“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, August 15, 2008


I know that kind of man
its hard to hold the hand
of anyone
who's reaching for the sky just to surrender

Amie, in the comments, writes that she has a question about my last two posts about the image of the limited good:

“It relates to the question of time and when wishes still "worked" and the limit where they seemingly went away - for good. Did they ever, "really"? I wonder if there is not always a non-contemporarity of time, a multiple and disjointed time, in which wishes and hopes still hold sway, return and burst forth.”

This is an excellent question, in as much as it makes me realize that I might have given a too hasty impression, in the last two posts, that I’ve seized a key to all history or something. My goal from the beginning has been to make it possible to ask the question: why did happiness take on the tripart form of an emotional norm, a judgment on life, and a reference that justifies political and economic arrangements? And all the themes I have been pursuing have been related to both making that question possible – that is, attacking the notion that man self evidently wants to be happy and human social structures self-evidently are judged on whether they facilitate happiness – and showing how the self-evident came into being. I’ve wanted to avoid a totalizing history – which means that I don’t think I can explain everything by simply showing that one set of dominant economic attitudes or practices gave way to another, or one episteme gave way to another – because, well, the time in which wishes still work is still part of our time – that is, as the past in which wishes still worked and the future in which wishes will work again. In fact, the triple function of happiness both occludes and supports itself on a disjointed sense of time.

To put this in terms of my obsession of the month – the war between enlightenment and superstition – that superstition is perennially being driven out and perennially coming back should warn any historian against taking his or her periodizations as natural laws, or stages in some predetermined, unalterable progress. Zatorski’s article (from my August 6 post), which gathers together several of Lichtenberg’s comments about superstition, nicely binds together the notion of discovery, science, and the peculiarity of the “again” – the Wiederkehr:

“The philosophy of the common man is the mother of ours, out of his superstitions we make our religion, just as we make our medicine out of his home remedies.” Even the concept “science” itself is observed to be highly unclear: “Where in the past one found the borders of science, we now find its middle.”

This demands a high degree of judgmental foresight. A quantum of distrust is evidently indispensable, but this means, at the same time, a certain distrust against dogmatic laws of reason. One would rather “neither deny nor believe.” For even the offerings of “rational” philosophy is nothing other than a treaty of peace that has come to stand “in the “counsels of men” – “superstition is itself a local philosophy, it also gives in its voice.” For this reason, even reason must remain continually conscious of the relative and time conditioned character of knowledge. Thus it would be adviseable to be very careful in labeling certain beliefs as superstitions, because what counts as such today can be transformed tomorrow into a serious theory: “There is thus a great difference between believing something “still” and believing it “again.” To still believe that the moon effects plants betrays stupidity and superstition, but to believe it again shows philosophy and reflection.”

Foucault’s Les mots et les choses has been both a great help to me, figuring out the 17th and 18th century, and a great target. In MC, he writes, in the section on exchange, something which I’ve pondered a great deal:

“Une réforme de la monnaie, un usage bancaire, une pratique commerciale peuvent bien se rationaliser, se développer, se maintenir ou disparaître selon des formes propres ; ils sont toujours fondés sur un certain savoir: savoir obscur qui ne se manifeste pas pour lui-même en un discours, mais dont les nécessités sont identiquement les mêmes que pour les théories abstraites ou les spéculations sans rapport apparent à la réalité. Dans une culture et à un moment donné, il n'y a jamais qu’ une épistémè, qui définit les conditions de possibilité de tout savoir.”

“A monetary reform, a banking protocol, a commercial practice can very well be rationalized, develop and maintain itself or disappear according to its own forms; they are always founded on a certain knowledge: obscure knowledge which doesn’t manifest itself for itself in a discourse, but of which the necessities are identically the same as for the abstract theories and speculations without apparent relation to reality. In a culture and at a certain given moment, there is never more than one episteme, which defines the condition of the possibility of all knowledge.”

I have to kick against this. In order to make this claim, Foucault has to systematically diminish the moments in which abstract theories, or real practices, are openly self reflexive. Knowledge isn’t just endlessly productive – that is, one discovery after another founded on a certain obscure knowledge – but it is also controversial. That’s why superstition is so important – here you can see that there is, in fact, more than one episteme, and that the past is not quietly and submerged, to form an archaeological strata, but persists and returns. Thus, Foucault’s emphasis on representation as the dominant episteme of the classical age simply doesn’t explain the strategic aspect of the enlightenment – there are no other powers at play, here. Self reflection leaps out of philosophy and into real life when it becomes apparent that there are other powers at play. One shouldn’t shy away from self reflection out of Hegelophobia.


Anonymous said...

LI, well I am glad that I asked that question since it led to an amazing post. Even if my comment was very poor, as I couldn't really trace what I wanted to follow. Strangely enough it had to do, among other stuff, with the question of Wiederkeh and that of the Unheimliche, and strangely enough both these words or concepts or what have you have become so very domesticated in theoretical and pop discourse, even if they are not easy to translate. Anyway...

À une raison

Un coup de ton doigt sur le tambour décharge tous les sons et commence la nouvelle harmonie.

Un pas de toi, c'est la levée des nouveaux hommes et leur en marche.

Ta tête se détourne : le nouvel amour ! Ta tête se retourne : - le nouvel amour !

"Change nos lots, crible les fléaux, à commencer par le temps" te chantent ces enfants. "Elève n'importe où la subtance de nos fortunes et de nos voeux" , on t'en prie.

Arrivée de toujours, qui t'en iras partout.

-A.R., 1871


roger said...

I have to disagree, Amie - your comment wasn't poor, but precisely to the point. LI all too often wanders, raving, through corridors of mind forged gibberish, but our commentors are almost always pretty goddamn superior and keep us on track. Which is heartening - we feel less like an isolato and more like a member of some small but distinct community.

Chuckie K said...

Three day weekend. Expired comment. I had a question tangential to Amie's, but as always somewhat more vulgarly inspired. In as much as a way of producing determines horizons for conception and imagination, wouldn't it do so for all the participants? Say in the Middle Ages for the aristocracy as well as the peasantry? So while showering, I asked myself what were the analogies of 'effective wishes' in the courtly narratives.

Some are just wishes, like the headlight on Iwein's horse. Some are exterior sources, almost wishful, like Sivrid's acquisition of the dragon's treasure. And some are the good old standbys, like marriage, murder and war. The limited possibilities of extended production and excluded intensification. And still staples of commodified narrative.

Chuckie K said...

Or was that Erec's horse? They have all melted into one undifferentiated tale. I suppose the senile softening of memory is a blessing.

Chuckie K said...

Another thought that had escaped me. For the European peasants in in the era of non-self-expanding wealth, the thorough interpenetration of the 'political' and the 'economic' would also have been the commonsense. Wealth would not have so exclusively meant 'stuff' like it does now. The wish as inherent response to the institutional mechanisms of coercion by force?

roger said...

Good points, mr. CK - but, although this sounds strange as a comment on my defense of Hegel, I don't think this can at all be true: "In as much as a way of producing determines horizons for conception and imagination." I do think the system of production - with its multiple routines and their effects - definitely produces a way of making sense of social phenomena - mana, happiness, efficiency - but I think that "determines" is much too strong a word. Perhaps determines where the major points of conflict will be - until it doesn't. Which is why I guess I get back to my objection to ideology, which was fought through via LCC and Amie's post. Let's see, how to put this - on the one hand, ideology is a great term to talk about conventional wisdom and what can and cannot be discussed. Yet it holds inside this odd hierarchy of recognition - the intellectual, the savant, the scientist, the Marxist activist, the businessman, these are the recognizers of ideology, and their moment of recognition is one of not only of ownership, but of creating a very familiar hierarchy that has a very mysterious origin - since it isn't quite clear how they make the leap to that moment of recognition. That leap seems to defy, for a certain class of people, the iron laws of determination. Often, for the left, this leap is made in deference to the masses - if they only knew their real interests! which, I think, is a way of avoiding the reality of the real masses.

In the case of the Image of the Limited Good - it is that defiance by the aristocracy of that image - its sovereign exteriority, its predation, its seizures - that are the guarantees of its charisma. And that pattern holds, actually, with the leap to the moment of recognition of the managers, the intellectuals, the political activists - while conceding, even basing their ideas, on this notion of what is determined, they are from the outside, the exterior.

As, you could say, is this humble/not so humble writer of the critique of the happiness culture...

roger said...

Sorry for this sentence, with its rather misleading anaphora: "In the case of the Image of the Limited Good - it is that defiance by the aristocracy of that image - its sovereign exteriority, its predation, its seizures - that are the guarantees of its charisma." Better - In the case of the Image of the Limited Good, it is the aristocrat's defiance of the "horizon" laid down by that image - and the aristocracy's seizures, predation, and exteriority - that are guarantors of its charisma, and its charisma. Charisma is the gift of the exterior - the gift from the exterior, however conceived. God, the devil, the muses, the spirits, the market, rationality, the popular will. It is a long and winding list.

Chuckie K said...

'Determines' - via Hegel = reciprocal relation. You could paraphrase 1/2 my claim as, provides the material on which imagination and reflection work. Another 1/2, the more ramified the media, provides the tools with which to work.

On ideology, although Marx almost always associates the 'label' ideology with the specific entailments of the commodity fetish, he also attaches it to the writings, in the broadest sense including legislation etc., of a society. His newspaper writings are rife with the critique of these forms of ideology. What it takes to recognize ideology in that sense is also an investigative reporter.

Or a class-conscious worker. Marx wrote for workers in order to provide them with the analytic tools to understand their enemies and their enemies' tools. Like publishing Wage-Labor and Profit, first presented as lectures to the League, in the Neue Rheinische, to ground the analyses in the paper. I think Marx' concepts make more sense if we take them in their practical contexts.

Anonymous said...

CK, very pertinent and interesting comments. I have a question regarding the last one. Before doing so, let me say, you are way too nice to say that I'm not vulgar, as in many ways I'm about as vulgar as they come.
I appreciate your comment stressing the practical aim of Marx's texts and his investigative writing. Though, you will perhaps agree, that Marx is not the only one in history to write with the view point of effecting practical effects. Of course, there are people and very learned ones who can write luminous dissertations on German philosophy but will open a can of sardines upside down. I don't want to say that it annuls the dissertation or makes them into "bad people", but well it does make a bit of a mess. All the more so when the mess is on a crazy inverted and dancing table that one has difficulty putting right side up, on its feet. Well, I'm not going to open the can of worms re the commodity fetish, though maybe I should say that I don't know how to close the damn can, the worms are everywhere. There's a line In Buchner's Lenz that you probably know, which goes something like - to quote from memory - he only regretted that he couldn't walk on his head.
Which gets me to my question. It relates to "educating the masses". I don't want to be glib about this, as how can one can not appreciate many people who tried to do such and paid dearly, women among them, such as Rosa.
But what is it with Mr. Man showing up in a factory and telling the workers what is best for them and what they do not know. And by extension this model would apply to children, savages, illiterates, foreigners, women, etc. Is it really the case that these people have no ideas, hopes, desires, etc., of their own? Are they mere "matter" to be formed and molded? And what if they said, we regret not being able to walk on our heads?


Chuckie K said...

Mr. Man showing up the factory? Marx went and joined workers' organizations everywhere he went. He did grunt work. He learned from the working men he did politics with. He worked in democratically run organizations where his cothinkers were not in the majority (for example, Owenites and Chartists in the British branch of the International, Proudhonists in France). He consistently followed that dictum in the Manifesto about the communists (small c back then) not separating themselves from the movements. In turn, his working class comrades placed him in positions of responsibility. Let's call it reciprocal relations. His comrades determined him as much as he determined them.

Not to run on, but my blurt yesterday recalled one of my favorite travel experiences. I was spending a few days in Marburg. One sunny afternoon I was sitting on the bench in small triangular Platz and heavily trafficed intersection. I was reading the Bild Zeitung. A panel van with three construction workers pulled up, one of them jumped out and hustled into a store while his buddies drove off around the block. He came back out of the store with three bottles of beer. While he waited for his Kumpel to get back, he looked around and noticed my paper. He walked over and ripped into me. "Look at you. College student. Probably think you're some kind of left. Reading that fascistoid press." Started to lecture me on Springer. When he wound down, I explained, no, I'm an American, and I'm reading Bild because you cannot understand German politics without understanding the political economy of the press and how Bild advances the interests of reactionary sectors of the ruling class. That explanation satisfied him and for a couple of minutes we could pursue those topics until the van pulled up, he hopped in, and they drove off to drink their beers.

That's a political milieu I yearn to live in here some day. Ah well, time for some data entry.

Anonymous said...

CK, thanks for your response and sharing your story.
I'm afraid that my question might have been not a little off the wall and badly formulated. But your comment does have me thinking of reciprocal relations and determinations.
And your story does bring to mind a few encounters I've had with construction workers in various cities, while walking down the street. Not always as pleasant as yours, though like you it made me think and hope for a different world.
Anyway, thanks again.