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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Marx and Forster

“Post history is inhabited by men who believe in “good causes”, in “man”, in “society”, in many other hypostases. But, it is ruled by a mocking (and perhaps transcendental) being for whom all is material, interchangeable, exploitable – a perpetual manipulator who invents forms and throws them away, who quickly tires of common materials and is always looking for untried ones, who excavates the rain forest of the Amazon and drills pack ice to add flavor, an exotic aroma, to the kykeon, the broth served in the Mysteries.” Roberto Calasso, The Ruins of Karsch, 249

In the chapter on History Experiments, Calasso makes a run at the great theoretician of “universal history”, the moment when man overthrows god – the theoretician named Marx. Marx is the most explicit exponent, Calasso thinks, of the modern moment, which consists of the recognition that there are no limits to man’s domination over the world. This is the moment of universal solidarity. And whether it is the capitalist system or whether a socialist system succeeds it, whether the working class seizes the means of production or simply seizes the occasion to demand fatter retirement benefits, underlying the Marxist schema is the overthrow of the human limit. We are become as gods, and the gods fall shrieking, then, to the earth, and end up in full length Disney cartoons, to finish their weary existences.

“Marx speaks of post history when he mentions the passage from ‘history’ to ‘universal history’ – an experimental phase of history in which everything forms a single body, in which nothing is external to society and everything acts on everything else, as in the resonant primordial cosmos. Its empirical foundation is the world market, since this market is an escape – an exit with no possibility of return – from Borniertheit, from local narrowness. The world market reinvents a kind of fate (just as post history in general reactivates all the archaic categories, which now apply to a reality that inverts the one in which they were created).”

LI was just going to translate some of Georg Forster’s essay, but we first wanted to draw a line, show that Forster is part of a “stem family”, to use the sociological term for a nuclear family over a number of generations of descent, in which one finds Marx too. From the world circumnavigator to the prophet of universal history, things line up with an eerie symbolic and mythic resonance, as though we were dealing with the fates indeed. Not only, of course, would Marx have been aware of the revolutionary generation of Germans – that small band – but Hegel was, of course, vividly aware of Forster, partly by reason of Caroline Micahaelis. That woman, like one of the princesses of Priam’s house, made her long way from the fall of Mainz to the center of German intellectual life, in Jena, in the 1790s, where she sat in Schlegel’s household, conversed with Novalis, and kept in mind the things that she had learned at Forster’s table – by her own account, the commencement of her political education –before divorcing Schlegel and becoming Schelling’s wife. Hegel, in fact, lived with Schelling and her for a year – lived in their house. And surely at some point the death of Forster in Paris, and his “errors”, as the Humboldts put it – verirrte Forster, the man who erred, the traveler whose meanderings didn’t form a coherent journey in the eyes of the shocked, retreating bourgeoisie, Caroline’s ugly man of private failures – who would know more what went down in Mainz than her? and public sublimity – must have arisen as a case for those Jena intellectuals.

And from Forster:

“The happiness of mankind is, according to the assurances of the Governors, the constant goal of their patriarchal concern. The most recent manifesto of the conqueror of the Poles breathes out this spirit and is guided only by this speech. I will not in any way cast doubt on its sincerity here. The confusion of turns of speech, as I have said in another place, is of course great enough; only on the words – happiness, truth, virtue, have our leaders now invested too much to seek whether they can help themselves without them entirely. Without this would the right of the Strong soon be a much too shaky prop for their domination. Even the robber’s final goals are quiet possession and enjoyment. If he finds the means, with his booty to return from out of the cave into the bosom of bourgeois society – don’t you think that he would end up presenting himself as the most jealous defender of its rights, as the strictest revenger of injured property? Anyway, penetrate the history of all revolutions, or for example only the most recent ones, and look how the jealousy of all the quickly succeeding parties, as soon as they grasp the ruder of the state, loudly rejects the bold revolutionary means by which they have made the people the instrument of their victory, preaching in favor of order, peace, obedience to the laws and immunity for persons and property – after the raging tribunals, the slanders, the accusations, the legal murders, the plunderings had set in motion the sacred insurrection.”


Anonymous said...

"Marx is the most explicit exponent, Calasso thinks, of the modern moment, which consists of the recognition that there are no limits to man’s domination over the world." Ha ha ha. Or conversely, as the first to recognize the possibility of change was the first to recognize the infinity of limits.

Chuckie K

roger said...

Mr. CK, I didn't mean to convey that Calasso says he was the first to recognize change. Actually, I don't think Marx himself would say that. The Manifesto is all about the changes wrought by the bourgeoisie, and they were not blind to what they were doing. But he was the the thinker who took that systematic change most seriously, I guess you could say, and in response tried to show how the system worked as a totality.

Anonymous said...

No, I'm making the claim about change. The bourgeois, I'll say for the sake of argument, largely saw their 'change' through the prism of Enlightenment, a morally superior equilibration of the eternal forces. Marx recognized qualitative change in the elements of systems producing qualitative change in systems.

Assuming I have a point, it might be the constant talk about 'limits' and the development of 'limits' in Capital. In the dynamics of capital 'limits' constitute opportunities. So, in effect, Calasso sounds like he's cherry-picking.

Chuckie K

roger said...

Ck, I'm not sure I understand what you mean by a morally superior equilibration of eternal forces. As If by equilibration you are referring to the equilibrium of the market - this was not a matter of eternal forces, as far as I can tell, but quite the opposite - a statistical event, rather than the balance of some power in nature. The latter is an older idea, related to the image of the limited good, I think.

Calasso has quite a bit to say about limits, Borniertheit, in the Grundrisse. I'm first going to do a post on Forster's essay on happiness, but I want to get around to this. Plus I'm gonna throw in some stuff about universal history from L'anti-oedipe just for fun.

Anonymous said...

In the Enlightenment - reason/superstition, abalance previously upset by venal machination. The diction of the 'market' is the threshold of those Ricardian 'socialists' who overlook production, identify justice and markets inherently, and still seek the perennial moral forces that pervert the market into injustice.

Chuckie K