Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Dark Mountain and hope: some quotes and reflexions

No emotion lends itself so well to paradoxical formulations as hope. Writing this I recall Walter Benjamin's words at the end of his essay on Goethe - “Only for the sake of the hopeless are we given hope”. Yes, this may well be true. There is a logic connecting hope and hopelessness, two emotions that constantly seem to invite each other. Indeed, the very presence of hope testifies to the existence of something bad, something that we want to escape. In that sense, every incidence of hope is cause for pessimism. Perhaps there is no pure hope, no hope without an element of hopelessness? But conversely, isn't it true that one sometimes experiences how giving up hope can be a cure against hopelessness?

When asked by an interviewer if he had hope in view of the ecological disaster, Paul Shepard replied: "Of course I have hope. Why not, it’s cheap and available. It is also the last resort” (quoted in Jensen 2004: 256). A seemingly opposite viewpoint is offered by the Salvage magazine: "Hope is precious; it must be rationed".

The curious thing is that both statements ring true, and that's the paradox.

Here's what Naomi Klein wrote after Trump's election: ”To quote a popular saying on the French left, 'The hour calls for optimism; we’ll save pessimism for better times.' ('L’heure est à l’optimisme, laissons le pessimisme pour des temps meilleurs.')”

I realize of course that hope isn't the same as optimism. Hope is a feeling not wholly under our conscious control, while optimism is a cognitive assessment. Rebecca Solnit puts it well when she writes that both optimism and pessimism are set views of the future and both provide excuses for inactivity. Hope, by contrast, is to see the future as open and thus calling for action (Solnit 2006; also Ehrenreich 2009:3, Weber-Nicholsen 2002:183). Yet despite this difference, the paradoxical quality of hope often seems to reflect on statements about optimism (and pessimism) as well, at least to the extent that such statements are meant to induce a feeling of hope.

I'd like to use these remarks about hope as a way of approaching and making sense of two books I've read recently, Paul Kingsnorth's Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays (2017) and Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times (2017), an anthology of texts produced by the Dark Mountain collective (of which Kingsnorth is a co-founder). Dark Mountain is a hugely interesting group of writers, artists and activists who came together in 2009 to put words on the experiences of loss accompanying the decay and collapse of civilization. The fundamental gesture of Dark Mountain consists, I believe, in giving up hope that "the world can be saved". Instead, the group insists that accepting loss and honestly confronting the fact that the catastrophe can no longer be avoided is a liberating act. In a debate with fellow enviornmentalist Wen Stephenson, Kingsnorth expresses it as follows:
This may sound a strange thing to say, but one of the great achievements for me of the Dark Mountain Project has been to give people permission to give up hope. … I don’t think we need hope. I think we need imagination. We need to imagine a future which can’t be planned for and can’t be controlled. I find that people who talk about hope are often really talking about control. They hope desperately that they can keep control of the way things are panning out. … Giving up hope, to me, means giving up the illusion of control and accepting that the future is going to be improvised, messy, difficult. (quoted in Stephenson 2012)

Whereas much environmentalism until now has employed an apocalyptic rhetoric, pointing to the threat of a future, global catastrophe only in order to enable us to avoid it, Dark Mountain instead exemplifies what I've called a new post-apocalyptic form of environmentalism which sees catastrophe as something that's already here: as already having happened, as ongoing or as unvaoidable.

In post-apocalyptic environmentalism we encounter a new paradox. Don't people need hope in order to become activists? It's a well-known saying that people don't join movements because of pessimism. As Klein points out in the quote above, pessimism should probably be "saved for better times" if you want to stop bad things from taking over entirely. In regard to climate activism in particular, researchers have pointed to the centrality of the emotion of hope in mobilizing and sustaining activism (e.g. Ojala 2012). Even if emotions such as fear, anxiety, despair or depression may exist among activists, hope is still indispensible, mediating the other emotions so as to motivate action (Gardner 2017, Kleres & Wettergren 2017). At the climate summit in Paris 2015 (COP21), well-known environmental organizations such as Greenpeace made a point of delivering a bright and hopeful message, praising the deal as an important breakthrough. The aim was to avoid generating feelings of disappointment among activists and in the general public, and thereby maintain trust in the efficacy of activism (see e.g. Thörn et al 2017: 240f).  

To understand post-apocalyptic forms of activism, as in Dark Mountain, we need to drop the premise that all mobilization needs hope in the sense of upbeat, optimistic messages - the "positive thinking" lambasted by Barbara Ehrenreich in her 2009 book Bright-Sided. Dark Mountain is the antithesis of such thinking.

The answer to the riddle is, I believe, that Dark Mountain relies on the paradoxical quality of hope - the fact that giving up hope may be a way to gain hope. Sean Parson (2017) advocates making use of this paradox in activism, citing Adorno as the great theoretician of “revolutionary pessimism” in which politics is generated by “embracing doom”. An even blunter example is Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene (2015) which advocates a radical-Buddhist rejection of hope. By realizing that we are “already dead” and that our civilization, including capitalism, are also dead, we can let go of our fear. That is the only way of seeing what possibilities we have to adapt to the new reality. Somewhat similar is the suggestion by Flores & Rousse (2016) to embrace ecological finitude, learning to die as a species, while at the same time finding space for “fulgor” – the faint glimmer or glow of a dawning reconfiguration – and radical hope as a commitment to possibility. Here again we see how important it is not to confuse hope with optimism. In all these writers and thinkers, hope co-exists with a lack of optimism, and perhaps it even arises because of this lack. Like Kingsnorth, they also all emphasize the need for imagination - for new ideas and new stories - and that giving up hope may be the key to freeing up this imagination.

The best theoretician of this kind of paradoxical mechanism is perhaps the philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who has put forward the idea of “enlightened doom-saying” and post-apocalyptic retroactivity as a way of handling climate change and other environmental threats (Dupuy 2007/2008; 2013: 27f, 46f). The problem, he states, is that the world is headed for doom, but people don’t prevent it since the future is not conceived as real. It appears unreal precisely because we believe in our free will, in our capacity to "act otherwise" which makes it impossible for us to believe that the worst will occur. Only retrospectively will it appear possible. The catastrophe “possiblizes itself” – and that is our problem, because to prevent it one needs to believe in it before it occurs. What is the solution? To project oneself into the future and look back at our present from there. One must allow “the mind to project itself into the aftermath of the catatstrophe, and treat the event in the future perfect tense” (Dupuy 2013: 204).

This strategy is described very well by Zizek in In Defense of Lost Causes. There he points to the notorious “pessimism” of Adorno and Horkheimer as an example of this paradoxical strategy: “While traditional Marxism enjoined us to engage and act in order to bring about the necessity (of communism), Adorno and Horkheimer projected themselves into the final catastrophic outcome perceived as fixed (the advent of the 'administered society' of total manipulation and the end of subjectivity) in order to stimulate us to act against this outcome in our present” (Zizek 2008: 460). Here the very rejection of ostensible “hope” becomes the precondition for hope. Only by renouncing the seemingly hopeful prognosis that the catastrophe can be averted can we free ourselves from paralysis and act.

Here it's possible to object that Dupuy isn't really accepting loss. Isn’t he still hoping to avert or at least postpone the future catastrophe by using retroactivity as an intellectual ruse? What he calls enlightened doom-saying at first sight does not appear to be based on a genuine post-apocalyptic acceptance of catastrophe; instead it is supposed to spur us to undo the catastrophe that fate has ordained for us: “to believe in fate is to prevent it from happening” (Dupuy 2013: 32). This may seem like a form of rationalism, a mere strategy for averting the worst, which is still tied to the linear perspective on time which Dupuy claims to be criticizing. But to understand Dupuy's strategy as a rationalism is to do it a disservice. It appears to me that the strategy becomes genuinely persuasive only when seen as practiced by subjects groping their way towards recovery from a traumatized or melancholic state. Rather than as a calculated trick implemented by a wholly self-controlled subject, I prefer to see it as a strategy that doesn’t have to be wholly conscious. This is why his idea is relevant in the context of Dark Mountain’s literary production where a strategy similar to Dupuy's post-apocalyptic retroactivity appears to be involved, albeit in a form that is perhaps unconscious or only half-conscious.

Dupuy himself seems to admit that full consciousness of the strategy is not required when he writes that the post-apocalyptic future should be believed in as a “fate” that is somehow similar to the way we believe in the world we encounter in literature: “We must… believe in fate exactly as one believes in a work of fiction” (ibid. 193). This stance is seemingly rational but also a way of working-through and liberating the mind in a way that could be described as only half-conscious or even dreamlike.

Michael Ortiz Hill provides an illustration of what this form of belief might mean in his discussion of apocalyptic dreams. To begin with, it is crucial not to confuse the literal and the psychic apocalypse. “In the psyche… images often have different implications than in our waking life, and the apocalyptic initiation may well require destruction” (Hill 1994: 53). Entering the “apocalypse of the psyche” may be a way of avoiding “enacting apocalypse in the world” literally. What is suggested here is that the confrontation with apocalyptic destruction in dreams can function as a catharsis, freeing us to act with greater sensibility and freedom in our waking lives. I would like to suggest that this form of confrontation is aimed at in the literary production of Dark Mountain as well as in Dupuy's “enlightened doom-saying”. Rather than a purely rational operation, this doom-saying can be enacted in dreams and played out in the unconscious as well as in literary production. The point is to psychically visit the apocalypse to free ourselves from the fixations that, in our ordinary lives, prevent us from taking action against the catastrophic course of events that unfold around us in reality. There is thus a therapeutic function to anticipating loss – to liberate the mind, and find something positive in the loss, and thus, perhaps, regain the ability to avert the worst.

It's time to wind down, but before finishing I'd like to offer a final quote. Here's Max Brod recallling a conversation with Kafka (quoted by Benjamin).
‘I remember,’ Brod writes, ‘ a conversation with Kafka which began with present-day Europe and the decline of the human race. “We are nihilistic thoughts, suicidal thoughts that come into God’s head,” Kafka said. This reminded me at first of the Gnostic view of life: God as the evil demiurge, the world as his Fall. “Oh no,” said Kafka, “our world is only a bad mood of God, a bad day of his.” “Then there is hope outside this manifestation of the world that we know.” He smiled. “Oh, plenty of hope, an infinite amount of hope – but not for us.”
Infinite hope indeed, but this invocation of hope only serves to strengthen the impression of infinite hopelessness. And isn't that the perfect way to end this essay?


References:

Dark Mountain (2017) Walking on Lava: Selected Works for Uncivilised Times, ed. by Charlotte Du Cann & Dougald Hine & Nick Hunt & Paul Kingsnorth, White River Junction: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Dupuy, Jean-Pierre (2007/2008) “Rational Choice before the Apocalypse”, Anthropoetics - The Journal of Generative Anthropology 13(3) (Fall / Winter); http://www.anthropoetics.ucla.edu/ap1303/1303dupuy.htm (accessed 2016-02-03)

Dupuy, Jean-Pierre (2013) The Mark of the Sacred, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ehrenreich, Barbara (2009) Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America, New York: Metropolitan Books.

Flores, Fernando & Rousse, B. Scot (2016) “Ecological Finitude as Ontological Finitude: Radical Hope in the Anthropocene”, Telos (177): 127–143.

Gardner, Claire (2017) “Oscillating Futures: Visions of Apocalypse Amongst Climate Activists”, interview by Odette Shenfield, Demos, June 2; http://www.demosproject.net/oscillating-futures-visions-of-apocalypse-amongst-350-org-climate-activists/ (accessed 2017-10-25).

Hill, Michael Ortiz (1994) Dreaming the End of the World, Dallas: Spring Publications.

Jensen, Derrick (2004) “Paul Shepard”, pp. 248-259, in Listening to the Land: Conversations about Nature, Culture, and Eros, White River Junction: Chelsea Green.

Kingsnorth, Paul (2017) Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist and Other Essays, London: Faber & Faber.

Kleres, Jochen& Åsa Wettergren (2017) “Fear, hope, anger, and guilt in climate activism”, Social Movement Studies 16(5): 507-519

Ojala, Maria (2012) “Hope and climate change: the importance of hope for environmental engagement among young people”, Environmental Education Research 18(5): 625-642.

Parson, Sean (2017) “Cthulhuscene: Ecological Catastrophe, Cosmic Horror, and the Politics of Doom”, Reading Super Heroes Politically (blog), February 24; https://readingsuperheroespolitically.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/cthulhuscene-ecological-catastrophe-cosmic-horror-and-the-politics-of-doom/ (accessed 2017-11-25).

Scranton, Roy (2015) Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, San Francisco: City Lights Books.

Solnit, Rebecca (2006) Hope in the Dark, New York: Nation Books.

Stephenson, Wen (2012) “‘I withdraw’: A talk with climate defeatist Paul Kingsnorth”, The Grist, April 11; http://grist.org/climate-energy/i-withdraw-a-talk-with-climate-defeatist-paul-kingsnorth/ (accessed 2018-01-09).

Thörn, Håkan & Cassegård, Carl & Linda Soneryd & Åsa Wettergren (2017) “Hegemony and Environmentalist Strategy: Global Govenance, Movement Mobilization and Climate Justice”, pp 219-244, in Håkan Thörn & Carl Cassegård & Linda Soneryd & Åsa Wettergren (eds.) Climate Action in a Globalizing World: Comparative Perspectives on Environmental Movements in the Global North, New York: Routledge.

Weber Nicholsen, Shierry (2002) The Love of Nature and the End of the World: the Unspoken Dimension of Environmental Concern, Cambridge: MIT Press.

Zizek, Slavoj (2008) In Defense of Lost Causes, London: Verso.



Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Salvage as utopia, or: why are anti-capitalist utopias so... capitalist?

One perhaps unfortunate side-effect of the focus on the super-rich, or "1%", in so much anti-capitalist criticism in recent years is that it conveniently forgets the capitalism pervading the rest of society. This forgetting is understandable, of course, considering the mindboggling levels of income, wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite today. The gap between the super-rich and the mass of small-scale producers, traders and entrepreneurs has taken on the semblance of a class division. Where do the profits end up? It's certainly only a trickle that ends up with small shop-owners or family-run businesses, not to speak of e-waste scavengers, private taxi drivers or freelancers. Indeed, the very idea of a class divide between "capital" and "labour" begins to lose meaning when much of what was once counted as labour is redefined as hired or subcontracted services provided by private enterprises consisting of one or just a few people. Regardless of the fact that the latter are capitalists on paper, big capital is capable of skimming surplus value off their work just as comfortably as from wage labour. Just as the reality of exploitation is hidden by the employment contract in the case of wage labour, so it can be hidden when it takes place among capitalists by a contract between seemingly equal business partners.

What I'd like to do here is to analyse what the perception of a class divide within the capitalist class does to the utopian imagination. It's no news that the utopian imagination today hardly seems capable any longer of mobilizing any radically non-capitalist, or communist, visions. In literature as well as scholarly accounts, there's instead a tendency to relish in rose-coloured visions of a thriving, buzzling market economy in which commodities mostly derive from salvage or simple do-it-yourself production. These writings, although suffused by abhorrence for the excesses symbolized by the parasitical "1%", idealize a particular kind of capitalism, a capitalism with a "human face", so to speak, from which the excesses have been purged. It's not my intention to reject visions of this kind, but I would like to point out that they're ambiguous in a very interesting way. They have a utopian lustre, as if salvage and small-scale production per se signified a post-capitalist economy, but they are also, strikingly, portrayed as part and parcel of a rather rapacious, brutal and Hobbesian form of capitalism. Visions of this kind thus present a riddle. What exactly is the utopian content of these visions? Why are we attracted to them? Are they just a trap to make us affirm capitalism even as we criticize it?

Let me turn to China Miéville's 2012 novel Railsea (written in a genre which the author himself calls "salvagepunk") to illustrate this ambiguity. The world of the novel is post-apocalyptic, but still recognizably capitalist. Humankind subsists largely on salvage, using trains to "sail" a flat, poisoned earth covered with a carpet of railways known as the "railsea" - the remains of an old, forgotten civilization whose technological achievements are far beyond the grasp of the surviving remnants of humanity. The first thing to note is that the depiction of this future world is not particularly bleak. In large parts, it's an adventurous and carnivalesque world. The gaze it turns on salvage is filled with fascination and fondness. Take for instance the following description of Streggeye, a lively "port" town where Sham - the book's protagonist - admiringly watches the salvage trains come in.
They were like no other rolling stock on the railsea. Patchwork vehicles. Powerful engines, wicked shunters at the front, train sides riveted with cladding, bristling with the peculiar tools of the salvor’s trade. Drills, hooks, cranes, sensors of various unorthodox kinds, to find & sort through the millennia of discarded rubbish that littered the railsea. Bits of salvage used & incorporated. On the topside decks salvors themselves in their distinctive clothes, tool-belts &bandoliers & stained leather chaps, snips of treated cloths & plastic feathers & showy bits & pieces pulled from the earth & miraculously unruined. Helmets of various complicated designs.
    First the city authorities would come aboard & bargain for what salvage they wanted. Then high-rolling clients, the Streggeye rich. & finally, if the salvor crews were feeling generous & had a few days, they would run a market.
    Their antique & reclaimed wares were set on stalls on the dockside, according to various taxonomies. Pitted & oxidized mechanisms from the Heavy Metal Age; shards from the Plastozoic; printouts on thin rubber & ancient ordinator screens from the Computational Era: all choice arche-salvage, from astoundingly long ago. & the less interesting stuff, too, that discarded or lost anything from a few hundred years ago to yesterday (Miéville 2013: 97f)
There's something here that reminds me of preindustrial European capitalism. The involvement in salvage activities of city authorities (and, as we learn later in the book, privateers and navy "war-trains") suggests a collusion between political power and capital that a variety of writers from Braudel and Wallerstein to Kocka have argued is typical of the capitalist world-system. The world of the railsea is thus hardly post-capitalist. And indeed, why should it be? As Evan Calder Williams points out, salvage is firmly enmeshed within the circulation of capital:
By now, the meaning of salvage has stabilized to the point where it can be paraphrased: the discovery of hidden value or use in what appears beyond repair or sale – or, at the least, a wager that the already ruined might still have some element worth saving, provided one knows where and how to look. In this form, it designates a fundamental mechanism within the circulation of capital. It is a relentless search for every last scrap of value. (Williams 2015: 845)
As a "search for every last scrap of value", salvage might not seem a likely abode of utopian possibilities. Yet distinct glimpses of such possibilities are offered in the book. We see this in a key scene when Sham arrives at the house of the siblings Caldera and Dero and asks to join them as salvors. It must be exciting, he says, to uncover the past. But Caldera admonishes him: "you don’t uncover the past if you’re a salvor: you pick up rubbish. The last thing I think you should think about’s the past. That’s what they do wrong here" (ibid. 145). Let me quote Zak Bronson, who nicely summarizes the utopian significance of this scene:
Caldera’s knowledge about the railsea suggests that she has abandoned any desire to uncover objects’ original use; instead she creatively repurposes it for its contemporary possibilities. This is something that Sham notices when he arrives at Caldera’s home, which serves also as a scrapyard for rusted-out, discarded metal. He marvels at her salvaged waste, including a stack of washing machines that arc over the entrance to their property. Sham wonders, “Why would you use arche-salvage for something it clearly wasn’t for? When there were much bloody easier things to build an arch out of?” (156). Caldera’s transformed arch signifies the utopian possibilities of salvagepunk: it turns objects upside down. In the post-apocalyptic world, their value is no longer based on the process of exchange, but on their social function within the new landscape. (Bronson 2014: 94)
I readily agree with Bronson that Caldera's salvage activities - and not least the arch - are the locus of Railsea's utopia. But isn't it significant that these utopian possibilities are not portrayed as in any sense negating the salvage-based capitalism of the railsea world? Just like the washing machines making up Caldera's arch, the salvaged junk brought in by the salvage trains in Streggeye will also be repurposed, disconnected from any past, original use. In regard to what, then, does Caldera's version of breaking with the past represent a utopian possibility? If it consists in creatively repurposing junk for present purposes, then we need to figure out what this "past" is in order to know exactly what the arc is supposed to be a counter-image to.

The answer to this (perhaps not so difficult) riddle comes near the novel's end. Sham and his comrades make their way to the edge of the railsea and, against all odds, manage to find a way out of it. As the first people in millennia, they cross an ancient bridge stretching over an almost endless chasm and arrive at what appears to be a ghost town. There feral figures appear, headed by a sinister tall man.
    What were they, these dwellers beyond the world? Rag-clad, hulking & shaggy, creeping, sniffing, they loped out of the dust that announced them. Ten, twelve, fifteen figures. Big women & men, all muscle & sinew, baring their teeth, coming on two limbs & four, apelike, wolflike, fatly feline. Staring as they came.
    «We have to go,» Dero said, but they could not get past. The newcomers had reached the base of the jetty. & there they stopped. Their dark clothes were so shredded they looked like feathers. They licked their lips; they stared a long time. ... Something was approaching from the ruins. Seven feet tall, sloped, immense. An ancient, powerful man, of great girth. He wore a repatched dark coat, a tall black hat....
    What looked like a degenerate avatar of the god stepped slowly past his fellows, towards Sham & the others. The jetty shook with his great steps. He licked his face in delight.
Amazingly, it turns out that the man, known as the "Controller", represents the ancient corporation responsible for constructing the railsea. The railsea was in fact once a real ocean that was drained by the corporation to increase marketable real estate. Believing that Sham and his comrades have come to settle their debts at last, the Controller triumphantly presents them with a bill.
Caldera stared at the paper. «This is … more money than there’s ever been in history,» she whispered. «It’s gibberish.» ...
    Abruptly, Sham hated them. He didn’t care that they were lost, too, in thrall to a remorseless drive, the hunger of a company presiding over ruin. That refused to allow the fall & rise of civilisations, the visitations & transformations & leave-takings & rubbish-pickings of aliens, the fall of waters, the poisonings of skies & the mutation of the things in the earth, because of the very actions for which they charged, to intrude on their patient accounting. Endlessly extending terms to a humanity unaware they were in debt, that they had for millennia been buying travel-passes on the never-never. All in the hopes that at the end of time, economies would be back in place to pay.
    «Ghost money in Heaven,» Sham said. «Not ’cause it died — ghosts because it weren’t born yet.» He stared the big man in the face. «We,» he said, «owe you nothing.»
    The controller stared at him. His look of hungry expectation slowly changed. To one of uncertainty. Then slowly to one of misery. & abruptly to one of rage.
    He roared. All the Heaven-dwellers roared. They lurched forward. The jetty rocked as they came. (Miéville 2013: 360-363)
So here, in the person of the Controller, Shame and his comrades finally confront the beast, the last and pitiably remnant of today's global finance capitalism. Written as it was in 2012, it's safe to assume that readers wouldn't have had any difficulties in recognizing in the Controller's snickering face the masters of the debt economy that just a few years earlier had wreaked havoc with global finance, plunging whole populations into debt servitude, and yet, despite the enormity of their fiasco, managed to live on basically unscathed by the crisis. In the ensuing fight on the jetty, Sham manages to push the Controller into the sea and that's the end of capitalism - not with a bang but with a whimper.

Now the picture seems clear. Caldera's liberating ability to start anew is the necessary antithesis to this ridiculous zombie-like capitalism, which refuses to let go of the past and over millennia keeps track of accumulated debts that have become irrelevant to the living. Bronson (2014) is clearly right when he points out that Miéville’s novel "taps into the utopian possibilities of repurposing and recreating the world anew out of the wreckage that remains”.

Yet, the simple opposition between the utopian possibilities of Caldera-style salvage/repurposing and the absurd persistence of Controller-style zombie capitalism is complicated and to some extent undermined by the existence of the far less moribund economy of the railsea, which, as we have seen, is also very capitalist. The facile end of the Controller seems to suggest that finance capitalism is nothing but a parasitical remnant that can easily be removed without any damage to the real, functioning economy. This real economy has, after all, grown up and prospered in blissful ignorance of the Controller and his monstrous corporation for ages. And now it is ready to cast off the shell of the old (the "iron cage", to paraphrase Max Weber, has thus reverted into the "light cloak" it was meant to be). The only problem is that Controller-style capitalism is killed off only to make way for another kind of capitalism, namely the salvage-centred railsea economy. How radically new are the utopian possibilities of salvage if salvage is part and parcel of the latter economy?

This, I believe, is how far Miéville's novel takes us. No doubt it would be possible to continue exploring the ambiguities of salvage by looking closer at other examples. Why not discuss Williams' explorations of salvagepunk in Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, Anna Tsing's ruminations on salvage in The Mushroom at the End of the World, or perhaps Steven Jackson's discussions of "repair"? Wouldn't it have been helpful also to consult Marxist discussions of how capitalism relies on resources not generated by wage-labour (such as Jason Moore's Capitalism in the Web of Life)? True, true - but discussing these works will have to wait until some other day.

Before I end, I'd like to propose three theses, which I hope will go some way towards clarifying the ambiguity of salvage.

Firstly, although salvage is today a moment in the circulation of capital, it is also grounded in the need of human beings for survival and subsistence. Through its orientation to use value, salvage may offer glimpses in to a possible post-capitalist life. In that sense, it contains the seed of negating, not just the "1%", but also the railsea economy. The fascination with salvage that is evident in post-apocalyptic fiction stems, I suggest, from this seed.

Secondly, a capitalism relying to a large extent on salvage is different from one based on industrial production. This in turn means that anti-capitalist struggles will also look different. Nicholas Beuret and Gareth Brown (2015) have argued that instead of the wage-labourer, the survivor takes central place as the subject of politics in such struggles. Instead of furthering historical progress and economic development, the survivor "dwells within a collapsing world". At the same time, differences between salvage and labour shouldn't be exaggerated. Labour, as Marx reminds us, is what people do when they're deprived of other means of subsistence. In labour we thus see the same ambiguity as in salvage. A person who is forced to work for a wage - a proletarian - is oriented to subsistence and hence to use values, yet works in a system where what counts is exchange value. Like the worker, the salvor takes part in the movement of capital yet retains an orientation to use value from the point of view of which the logic of capital will appear alien. Depite the fact that the salvor is sometimes formally a capitalist or at least not a member of the class of wage-labourers, it is thus possible to see salvage as a site of potential resistance to the logic of capital - and in this sense there is also a potential continuity between struggles waged in the name of labour and salvage.

Finally, whatever utopian possibilities may grow from salvage are only present as a seed. As long as they remain unrealized, salvage per se is perfectly compatible with capitalism of any type. Moishe Postone once criticized a common mistake made by what he called "traditional Marxists", namely that they treated labour as a transhistorical category, extrapolating it into the future post-capitalist society. Against them, he argued that the point of overthrowing capitalism wasn't the liberation of labour, but the liberation from labour, since the category of labour only had meaning within the relations established by capitalism. In similar fashion, we shouldn't idealize salvage, treating it as a transhistorical category that can unproblematically be extrapolated into the future. Salvage as it exists today is no less enmeshed in capitalism than labour, and shouldn't be transposed into the future as a blueprint for a post-capitalist society. But that doesn't mean that it is mere ideology. Utopias, as Miéville (2015) points out in another text, are not meant to be blueprints but dreams that shock us into action by liberating our imagination.



References

Beuret, Nicholas & Gareth Brown (2015) “Dancing on the Grave: Salvage, The Walking Dead, and the End of Days”, Salvage, 19th of October; http://salvage.zone/in-print/dancing-on-the-grave-salvage-the-walking-dead-and-the-end-of-days/ (accessed 2017-10-23)

Bronson, Zak (2014) “Reproduce, Reuse, Recycle: the End of the Future, Salvage, and China Miéville’s Railsea”, Researchgate, January 2014; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317175893 (accessed 2017/12/08).

Miéville, China (2013) Railsea, Pan.

Miéville, China (2015) “The Limits of Utopia”, Salvage Vol. 1, 1st of August; http://salvage.zone/in-print/the-limits-of-utopia/ (accessed 2017-10-23).

Williams, Evan Calder (2015) “Salvage”, Journal of American Studies 49(4): 845-859.



Thursday, 22 June 2017

Kocka's capitalism

Just a very brief note on Jürgen Kocka's Capitalism: A Short History (Princeton University Press, 2016). This is a thin volume grasping an enormous subject, and as can be expected Kocka sometimes becomes too sweepingly superficial. It is rather annoying when entire scholarly traditions are dismissed in a single sentence without even the trace of an argument to back it up.

Still, there are two things in the book that I like. One is the definition of capitalism  The second is his treatment of the "great divergence" in Chapter 2. I believe, however, that there is a slight tension between the two.

The definition stresses decentralization, commodification and accumulation as three core elements in capitalism. To put it more precisely:
(1) Property rights enable economic decisions to be made in a decentralized way
(2) Markets are main mechanisms of allocation and coordination
(3) Investment are systematically made in expectation of future gain.
To these elements he adds that in its fully developed form capitalism is also characterized by, firstly, the enterprise form and, second, the reliance on wage workers and the absorption from them of surplus value (Kocka 2016: 21f). A benefit of this definition is that it allows him to speak of early forms of capitalism when it merely represents a minority formation in noncapitalist environments.

The "great divergence" is the one between East Asia and Western Europe made famous by Kenneth Pomeranz in his 2000 book The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the World Economy.  Why did industrial capitalism take off in Western Europe rather than East Asia, despite similar levels of economic development as late as the 1750s? Pomeranz's answer (which has been much debated) was England's easy access to coal and to the New World.

Kocka, however, thinks that a better explanation can be found by looking at the relation between economy and state. Contra free-market ideologues, his argument is not that the market was somehow freer of state interference in Europe than in China. In fact, in neither Europe nor China was there a clear differentiation between economy and state. The decisive difference was that "in Europe the political system was intrinsically diverse and positively fragmented, while in China there was a centralized empire" (ibid.51). Hence political rulers in Europe had to compete to promote their economies. This meant that they intervened much more than in China to further the interests of capitalists. Furthermore:
[The] merchants who supported capitalism in Europe... exercised direct influence on politics – in part via a symbiosis with rulers in the city-states and free cities... By contrast, merchants in China, as well as in Arabia and India, were confined to the antechamber of power... This explains how, in the final analysis and in spite of many countervailing trends, politics in Europe was decisive for promoting mercantile dynamism and a capitalistic kind of accumulation. (ibid. 51)
The conclusion, then - which I find persuasive - is that it wasn't differentiation between economy and society that helped capitalism in Europe, but on the contrary the much tighter fusion of economic and political power in European states compared to, for instance, China.

Regarding this point, it's interesting to see that Kocka here draws rather near to Fernand Braudel, despite some critical remarks on the French historian's distinction between market and capitalism earlier in the book. Repeating a common criticism, Kocka thinks Braudel's distinction is much too sharp. When discussing the "divergence", however, he seems to implicitly rely on something very much like this distinction. Braudel stresses precesely the un-marketlike behaviour of great capitalists, who use their connections with political power to secure monopoly-like dominance of the most lucrative trades to make much bigger profits than in the ordinary market economy. Using Braudel's distinction, we might say that while markets were just as developed in China as in Europe, capitalism - in the sense of a system of capital accumulation supported by political and military power - was Europe's forte, and this is what explains the "divergence". Braudel himself writes: "China... is a perfect illustration of the fact that a capitalist superstructure did not automatically emerge out of a thriving market economy” (Braudel 1992: 600). Following Braudel, David Graeber similarly argues that premodern China and Islam were thriving market societies, but since the states were indifferent or hostile to the markets they never developed the Western brand of armed capitalism (Graeber 2011, Chapter 8).

Kocka's argument concerning the "divergence" is very similar to Braudel's and Graeber's (although he doesn't mention them). The problem is that his definition of capitalism is not really congruent with Braudel's. If one goes with Kocka's own definition stressing the market as the central mechanism for allocation and coordination, then the system will be less capitalist the more allocation and coordination instead happens politically or through military force. Considering the entwinement in Europe between commercial interests and political power, this would seem to make Europe less capitalist than China. I am not so sure that this is a conclusion that Kocka would want to draw. However, the only way to avoid drawing it would be change the definition of capitalism - probably one would need to deemphasize the role of the market and instead allow for forms of capitalism that achieve capital accumulation not solely by relying on market mechanisms.


References

Braudel (1992) The Wheels of Commerce, Vol. 2 of Civilization and Capitalism 15th–18th Century, Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Graeber, David (2011) Debt: The First 5000 Years, Brooklyn, New York: Melville House.

Kocka, Jürgen (2016) Capitalism: A Short History, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pomeranz, Kenneth (2000) The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton: Princeton University Press.



Sunday, 12 March 2017

Lovejoy and the hell-ocentric worldview

Arthur O. Lovejoy's The Great Chain of Being (based on lectures held in 1933) tells the story of an influential idea in western thought, that of the 'Chain of Being', from Plato to Schelling. I read it to familiarize myself a bit more with pre-modern ideas of nature, prior to the establishment of the nature-culture distinction and the associated belief in the superiority of humankind as separate from and standing above nature (beliefs that, as Philippe Descola and others have pointed out, are both parochially Western and historically recent).

According to the idea of the chain of being, humankind was not separated from nature, but part of it, just one rung among others on the infinite ladder (the scala naturae) reaching up to God’s perfection. As Lovejoy points out, a logical corollary of this idea was that humankind was only infinitesimally separated from other rungs. Hence there was a “consanguinity of man and the animals” (pp. 195-198, references here and below to the 2001 Harvard University Press edition).

Scala naturae, Didacus Valades (1579)
The idea, which made its first organized appearance in Neoplatonism, is defined by three principles: those of plenitude, continuity and gradation. These principles say that the world must contain all possible kinds of being (even imperfect ones) and that these must be linked in a chain of continuity and graded according to their degree of perfection. When these principles came together in Neoplatonism, the result was "the conception of the universe as a ‘Great Chain of Being’, composed of an immense... number of links ranging in hierarchical order from the meagerest kind of existents... through ‘every possible’ grade up to the ens perfectissimum” (p. 59)

One of the things I found interesting in the book was how Lovejoy conceptualized the transition from medieval to modern worldviews. He points out that the idea of the chain of being, although forming an important undercurrent in medieval thought, was prevented from becoming dominant during the middle ages since it faced competition from the anti-rationalism of scholastics like Duns Scotus or William of Ockham who saw the inscrutable will of God as the sole ground of all value distinctions. What defines the arrival of modernity isn't the triumphant rise of what most of us think of as 'modern science' so much as the liberation of the idea of the chain of being from its old scholastic competitor. Freed from this competitor, the idea of the chain of being blossoms to its full splendour in early modernity, above all in the 18th century when, for example, it becomes a dominant motif in Alexander Pope's poetry and forms the philosophical core of Leibnitz' "optimism".

In telling this story, Lovejoy makes an interesting digression on medieval cosmology prior to the heliocentric worldview. The aim of the digression is to show that the 'Copernican revolution' wasn't very important in establishing the modern worldview. It certainly didn't mean a shift from a worldview in which humankind was central to creation to one in which it wasn't. “It is an error", he points out, "to suppose that the medieval world was a small affair, in which the earth bulked relatively large” (p. 99). The Ptolemaic system thus saw the earth as a mere dot compared with the heavens, and so did Maimonides.
It has been shown that the distance between the centre of the earth and the summit of the sphere of Saturn is a journey of about eight thousand seven hundred years of 365 days, assuming that one walked forty leagues a day [i.e., the distance, in round numbers, is 125 million miles]... Consider this vast and terrifying distance... Consider, hten, how immense is the size of these bodies, and how numerous they are. And if earth is thus no bigger than a point relatively to the sphere of the fixed stars, what must be the ratio of the human species to the created universe as a whole? And how then can any of us think that these things exist for his sake, and that they are meant to serve his uses? (Maimonides, quoted on p. 100)
In the following striking passage, Lovejoy then points out that the tendency of the geocentric system was the very opposite of giving man a high sense of his own importance.
For the centre of the world was not a position of honor; it was rather the place farthest removed from the Empyrean, the bottom of creation, to which its dregs and baser elements sank. The actual centre, indeed, was Hell; in the spatial sense the medieval world was literally diabolocentric. (p. 101f). 
To paraphrase somewhat, the medieval worldview prior to the heliocentric order was hello-centric.

L'image du monde by Gautier de Metz (1464), showing Hell in the centre of a universe made of concentric circles.
This worldview lingered on in Montaigne, who described humanity's dwelling-place as "the filth and mire of the world, the worst, lowest, most lifeless part of the universe, the bottom story of the house" (quoted on p. 102) and John Wilkins who mentions as an argument against Copernicus that the earth because of its vileness "must be situated in the centre, which is the worst place, and at the greatest distance from those purer incorruptible bodies, the heavens" (quoted on p. 102). As Lovejoy concludes, "the geocentric cosmography served rather for man's humiliation than for his exaltation" (p. 102).

The Copernican hypothesis, then, wasn't important in challenging notions of humankind's centrality. More important was the growing sense that the universe might be acentric, associated with the assumption that the stars might be suns like our own, that these might be encircled by planets inhabited by rational beings like us, and so on - all ideas associated with the Chain of Being and the idea of boundless plenitude.

In Lovejoy's portrayal of early modern thought, then, there are few traces of any ideas of human superiority over nature or human centrality in the universe, and interestingly he argues that the tendency to assign a peripheral role to humankind increases in early modernity, thanks to the dominant influence of the idea of the Chain of Being.

Before ending, it is of course relevant to point out that another part of his argument is that this idea starts to wither away towards the end of the 18th century, when it collides with the idea of progress. To some extent it adapts by opening up for temporality in the realization of plenitude. The program of nature is now seen as carried out only gradually, in a slow ascent up the “ladder”. The idea of timeless fullness is replaced by that of unending progress. With this, a new era of thought begins on which the book hardly touches at all.


Sunday, 5 March 2017

Elena Ferrante and Mephisto

Ferrante's Neapolitan novels are terrific – I especially liked the first volume, but also read the others voraciously. 

Just a small note: The epigraph in the first volume is from Faust and deals with Mephisto. During the reading I realized that it must have been chosen with Lila in mind. Throughout the novels, the narrator (Elena Greco) uses her brilliant friend Lila as an anti-ideology device. As soon as Elena gets puffed up with success, Lila says something mean, brutal or harrowing that disorients her and makes her lose self-confidence. At the same time, Elena is painfully honest about the fact that she owes all her successes to Lila. Above all, Lila is the one who makes her write, and write well. 

So her friend is Mephisto: the Geist der stets verneint, but who in so doing brings forth the good. Like in Hegel, Lila is the terrible force of the Negative that always gets aufgehoben into a positive, synthesizing totality. Between the two friends a tension is generated that holds the reader in suspense. Who will carry off the victory? The positive or the negative? Who will have the last word? Hegel or Adorno?

Ferrante comes closest to openly disclosing this logic in the final, fourth volume (all references below are to The Story of the Lost Child, Europa editions, 2015). 

For instance, Elena tells her friend that as a writer she has a duty to make everything seem coherent. “But if the coherence isn’t there, why pretend?”, Lila asks. “To create order”, Elena replies (p. 262).

Later Elena reflects: “I said to myself that to be adult was to recognize that I needed her impulses. If once I had hidden, even from myself, that spark she induced in me, now I was proud of it... I was I and for that reason I could make space for her in me and give her an enduring form. She instead didn’t want to be her, so she couldn’t do the same” (p. 371).

Anticipating her own disappearance (which sets off the novel in the first volume), Lila tells Elena: “To write, you have to want something to survive you. I don’t even have the desire to life, I’ve never had it strongly the way you have. If I could eliminate myself now, while we’re speaking. I’d be more than happy” (p. 454).

And finally, there’s Elena’s admission near the end: “Unlike stories, real life, when it has passed, inclines toward obscurity, not clarity” (p. 473).

But extracts cannot substitute for what should be read in its entirety. They're like pebbles in the sea. When you pick them up and let them dry in the sun, they lose their lustre.



Saturday, 14 January 2017

Kant's metaphors

I'm just now reading Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and I'm struck by his metaphors, many of which draw on colonialism, voyages of discovery, sovereignty and constitutional monarchy. I'm starting to wonder to what extent it might be possible to read these metaphors as indicators of a certain layer of ideas - not so deep as to be unconscious and not entirely visible at the surface level of explicit discussion, but residing in the topsoil of the text, so to speak. 


Let me start with the startling and almost poetical passage at the beginning of Chapter III in the second book ("The Ground of the Distinction of all Objects in General into Phenomena and Noumena") where the realm of understanding is described as an island (page references are to Norman Kemp Smith's translation):
WE have now not merely explored the territory of pure understanding, and carefully surveyed every part of it, but have also measured its extent, and assigned to everything in it its rightful place. This domain is an island, enclosed by nature itself within unalterable limits. It is the land of truth -- enchanting name! -- surrounded by a wide and stormy ocean, the native home of illusion, where many a fog bank and many a swiftly melting iceberg give the deceptive appearance of farther shores, deluding the adventurous seafarer ever anew with empty hopes, and engaging him in enterprises which he can never abandon and yet is unable to carry to completion. Before we venture on this sea, to explore it in all directions and to obtain assurance whether there be any ground for such hopes, it will be well to begin by casting a glance upon the map of the land which we are about to leave, and to enquire, first, whether we cannot in any case be satisfied with what it contains -- are not, indeed, under compulsion to be satisfied, inasmuch as there may be no other territory upon which we can settle; and, secondly, by what title we possess even this domain, and can consider ourselves as secured against all opposing claims. (p 258)
This is a language not only of adventure and discovery, but also of conquest and colonialism. Kant puts himself in the role of a colonial captain who is preparing for settlement and who is much concerned about the "title" to the territories explored so far. This language recurs when later he discusses the limits of reason, which mustn't extend itself beyond the field of possible experience:
... inscribing its nihil ulterius on those Pillars of Hercules which nature herself has erected in order that the voyage of our reason may be extended no further than the continuous coastline of experience itself reaches -- a coast we cannot leave without venturing upon a shoreless ocean which, after alluring us with everdeceptive prospects, compels us in the end to abandon as hopeless all this vexatious and tedious endeavour. (p. 362)
Again, in the discussion of the paralogism of reason, Kant warns against taking even a single step beyond the realm of sense perception:
For by such procedure we should [...] have entered into the field of noumena; and no one could then deny our right of advancing yet further in this domain, indeed of settling in it, and, should our star prove auspicious, of establishing claims to permanent possession. (p. 371)
Passages like these raise the question to what extent Kant's philosophical endeavor was coloured by the historical experience of Columbus and Cook. I'm not suggesting that the former simply reflects the latter or replicates it in thought, but at least it seems certain that it was from such experiences that Kant borrowed the metaphors by which he envisoned it.

Considering this explicit modelling of philosophy on voyages of discovery and colonialism, might we not suggest that the critique of pure reason is also a critique of colonialism? I think we can, at least if we take critique to mean, not necessarily a negative appraisal, but rather a scrutiny of possibility. Rather than as an imperialist, he can more accurately be described as a cartographer, carefully mapping the bounds beyond which colonial ventures must fail. Far from advocating overseas empires beyond the realm of the sensible, Kant seeks to prove the illusory character of such advocacy.


Speaking of territory, the issue of sovereignty is of course close at hand. Kant's use of metaphors related to sovereignty and political struggles is perhaps most apparent in the Preface to the first edition of the Critique, where he describes metaphysics as "the Queen of all the sciences" (p. 8).
Her government, under the administration of the dogmatists, was at first despotic. But inasmuch as the legislation still bore traces of the ancient barbarism, her empire gradually through intestine wars gave way to complete anarchy; and the sceptics, a species of nomads, despising all settled modes of life, broke up from time to time all civil society. (p. 9)
In addition to nomadic skeptics, the queen's empire is also threatened by the plebs of common experience ("dem Pöbel der gemeinen Erfahrung", unhappily translated as "vulgar origins in common experience", p. 9).

In relation to this queen, Kant comes forward as an advocate of constitutional monarchy. Her realm is defended against nomads and plebs, but at the same time her power is circumscribed by the "tribunal" of critique, as befits "the matured judgment of the age, which refuses to be any longer put off with illusory knowledge" (p. 10).
It is a call to reason to undertake anew the most difficult of all its tasks, namely, that of self-knowledge, and to institute a tribunal which will assure to reason its lawful claims, and dismiss all groundless pretensions, not by despotic decrees, but in accordance with its own eternal and unalterable laws. This tribunal is no other than the critique of pure reason. (p. 10)
The monarchy, then, mustn't be despotic. As befits an enlightened age, the precise reach of monarchial power must be prescribed by critique. Kant's metaphors even suggest that "revolution" might be a way to establish this desired form of monarchy:
This attempt to alter the procedure which has hitherto prevailed in metaphysics, by completely revolutionising it in accordance with the example set by the geometers and physicists, forms indeed the main purpose of this critique of pure speculative reason. (p. 26)
Looking at passages like this, it feels like it wouldn't be impossible to extract an entire political philosophy from the Critique. To read a political message into it would probably go against Kant's own intentions (or wouldn't it?). Still, I can't help marvelling at the extent to which Kant, in his use of metaphors, provides a kind of sketch or map of the issues and concerns of his own historical situation, that of the 18th century, reproducing them as philosophical concerns in the mirror world of his system.


References

Kant, Immanuel (1929) Critique of Pure Reason (tr. Norman Kemp Smith), e-version prepared by Stephen Palmquist and placed in the Oxford Text Archive in 1985; http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/cpr/toc.html(accessed 2017-01-14)

 

Friday, 9 December 2016

Solidarity with those listed on the "professor watchlist"

The list in question is of course disgusting - an attempt at intimidation that evokes unpleasant memories of fascist witchhunts. In view of my earlier criticism of John Bellamy Foster, I'd like to take the opportunity to express my solidarity with him and others on the list. Fortunately this thing is not (yet) a state project. Here's the message from him, which is now circulating on the Internet:

Dear Colleagues,

This is no game. We are a different period. I have not yet seen the environmental sociology discussion on this, but I am a PEWS, Environmental Sociology, and Marxist Theory section member (a former head of the section) and I am on the list. I believe I am the only one on the list in this region (the Pacific Northwest). In my case I am on it because of the Horowitz Dangerous Professors List of a decade ago, where I was listed. The Professor Watchlist has taken over the statements by Horowitz there word for word, I believe, but now it is more serious. There is a University of Oregon Chapter of the Professor Watchlist established over the last week and I am the principal target. Next week an NPR affiliated local radio station will be interviewing the head of the Chapter in a call-in show, where that individual will no doubt pinpoint me as the local rotten apple and use that as a weapon for threatening other professors. One of my sins is to be editor of Monthly Review. I have been asked to do a separate, “adjacent” interview on the same station, in which I will be able to respond.

Here we have to learn from history. The key to developing a coherent response is the Einstein First Amendment Strategy from 1953 developed in the midst of the McCarthy Era (the initial attempt to use the First in the case of the Hollywood Ten failed) in which Einstein declared that there should be determined non-cooperation and that the goal should be to use the First to attack the inquisition itself. His letter appeared in the NYT in June 1953 and let writers Leo Huberman and Harvey O’Connor, and then Corliss Lamont, Lilian Hellan, and Paul Sweezy, all of whom were closely connected, and linked to Einstein and MR, put it into practice in a succession of attempts to break McCarthyism. Sweezy was the most successful because he refused to turn over his lecture notes and to name names and they hit him with contempt of court and consigned him to county jail and he fought it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Things are obviously not at that critical state yet (we are not talking about subpoenas and prosecutions with possible imprisonment at the moment), though there are calls to reestablish the House on Un-American Activities Committee. But I think that the Einstein strategy is what we need to adopt from the start. If such a stance is taken from the beginning we may be able to head off further disasters. There should no arguing of specifics of charges, rather freedom of speech and academic freedom and challenging the goon squads should be everything. You might want to familiarize yourself with the U.S. Supreme Court Decision Sweezy v. New Hampshire of 1957. You can find it online under its case number (354 U.S. 234). Welcome to Gleichschaltung.

P.S. The list has already attracted protests. One way is to turn being listed into a badge of honor and expressing solidarity by demanding to be on the list, as these academics on Notre Dame.


Thursday, 8 December 2016

Coming across Lévinas

I'm probably always out of step with the times. Back in the days when Lévinas was in vogue I didn't care much for his philosophy, but today I can't help thinking of it with fondness. There's undoubtedly something right about it. An important moral intuition that what is right has very little to do with legality, the state or the nation. Why are there so few who dare to say that today? Maybe I'm nostalgic for the days when what he wrote didn't seem as controversial and bold as it does today? Today, ever since the "refugee crisis", those who speak up for hospitality are immediately accused of "lacking solutions", but we shouldn't forget that the accusers lack solutions too - namely to the other's suffering.

I came across an essay on Lévinas today, "What Do We Owe Each Other?". It's by Aaron James Wendland, a research fellow at the University of Tartu and it ends like this.
Levinas has taught us that our responsibility for others is the foundation of all human communities, and that the very possibility of living in a meaningful human world is based on our ability to give what we can to others. And since welcoming and sharing are the foundation upon which all communities are formed, no amount of inhospitable nationalism can be consistently defended when confronted with the suffering of other human beings. “In the relationship between same and other, my welcoming of the other is,” as Levinas puts it, “the ultimate fact.”






Sunday, 4 December 2016

Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos

I want to say a few words on Wendy Brown's Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Zone Books, 2015). The strong point of this book is that it grasps neoliberalism as more than an economic doctrine. It is a governing rationality that disseminates itself throughout the social body, transforming the states as well as individuals into images of the firm, thereby crowding out the image of human beings as citizens that is indispensible to democracy. 


Unlike Marxist critics of neoliberalism like David Harvey, she is comparatively uninterested in the economic effects of neoliberalism - widening inequality, commodification and so on. Inspired by Foucault and governmentality theory, she instead sees it as a rationality transforming every human domain - from education to dating and social media - so that they become “framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized” (p. 10). Her claim is not that neoliberalism necessarily privatizes or marketizes all spheres, but rather that the model of the market is dissemminated to all domains and activities. Supplanting concepts like citizen, political public sphere and democracy itself by market terms, neoliberalism becomes "profoundly destructive to the fiber and future of democracy” (p. 9).

A good example of the new practices of self-investment and attracting investors is the university. Universities turn into companies catering to consumers and investors, forgetting their role as providers of public higher education for citizens. Scholars have to be entrepreneurial and investment savvy while students are presumed to be oriented primarily to augmenting their human capital.

Brown's account is clearly useful. She provides the theoretical tools needed for understanding the subject's need today for continuous, compulsive self-investment. She also makes it eminently clear why the spread of New Public Management throughout the sector of public services is part and parcel of neoliberalization. Even if these practices of self-investment and pseudo-market behavior are not monetarized, they all orient themselves to the market as a model and site of truth or veridiction, as Foucault would say. Seeing them as part of the same process, it also becomes possible to diagnose a wide variety of protests - e.g. campus protests - as resistance against neoliberalization.

It's evident that Foucault is central to her account. Above all, she takes over his claim that neoliberalism's central trait is that it generalizes the enterprise form. This doesn't mean that she accepts Foucault uncritically. Above all, she criticizes him on two scores. Firstly, there are no citizens in his account. He lacks a concept of a “demos acting in concert”, making it seem that governing only emanates from the state. As a result, he never reflects on the effect of neoliberalism on democratic political life. Secondly, his aversion to Marxism made him neglect the role of capital (p. 73ff). It is tempting to see Brown as attempting to wed Marx and Foucault, but that would hardly be correct. The latter plays a far more predominant role than the former in her account. Despite her criticism that Foucault neglects the role of capital, capital is almost wholly neglected in her own analysis as well.

My major dissatisfaction with the books is that Brown says nothing of why neoliberalization happens. Why is the enterprise form generalized throughout the social body? Brown is very clearly issuing a sort of call for resisting neoliberalism and defending democracy, but to resist something effectively you need to understand its causes. All we get is a kind of negative delineation of what sort of explanation she rejects - mostly Marxist explanations focusing on economic causes such as Harvey's well-known thesis that neoliberalism should be understood as an attempt to restore class power to the capitalist class in the face of declining profitability. Brown empahsizes the new and revolutionary character of neoliberalism, but gives us few clues as to why this revolution occurs.

A final reflection. In these days it may seem as if the greatest threat to democracy is coming not from neoliberalism but from rightwing populism. Especially after the Brexit referendum and the "Trump shock" it may easily seem as if neoliberalism is defeated. I'm not going to repeat here the pertinent argument that neoliberal policy during the last decades has probably paved the way for these populist triumphs. Instead I'd like to add a thought that came to me the day that the results of the US election came in. I was doing some reading about a particular kind of neoliberal urbanism, namely the "entrepreneurialist" policy of attracting capital to a city by promoting its "brand", usually by creating an image of the city as clean, safe and creative. Here, incidentally, we have the enterprise form again - the city behaving like an enterprise. I asked myself while reading what rightwing populism on the level of urban policy would mean. Evictions of homeless people and penalization of begging? The adulation of "strongmen" mayors? And zero tolerance against graffiti? But these are things that that we've also been told characterize neoliberal urbanism. Isn't it precisely in order to promote the "city brand" that these policies of exclusion and so on are employed?

Neoliberalism may be associated with globalist elites and rightwing populism with the nationalism of "common" people, but on the level of city policies they mesh pretty well. Isn't this reflected in a surprising convergence between the subjectivities of rightwing populism and neoliberalism? The rightwing populist subject and the neoliberal subject both delight in excluding unwanted others. Both believe they have the right to things for which they have paid dearly and which they certainly won't share with freeloaders. The mad chant "Out with the immigrants" is the distorted echo of the neoliberal subject's irritated demand that nothing should be allowed to disturb his or her consumer experience. I have yet to see a rightwing populism that resurrects the idea of a citizenry or demos. What it does is to vent anger at unwanted competitors in a race that remains exactly as neoliberal as before. Urban policy helps us visualize what the rather abstract statement that neoliberalism paves the way from rightwing populism may mean. It is hard to see in what sense the latter implies a threat to the former.




Thursday, 1 December 2016

Bloch reviews Lukács

I just read an old piece, Ernst Bloch's review of Lukács' History and Class Consciousness from 1923. No great surprises here, yet it's still an amusing read. Bloch saves his criticism for the last few pages. The review zooms in on the dialectical “now” when the subject freely assumes the future by creating it. According to Bloch, Lukács's social categories - which are "sociologically homogenizing" and miss the "polyrhythmic" character of history (p.618) - cannot do justice to this "now". By limiting himself to a merely social dialectics, Lukács is forced to adopt an ascetic "agnosticism" towards everything transcendent. Yet history is "not just the social acquisition by as yet concealed social humans, but also the artistic, religious, and metaphysical acquisition by the clandestine transcendental humans" (p. 618). All this comes into play in the longing that animates the "now". Lukács misses it, thereby also missing the dimension of the new, the not-yet-conscious. Utopia, in short. Predictable? Perhaps. But quite well argued. And I like Bloch's description of his own brand of Marxism as “the metaphysics of the cosmic interpretation of dreams [die Metaphysik der kosmischen Traumdeutung]” (p. 621)!


Reference

Bloch, Ernst (1969) “Aktualität und Utopie. Zu Lukács’ ’Geschichte und Klassenbewusstsein’”, pp. 598-621, in Philosophische Aufsätze zur Objektiven Phantasie. Band 10. Gesamtausgabe der Werke Ernst Bloch in Sechzehn Bänden, Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp.


Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The city and the stars

Having recently read Arthur Clarke's The City and the Stars, I can't help but reflect on the strangeness of the world Clarke lets us inhabit in his books. Isn't it always a world on the verge of a great discovery? I'm thinking not only of this book, but also works like, say, Rama or 2001: A Space Odyssey. There's a sweet and thrilling sense of possibility that the universe just might take us on a fantastic voyage towards previously unimaginable power and knowledge, a sense of humanity just being about to pass a threshold that will unlock some marvellous evolution or possibility of limitless expanse. What we have here, I think, is a very peculiar atmosphere, one that needs to be understood in the context of the lingering belief in progress characteristic of the 20th century before the onset of postmodernism. At the same time, this is no ordinary trust in progress. It is, I would say, distinguished by two peculiarities that probably also need to be understood historically.

Firstly, another "strange" trait of Clarke's universe is that it lacks conflict. There are protagonists but not really any antagonists. HAL in 2001 might be terrifying, but is just a dysfunctioning machine with no malicious purpose. In the end it proves to be but a minor stumbling block on Bowman's triumphant evolutionary journey. Alien intelligences are never hostile. If anything, they are benevolent and ready to guide humanity to greater evolutionary heights. To evolve, however, human beings need to overcome their limitations in the form of superstitions and fears. If we just venture forth with courage, we'll discover how unfounded our fears are. In The City and the Stars, the protagonist Alvin discovers that the “invaders” are a myth, a false memory hindering humankind from venturing outside their isolation on earth and used to justify their fear of the universe. In 2001 humankind even gets the paternalistic guidance of these higher beings to steer itself onwards in evolution. What's so peculiar here is that Clarke's narrative, despite the absence of antagonists, still works as literature. Even without conflict, he somehow manages to make the reader want to go on reading.

Secondly, these books all circle around what can be termed the problem of unbalanced progress. Crudely put, it goes like this: while humanity has made enormous technological progress, it still lags behind morally and spiritually. This has resulted in the horrors of totalitarianism and the world wars and the madness of the cold war, and to survive on this planet we need to achieve spiritual development to restore balance. This is a lament that was very much in the air in the mid-20th century. It may very well have been the dominant idiom in which the criticism of technology was expressed in the decades before the onset of postmodernism. It seems to pop up almost simultaneously in a series of writers from the Frankfurt School to Lewis Mumford. In science fiction, we can see it in Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels, where the "first" foundation with its technological mastery needs to unite with the mysterious and psychologically advanced "second" foundation in order to end the centuries of barbary. Unbalanced progress is also a dominant motif in Clarke. It is powerfully present in 2001, which quite explicitly presents a philosophy of history organized around humanity's two successive evolutionary leaps - each one triggered by a black monolith left behind by benevolent aliens - the fist of which triggers technological progress and second of which triggers a kind of spiritual evolution. In The City and the Stars, humanity only exists on two spots on earth: on the one hand the technologically superior Diaspar which is ruled by a computer and on the other hand the low-tech but spiritually evolved Lys where human beings communicate telepathically. The role of Alvin, the protagonist, is to be the mediator who brings them together.

Now, I'm going to leave this motif of unbalanced progress aside - I think it's quite evident in what ways it is rooted in a particular historical moment - and return to the curious lack of antagonism in Clarke's books. Combined with the belief in progress and the strange benevolence of aliens this yields what is easy to criticize as a highly ideological world view. What we see here is in fact the very same kind of ideology that imperialism used to justify itself. Imperialism has always described itself as benevolent, as bringing the blessings of a superior civilization to primitive peoples, as in fact lacking antagonism. In a way, the aliens of Clarke's 2001 and to a great extent also the extra-terrestrial empire of The City and Stars behaves exactly like the imperialist powers did according to their own ideological self-description. They didn't oppress or exploit anyone, they simply shared knowledge and guided those willing to learn onwards. In the same way, oppression and exploitation are missing in Clarke's universe. To use Karl Wittfogel's categories, we might say that the earth's position in relation to the advanced alien civilizations is like that of a "submargin" rather than a "margin". According to Wittfogel, the margin was the barbarous borderland of the empire and was often politically dominated by the latter, while the submargin was beyond the reach of the empire's might but still close enough to receive small glimpses of its civilization and learn from it if it chose to do so. In Clarke's novels, the earth is clearly a submargin - almost always a backwater, seemingly to insignificant for alien civilizations to actually bother much about.

What I'm suggesting here is that Clarke's novels - with their conspicuous foregrounding of the idea of progress and their strange lack of conflict - present us with a reconfiguration of motifs familiar to readers through the experience of imperialism. On the one hand, his novels assume the position of the imperialist: the air of being on the cusp of great discoveries, the sense of adventure and the drive to explore - all of this can well be read as an attempt to evoke the sense of wonder and novelty believed to have animated European colonialist ventures and conquests in early modernity. But on the other hand, it is as if Clarke cannot quite allow himself to affirm this ethos. After all, imperialism is bad, a continuation of the lopsided and catastrophic kind of progress we've seen in modernity so far. And so he effects a replacement: what awaits us out there among the stars is not primitive peoples for us to enslave and exploit, but - on the contrary - higher beings, far more wise and powerful than we, who can help us evolve further in a better and more balanced way, and with this latter move, he paradoxically places us in the position, not of the conquering imperialist, but of the primitives gazing with wonder and awe at the imperial civilization and learning to take its first tottering steps on the road of genuine progress.

Naturally, the motif of the empire is also central to Asimov, and I suppose an interesting comparison could be made here between him and Clarke, but I think I'll stop here. The point I want to make is simply that there seems to be a cluster of motifs related to empire, technology and unbalanced progress that recurs in much of the science fiction of the early postwar decades and that - perhaps - feels somewhat unfamiliar and strange to readers today.




Sunday, 30 October 2016

Deborah Cook on Adorno and nature

Just a few words on Deborah Cook's Adorno on Nature (Acumen, 2011), which I finished reading today. Cook shows great familiarity with Adorno and is a reliable guide to his thinking. Usefully, she starts off by introducing two ideas central to his approach to nature. The first is the idea of "natural-history" (Naturgeschichte) which, as she points out, "informs all Adorno’s work" (Cook 2011:1). Correctly, she points out that this idea should be understood as a critical tool. As Adorno writes himself in Negative Dialectics, the task is "to grasp historic being in its utmost definition, in the place where it is most historic, as natural being, or to grasp nature, in the place where it seems most deeply, inertly natural, as historic being" (quoted in ibid. 17).

The second important idea concerns Adorno’s materialism. Adorno conceptualizes materialism not in terms of base and superstructure, but in terms of "the preponderance of the object" (Vorrang des Objekts). To him, matter has priority over mind not only because material objects are never completely grasped by their concepts but also because they impinge on thought, shocking and upsetting it through the pain and suffering that signal their non-identity with the concepts. For thought to develop rightly, it has to pass through and negate itself in this pain, thus reshaping itself and rearranging itself in a way that does more justice to the object. To refer to this thought operation he uses the Hegelian term "determinate negation", but unlike in Hegel the imperative to remain true to the object prevents thought from stabilizing itself in the form of a system because of the non-identity between concept and object. Instead, it triggers a dialectics of disintegration (Logik des Zerfalls) that shows the falsity of such systems and allows us to criticize them.

Here I won't go through the entire book, but will just mention a few points I found interesting.

The first has to do with Adorno’s Kantianism. Adorno combines the Hegelian idea that all is mediated with the Kantian idea of an object non-identical to its concept. But how is this possible? As Cook points out, Adorno links the latter idea to a valorization of immediacy as the truth of what the concept fails to cover - an immediacy that shows up in pain, vertigo and shocks that serve as the propulsive force of negative dialectics. Simply put, the answer is that mediation - as in Hegel - concerns the realm of concepts. But unlike in Hegel concepts are not all. The object remains outside this realm, although never wholly separated from it. To thought it inevitably appears through the mediation of concepts, but nevertheless "preponderates" in the sense described above, generating pain and contradictions.

This Kantian respect for the object means that Adorno is not a social constructivist. Cook rejects Steven Vogel’s criticism in Against Nature that Adorno contradicts himself by positing nature as immediate while at the same time stating that nature is mediated. Vogel himself asserts that nature is nothing apart from its socially mediated forms. But as Cook points out, there are problems with Vogel’s social constructivism, above all concerning the ontological status of the "social":
Adorno would respond to this claim by arguing that Vogel wrongly treats the ‘social’ (which he nowhere defines) as ‘that on which everything depends and by which everything is oriented’ (MCP [Metaphysics: Concept and Problems] 29). Against this, Adorno contends that ‘society itself is determined by the things of which it is composed and... therefore necessarily contains a non-social dimension’ (HF [History and Freedom]122). (Cook 2011: 41)
This points to a larger problem with social constructivism as such. Although Cook doesn't develop her argument beyond the criticism of Vogel, it points to the problematic status in social constructivism of the "society" that is supposed to do the constructing. It's obviously problematic to assign objectivity to the "social" alone - as is implicitly the case when everything else is seen as a mere construction. The opposite position, to see society as well as socially constructed, leads to a self-referential paradox that ultimately leaves us with no explanation at all unless we abandon social constructivism and start to look around for non-social factors behind the construction of society.

A second important point concerns how Adorno's ideas of natural history and preponderance of the object relate to the possibility of a dialectics of nature. As I've already discussed in another blog post, John Bellamy Foster accuses Adorno and other Western Marxists for having restricted dialectics to the realm of society, handing over the study of nature to positivism and ending up in idealism. Not surprisingly, Foster comes in for criticism in Cook's book. “Adorno’s thoroughly dialectical view of natural history puts paid to Foster’s contentious and largely unsupported claim that Western Marxists, including Adorno, ‘increasingly rejected realism and materalism...’” (ibid. 25). The reasons for this criticism of Foster should be clear. Firstly, Adorno is a materialist, although not in the sense of the "dialectics of nature" Foster seeks to develop. The core of Adorno's materialism is rather the idea of the object's preponderance, which implies a denial of constitutive subjectivity (and thus of idealism) that is arguably far more rigorous and thoroughgoing than Foster's.

A second thing Foster misses is that Adorno's rejection of a "dialectics of nature" in the sense of the materialist dialectics developed by Engels by no means implies a rejection of all dialectical thinking in relation to nature. Thinking necessarily involves concepts, and - just like all other objects - "nature" involves a relation of non-identity to concepts that calls for dialectical thinking. As Adorno makes striking evident in his discussion of "natural history", drawing a rigid boundary between society and nature is itself undialectical.
Flatly denying that dialectics can be extended to nature as ‘a universal principle of explanation’, Adorno nonetheless argues that it is just as wrong to say that nature is undialectical and society dialectical. [...] In fact, the trenchant distinction between history and nature, which fails to acknowledge their entwinement, only reflects the deceptive division of labour between the social and natural sciences. [...] Since human beings are inextricably part of the natural world, with which they must constantly interact to survive, nature can be said to be dialectical. (ibid. 28)
Foster's criticism that Adorno restricts dialectics to society is thus clearly a misreading (and a rather baffling one at that). Furthermore, he also seems to overlook the similarities that exist between Adorno’s dialectics and the Marx-based society-nature dialectics that he himself advocates. Cook points out that, ironically, the result of Foster’s attempt to go back to Marx to reconstruct a dialectics of nature and society leads to a Marx-interpretation that “seems to ally Marx much more closely with Adorno than even Adorno thinks” (ibid. 25).

That said, Cook also highlights the contrast between Marx and Adorno. Above all "Adorno’s refusal to identify subject and object ... led him to take a markedly more critical stance towards science than Marx did" (ibid. 29). An example of this is Adorno's criticism of the concept of causality, in the course of which he questioned the degree to which science, with its identitarian deployment of concepts and mathematical formulae, understands nature (ibid. 72). We can note that this criticism makes it plain how absurd the accusation is that Adorno would have handed over the study of nature to positivism.

The suspicion towards science's identitarian logic also makes Adorno much more critical than Marx of the drive towards science-based domination over nature. The utopian counter-image to such domination is not Soviet-style socialism but rather what Adorno calls reconciliation with nature. This, however, doesn't mean that Adorno has given up hope for a better, more rationally organized future in which nature would no longer be dominated. That Adorno is critical of the Soviet Union doesn’t mean that he rejects socialism.

Large portions of the book concern "inner nature", i.e. the self as material, embodied nature, and the relation between self-consciousness and the self's natural, sensory part. Cook, however, also seeks to make Adorno relevant to contemporary ecological discussions. She thus ends the book with a chapter comparing Adorno to three radical ecologists (the deep ecologist Arne Naess, the social ecologist Murray Bookchin and the eco-feminist Carolyn Merchant).

I don't have much to criticize in the book. I think Benjamin and Lukács would have deserved more extensive discussions. The notion of "second nature" gets short shrift and Cook seems to miss out on some interesting differences in how Adorno relates to first and second nature. In regard to these questions, it might be a good idea to supplement her book with Susan Buck-Morss' The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute (The Harvester Press, 1977) or her The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (MIT Press, 1991), both of which contain lucid and very interesting discussions on these topics.

Reconciliation with nature (mediated by Hollywood)




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