Saturday, March 06, 2010

from Frankenstein to Raskolnikov

I like to think of degrees of separation, of connecting links, that come about because “the production and consumption of all lands have become cosmopolitan” as a result of the relentless bourgeois search for markets.

Take, for instance, Pavel Annenkov. It was Annenkov who happened to visit Belinski right as he was reading an ‘extraordinary’ novel, one that, one that, Belinski said, ‘reveals such mysteries and such characters in Russian life as never discussed before.” The novel was Poor Folks, and the novelist Dostoevsky. Pavel Annenkov happened to be in Russia in 1846, which is why a friend of his from Brussels, Karl Marx, was writing him letters there.

Poor Marx, of course, had had to move to Brussels at the prodding of the French police, although in truth it was a strange affair. Why should the wrath of the Prussian government – pressuring the French government – come down on him? He was not even involved in the article that was the cause of his expulsion – an article applauding an assassination attempt on the Prussian king in an exile German journal.

Annenkov and other Russians were attracted to the milieu around Proudhon and Bakunin, It was through this circle that Herzen met – to his later regret- the German poet Hedwegh, Marx’s great friend. Annenkov had attending a meeting of the communists in Brussels. I like to think that Annenkov might have mentioned the names of some of the new Russian writers to Marx – for instance, Gogol.

Marx’s letter to Annenkov is well worth reading – and, for those of us with a keen eye for the intersigne, there is something so very right – so almost uncannily right – in the fact that Annenkov, in this year, is involved as an observer both with the beginning of Dostoevsky’s career and with Marx’s. Annenkov had asked Marx’s opinion about a book written by Proudhon. Remember that Proudhon is, at this time, a European celebrity. Marx – well, he was known by some, and admired greatly by Frederick Engels, but he had trouble focusing.

The letter is here. It is a letter about, among other things, God and money. A subject that Dostoevsky has been attuned to from the first – although we are far from Crime and Punishment as yet.

“Why does M. Proudhon speak of god, of universal reason, of the impersonal reason of humanity, which is never mistaken, which has been, at all times, equal to itself, of which is it enough simply to have the correct consciousness in order to find oneself in the true? Why put on the feeble Hegelianism in order to pose as an esprit fort?
Himself, he gives you the key to the enigma. M. Proudhon sees in history a certain series of social developments; he discovers the progress realized in history; he finds at last that men, taken as individuals, do not know what they have done, have been deceived in their own movement, that is to say, their social development appears at the first view as a distinct, separate thing, independent of their individual development. He does not know how to explain these facts, and the hypothesis of universal reason manifesting itself is all ginned up [est toute trouvée]. Nothing easier than to invent mystical causes, that is to say phrases, where common sense can’t supply any.
But doesn’t M. Proudhon, in avowing that he does not understand anything of the historic development of humanity – and he avows this once he resorts to sonorous words about universal reason, god, etc. – doesn’t he avow implicitly and necessarily that he is incapable of understanding economic developments?”

As I pointed out in my last post, the moment in which the monster opens its eye – in which man’s creation, to speak in Frankenstein’s terms, seems to operate behind man’s back, and subject man to its will – is the moment in which, rightly viewed, a whole series of developments falls into place. This moment – which is a moment, I would say, in the ‘becoming unbearable’ of social conditions, and thus is intimately entangled with the history it sees – is the condition for understanding what the forces of production have wrought.

At the end of Marx’s letter – which is obviously connected to the work he is doing, at that time, on the section of the German ideology representing a history that does understand economic developments – Marx makes an observation about Proudhon’s theory as an expression of the class views of a group he knew well, since they constituted the Communist League – the petit-bourgeois.

“The petit-bourgeois, in an advanced society and by the necessity of its status, is made up of one part socialist, and one part economist, that is to say, he is awed by the magnificence of the high bourgeoisie and sympathizes with the griefs of the people. He is at the same time bourgeois and people. He prides himself, in the depths of his consciousness [dans son for intérieur de sa conscience] to be impartial, to have discovered the right balance, which he has the pretention to distinguish from the golden mean [juste milieu]. Such a petit-bourgeois divinizes the contradiction, for contradiction is the basis of his being. He is only a social contradiction put into motion. He has to justify by theory what he is in practice, and M. Proudhon has the merit of being the scientific interpreter of the French petite-bourgeoisie française, which is a real merit, because the petite-bourgeoisie will be an integral party of all the social revolutions that are in preparation.”

And let’s end this with another quote. This one is from Gerard Cornio’s Figure of the Double in European literature. For Cornio, Balzac’s Rastignac and Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov are doublets, and both encounter doubles in their lives:

‘Raskolnikove is also placed at the crossing, at the crossroads of doubles, but between [this pair] reigns incompatibility: Raskolnikov cannot, like Rastignac, accommodate himself to social and moral contradictions, accommodate himself through his personel consumption, he has to chose, to cut, to make choices which are sacrifices.” [50]

Friday, March 05, 2010

note on schools of Marxism

Writing a beginner's guide to Marx allows me the freedom to pretty much not discuss schools of Marxism. Since nothing reminds me so much of Swift’s Tale of the Tub as the disputes between different schools of Marxism, I suppose I should be grateful for this small favor.

I have – as the reader can see – a pretty firm view of what is important in Marx. The ideal, for me, in reading Marx, is to combine Nicole Pepperell’s amazingly wise and sophisticated reading of the first book of Capital at Rough Theory with the kind of materialist history that Benjamin believed he was doing in writing about Baudelaire.

Unfortunately, one does have to deal sooner or later with schools of Marxism – they do influence us as readers. I am not sure how to do that yet. I do, however, have an idea about where the schools go wrong, which is mainly by following one of two courses. One way is this: they take some thesis about Marx – say Althusser’s thesis that Marx dropped his ideas about alienation in order to make an epistemological break in Capital – without inquiring about the larger picture, our very motive for reading Marx. So, even if Althusser was correct, is alienation still a viable concept in the social sciences? While the Althusserians and the Thompson-ites were slugging it out in England, I think Arlie Hochschild showed that, yes, alienation can be revived to explain a very important feature of our social life as workers, emotional labor. Myself, I don’t think there was an epistemological break in Marx, but rather an increasingly complexity within the outlines of what he wrote in the forties. I’m anything but an Althusserian. But if Althusser was right, tant pis for Marx – alienation is still an important heuristic in understanding capitalism.

The second way is to put Marx in dialogue solely with a very narrow group of academics. Hence, the interminable study of Marx and Hegel. This seriously mischaracterizes Marx. Even at the height of his financial misery in the 50s, Marx never – to my knowledge – thought about teaching. He departed from academia quite early in his twenties. Just as Baudelaire’s poems came from the poet’s experience of the city as much as from Poe or Saint-Beuve, Marx’s method and ideas, I think, clearly came from reading newspapers, meeting disgruntled tailors in smoky tavern rooms, and his larger awareness of the science and technology around him that he used, or observed. As a man who edited one paper and founded another, and as an agitator who used the railroads quite a bit, Marx was well aware of the changes wrought by communication and transportation technology. In the German Ideology, although there is a certain underdevelopment of the notion of communication, Marx’s model of manufacture – pressed onto the ‘spontaneity’ of ideas – comes as much from seeing how, in front of a piece of paper that you have to fill up to make a deadline, “ideas” come obediently forward, like parts of the pin in the pin factory, as it does from correcting the mistakes of the critical critics. There is a side of Marx that very much resembles Jules Verne or H.G. Wells.

On Rough Theory, a couple of days ago, NP referenced Paul Lafargue’s obituary of his father in law, Marx. I had not read it. I loved these two paragraphs:

Karl Marx was one of the rare men who could be leaders in science and public life at the same time: these two aspects were so closely united in him that one can understand him only by taking into account both the scholar and the socialist fighter.
Marx held the view that science must be pursued for itself, irrespective of the eventual results of research, but at the same time that a scientist could only debase himself by giving up active participation in public life or shutting himself up in his study or laboratory like a maggot in cheese and holding aloof from the life and political struggle of his contemporaries.

Alienation - can't do with it, can't do without it, part 2

Moretto comme ta bouche
Est immense quand tu souris
Et quand tu ris je ris aussi
Tu aimes tellement la vie
Quel est donc ce froid
Que l'on sent en toi?

Arlie Hochschild begins her book, The Managed Heart (1983), by contrasting two stories. One is a story in Capital, about a boy in a wallpaper factory who works at a machine, 16 hours a day. The other is of a training session for Delta stewardesses, who are instructed to ‘really smile” because a smile is your ‘asset’. This was the eighties, and this is what stewardesses did. One of the stewardesses told Hochschild, “Sometimes I come off a long trip in a state of utter exhaustion, but I find I can’t relax. I giggle a lot, I chatter, I call friends. It’s as if I can’t release myself from an artificially created elation that has kept me ‘up’ on the trip. I hope to be able to come down from it better as I get better at the job.”

Hochschild defined emotional labor this way:
“This labor requires one to induce or suppress feeling in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others – in this case, the sense of being cared for in a convivial and safe place. This kind of labor calls for a coordination of mind and feeling, and it sometimes draws on a source of self that we honor as deep and integral to our individuality.”

Marx, of course, knew – as did factory owners and blue book writers, as did Dickens and Mill and Hugo – that a vast injury was being done to the boy in the wallpaper factory. But how was one to translate that injury? What, to speak as a certain type of philosopher, was the harm, here? Lack of pay? Was the harm that the boy did not pocket the surplus value he created?

Marx gives many indications over the course of his work that the harm, here, is not really translatable into ‘assets’. In that way, the harm can’t be put in an account book, a double ledger of benefits and costs – that is, without losing sight of the fact that benefits and costs, which seem, to the economist, to be scientific bits of quantified information, only make the leap to the quantifiable through gross metaphysical mystifications.

It is interesting – even, from my viewpoint, telling – that Hochschild’s term ‘emotional labor’ was gradually processed, in the literature, into ‘emotional management’. While the two terms may seem, at first glance, to be synonymous, one – emotional labor – actually attributes to the emotional a real position in the social world, while the other – emotional management – retreats to the traditional notion that emotion is a kind of savage thing, outside of which stands control. At the same time, sociologists soon started pointing out that those successful ‘emotional managers’ expressed more satisfaction with their jobs. Sociologists, in the 80s and 90s, were taking the turn away from such fuzzy and oppositional concepts as alienation and towards more friendly and professionally successful ones as public and rational choice. Businesses do not hire you as a consultant unless you are with the program, of course.

Still, the question is posed: on what scale should we quantify the quantifier? If our stewardess finds herself giggling and chattering a lot, if she fills out the questionnaire about job satisfaction with happy faces, are we not talking about a woman who is not a ‘bitch’, but a fully self empowered gal, who might even find feminism to be a useful ‘accessory’.

Yet, of course, we could pull back a bit on the question, even from the quantificational view, of what this training in smiles brought her. In the early eighties, indeed, the Delta stewardess was riding high. I knew a few in New Orleans in 1983, around the time that Hochschild’s book came out, and they were, indeed, leading a lifestyle full of chatting and artificial highs – usually cocaine.

It was about that time that three satisfied stewardess even proposed buying Delta a jet, purely out of their satisfied hearts. This became a locus classicus of business management books about implementing a “collaborative culture” – to use William Schneider’s phrase in The Re-engineering Alternative: “In 1982, three stewardesses for Delta Airlines announced that they and other Delta employees were pledging nearly $1,000 each to buy a $30 million Boeing 767 jet for the airline. “We just wanted to say thanks for the way Delta has treated us,” one of the women explained. By December they had raised enough pledges to buy the 767. Seven thousand employees turned out at the Atlanta airport for the christening of the Spirit of Delta.” [44]

Schneider presents this as a model of the company as family. The two stewardesses I knew presented it as the model of company as blackmailer. Delta’s public announcement that the management had ‘nothing’ to do with this was, of course, nonsense – as in any ‘family’, who contributed and who didn’t was quickly known.

As anybody who has flown Delta in the last twenty years knows, the smile culture gave way, after de-regulation, to a more traditional herding the beasts into the slaughterhouse culture. Notoriously, Delta’s management ripped off the pension plans of their employees, which was supposedly accrued during all the days of happy flying. As Scheider says, “the collaborative culture springs from the family” – and Delta’s management proved to have modeled their family feelings on those of the famous painting by Goya, Saturn eating his children.

However, the question of what the ‘pay’ for emotional labor is – and how emotional labor is standardized as labor - forces us back, inevitably, to the fully social self, the one whose aches and ecstasies might not be things that come in separate units, to be weighed on Bentham’s pleasure/pain scales.

Okay, now, here’s my translation of the next sentences in the German Ideology. I’ve tried not to smooth out the almost agonizing structure of these sentences, which remind me of nothing so much as Laocoon in the toils of the snake:

That it thus becomes an “unbearable” ["unerträgliche"] power, that is to say, a power, against which one revolutionizes, is integral to the fact that it has produced the mass of mankind both as thoroughly propertyless [“eigentumslos"] and at the same time as in contradiction to a world of wealth and culture spread before them, which both presuppose a great increase of the force of production, a higher level of its development; on the other side, this development of the forces of production (with which already the empirical existence of persons is put on a world historical rather than local footing) is, as well, an absolutely necessary practical pre-supposition, because without it only lack is universalized, and thus with neediness also the struggle for necessities begins again and we have to reconstruct all the old shit [die ganze alte Scheiße sich herstellen müßte] – and because, furthermore, only with this universal development of the forces of production is a universal commerce of people posited; thus on the one side, the phenomenon of the “propertyless masses among all peoples is produced all at the same time (universal competition), each making themselves dependent on the overthrow of the other, and finally the world historical, empirically universal individuals replace the local ones.”

The complex that is built around “alienation” here goes through certain recognizable steps.

First, we have what I’d call the Frankenstein moment. This is the moment in which the people who are collaborating realize that somehow, without their choosing it, the division of labor has taken on a life of its own. This in itself is an important clue that alienation is unthinkable without division of labor of some kind: between men and women, between adults and children, etc. It appears again and again in Marx’s writing, every time giving us a sense of the social uncanny. The monster, it appears, is alive:

“It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.”

Beautiful! And hideous. At the same time the system produces the most astonishing beauty – such refinement and cultivation [Bildung] as has never been seen before -- and a wretchedness, and evacuation of life, that has also never been seen before. This evacuation is described in two terms: of unbearability and of propertylessness. Unbearability is, Marx claims at this point, the condition without which the masses won’t revolutionize. In the sixties, when Marx was good and thoroughly Nietzschefied, this moment would give rise to doubts – is it a fact that the bourgeoisie, here, is the great producer, and the proletariat merely the reactive social body? If this were true, of course, it would truly put a spoke in the whole system – for the rising of the proletariat would only create the old filth, the old shit of fighting for survival.

I want to press more on that unbearability – Unertraglichkeit – in order to think clearly about the chains that the workers of the world “possess’. But not in this post.

The second moment has to do with located this unbearability in relation to the instantiation of universal history – the world market – in goods and labor that characterizes the modern system of production. Marx never takes back this insight. At the time he is writing the German ideology, very few business enterprises spanned the globe, and the logistics of manufacture, trade and communication are – in spite of his comments in the Communist Manifesto – only at the beginning of their irresistible rise. Certainly, the velocity with which silk moved from Canton to London was faster than the days when it had to go to Manila, then Acapulco, then across Mexico to Veracruz, then to Europe – or through Central Asia to Turkey, through Italy and up through Europe. Marx saw that already, branches of industry in one country would manufacture goods for sale in a far away country – as for example, Chinese ceramics, produced for the European and American market – and that there was a greatly increased commodity and money flow. Marx’s emphasis on this – even when explaining alienation – is another clue that alienation has to do with a vast and seemingly monstrous system that has arisen behind the backs of the worker. Before human beings become the subject of world history, their monster already is. Earlier revolutions against the unbearability of the system of production were as local as the system itself. The transatlantic revolutions might be said to be the first true revolutions - the French revolution, spread across Europe and fought out, in an unexpected way, in Santo Domingo, kept working in the liberation of Latin America and even, one could say, in the 1910 revolution that overthrew the Chinese Imperial court. Marx, in a famous 1881 letter to a Dutch socialist, Domela Nieuwenhuis, wrote: “The general demands of the French bourgeoisie laid down before 1789 were roughly just the same, mutatis mutandis as the first immediate demands of the proletariat are pretty uniformly to-day in all countries with capitalist production.”

In the German Ideology, the interweaving of the high level of the forces of production and their global scale leaves its impress on the chance of success of communism:

“Without this, 1, communism would be able to exist only as that of one locality; 2, the powers of commerce themselves could not have been developed yet as universal, and thus unbearable powers, they would have remained domestically-superstitiously “circumstances” ["Umstände"], and every expansion of commerce would negate local communism.”

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Alienation - can't do with it, and can't do without it, part 1


In the German Ideology (as Duncan pointed out to me last week) there are textual indications that Marx is disowning part of sketch of alienation he made in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.

As always, though, Marx never simply erases or annuls the conceptual contents he has used in the past – rather, he continually switches from the content to the form and back again to both ironize a content and locate it in a conceptual system that is always at work, one way or another, in the practices of everyday life. It is usual to attribute this method to Hegel, but myself, I think that is being much too philosophisch. Lenin once remarked that “Communism equals Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country” – and I would say, along similar lines, that Marx’s method equals Hegelian dialectic plus the railroad. That may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, of course, but Marx was well aware that one of the unintended results of technology was a revolution in perspective. While it is easy enough, abstractly, to dream of going sixty miles an hour in a vehicle from point a to point b, the “industrial experience” (to use Schivelbusch’s term) of being a railroad passenger and seeing something never seen by human beings before – to wit, a landscape going by at sixty miles an hour - was a distinct and disturbing sensation, one that had to be absorbed by nineteenth century populations, along with other industrially created perceptual experiences. The list of technological improvements in the Communist manifesto is also a list of changing sensory models. Thus, if Marx takes over and revamps the technostructure of Hegel’s dialectic, it is in coordination with the questions posed by modernity’s sensorium.

The questions I’ve been posing about the affectual structure of the commodity and money circuits of capitalism all point us to alienation. As I have said in an earlier post, nothing about alienation in Marx leads one to think that it transcends historical epochs. On the contrary, Marx, here, is employing a term that should be adapted to the circumstances – the mode of production – dominant in a historical epoch. Marx’s game, in the German Ideology, is to knock down the trans-historical sense given to certain concepts by the school of “critical critique.” However, that isn’t the same as saying that these concepts are empty. This isn’t therapeutic nihilism. They do have a communicative use – even if the notion of communication is oddly missing in the German Ideology. I should point out here that this is the one a-modern gap in that text, which is otherwise so fiercely concerned with words, so determined to bring ‘down to earth’ the flights of the philosophers, and which does so with a language in which we recognize ourselves – a language that so often seems so very contemporary. This is why we expect Marx to recognize the pragmatic, communicative dimension of language – it seems so obviously important to his project – and are surprised by the fact that it is not really there – that the brain/hand duality eclipses it.

Thus, we come to the word, which is strung with quote marks: It comes in the subsection entitled history, right after Marx has discussed the larger meaning of the division of labor:

“The social power, meaning the manifold force of production that arises through the coordination of different individuals conditioned through the division of labor, appears to these individuals, because this coordination is not chosen, but naturally generated, not as their own, united power, but rather as something foreign [fremde], a power standing outside of them, of which they know neither the whence nor the wherefore, which they thus can no longer master; and even on the contrary moves, now, through the series of phases and steps of development on its own, not only independently from the will and actions of people, but even directing the will and actions of people.

This alienation ["Entfremdung"], in order to remain understandable to the philosophers, can naturally be abolished only under two practical premises.”

The quotation marks do their disowning work here – but what is disowned is still used. I could, of course, apply my fine Derridean sniffer to root out this use of the denied – and even ask some questions about its use value. But that I will set aside for another time- since of course we “know” (o speak, denial) that Derrida in the Spectres has misunderstood something as simple as use. But the point I want to make here is that the quotations which suspend alienation also return it to one set of its property holders – the philosophers. Marx, one should remember, did study law, so for him this is a word with at least two property holders – the philosophers and the lawyers. And a lawyer could ask whether the chain of title is quite correct here – whether the philosophers have mistakenly taken property in this word as though it were not a metaphor. Indeed, as the term appears in the Corpus Juris of Justinian, which was translated into German in the 1830s, alienation is continually contrasted with Diebstahl – robbery. A proper alienation of property – making it exchangeable – is set up in contrast with the theft of property, which also makes it exchangeable. And it is from this context that alienation is taken into the language of the philosophers – whether properly or not is the question posed, but not answered, and perhaps not answerable, by placing the quotation marks around the term.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


Coming up for air. There is something essential about that expression. George Orwell used it to entitle one of his essay collections, I believe. Hegel was not the first to compare doing philosophy to swimming – complaining that Kant wanted to learn to swim on dry land – and Melville, in one of his great letters to Hawthorne, spoke of ‘deep divers”. The Melville letter is too quotable, so let me paste a little of it here:

“I was very agreeably disappointed in Mr Emerson. I had heard of him as full of transcendentalisms, myths & oracular gibberish; I had only glanced at a book of his once in Putnam's store -- that was all I knew of him, till I heard him lecture. -- To my surprise, I found him quite intelligible, tho' to say truth, they told me that that night he was unusually plain. -- Now, there is a something about every man elevated above mediocrity, which is, for the most part, instinctualy perceptible. This I see in Mr Emerson. And, frankly, for the sake of the argument, let us call him a fool; -- then had I rather be a fool
than a wise man; -- I love all men who dive. Any fish can swim near the surface, but it takes a great whale to go down stairs five miles or more; & if he don't attain the bottom, why, all the lead in Galena can't fashion the plumet that will. I'm not talking of Mr. Emerson now -- but of the whole corps of thought-divers, that have been diving & coming up again with bloodshot eyes since the world
began. “

This was written in March, 1849. The deep diver I’ve been following, Marx, is busy writing for the Neuen Rheinischen Zeitung that year of the bitter backwash from the revolutionary year, 1848. And there I will leave him, for a moment, and come up for air – as one comes up for air in these things, a reader avoiding the bends in the heavy flow of prose through which he mounts, hopefully, having speared himself a truth, an opinion, a flash of something in the dark – by moving to another writer, Georg Simmel. Simmel’s ponds are not so deep as Marx’s oceans, but a gnat can drown in a teardrop, can’t he? As I have been following the flickering light of alienation and its effects, I want to draw some attention to an article by Jorge Arditi entitled “Simmel’s theory of alienation and the decline of the irrational”.

Alienation has characteristics in Simmel that derive from the German philosophical tradition, with its image of some merger of the impossibly jostling subject and object, that cutter’s game – take the knife to skin and muscle and press as hard as you can, the subject will not bleed out, not there, not ever.

Arditi nicely surveys the meaning of the rational and ‘nonrational”:

“The definition of the nonrational as a capacity, as a fundamental condition of being which the growth of the rational makes increasingly difficult to express, contrasts with the prevailing concepts of the rational and the nonrational in sociology today. Although many disagree significantly about the specifics of the terms, to sociologists rationality and nonrationality are attributes of action, not of persons. To Parsons ([1937] 1968:60ff.) and Alexander (1982:72ff.) … the terms must be understood primarily in an instrumental sense, denoting the extent to which action is or is not guided by considerations of pure efficiency. … Rational choice theorists' focus on rationality derives from an emphasis on goal orientation-a characteristic of action, not people. Indeed, but for a few exceptions-the most telling being Weber's image of the person underlying his concept of "affectual action"… -men and women are seen as basically rational, calculative beings…”

Caught in this paradigm like a whale in a mousetrap, alienation loses its gravity and pull – or to put it in other terms consonant with LI's obsessions, imagination loses its claims on our existence. Simmel, characteristically, considers these definitions of rationality more as reflections of a certain social order, in the throes of monetizing human relationships – thus, rationality is captured and used in a local sense that does not reflect its sweep. And, similarly, the non-rational – which in the positivist schema, becomes the inefficient – also ‘thins out’:

“Rationality and nonrationality, then, should be seen not only as attributes of action, but, first, as attributes of the person. To Simmel, action is not rational or nonrational because of some objective criterion of rationality, of some principle derived from the internal logic of action itself, but, rather, because of the particular elements of a person's inner life-his or her intellect, emotions, faith, or aesthetic sensibility-that come to orient practice. According to Simmel, the nonrational is a primary, essential element of "life," an integral aspect of our humanity. Its gradual eclipse in the expanses of a modem, highly rationalized world implies, then, an unquestionable impoverishment of being.”

Simmel’s use of a subject/object terminology is as traditional as a lectern in a classroom. Things get lively, though, when, instead of thinking of their separation as a conceptual property, Simmel thinks it through as social and physical distance. It is here that we carve a new entrance into the circuit of connodities against money, and the circuit of money against commodities.

“Toward the end of The Philosophy of Money ([1907] 1978:470-477), Simmel defines the concept of distance. Imagine, he suggests, an arrangement of life's elements in a circle, the individual at its center. "Whatever our object may be," he writes, "it can, with its content remaining unchanged, move closer to the centre or to the periphery of our sphere of interests and concerns" ([1907] 1978:472). The relationships between a self and an object can be therefore characterized "by the illustrative symbol of a definite or changing distance between the two ... whereby the diversity of the innermost relationship to objects (not only in distinctness, but also in the quality and whole character of the images received) is interpreted as a diversity in our distance from them" ([1907] 1978:472-473, emphasis added). "Distance," then, is a heuristic concept that helps us conceive the connection between subject and object in relative, variable terms.”

To be continued

cut and continue here:

Simmel, like Marx, was a man who could see a series when it shoved him – or his culture – in the back. Unlike Marx, for whom the series of objects must be put into relation to the history of their making, Simmel brackets the labor theory of value. Instead, he’s concerned about their effects, and organizes them in terms of distances. Social distance, in Simmel, is not physical distance. It combines other senses of distance – for instance, what one means by saying that some person is ‘distant’. Arditi points out that, for Simmel, the emotion that annuls distance – or aims to – is love.

“Remoteness, that is, does not set in because people have nothing in common, but because the things they have in common are, or have become, too common. Likewise, nearness results not from an absence of similarities but from the specificity and exclusivity of these similarities.

At its ideal state, nearness becomes the equivalent of "love."13 Like love, to be perfectly close to someone implies apprehending that person without introducing between the I and the other meanings that extend beyond I and other. In this sense, nearness implies the sharing of what we could call existentially generated meanings. These meanings surely exist only in relation to some other, nondistinctive meanings that make them seem distinctive.”

This, it seems to me, does not do justice to the phenomenology of love, although it does speak to what one might call the relational inertia to which it is subject, and which becomes the great maker of crises in the system of love-based marriages.

However, let’s pass on by this somewhat simplistic view of love, because it is only a step towards the main thing I want to highlight in Arditi’s interpretation of Simmel. The main thing has to do with the modern regime of emotions coordinate with the modern regime of desires for objects. Love is a model emotion, for Simmel, in as much as it makes clear that the relationship of the subject and the object is one of degrees of distance. And it is on those degrees of distance that the capitalist regime, with its emphasis on exhange values, presses:

“… the objectivization of exchange provokes an irreversible expansion of social distance in society-a distance that, although made more puzzling by the multiplication of emotional responses it makes possible, takes further expression in, and is further reinforced by, the subsequent intellectualization of the a posteriori.15 People are deprived of their specificity, of their subjective concreteness, and therefore become "ob- jects," impersonal entities with no individual meaning. They come to perceive one another primarily in utilitarian terms and lose their capacity to create direct, authentic relationships with others. And all this happens in such a way that this new form of being in the world becomes ingrained in people's personalities.”

As I have pointed out before, there is a curious lack of correspondence between, on the one hand, the utilitarian absolute of egotism – the egotism of one of Sade’s great fuckers – and the egotism of the capitalist, or the capitalist ‘subject’. Its egotism seems anything but the expression of the ‘self-made man’ or the independent self – rather, it seems pathetically attached to the approval of others, and the way that approval is socially expressed. Simmel’s theory of social distance is one way of approaching this paradox:

“According to Simmel, with the decline of our nonrational capabilities part of our authenticity disappears and the wholeness of the ego breaks up. And neither effect, he suggests again and again, can be overridden by our gain in self-determination or by the new plurality of feeling. If the world becomes more complex and in some sense even richer, if it opens to us in ways unknown before, our inner experiential scope nonetheless decreases. If mediated by a larger number of intellectual contents, the variety of our emotions increases, their intensity weakens irremediably, and the meaning of being human consequently changes-for the worse.”

If we dispense with Simmel’s nostalgia, what we have here is a start on something key in modernity – the increase in the variety of our emotions, and the decrease in their depth.

I am less concerned with Simmel’s rightness or wrongness about love than about the affectual effects of a world of mediate and immediate objects. Here Simmel is helpful in making us think about alienation not as a relationship of the individual worker to his or her circumstances, but also of the individual worker to other workers. For if workers are supposed to unite, that association – if we hold to a richer sense of alienation, one that is generated and politically exploited within the capitalist system – must somehow deal with the alienation of workers inter se. In other words, one must ask what that appeal for unification means in terms of social practice, especially as it is an appeal erected on the very modern erasure of family metaphors. Although Marx does his best to make it very plain that, given the international scope of capital, any labour movement that is not international will fail under the burden of its role in universal history – there seems to be a blindspot on all sides here as to why the international workers of the world did not unite, and – even in the climate of international corporate power – still have not united. The simple answer is that the power of money is greater than the power of labor associations. The more complex answer has to do with the appeal of nationalism as a tool developed by the bourgeoisie that somehow clouds the worker’s vision. And I don’t reject either answer as false – both are partially true. But both should lead us back to asking the question that I’ve been toying with – what is class interest? What alienating force operates within the working class to defeat its feeling of solidarity, workers for workers? And how can one appeal to solidarity if one’s theory strips the worker to the bone and presents us with merely another power player in the computer game of universal history?

Monday, March 01, 2010

the end of brotherhood: Marx in London, 1847

Die Kerntruppe des Bundes waren die Schneider
(the militants of the Bund were tailors). – Friedrich Engels, On the History of the Communist League.

Where were we?
Where were we in 1847?
We, the gods of this voice, the gods who float – or so we pretend – slightly above this history. Our divine edge is that we know the fates of the players.

Or so we pretend. The godlike pretense that not only do we know these fates, but that we, ourselves, are fate – that our contemporeneity is the secret to history, and don’t you forget it – is, I think a step too far. And yet it is the step too far that is the premise, so often the premise, of our myths about the world. This step too far definitely has a name. Hubris. I would even go so far as to say – foolishly, with no evidence for this argument, that I will not make in this place – that hubris is just the point in the system in which the system generates, behind its own back, its de-systematization. Hubris is a thing fate deals harshly with – and that is, itself, a question I’ve posed and will pose again a lot in these posts. Nemesis, the goddess excluded from the happiness culture. And who… you have no need to worry on this account… who does not chase you. In the end, you will find that you have been chasing her. In the end, you will even catch up with her.

These are words from myth, but we are approaching a supremely non-mythical moment.

The revolutionary ‘troops” which Marx and Engels were dealing with in 1847 were mostly urban artisans. The proletariat, for one thing, had little time – it was of course difficult to organize under the killing schedule of factory work. The artisans, of course, had been the shocktroops of the trans-Atlantic revolutions for 75 years. Tom Paine, Toussaint L’ouverture, the female artisans – independent seamstresses, many of them – who, as Dominique Godineau has pointed out, were a very important and excitable group in the first wave of disturbances in Paris from 1789-1790; this was especially true of the radical movement in Britain.

However, how serious was this audience from Marx’s point of view?

From Engels account:

“The association soon named itself: the League of Communist Workers. And on the membership card stood written the sentence: All men are brothers in at least twenty languages, if here and there with some linguistic mistakes. Just like the public League, the secret band soon took on a more international character; firstly in a limited sense, practically through the different nationalities of the members, theoretically through the insight, that any revolution that would be victorious, must be European. Further than that, one did not go; but the foundation was given.”

In 1847, at the second congress in London, two things happened. One became world famous – Marx and Engels were commissioned to write a Confession of Faith, which eventually became the communist manifesto. The second was not so full of history. But it leaves a trace that I have been looking at in my last couple of posts. Here’s Engels again:

“The second congress occurred at the end of November and the beginning of December of the same year [1847]. Here, Marx was also present and represented in long debates – the congress went on for at least ten days – the new theory. All contradiction and doubt was finally resolved, the new principles were unanimously affirmed, and Marx and I were deputized to generate the Manifesto. This happened immediately afterwards. Some weeks before the February Revolution it was sent to London for printing. Since then it has traveled around the world, been translated into almost all languages, and yet serves today in different countries as the guideline for the proletarian movement. In place of the Bund motto, all men are brothers, stood the new battle cry, “proletarian of all countries, unite!” which openly proclaimed the international character of the struggle.”

It still does, of course. The workers of the world have still not united, though the corporations of the world have. And we have what we have.

But this is not my real concern in this post. Engels, I think, is as good a witness as we have to what Marx said about this slogan. One of the keys to my reading of Marx is surely this international character, which Marx was always at pains to emphasize. Marx sees the proletariat as Universal history, armed. Although universal history is being made at this point not by the proletariat, but by what made the proletariat possible- the capitalist liquidation of traditional modes of production and the consequent collapse of traditional orders. Secreted by the new order of the exchange of commodities, the proletariat rise up as the universal class precisely in having had their past radically cleared of past relationships. Marx stands at the crossroads, there, trying to get a bearing on this recent history and its radical discarding of history.

There is a dimension of this event that decisively divides the capitalist order – which includes its oppositon – from the enlightenment. The key, here, is the erasure of the family description that once graced the membership cards of the league. Brothers.

Marx, in 1847, is brooding on the ultimate destruction of all patriarchal norms in the forge of capitalism and the substitution of the principle of substitution, money, for previous social relations. His developing understanding of this moment is, I think, related to the notion of alienation as he had worked it out in 1844. But it is a bit misleading to call this a thread. Sometimes, Marx loses the point of view provided by alienation, and sometimes he welcomes alienation as the limit experience of the worker. Sometimes he finds it again. This is natural: Marx waas no fool. He did not perform his Herculean task of research, which took him to the edge of destitution, for the hell of it. He was not a Bakunin, who, at a certain point, stopped deepening and challenging his first impulses. Marx is always repairing, rediscovering, jettisoning. While I am quite certain that the romantic Marx can be seen within all the other figures to the end – old Moor – he is unlike the romantics in that all his search is not for the same thing – as it is for Faust, or Dr. Frankenstein. The search impinges on the object searched for. If the general outline remains the same, its lines can change their valences depending on the content under consideration.

Thus, what may look like a simple tactical move by Marx is, I think, part of the program of gigantically digesting the advances of the bourgeoisie, of being modern. The first modern German. One of the great modernist gestures is not only to subordinate the family to the marketplace, but to conclude, from the point of view given by that subordination, that it has occurred successfully. From that point of view, it is easy to jump to the belief either that the family has no proper economy, or that if there is one – say gift giving – that it is aleatory and ‘not serious’. For an economy must be serious.

Of course, this could sound like nostalgia for warmer ties. It is, I think, not. Since nostalgia implies nostos, return, and there is no question of return here, for the ties continue to exist, and even support the vast bulk of the economy. Any earthquake survivor will tell you as much. At the same time that brotherhood and fraternity is being replaced by class and solidarity, the real players in the economy are wrestling, as they will to this day, with their own sense of what is and what is not fungible – what can be bartered, what can be given, what reciprocity consists of, etc. By a thousand threads, these link feeling to the ‘social life of things’ – to steal a phrase from Simmel scholar, Arjun Appadurai.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

top 9 chansons pour Julie

I wanted to do a nine song countdown for a recently arrived Parisienne named Julie. Thise nine songs were meant, ideally, to fit between July 2009 and February 2010. I did a little cheating - but not much!

Neko Case
This tornado loves you

Röyksopp 'This Must Be It'

Sick Muse

Atlas Sound
Recent Bedroom

Handsome Furs
I’m confused

Dominique A –
Immortels (OKAY, this came out in March, 2009. I’m cheating!)

Jean-Louis Murat
M le Maudit

Charlotte Gainsbourg

Massive attack
Saturday comes slow

Not a bad 9 months!


  “In brief, cultural history only represents a surface strike against the insight [of historicism], but not that of dialectics. For it lack...