Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review of a Review of a Commentary: Bryan Cooke on Bosteels on Badiou

In a review of Bruno Bosteels' Badiou and Politics published in the most recent Parrhesia, Bryan Cooke goes on a sweet rant about literary and cultural studies "domesticating the radicality" of European philosophy:

"... it is common to hear graduate students in education, English literature or art history with to no prior interest in philosophy nevertheless breezily asserting that they are 'using' a given theorist in their theses... In fact, what the breathless theory-'user' and the disdainful Observer reading theory-skeptic have in common is that they are both in the position of avoiding (taming, confining, position, reducing) that which precisely as philosophy, i.e. as thought, resists being put into the service of any complacently pre-existing dogma about what constitutes utility or good sense... they serve to defend against an actual encounter with a body of thought."

I'm happy to hear this kind of thing (I did my Honours thesis in a literary and cultural studies department on the domestication of European philosophy by literary and cultural studies departments). Nonetheless, Cooke's article brings into focus some of my reservations re: Badiou.
1. Legitimation problems. Is Cooke "using" Badiou in his application of Badiou's thought (mirroring the "theory-'user'" Cooke so maligns), or does his understanding of Badiou guarantee that he is authentically/immanently thinking education? How do we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate activities of thought? Is it really about policing what constitutes a real "encounter" or "event" of thought and what doesn't?*

Badiousians will respond that legitimation is always post-evental for Badiou. The work of the truth procedure is to retroactively produce the criteria for the reception of an event; by definition these criteria do not exist at the time of the event’s emergence (otherwise it would not be new). In other words, truth-practices operate like extended Kantian judgments of taste - hence Badiou's insistence that we must proceed "as if" the event has truth. As Badiou outlines in Ethics, to do otherwise is to court fascism.

But even with this qualification the same legitimation problem emerges - do political subjects activated by '68, for example, proceed "as if" the egalitarian axiom is true, or do they straightforwardly believe it to be true?

2. Cooke presents the "proper" student of Euro philosophy as something like a Badiousian subject on its truth procedure. There is of course something evental about one's first encounter with Derrida, Deleuze et cetera, and there is a kind of fidelity in spending all of one's time and energy on something for which there is barely occasional employment.

Leaving aside the fact that Badiou distinguishes philosophy itself from the truth procedures, to be a post-evental work of subjectivization there has to be (in the language of Logics of Worlds) some "incorporating" of a "new body" in the world, or (in the language of Being and Event) some "forcing" of the supplement of the event into the situation.

In Cooke's review there is no discussion of how the truth of the encounter with European philosophy (ostensibly "revolutionary") could have an impact on the academy or outside of it, because its value seems to be dependent on its oppositional status. Instead we get a rehearsal of the drama and trauma of the subject's break from late capitalist doxa, opinion, utility - true enough, but finally as unsatisfying as the Levinasian drama and trauma of the Other that Badiou beats up in Ethics (and beats up very well).

This I think reflects the simple fact that Badiou's work (and work on Badiou's work) is conditioned (in the Marxist, rather than the Badiousian sense) by the defeat and decline of the left and far left in the last 30 years.* On the left, as Marxists or post-Marxists or anarcho-syndicalists or horizontalist Negri-ists or whatever, there is a tendency to valorise mere opposition or resistance as compensation for and reflection of decline.While we can't be blamed for this fetishisation of opposition  in our current political situation, when alternatives to neoliberalism actually do become real possibilities (as they have in Greece, South America and elsewhere), the fetishisation of opposition runs into serious limitations.

Vincent Descombes says something similar about existentialism:

"If the established order led him to think that its most dangerous enemy was the PCF or the USSR, then the existentialist satisfied the imperative of betrayal by making known his sympathy for communism. He could not, however, carry this as far as membership of the party, for such an initiative would have amounted to sanctioning the measure of reality which existed in communist organisations, or in socialist countries. This is way he created an opposition within the opposition, so as always to awake its destructive potential.” (Modern French Philosophy 18)

In order to clearly distinguish Badiou from Sartre, our reading needs to emphasise the procedure over the event. As Cooke points out, Badiou in the interviews included at the end of Badiou and Politics does just this:

"... what really interests Badiou is how what he calls a 'subject' proceeds, where this procedure will involve connecting together elements (bodies, affects, fragements of already-exisiting languages) that were always, already present in the situation, but whose 'generic' inter-connection is invisible to the situations principle(s) of 'inclusion' (what Badiou calles the situation's 'state')." 

I think we need to go even further in the direction of thinking the procedure, to the point of - and this is  more contentious - allowing the event to be pluralised (many events per procedure), even at the risk of procedures becoming in part the becoming of regulative ideas in the Kantian sense. This would mean contesting the allegedly autonomous rationality of the four conditions as well as Badiou's bivalent positioning of philosophy as both not a procedure and all of them (i.e. it would mean a whole lot of work).

In short, I'm asking if we need an event that is alien to the situation in order to build alternatives to the situation. In many ways this can be read as a question of Althusser v. Marx (in Althusser ideology is so effective that, for a post-Althusserian, it might seem as if the event is necessary to open subjects to non-capitalist possibilities; in Marx capitalism trains its own gravediggers).

* Initiates may have noted the Ranciere in my use of word "police" above. The question of legitimation helps us measure the distance between Ranciere and Badiou, a distance not a few of us are busy measuring at present (because it makes for a more or less perfectly assessable and topical PhD? Or because we have been "seized by at thought"?). In Ranciere, the activity of thought is always legitimate insofar as it affirms an equality of intelligence even when it asserts the opposite (because even alleged "inferiors" can understand, and are thus equal to, thoughts that might assert the opposite; those asserting mastery or rule are caught in a performative contradiction). But - and this is why I'm returning more and more to Badiou - Ranciere doesn't think the "procedure." Instead he thinks the "eruption" of equality as staging, and falls into the vulgar Badiousian trap in reverse, so to speak.

** Badiou re-valorises the Marxist thought of condition - he could even be said to Hegelianise it: the conditioning of philosophy by its outside renders philosophy secondary, as in Marx. But philosophy's secondariness allows it to take its conditions up into thought, to make them rational, and in doing so, renew itself. It is possible of course to argue that Marx makes his arguments concerning the mystifications of German philosophy (or "Ideology") because of Germany's particular historical circumstances, and that his dialectical exposition of Capital enacts a more Hegelian presentation of condition or the outside of thought as that which is available to thought, is becoming thought.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Everybody's Talking 'Bout: Spring Breakers

1. A contemporary (absolutely contemporary) episode in the venerable tradition of young women as protagonists in the narrative of the aestheticisation of life, a.k.a. “The Tyranny of Things.” C.f. Madame Bovary. The desire to make one’s life into art, i.e. the desire to experience aesthetic intensity, has been culturally grafted onto femininity.  Or rather: women's oppression has meant a certain deployment of the aesthetic plot, a certain use of the aesthetic ideal and emancipatory resource.

2. At the two moments in the story where direct sexual exploitation is possible and inferred as possible by the film – prostitution for money for Spring Break, grooming and prostitution by Alien – the protagonists substitute violent agency (robbing the chicken shop, becoming Alien’s partners-in-crime rather than his "employees"). The reality of gender oppression is presented and then refused, not in the name of some abstract or utopian femininity, but by an assumption and appropriation of “phallic” acts (i.e. violence and objectification – at the collateral cost of self-objectification). This appropriation of phallus is what I’m calling the “critical fantasy” of the film – made clearest when Alien “suck[s] y’all dicks.”  

3. This “critical fantasy” is artistic and not somnolent. The fantasy of dream attempts to bridge or reconcile desire and the reality principle, and in doing so effaces itself as fantasy. In contrast, art as critical fantasy rigorously empties out this reconciliation and in doing so reveals itself as a figuration of desire (the distinction is Lyotard's in Discourse, Figure). Spring Breakers pushes the desire for women's emancipation (or what substitutes for it in the film's logic: appropriation of phallus) as far as it can go within the limitations and resources of youth culture and marketing. The result is not so much a nightmare but a fantasy that is increasingly revealed to be fantasy, to be dreamt (Alien says so much in the final scene) and therefore impossible on its own terms (one simply can't do what the protagonists do at the end of the film). This means not only an edifying recognition that the gap between desire and reality has to be bridged in reality - rather than prematurely and symbolically bridged in fantasy - but that the desire itself, being a result of its situation and participating in the contradictions of that situation, has itself to be reconfigured after the phantasmatic encounter of its own limits. 

4. First axiom of popular contemporary feminism: it’s a good thing when women have power over men (i.e. reverse patriarchal power relationships). Second axiom of popular contemporary feminism: it doesn't matter what this power over men looks like or does (i.e. we are not to be critical if counter-patriarchal power relationship repeats and/or glamorises patriarchal patterns of oppression, e.g. identifies female subjectivity with the sexualised body; identifies success with violent and hedonistic “intensity” and commodity accumulation; participates in anti-democratic / imperialist governance). In its critical exhaustion of a certain counter-patriarchal fantasy, Spring Breakers shows both the strategic power and the limitation of this axiomatic setup. On the one hand, hijacking and weaponising misogynistic sexuality has some efficacy for the protagonists (reclaiming the word “bitch,” for example) as does the appropriation of the violence reserved under patriarchy for men (a double violence then: once to the male victim and again to the society that forbids women be violent; a violent reappropriation of violence). On the other hand, the film also shows the normative and critical limitation of this setup within a certain cultural field - power as violence after a certain point falls outside of any pattern of retributive justice (Wretched of the Earth notwithstanding) and becomes pure and excessive jouissance; commodities empty, rather than express, their possessors. We can perhaps locate the film’s founding ambiguity here – both the power and the limitation of the strategy of appropriating phallus within the "youth culture" mode of contemporary consumer capital. 

5. The film stylistically transitions between music video genres – teen angst/discovery ("Not a girl, not yet a woman") descending into its extimate other: rap. The “duplicity” of the women (platitudes to their mothers, “finding themselves” while killing others) is strung between the “doubleness” of these music video languages. Note the stylistic reliance on the music video is almost explicitly thematised: “Pretend you’re in a video game; pretend you’re in a movie” – when it should be: “pretend you’re in a music video.” 

6. What is the status of the voiceover in contemporary female artist’s music videos? It features as an extended prelude in Rihanna’s We Found Love, Taylor Swift’s I Knew You Were Trouble, Lana Del Ray’s Ride. This technique is writ large in Spring Breakers – repeated so often and so forcefully its sense and function begin to emerge. Important that within the structure of contemporary music videos by male artists (that more or less self-consciously occupy the opposite pole to Rihanna, Swift, Del Ray et cetera, e.g. Thicke’s Blurred Lines) there is not and could never be an introductory voiceover. Reflection is pronounced in the dominated strata of a given hierarchy because the dominated appear to themselves as problematic: young women faced with the fetishized, monetised female body experience their own sexuality as a profound problem (classical structure of alienation). Assuming agency therefore requires this problem be problematized in the Foucauldian sense, i.e. reflected on, reorganised, with a view to real transformation. The voiceover is the gesture of this problematisation. For patriarchal power the best weapon is obviously to act as if the problem is a non-problem, transparent, given et cetera – i.e. just to start the sexist song without monologue or framing.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Review: Post-Postmodernism

Nealon's historicist critique of postmodern theory - written, thankfully, by someone with an understanding of and sympathy for that theory - provides us with an orientation that disabuses much Anglo-American academic work of its faux-radicality and would-be Leftism. Valuable as it is, however, Nealon's Post-Postmodernism only identifies a starting point for contemporary analysis of the culture-theory-capitalism nexus, and limits its political recommendations and interventions to the Humanities and their survival under a dominant neo-liberalism.  

I. Nealon's Argument

My first encounter with Nealon was his article "Post-Deconstructive" in 2008 - included as a chapter of Post-Postmodernism - and I think it's a good point of departure.

"Post-Deconstructive" begins with a quote from Hardt and Negri in Empire:

"...the postmodern and postcolonial theorists who advocate a politics of difference, fluidity and hybridity in order to challenge the binaries and essentialism of modern sovereignty have been outflanked by the strategies of power. Power has evacuated the bastion they are attacking and has circled around to their rear to join them in the assault in the name of difference. These theorists thus find themselves pushing against an open door" (Empire 300). 

Nealon goes on to argue that the "master binary" uniting postmodern theory in all its forms is a preferences for "openness" over the "closedness" of totalitarianism in politics and totalisation or essentialism in philosophy.  Even postmodern theoretical opponents (Derrida and Habermas, for example) nonetheless subscribe to some version of this open-good/closed-bad setup.

Nealon notes, however, that this binary has its unspoken ground in Cold War Fordism, i.e. the disciplinarity and binary exclusiveness characteristic of the 20th Century nation state. In an era of globalised, neoliberal capitalism, open/closed no longer has critical purchase: contemporary capitalism "no longer primarily demands or seeks a kind of mass conformity, sameness or totalisation. Rather, today's cutting-edge capitalism celebrates and rewards singularity, difference, and openness to new markets and products." (118).

In short: in a world whose economic logic begins from capital flows, undecidables, speculative futures, differential values - that no longer even remembers the gold standard - essentialism is no longer being problematised or critiqued; it's simply gone. Nealon's quite relentless argument in Post-Postmodernism it is argue that any critical discourse that postures at radicality by "pushing against the open door" of Fordist discipline, the Nanny state et cetera (at least in the West) is or should be gone as well.

As such, Nealon's text bears witness to a "general movement away from the postmodern metaphorics of socially constructed mediation (the literary problem par excllence, filling gaps and working through undecidabilities), to examining more direct modes of biopolitical and economic manipulation. From a focus on understanding something to a concern with manipulating it - from (postmodern) meaning to (post-postmodern) usage, one might say." (148).

To use proper names, Post-Postmodernism wants to mark and account for the shift in the Anglo-American Humanities from a Derridean (or rather, a De Manian) deconstructive criticism of essentialism, totalitarianism, et cetera to a generalised Deleuzianism (of flows, transformations, usages et cetera). Not as such a movement out of postmodernism (if we mean by postmodernism the French theory of the 60s and 70s) - hence the affixing of another "post" - but a shift from its "negative" (deconstructive and interpretative) to "positive" (biopolitical and economic) poles. That is, the global neoliberal situation has necessitated, at the level of criticism, a movement from the "hermeneutics of suspicion" (concerned with infinite interpretation conditioned by the (im)possibility of meaning) to the "hermeneutics of situation" (which asks how a given situation works, and how it can be changed). As Nealon refrains, the shift is from "what does it mean?" to "what does it do?" - the notorious passage from Anti-Oedipus arguing for precisely this shift is diligently cited.

Nealon's historical schema is rather Hegelian:

1. Modernism. Subjects reflect on their experience and this reflection, in its authenticity, has critical and political valence. In short: subjects produce meaning. Whether or not modernism actually ever was this remains open (see Ranciere, see Barthes).

2. Post-Modernism. "Hermeneutics of suspicion" as negation of modernism; examination of the (im)possibility of authenticity, reflection (see Gasche's Tain of the Mirror) and "totalising" meaning. Note that the placement of (im) in brackets does not, at least in its Anglo-American form, straightforwardly maintain a "positive" moment for post-modernism, because meaning is treated as an ineliminable illusion, guaranteeing the ineliminability of the negative work of critique. In this negative moment, literature is, in Nealon's vocab, a "spoiling move" that "undoes" claims to transparent, univocal, totalising et cetera meaning (more on literature's relation to philosophy below).

3. Post-Postmodernism. Result of the "determinate negation" of modernist authenticity. The terminology valorised by post-modernism in opposition to and as a result of its critique of modernism is generalised: flux, flow, singularity, simulacra, event, contingency, desire, non-identity, performance et cetera become, both within the academy and outside it, a "new immediacy," something "obvious" to interpellated (neo-liberal) subjects. In other words, post-postmodernism is the positive result of the postmodernist critique. Nealon is keenly aware - as Hegel himself would be - that this determinate negation takes place both in and outside thought. In other words, a dominant neo-liberalism and a now hegemonic academic post-postmodernity reflect the same historical process.*

Nealon's analyses extend along three axes:

1. The work of exploring the symptoms of the exhaustion of the "hermeneutics of suspicion." The attempt to present "the conditions of possibility and impossibility" of transparent, univocal totalizing meaning in a literary work is exhausted not because this hermeneutic produces untruths (difference is prior to identity et cetera), but because it's hardwon insights have become givens under neo-liberalism - as the very structure and ideology of neo-liberalism - and is therefore no longer effective or critical under neo-liberal capitalism.

Take Jameson, for example. If one thinks that uncovering the imbrication of capitalist production in cultural production produces a "shocking" critical insight, one is postmodern, insofar as one still holds in some way to the "modern" position that cultural production should be autonomous. One is post-postmodern, on the other hand, if one takes this imbrication or contamination as one's starting point, thereby disavowing the modernist ethics of autonomy and resistance that nourished postmodernism posthumously. We start from Jameson - he becomes in a sense both ineliminable and redundant. This is then broadened out to "Big Theory" in general:

"Jameson postmodernism hasn't at all failed or been overcome, but rather triumphed in a way similar to other classics of the late twentieth-century theory canon. Think of Roland Barthes' "Death of the Author" or Judith Butler's gender performativity: these are no longer concepts that you have to sell labouriously to freshmen. They already know this stuff; in fact, they live it. Postmodernism, performativity, and the death of the author are no longer 'emergent' phenomena, but they've become 'dominant' ones." (64).

2. Developing a hermeneutics of situation. This, the more "positive" component of Nealon's work, is I think less impressive. An "Interruptive Excursus" in the middle of the book presents re-readings of Nietzsche and Adorno as thinkers of transformation rather than hermeneuts of suspicion. I think this work is redundant in many ways, and possibly confuses what is important in Nealon's first or "negative" axis of argument.

Redundant because, if Deleuzian rhetoric is, as Nealon claims, now hegemonic in the academy, there's little value in extending or redoubling its claims. In fact, it would be possible to recover a "transformative" Derrida, Lyotard, Lacan et cetera (Nealon in fact does as much with Derrida in his essay in Between Deleuze and Derrida) because suspicion of essentiality and an ethics of transformativity have always come more or less together in post-structuralism (see for example Deleuze's Nietzsche), even in Late Derrida's "transcendentalist" pole.** What has been surpassed in Derrida, Lyotard et cetera in the first, post-modern phase of its reception - not the work of these thinkers themselves. Granted, the transformational impulse is more submerged in Adorno than in Nietzsche, but arguably only because Adorno, unlike Nietzsche, had at least some image of collective change and the enormous barriers capitalism raises against it.

As such, Nealon's attempts to give us a "transformative Nietzsche" and "transformative Adorno" also I think confuse or make legible a confusion in Nealon's approach - sometimes it appears as if the problematic of transformativity is a cultural, economic and theoretical given, at other times the ethics of transformativity is afforded some critical, avant-gardist force - a logic yet to be generalised et cetera. More on the ambiguity of Deleuzian rhetoric below.

3. Thirdly, Nealon examines literature's function in relation to post-modernism and post-postmodernism. In postmodernism, Literature is a "spoiling move" - it is above all a contestation of modern philosophy's claim to totality (i.e. the straw-man Hegel), and to a "modern" society similarly structured around poles of essence and non-essence. As Nealon puts it, "Language and literature were king in the postmodern era precisely because they were the most economical markers for the experience of a social world where essentialism had lost its explanatory focus."

In post-postmodernism by contrast, Nealon presents poetry as a "provocation" or a "performance." The problem here is (1) nothing within contemporary poetry itself stops it from being read through the deconstructive lens of anti-totalisation - literature's spoiling move can be a provocation, and vice-versa; and (2) there is very little to say about literature when its content is effaced. Instead, Nealon's reading of Bruce Andrews amounts to little more than a litany: Andrews' post-LANGUAGE poetry is "ceremonial, passive, aggressive, communal, seductive, repulsive, humorous, persuasive, insulting, praising, performative, and much more." It is all these things, but to list a string of antinomies or ironies (passive, aggressive ... seductive, repulsive ... praising, insulting) is no step forward for the critical discourse around poetry, like the results of a New Critical reading without the close bit. And what is "provocation" other than a "critique" that no longer needs (or has not begun) to justify its own first principles?

What is gestured toward in a footnote is a linking of literature to the history of democracy as representation - quoting Derrida in Acts of Literature - that in turn leads one to a consideration of Ranciere. But this alternate post-postmodern gesture - wherein literature is part of an expanding sphere of representability, linking modernism and postmodernism  in one "aesthetic regime" (where post-postmodernism would be the site of enunciation of this regime) - is not examined. If one is looking to consider literature's place in the field of forces called liberal democracy - rather than continuing to interpret individual literary texts - Ranciere's work is an excellent place to start (hence, of course, his popularity with a Anglo-American academy concerned to do just that).

II. Some (more) criticisms 

I hate to criticise in the name of a proper name, but for all Nealon's adroitness, the casual style as evidence of easy-to-hand mastery of the canon,*** seemingly missing (or at least massively under-examined) is an understanding that post-postmodern theory has an major and obvious antecedent in praxis philosophy - the interminable interpretation of meaning v. usage as transformation sounds a lot like Marx's Eleventh Thesis. How a generalised neo-Deleuzian position differs from or advances on the Marxian insight doesn't get any sustained treatment.

From this lacuna emerge two related issues: (1) the limitation of scope to the humanities and (2) the question of normativity. If we agree that capitalism has to be transformed from within, what norms should guide us in this transformation? Our generalised Deleuzianism (or our reception of Deleuze) is perhaps limited here. As Balibar argues in the Philosophy of Marx, the intervention Marx can make into contemporary humanities is not a theory of change (we all have those) but as an attempt to think the change of change - how to change in a way not pre-programmed by capitalist development.

1. Nealon's book ends with a reflection on the humanities and its future. Given the limitation in Nealon's scope, it's easy to point out the too-obvious irony: shifting the theoretical question from "what does it mean?" to "what does it do?" doesn't by itself do anything but get publications in academic journals - and indeed one of Nealon's concerns is to argue that "the hermeneutics of suspicion has waned as an effective post-postmodern research agenda." This is of course correct - and I have had similar, paternal warnings from elsewhere - but it doesn't count as a political response to the post-post situation, which Nealon knows is necessary.

The limitations of Nealon's approach become clearer in his argument for the continuation of humanities: our best bet is not to insist on the kind of "citizen-building" and "cultural capital" arguments that have justified English departments in the past, but to embrace and speak the language of neoliberalism - or to recognise and capitalise on the fact that to an extent theory already does. While I agree that nostalgia has not proven itself to be a particularly effective response to neo-liberal attacks, Nealon runs the risk of losing any normative standard from which to judge capitalism's excesses.

2. As such, Nealon's final, dissatisfying conclusion is the result of two antecedents or inheritances running together: (a) the Foucauldian-Jamesonian recognition that nothing is outside power relations, and while Nealon recognises this is a necessary starting point, a kind of anti-moral tonic (and attributes it in some way to Marx) he doesn't confront the obvious problem of normativity that emerges from it and; (b) a Deleuzian or pseudo-Deleuzian vitalism and individualism leads to an ambiguous celebration of the post-postmodern form of biopower as well as the foreclosing of the consideration of collective solutions.

This is to me the ambiguity of the text, which I think reflects on the Deleuzian hegemony more generally. Is "the re-tooling of subjectivity" described as the logic of Las Vegas and contemporary capitalism straightforwardly identifiable with the "becoming-" and "lines of flight" touted by the Deleuze of anti-Oedipus, or does Deleuze's position remain one with critical purchase?
I am not in a position to gauge answer this yet. At present, however, I would like to fully disable (as Nealon at times sometimes intimates) the avant-gardist and ostensibly radical appeal of Deleuzian rhetoric (which does not of course mean the abandoning reading Deleuze and his ephebes), so that the crucial question of anti-capitalist organisation can come into view. Ironically or not, the thematic of organisation is foregrounded in Deleuze himself in Hardt's little book. Again, it would be a question of the reception of Deleuze - a Deleuze read for models subjective intensity v. a Deleuze read for new forms of anti-capitalist organisation.

* Read the first chapter of Jameson's Political Unconscious to know why I don't just say "dominant neo-liberalism conditions/determines academic post-postmodernity." And the "process" is the totality of the movement, against any vulgar economism. 

** Even in the late Derrida, the "absolutely Other" or "Impossible" in a given field is deployed to interrupt and transform that field. See Paul Patton's essay in Between Deleuze and Derrida.

*** I'm not going to talk about his style - except to say that I've noticed the same kind of swashbuckling in other works of American scholarship, even ones which don't examine pop culture (Comay's Mourning Sickness for example). Don't be fooled, however: this swashbuckling is not piratical. Rather, it's a modulation of the demonstration of mastery expected of Academics, this time expressed by the ease of the movement from the personal (contraction of "I am" to "I'm" and beginning arguments with "OK, it seems to me that...") to the pseudo-technical theory-speak that impressed a younger me and rightly frustrated others ("the hybridization of post-sovereign affectivities reterritorialize the performative (de-)construction of consumer ipseity" et cetera and blah).

Friday, June 14, 2013

Name Change + First Principles

The original name for this blog - "Chosen Site" - made me feel a bit religious/grandiose when people didn't know the Klee painting I'd named it after: "The Chosen One" is a figure of thought with impeccably reactionary credentials, even if just in Hollywood.*

Klee's painting remains the blogs banner: the city standing for politics, the moon for poetics. As I suggest in the post below, Klee's city and moon have an affinity, being composed from the same or similar material. Perhaps most important is that they are both composed or produced (what I call "auto-poesis" below).

Anyway, I've stuck politics and poetics together as "Poetilics" to reference the two key problematics of my philosophical work. That "Poetilics" is a bit awkward I think suits the work itself. 

This blog is intended as a small cog in that work, which attempts to eventually contribute in some way to:

(1) a coherent Marxist theoretical framework for emancipatory practices in advanced industrial, liberal democratic nations in the 21st Century;

(2) " " for poetic practice, and aesthetic practices more broadly " " ;

(3) " " for the relationship between emancipatory practices and aesthetic practices " " .

At this point in our history, there's an understandable feeling that both revolutionary politics and lyric poetry (maybe even art-in-general) are exhausted projects. Or, if you are convinced of one project but not the other, that the "Western Marxist" attempt to think the two together is exhausted.

To the first argument I have an ethical counter, to the second I have some historical observations.

(1) Ethical. This is where Alain Badiou is foundational for me, but there are analogous moves in other thinkers. Against the theses of the "End" - the End of Metaphysics, the End of History, the End of artistic Modernism et cetera - Badiou argues for "one more step."  Neither the rejection of history nor enslavement to it, Badiou (following Deleuze in an important sense) is for ongoing practices of creation, the collective production of political rationalities and aesthetic rationalities adequate to our conjuncture. Anything else = capitulation to a capitalist-parliamentarism and attendant culture industry that makes you sick as soon as you start to figure out how it works.**

(2) Historical. Politics + Poetics goes back further than the Frankfurt School. Jacques Ranciere's project has begun to reconstruct the integral relationship between early Romantic poetics, the emergence of the novel, the French revolution, and dialectical thought in Hegel and Marx. All are in some way thinking a kind of auto-poesis, i.e. an autonomous self-production in nature and in history. Michael Lowy insists on this connection in more intransigent and entertaining fashion in Morning Star.

For Lowy, Trotsky and Breton are not shoe-horning aesthetic Modernism into Bolshevism when they co-author their piece on "Independent Revolutionary Art." Rather, they are tapping into a profound and originary sympathy between aesthetic and revolutionary practices, while recognising the relative autonomy of these practices. 

I might also add that lyric poetry and the revolutionary tradition are in similar positions today: both make universal claims (whether they like it or not) while having little readership. Both are subcultures claiming to be culture. This is not to suggest that the stakes in art and politics are comparable: the stakes for revolutionary (or even "just" anti-capitalist) politics getting a hearing at this point could well be human life on the planet, and the same cannot be said for poetry by anyone sane. Nevertheless, politics and poetry share a bond of universality which links them, if "only" subjectively.

This is probably not enough to convince some comrades and friends that Marxist aesthetics is more than just an "art wank," or to allay suspicions that my interest in it perhaps conceals some more nefarious liquidation or distance from the class (except that the class at present is distant from itself). It is worth remembering though that this "art is for wankers" thing is curiously and perhaps specifically Australian, and we would be closer to key figures in the Classical Marxist canon if we afforded art some place in our thought.  

* I'm not just talking about The Matrix. See also Tim Burton's use of the Christ trope to completely obliviate everything interesting and critical in Alice in Wonderland. 

** While I get tired of Badiou's figures of heroic subjectivity (the Catholic mathematician who goes mad proving there is no God; the resistance fighter that chews off his own arm while fighting Nazis with the other), I recognise that even at this flat / dark point in our history a little bit of us v. them is important. I am, however, much more attracted and indebted to the Badiou that emphasises the patient, persistent work of truth construction - heroism again perhaps, but low-key.