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.

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