Wednesday, May 08, 2013

The whole society deal

An old post - but one I am putting up as a squint eyed comment concerning the controversy concerning Vivek Chibber's recent book on Marxism and post-colonial studies.

In Ma Nuit chez Maud, Jean-Louis, the Catholic engineer, bumps into an old college friend of his, Vidal, who is now a philosophy professor. Jean-Louis confesses that he is still an observing Catholic; but, he says, he has his own ideas about Catholicism. For instance, he recently read Pascal and felt that if Pascal’s rigorism was Christianity, he would rather be an atheist. Vidal, on the other hand, claims that, as a Marxist,  Pascal has a peculiar meaning to him.  His choice of Marxism, he claims, was decided by something like Pascal’s wager about the existence of God. As Vidal sees it, there are two ways of looking at history. Either it doesn’t make sense or it does. If the first view, A, has an 80 percent sense of being true, and the second a 20 percent chance, it is still rational to bet on the second view – as it fills one’s life with meaning.

I doubt that there are many Marxists today who would say, with Vidal, that Marxism is a decision to see the meaning in history. They are far more likely to explain that Marxism points to the way in which the meaning of history changes with the historical circumstances of the interpreters – which tends to undermine any objective claim to discern the meaning of history. And, to an extent, I would agree with the disabused Marxist. It is true that Vidal is reflecting a position that was most pronounced in the years after WWII, when the defeat of Nazi Germany and decolonization could easily make a person think that history was ‘on our side’ – although of course the sense of history could be an infinite crucifixion, a la de Maistre. By the sixties, however, the notion that there was some inevitable development in history – inevitability being one way to construe the ‘meaning’ of history – was on the wane. This version of history had always competed with a positivist variant – that the progress of science was, in general, the progress of liberal capitalist society. In the late 80s and 90s, the notion that history made sense was disguised in the end of history thesis.

Marx had a strong sense of history. This, it is usually said, is his inheritance from Hegel; however, even a glance at the Enlightenment and Romantic culture of Germany would show us that history as a “force” of some kind precedes Hegel. Herder, the translators of the Scots like Gentz, romantic critics like Schlegel were very invested in seeing history as a force. In one way, this expressed a clear material anguish: the peasant society of the limited good was particularly strong in the German states, and the distrust of growth was shared by peasants and Juunkers. Faith in history as a force was the face of the modernity longed for by a section of the intelligentsia.

Marx’s original views about history were, I think, entangled with his sense of Germany’s underdevelopment. The double aspect of Marx’s description of the capitalist system – on the one hand, as the expression of the revolutionary force of the bourgeoisie, and, on the other hand, as a system that had to be overthrown – lead to a certain confusion in reading Marx chronologically. That double aspect allows Marx a lot of irony elbow room – and Marx always viewed irony as a high intellectual gift.

It is in the Manifesto that Marx makes certain statements about history that, themselves, have a history leading up to the conversation of Jean-Louis and Vidal in Ma Nuit chez Maud. As with Baudelaire’s notion of the modern, history is obviously a bit of an intoxicant to Marx. And why not? Who has not known the sublime feeling of standing with the devil above it all, at say 6,000 feet above all human kind  – although it is best not to bow down to the devil at that moment, no matter what he promises you.

“One speaks of ideas, which revolutionize a whole society; one thus only expresses the fact, that within the old society have been moulded the elements of a new one, for the dissoluton of the old ideas keeps pace with the dissolution of the old relations of life.”

The uncompromising phrase, a “whole society,” seems to infer a unilateral motion, pressing on all levels of society.  Everything goes at once, for all pieces of the old relations of life are connected to each other. And we do see this. Who can’t see, for instance, that the old ways of human locomotion – mainly by walking, sometimes by horse – were so completely swept away, first by the railroad, then by the automobile, that walking in many places in the developed world – for instance, Texas – has become a minority option.  The old times – the week it would take to go from London to Edinburgh – have disappeared – or exist only in the minds and careers of bums and tramps. But bums and tramps can’t simply walk across the countryside like they could in 1900 or 1800 – they are bounded by the roads they can travel, as they cannot walk besides a highway, and would certainly draw police attention if they walk along other roads. At the present time, China, in one of the greatest engineering feats ever attempted, is automobilizing its human locomotion. All over the world, the car is uprooting and changing  the old relations of life.

And yet, is it true that the surface of life is so homogeneous that it can simply change like this?

That question gets to another aspect of Marx’s ironic praise of the bourgeoisie: that homogeneity is the result of capitalism. The homogeneous society, in which the archaic has no place to hide, is the effect of the penetrative tendency of capitalist culture, which roots out its opponents from the intimate sphere. Of course, its opponents might produce the elbow room that makes capitalism tolerable – and capitalist overreach might well be keyed to the sound of a gravedigger digging his own grave, which is what Marx heard. We at this point give capitalism much more time than Marx could give it in the nineteenth century, and we can watch the process of total change. Ethan Watters, a journalist,  has pointed out that the variegated understanding of emotions in different cultures are in the process of being changed, or at least confronted, by an American model that is convenient to Big Pharma. This is from a NYT magazine article he wrote on the subject:

“We have for many years been busily engaged in a grand project of Americanizing the world’s understanding of mental health and illness. We may indeed be far along in homogenizing the way the world goes mad.

This unnerving possibility springs from recent research by a loose group of anthropologists and cross-cultural psychiatrists. Swimming against the biomedical currents of the time, they have argued that mental illnesses are not discrete entities like the polio virus with their own natural histories. These researchers have amassed an impressive body of evidence suggesting that mental illnesses have never been the same the world over (either in prevalence or in form) but are inevitably sparked and shaped by the ethos of particular times and places. In some Southeast Asian cultures, men have been known to experience what is called amok, an episode of murderous rage followed by amnesia; men in the region also suffer from koro, which is characterized by the debilitating certainty that their genitals are retracting into their bodies. Across the fertile crescent of the Middle East there is zar, a condition related to spirit-possession beliefs that brings forth dissociative episodes of laughing, shouting and singing.”

No matter – all madnesses must get in line! Or so it would seem as the Blue Pill bears down. The marketing of mood management is by now a well known ongoing scandal – one that has produced almost no opposition. Whenever marketers change the laws to allow for the mass advertising, over tv, of various anti-depressives, the amount of anti-depressives goes up far, far over anybody’s estimate of the real number of pathological depressives, which then enters into the ordinary life of the emotions and our expectations of people’s moods. And so it goes – what, in an earlier age, would be considered an illness in itself, can now be dismissed as a side affect and become the locus of a new marketing campaign and a new drug. Here, the homogenization promised by the term  ‘whole society” seems armed and should be considered dangerous.

And so, I’d contend, Marx began to think in the years after the Commune.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Bite the hand that feeds you

Plato, when doing philosophy, often used a method familiar to any 17 year old with a passion for music: he would pull out a line from one of his favorite singers – Heraclitus, Democritus, Parmenides, et al. and finger it until it gave up its meaning. Unfortunately, the history of philosophy, from Heraclitus to Elvis Costello, shows that philosophers are less and less inclined to linger over these gnomic spasms that come in – as though fully formed in a whole other universe - from the outside, while they are more and more concerned about creating logically coherent structures in this world that they can argue for and against.
However, I, like Plato, think it is worthwhile pondering the weighty obscurities summoned like spirits in a great phrase. For instance – to return to Elvis Costello for a moment – it seems to me that the proper measure of that phrase in his song, Radio Radio, which goes: I want to bite the hand that feeds me – has not yet been attempted.
Of course, the naïve listener might think that this is pure resentment. The naïve listener instinctively takes the side of the hand, and is thus lost. However, the listener who has a larger sense of the dialectical peculiarity of the human situation would not so quickly go over to the hand’s side. Instead, this listener might consider that biting the hand that feeds you is, at least in some urgent cases, the  necessary prelude to understanding just what it is that the hand is feeding you. This is not only the truth of punk – it is the truth of satire, of film noir, of all kinds of insomnias, ideological and personal.
Biting the hand that feeds you is a lot more difficult than it might seem, especially when the hand is so much larger than you, and you are so dependent on the hand that you can barely stand without it.  

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...