Saturday, May 09, 2015

Gehlen on alienation, Marx, and instituted freedom

In 1952 the conservative sociologist (and literally, I should note, a former Nazi one of whose students, Fritz Arlt, was a key functionary in the destruction of Poland’s Jews) Arnold Gehlen published a famous paper entitled “Over the birth of freedom from alienation.” The paper had two goals. One was to establish the essentially idealistic geneology of Marx’s notion of alienation. Gehlen traces it back to Fichte’s notion that the I in actualizing and externalizing itself experiences some essential loss of control. That feeling of loss and the desire to reestablish total control of the ego’s activity is compared, by Gehlen, to the French revolutionary terrorist program to establish total control in order to have total freedom – except, as Gehlen amusingly puts it, Fichte was just storming the Bastille of his own head. The idealistic assumption about the total I, here, is then traced through its appearance in Schelling and Hegel up through Marx and, to an extent, Freud.
As Gehlen says, Fichte’s insight was a genuine idea – and genuine ideas are rare in philosophy. Instead of claiming that Fichte is simply wrong about the “I” and its self-activity, Gehlen claims that alienation, as it develops in German idealist philosophy, describes a genuine phenomenon. That phenomenon concerns a two-fold sense of the world: on the one hand, the feeling that “man” or some creator has constructed the world, and on the other hand, the feeling that the creator is in the power of the created. This feeling, of course, slips from man the collective to oneself as the individual, a part of a partial collective. This powerful explanatory schema was employed, according to Gehlen, by the next generation of left Hegelians, like Feuerbach, to explain and demystify religious belief. God, it turns out, is a perfect symbol of the alienation process at work: man creates God, and then reverses the relationship so that it is God, in myth, who creates man. That historical and intellectual reversal is, perhaps, the central property of myth. Myth in this enlightment sense is that which both perceives the power relationships implicated in the real and reverses them. Thus, myth cannot be dispelled simply by claiming that myth is a lie – an illusion is not a lie. It is a genuine phenomenon out in the world. Here Gehlen is content to point to how illusion is laid on the table and understood, freeing us from it. Myself, I think he could have gone further: it must be dissipated not by analysis, but by the movement of the angle of one’s vision. Analysis might convince one that what one is seeing is an illusion, but only that practical movement can dissipate the illusion.
But Gehlen isn’t just investigating the idealistic background of Marx’s comments in The German Ideology. He is also interested in Fichte’s idea on account of his own idea – that the human being characterized by a fundamental lack, which is at the nucleus of her or his consciousness. Gehlen’s philosophical anthropology might argue with the details of Fichte’s sense of the I, but not with the general structure. Fichte, according to Gehlen, characterized the lack of control to which the I is condemned as the realm of bondage, of unfreedom. Here’s the rub, for Gehlen: in fact, the dream of total control, of the identity, say, of product and intention, is not the highest degree of freedom, but instead an erroneous reading of what freedom is all about. As Gehlen puts it, in a rhetorical flourish that would gain the approval of any Cold War liberal anti-communist: “Whosever enthusiastically realizes the feeling of freedom and the great determnation of man, whosever wishes to live out this titanic relief into which this feeling streams, whoever in this thought feels his heart beating more strongly, will, by an enigmatic destiny, find himself becoming the pacesetter of the Guillotine.”
Of course, Gehlen’s words are harder to read if we put them against the background of the pacesetters of the concentration camp, like his former student Arlt, whose thesis comparing “Israelite” women and Icelandic women – to the advantage of the former – was passed right on through by his thesis advisor. But looking aside from this: Gehlen’s notion is that the moment of alienation is not a moment in which freedom is lost, but is, rather, when it becomes a practical reality. Freedom is never direct: Humans can to themselves and their kind only maintain enduringly an indirect relationship, they must take a detour, alienate themselves, find themselves, and for this purpose we have institutions. These are the clearly human produced forms, as Marx saw correctly, in which the spiritual, an even in its greatest riches and pathos an undulating material, is realized, is interlaced in the flow of things and is thereby able to endure.”

This perspective, which welcomes alienation, bears the distinct flavor the capitalist consensus of the time – when, of course, the mention of alienation could not be avoided. It lives on when alienation is no longer a word to conjure with – has been almost unanimously junked by both the rational choice right and the rational choice left.

However, I am suspicious of this junking, its motives and its function. I'll return to this another time.

Friday, May 08, 2015

the no alternative years

Labour  failed in the most basic ways. They had four years to develop a counternarrative, but instead developed a counter-excuse: "we were so austerian, as austerian as you!" Basically, if you can't capitalize on the reserve of good feeling for government agencies like National Health and the reserve of bad feelings for privatized agencies, like the train system (ooops, that dittoed under Blair), then you should not play ball.
There are good defeats and bad defeats. A good defeat is one that lays the ideological groundwork for the future. A bad defeat is one that leaves behind a wreckage of opportunism and users. The Labour defeat (why actually are they still called Labour?) is of the second variety. It was hard to care when, as was obvious months ago, they had succeeded in turning certain victory into defeat. Running on a blairite message of nudgery and sticking to austerity against a tory party that was also running on a blairite message, they lost lost lost. And then, too, there was the repulsive - to my mind - Milliband, who has the look and feel of an upper class jerk.
So why didn’t Labour hammer austerity? Well, you have to talk about why the Great Slump happened if you are truly going to hammer austerity. And that means you have to talk about the City - which were and are great friends of the Blairites. There is a stupid analytic habit of thinking of elections as separate events from the rest of the political flow. They aren't. By choosing to softpedal the problems caused by the City, Labour backed itself into a corner long ago. Plus, of course, they have to bear the burden of the insane and wicked foreign policy of the Blair years. Given these burdens, one had to mark Labour down as the underdog from the beginning. The excuse that it was mean old Murdochian media that put them down won't work - Labour's victories have traditionally come against the establishment press – the one exception being Blair, and we know the sacrifices that Blair’s endorsement imposed. To face that media attack requires being nurturing of a structure that can withstand it and attack back - organized labour – to create a counternarrative. Blair (whose victories were a disaster for Labour) carefully cut the tie to labour. While Ed Balls retreat on austerity was bad in the campaign, it was the symptom of a wholesale disintegration of the old labour structure. 
A good case in point is transportation. Have you ever ridden on a London bus or a british train? They are awful and much, much more expensive than theircounterparts on the continent.
But the thatcherism that Blair adopted and passed on to his successors disallows any discussion of the issue of privatisation - which was accomplished, in the UK, after the Thatcher government thoroughly trashed the service and maintenance of the nationalized train system. A simple populist program that would call for comparable pricing to the norm in the EU would actually have put money in the pockets of the wage class. But it would have offended the city, and the blairites, and so it can't even be spoken. Instead, the pledge was a process one of handing power over buses back to regional authorities and blah blah blah. It was typical of the thrd way style: a lot of boring process talk to get around offending the moneyed. 
I think this election is a premonitory of the next pseudo-left wipeout, in France. The PS has set itself up for one of those defeats it will be hard to survive. Unfortunately, we will have a rightwing Europe to contend with in the next decade. Unfortunately, too, it won’t look much different than if we had a pseudo-left Europe to contend with in the next decade. No alternative, once a slogan, is now a cancer.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

enough mass death, please

Excellent article about what is happening in Yemen.

It is part of the comedy of our time that the assembly in France is voting in measures to strip the citiizens of their privacy in the name of protecting them against "terrorism", when their foreign policy is directed towards flooding the Middle East with arms and helping the Saudis destroy countries like Yemen, thus creating the perfect conditions for terrorism. It is as if the government were promoting a strict quarantine of its citizens on the one hand while funding a petri dish firesale of toxins on the other hand.
When Ukraine split into two pieces, the former president fled to Russia, and Putin's Russia supplied the rebels in the East, there was universal condemnation from the bien pensants. There was even a comic conference of the usual pro war wankers, the BHL types, in Kyev. When Yemen split into several pieces, the former president fled to Saudi Arabia, a totalitarian country, and SA bombed the shit out of Yemen to restore him, without a whimper from the bien pensant crowd. The US jumped into the fray on behalf of those friends of democracy, the House of Saud, and have had a great time assisting with the dronage. Hmm, meanwhile, the outrage from the thumbsuckers at the New Yorker or the NYRB - the crowd that includes George Packer and Ben Judah, who froth every time Putin winks are busy doing other things - honing their TED talks, no doubt.
But I'm a wee little pee, not a Gargantua of liberal interventionist virtue. And I'm raising my wee little pea voice to say: stop bombing the shit out of Yemen! Immediate aid for the people, who are on the verge of an Ethiopian style famine!
I have long given up hope that the Western states are anything but the pawn of their plutocrats. But perhaps on this issue, the good side can win. Enough of mass death, please.

Monday, May 04, 2015

desperate characters

I am reading Paula Fox’s novel, Desperate Characters, and I’m grudgingly forking over the admiration. The grudging comes not because of anything having to do with Fox, but because of the backstory that the novel was “re-discovered” and republished due to Jonathan Franzen, who wrote an essay – always a venue for a Franzen ego-trip – about how good it was and that it was better than Updike or Bellow. Well, it is pretty obvious, given Franzen’s sexism, that he was using Fox as a proxy to say that he was better than Updike or Bellow – see, even a girl is better than those big boy writers!

I am reminded of Bellow – less of Updike – by the formal structure and scene of Fox’s novel. It is like Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet in that the novel takes the urban decay of NYC in the late sixties as its pervading scene.  The adventure is in the street, while all the stage setting takes place in various lengthily described rooms, where the party, the lunch, or the wait for a doctor takes place. Such staginess is, perhaps, endemic to life in the metropolis, which unfolds, for the prosperous, in a milieu of interior decorating and chatter. There is an ineradicable theatricality about such scenes, and Fox is extremely good at making it into novelistic. One should also note how of the times this is  – once you have established a standard of furnishing, the garishness and shoddiness of public space becomes all the more oppressive and threatening, all the more indicative of some catastrophic slip in the moral economy. J.K. Galbraith had already pointed out in the Affluent Society, which was written in the fifties, that underinvestment and undervaluing of public space was a creeping disaster in America. It was as though evidence of adequate funding would be taken by the middle class as an affront, since it would visibly use their tax dollars.  
Fox’s brilliant idea is to set her central couple, Otto and Sophie Bentwood, in a gentrifying neighborhood in Brooklyn. That mongrel of a word, gentrifying, hadn't yet started running around in the  vocabulary of the sixties,  but all the same we recognize the attributes, the the contact zone that, once established, allows Fox to play off public squalor and private order to the effect of undermining both the security and the virtues of the latter. Although Fox is evidently on the liberal side as a person, as we can see from one of her authorial interjections about a George Wallace for President poster, still, the pathology of the downward tending exceeds the perception of our well to do protagonists by enough of a margin that one feels more than a whiff of the Moynihan Report. The poorer residents do things like piss out the window, throw garbage on their front lawn, and kneel, drunk and vomiting, on the sidewalk. Even doing more normal things, like borrowing 11 dollars for a train fare to see a dying parent, they do it with a sort of pathological panache.
The volume on this kind of things is, of course, turned up in Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet. Bellow is too good a novelist to be confined to his intentions, I should say. However much he intends Sammler to be a sort of moral center, Sammler’s sexism doesn’t really convince the reader that this is the morally centered way to see the world – the women he directs it upon are just too concretely realized, Bellow’s own opinions be damned. They are dreamed too well to follow the will of the dreamer. High art, y’all.
Fox is not aiming for the panoramic effect in Desperate characters; none of the characters “speak” for her, nor, in spite of the numerous references to urban decay, is there a lot of larger cultural pointmaking. There is a subtext of references to French literature – Sophie being a native speaker – with the chief names being Racine, Balzac and Zola. Like Balzac, Fox has no Flaubertian neurosis about inserting herself as an author in the text. This makes the text more complex. At one point, Otto, who we have seen as cranky and given to yelling at Sophie or grumbling at her at least, is in bed with his wife, when Fox ESPs his heart:  “He loved Sophie – he thought about her, the kind of woman she was – and she was so tangled in his life that the time head sensed she wanted to go away from him had brought him more suffereing than he had conceived it possible for him to feel.”
A lesser author might have tried to wedge this news announcement about Otto’s deepest feelings into the story indirectly. Fox simply cuts to the chase. And it is all the bolder in that this announcement directly proceeds Otto’s marital rape of his wife, which ends, after he orgasms, with his thought: “He’d got her that time.”
Not, I should say, that Sophe recognizes Otto’s act as rape, either. The couple are a curious blend of insightful and blind.

This is to say: I’m glad I ignored Franzen’s recommendation and read the novel anyway.