Saturday, January 17, 2015

Marx and paradise

In  volume 41 of the old Marx Engels Werke, which gathers together Marx’s scraps and trivia (the stuff he carved on his school desk, the limerick he made about a fellow gymnasium student, the boxtops he sent off for a secret decoder ring, etc.)  there is a passage in a gloss on Schelling which concerns the existence of God. This is one of the rare times Marx explicitly talks about old Noboddaddy.  He does so in the most bored manner possible, showing briefly why no proof for the existence of God has ever or will ever work, with all the passion of a page out of Atheism for Dummies.
So: God is not very important in Marx’s critique of religion. Nor, surprisingly, is the church, or priestcraft. If it as if this, too, which had an urgency in the French revolution, is all settled now. Or at least it isn’t primary.
What is primary is paradise.
Marx is fascinated by the anthropological fact that societies have dreamed up an image of utopia which is the exact negative of society as it is lived. I think it is interesting to contrast Marx, here,  with Nietzsche, who tread on the same territory forty some years later. Nietzsche as far as I know never read Marx, but he shares a vocabulary with the Critique. He also shares an interest in eschatology – but he emphasizes the exactly opposite anthropological fact, which is the popular dream of hell. For Nietzsche, hell reveals the true secret of slave morality, its cosmic resentment. For Marx, paradise reveals the secret of what the vast majority of society, the laboring obscure, thought of the society they supported with their labor: that it would be good only if it was utterly changed.
It is this aspect of Marx’s critique that is obscured by the opium wisecrack, which casts too great a shadow over this essay, which begins on the anthropological note:
For Germany, the critique of religion is essentially over, and the critic of religion is the presupposition of all critique.
After is heavenly oratio pro aris et focis is contradicted, the profane existence of the error is compromised. Man, who, seeking the Overman in the fantasmal reality of heaven has found only the reflection (widerschein) of himself, will no longer be inclined to to find only the semblence (Schein) of himself, the Un-person, where he is seeking, and must be seeking, his real circumstances.”

Friday, January 16, 2015

rhetoric and revolution

I have a tremendous future thesis about Marx’s style curled up in my mind, sleeping and issuing yelps like an old  hunting dog dreaming of its glory days. One day, I will eventually write it down in a severely truncated form, where it will flow over three pages max. I’m not a long distance runner, scholarship-wise.
Here are the previews of this exciting and never to be completed future project: Marx’s style, as I would like to prove, is where we see the actual form of dialectical materialism in practice. Or, to put it another way, Marx discovered at an early point in his career that reversal is a tremendous power. Turning things inside out and upside down, wrenching the lines of ownership inscribed in the genetive and the lines of power inscribed in the accusative and dative,  one could truly say that in Marx’s work, rhetoric precedes revolution. He sinks into the regimes of ownership and of power that are his target – as he puts it somewhere in the Grundrisse – allows him to come out of those regimes through a pass that fundamentally alters our view of them.
Perhaps – and this is the kind of semi-psychoanalytical speculation that hovers near fiction, but what the fuck – perhaps Marx’s feeling for reversal is his replay of a crucial moment in his childhood: the moment when he was baptised. Or rather, the moment when his father converted his household from Judaism to Christianity. Apparently his mother resisted this decision for a while, but finally agreed to it. To reverse that baptism did not mean, for Marx, becoming Jewish again. Instead, he became something other than the Jew and the Christian, or at least that was the project.  It is here, trying to reverse an essential surrender, that Marx stumbles upon the principle of negativity. The way forward and the way backwards are contained in one self-identical way, according to common sense, which seeks, thus, to squelch the power of inversion. This is not the case with Marx.  He embraces negativity fiercely in  order not to become the dupe of either positivism or a naïve belief in progress – while still trying to found a “universal history.”
To Anglo-American thinkers, steeped in the culture of common sense, Marx’s reversals can simply seem crabby or crooked, a matter of rhetorical excess that is vaguely alluded to by the term “prophetic” . The first task for these thinkers is to straighten Marx out, get a clear position of the case so we can properly “go forward”.
Perhaps I am making too much of the effect of conversion – although I can’t resist pointing out that there is a line of great German polemicists – Heine, Marx, and Karl Kraus – who all used thundering reversals as their grand trope, and who all were converted Jews. Converted to fit with a society that was always hostile to Jews. Make of this what you will. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Germany: a third world tale

Michael Loewy calls the Critique “pre-Marxist” because it was written before Marx had absorbed the lesson of the French socialists that class struggle was the fulcrum of society. I can see Loewy’s point, but the essay not only carries the essential voice of Marx – his way of mixing the prophetic and the sarcastic in his most characteristic rhetorical ploy, inverting relations – but it also expresses  Marx’s concern about the place of modernity in universal history – a history that he tried to write in the Grundrisse.  For us, one of the great interests in the piece is that Marx treats Germany as a ‘pre-modern’ country – essentially as a piece of the third world. Marx is the spirit that haunts all post-colonial discourse for good reason – he founded it. Or at least, he was one of the people who gave it shape.
There’s a historical school that claims that Germany’s history did not travel the path of modernity like other European countries. The Sonderweg school is associated with the right, but there is some truth in it for the left as well. At least for Marx, Germany was a lesson in underdevelopment.  Unlike the Sonderweg historians, Marx doesn’t take Germany to be more “authentic” in its struggle with modernity – rather, he takes it to be politically and culturally half-made in an interesting way: one can see, in the forces that fail to synthesis into civil society and industrial capitalism in Germany, the forces that are in operation in the so-called “modern” societies. For Marx, these societies have not come to rest in modernity; they, too, are fractured. The ancien regime might have been overturned, Marx says, but it exists in the unconscious as a trauma with multiple effects on everyday life.

It is in this situation that Marx wants us to think about religion. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Marx's IED: religion, modernity, the west, all that shit...

Out of all the phrases in Marx’s  1844 Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the one that has stuck is: “religion is the opium of the people.” Careless readers – and aren’t we all? – have a Jack Horner like tendency to stick our thumb in the pie and pull out a plumb, destroying the pie’s structure, the cooking that went into it, its mix of tastes.  In this case, to collapse Marx’s essay into this one plumb is an act of barbarity. 
Marx was in his young twenties at the time he wrote the essay – later, as a middle aged man with persistent sores that kept him bedridden in agony, he learned to appreciate the power of opium, which is not a little thing. But the opium crack is only one of the comparisons to which religion gives rise. These comparisons are expressed in the exuberant style favored by a certain Berlin crowd that liked to be  scratchin Hegel and Heine. There’s a study by Bercovitch of the American Jeremiad as an essential American style – the essential style of modernity in Germany, from Lichtenberg to Brecht, echoes with this Berlin  tone. It is repulsive to a certain Anglo-American sensibility – I think the general sense is still in agreement with one of Marx’s glossers, Donald Kelley, who wrote that Marx’s essay contained “no poetry” and a “large amount of convoluted and ill humored philosophizing.” I think, on the contrary, that this may be the most Heine-like of Marx’s essays. Its style is not separate from its argument – which may well be the object of revulsion by Anglo-Americans who have traded style for specialization and thus distrust rhetoric as the mark of the amateur.  The poetry, here, has to be seen as a sort of futuristic act – to be anachronistic. Marinetti, though, would have appreciated Marx’s phrase that critique should not be an anatomical scalpel, but a weapon.  In fact, the weapon Marx devised in this oddly gay romp is rather like our old friend, the improvised explosive devise. It is a combination of deadly technologies tied together on the spot, in the midst of everyday life, and meant to explode both the façade of ‘modern’ society and the, in Marx’s view, ‘pre-modern’ level of society in Germany.
I think it is a good piece to read in the light of the Charlie Hebdo murders and the response to them, especially (and perhaps provincially ) by the high hats of the American left and the lowdowns of the street.

So I think this is what I will do for a while.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...