in the doing, and which is not subordinated to the final goal , but rather vice versa: it is the goal that must be subordinated in order to serve the perpetuation and constant re-generation of the process, the real revolution rather than the result 'on display'...

note 2: class and the carceral in the role of social reproduction

It is also important to emphasize that the public education system is not the form by which the social order reproduces itself, but rather the form by which it masks its true reproduction by segmentation; and to draw out the real implications of the claim that the ‘logic of inequality is reproduced by the very effort to reduce it'. The school does not by itself reproduce the model of society, for at least two reasons: one, that the truly wealthy, those who truly rule society, have their own schools – private boarding schools or elite colleges, Eton, Oxbridge, etc. And they make no secret of this division. In France, for instance, all the top state officials, whichever side of the political spectrum they come from, are trained in the same schools - Paris(Sciences-Po, or Institut d'Études Politiques de Paris) and the École nationale d'administration ; and even before university, in elite private schools. This testifies both to the existence of a class of ruling elites quite apart from the public mainstream and to an exhibited, however tacit sincerity about its genesis. Nothing is truly hidden here. And what is more, within this particular class – the elite – the goal of equality within the class may well be genuine – the very purpose of establishing a separate system of education for the elite testifies at least to the sincerity, if not the realistic possibility, of this intention – to generate in all crucial ways identical members of a class-species, copies of a single prototype exemplary of a political ruler. Genuine equality – but within a (separated, squared off) social class.

But there is another reason why the progressive public education system is not the form by which the social order reproduces itself: educational ability or intelligence does not correspond to social class. In their bare form, wealth and capital reproduce themselves regardless of intellectual ability. The best example may be the current president of the United States – who certainly went to the best schools, but not on account of educational ability – he went to Yale, for instance, on account of the legacy principle – his daddy went there – and this after being rejected by a number of ‘less' respectable schools, including the University of Texas at Austin law school. What this should tell us is that the social and political power of the capital-owning elite – the real elite, the real top - manages to reproduce itself on its own terms, due simply to its power and wealth, regardless of ability and regardless of how the educational system propagates itself. Inversely, intellectual ability guarantees nothing – most often, those who come from the elite manage to reach the top in spite of lacking it, and those who are not of the elite remain below. This is the real problem, the deeper problem we should be addressing as a subset of the general problem of class…Of course, referring again to Dylan's comment above, some poets may be perfectly happy shining shoes or working at gas stations; it becomes a problem at the point when (conceptually, not chronologically) ‘lifestyle choice' becomes class proper, that is, not a lifestyle choice but an imposed order, social class , and when the not-necessarily-bright elites start to legislate (through capital investment or law/politics) ways of living and being for the gas-station attendants and shoeshine poets…

It is here that I think Foucault is more valuable – more stark, but also perhaps more empowering. His account of the school system (in Discipline and Punish ) includes it in the ‘carceral archipelago' which, along with other institutions of ‘normalization' serves to ‘transport the penitentiary technique from the prison to the entire social body.' Whether the school system reproduces society and its class differences openly or covertly, and whether or not there is a way to implement an awareness of this in teaching, the real target of ‘subversive teaching' to put it that way, should be (more directly and more simply, or to the bone) to unsettle this ‘normalizing' function, to subvert the project of ‘disciplining bodies'; one could even contend that an attempt to ‘teach to' social class (in the sense of deploying a ‘method') would be a mistake and would risk falling back into this normalization function by merely reinforcing the class element, reinforcing this ‘soul' (as Foucault puts it) instilled in the taught subject as the “correlative of a certain technology of power over the body.” ( Discipline and Punish, p 29) The goal of ‘subversive teaching', in other words, should be to build bridges – human relationships – in order to destabilize, de-construct authority, including one's own; to bring the learning mind to confidently ask questions and pose problems, to probe without fear of authority or mistake. To make learning desirable to the ‘apprentice' - to de-structure, motivate, instigate, deterritorialize…

*(on that last point, one thing my dad used to do when teaching Marxism to high school students was relate it to their personal concerns and interests – taking, say a superhero comic book someone is reading – Spider Man, for instance – and relate it to the bigger questions implicit in the storyline, the dialectical struggles, syntheses, etc…)

note 3: a powm

…one from Leonard Cohen:

'The Teachers'

I met a woman long ago
her hair the black that black can go,
Are you a teacher of the heart?
Soft she answered no.

I met a girl across the sea,
her hair the gold that gold can be,
Are you a teacher of the heart?
Yes, but not for thee.

I met a man who lost his mind
in some lost place I had to find,
follow me the wise man said,
but he walked behind.

I walked into a hospital
where none was sick and none was well,
when at night the nurses left
I could not walk at all.

Morning came and then came noon,
dinner time a scalpel blade
lay beside my silver spoon.

Some girls wander by mistake
into the mess that scalpels make.
Are you the teachers of my heart?
We teach old hearts to break.

One morning I woke up alone,
the hospital and the nurses gone.
Have I carved enough my Lord?
Child, you are a bone.

I ate and ate and ate,
no I did not miss a plate, well
How much do these suppers cost?
We'll take it out in hate.

I spent my hatred everyplace,
on every work on every face,
someone gave me wishes
and I wished for an embrace.

Several girls embraced me, then
I was embraced by men,
Is my passion perfect?
No, do it once again.

I was handsome I was strong,
I knew the words of every song.
Did my singing please you?
No, the words you sang were wrong.

Who is it whom I address,
who takes down what I confess?
Are you the teachers of my heart?
We teach old hearts to rest.

Oh teachers are my lessons done?
I cannot do another one.
They laughed and laughed and said, Well child,
are your lessons done?
are your lessons done?
are your lessons done?