Wednesday, 5 November 2014

As long as freedom and rationality remain unfulfilled... Another voyage to Hegel (with Marcuse as guide)

One of the travel guides I've been reading while making my way through the Philosophy of Right is Marcuse's old Reason and Revolution (first published in 1941). Like a well-written travel guide, Marcuse's book is easy to read. It contains a clear, sympathetic treatment of Hegel.

It conveys a picture of Hegel’s philosophy as basically critical (or "negative"), as a philosophy that insists on the need to relentlessly criticize power as long as freedom and rationality remain unfulfilled in society. It argues that even though Hegel himself failed to develop the radical, subversive potential inherent in his own philosophy, his critical legacy was carried on by Marx and remains a vital critical resource today.

There are two points of interest that linger in my memory after finishing the book. Both, in one way or another, serve to relativize the popular stereotype of Hegel as a reactionary idolizer of the Prussian state (this state supposedly incarnating his idea of an "end of history").

Firstly, I find Marcuse's interpretation of the so-called end of history both charming and compelling in its simplicity. Here's the relevant passage:
Hegel does not mean that everything that exits does so in conformity with its potentialities, but that the mind has attained the self-consciousness of its freedom, and become capable of freeing nature and society. The realization of reason is not a fact but a task. (Marcuse 1999:26)
Hegel, then, should not be understood as a defender of the status quo. The attainment of self-consciousness doesn't mean the end of change, nor that the status quo is fully rational and impossible to criticize. It means that humanity has finally become conscious of its freedom and is ready to use this freedom to reshape the world. Hegel would thus be a thinker in tune with the general cultural changes following the French Revolution, when - as Wallerstein and others like to point out - people for the first time started to think of the world as changeable through human action rather than as a given natural order or fate. For Hegel, then, the proper goal of history is humanity's mastery over its own fate. This would be a state where - as Marcuse writes - humanity "is no longer subject to change, because it exercises autonomous power over all change" (ibid. 1999:154).

Almost thirty years later, Marcuse closed his Essay on Liberation, written in the midst of his engagement with the radical student movement, by raising the question what people in a free society would be doing.
The answer which, I believe, strikes at the heart of the matter was given by a young black girl. She said: for the first time in our life, we shall be free to think about what we are going to do. (ibid. 1969)
Or in other words: then, for the first time, we will have attained self-consciousness of our freedom. This young girl is Hegel in disguise. That Marcuse chose to end his essay by quoting her shows how fond he must have been of this Hegelian idea of a free society, which to him also meant the kind of society that a critical theory was supposed to strive for.

To many, the most unpleasant aspects of Hegelianism are summed up in the statement that "the rational is actual" in the preface to the Philosophy of Right. Being written in the midst of the onset of reaction in Prussia, this preface has often been regarded as a testimony to Hegel's political servility. Marcuse's interpretation is helpful in putting this notorious statement in proper perspective. It is also helpful, I think, to turn to Domenico Losurdo's Hegel and the Freedom of the Moderns. As Losurdo (2004: 32-38) shows, the common viewpoint that Hegel in writing this preface opportunistically kowtowed to the conservative reaction in Prussia in those years isn't convincing. Virtually identical formulations can be found in Hegel's lecture notes from the period both before and after those years. There are even sentences expressing a nearly identical content in the Phenomenology (from 1806) as well as in early writings from his youth in the 1790s. Significantly, in these early writings the formulations referred to the French Revolution, not the Prussian state.

What's important to keep in mind is that to Hegel, not everything that exists is "actual". Only what accords with the Idea and serves its realization in history is rational, and only that can be actual. Thus the French monarchy at the time of the revolution lacked actuality, despite lingering on as an empirical reality, since it no longer served any meaningful historical function. Hegel's identification of rationality and actuality is thus not an affirmation of the status quo and is better understood as an assertion of the overall rationality of the direction of historical development. As Losurdo points out, the statement is in fact eminently compatible with an affirmation of revolutionary change. Marx, Engels, Lenin and Gramsci all quoted it with approval. Their intention in doing so was of course not to defend the status quo, but to argue for the objectivity of revolutionary change as rooted in and growing out of history itself (ibid 34-37).

The second point I want to mention is Marcuse's discussion of the relation between civil society and state. As is well-known, "civil society" is Hegel's name for the institutionalized system of mutual dependencies where individuals remain trapped in their private pursuit of profit - the modern economy in other words. Marcuse quotes an evocative passage from the early Jenenser Realphilosophie where Hegel compares this economy to a wild animal: “a vast system of communality and mutual interdependence, a moving life of the dead. This system moves hither and yon in a blind and elementary way, and like a wild animal calls for strong permanent control and curbing” (quoted in Marcuse 1999:79). Statements in Hegel's later writings are equally brutal. In the Philosophy of Right, he describes capitalism in terms reminiscent of Marx as leading to the emergence of a vast industrial army and an impoverished proletariat: “this society, in the excess of wealth, is not wealthy enough... to stem the excess of poverty and the creation of paupers” (paragraph 245). In fact, many statements by Hegel anticipate those of Marx in a quite striking fashion (see Avineri for some of the parallels).

Today, Hegel's idolization of the the state is often referred to as an embarrasing faux pas. Even in works that explicitly work in a Hegelian tradition and model themselves on the Philosophy of Right - such as Axel Honneth's Freedom's Right - avoid this step. Thus Honneth lets a chapter that deals mainly with the public sphere replace the chapter on the state in his book, which otherwise is rather faithfully modelled on Hegel's. At first sight, this substitution of the state for the public sphere seems entirely justified and reasonable. Surely, the integration of divergent wills that Hegel hoped for the state to guarantee is better achieved through public discussion in the public sphere than through the state? What needs to be recalled, however, is that to Hegel, freedom and self-consciousness of spirit can only develop if "the wild animal" is regulated. That's why the state is needed and "rational". Hegel's idea about the rationality of the state may seem conservative, but can equally well be interpreted as anticipating social democracy.

As Norbert Waszek (1988:224f, 231f) and Karatani Kôjin (2014:12f) point out, it is highly unlikely that Hegel was in any sense affirming the Prussian state in the Philosophy of Right. His discussion of constitutional monarchy seems to have been modelled on Britain and his account of civil society was inspired by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith. Nothing like a modern capitalist economy existed at the time in Prussia. Again, rather than defending the status quo (or the existing Prussian state), Hegel appears to have anticipated a future society, more rational and developed than that of his own present. As Karatani suggests, Hegel in fact anticipated a society very much like our own - a society characterized by a symbiosis between state, capitalism and nation where the three constituent parts of this "triad" mutually stabilize each other. Hence Hegel is more relevant than ever, especially for a critical theory that aims at overcoming and breaking out of the triad.

To most people today, the very idea of reason or spirit unfolding through history until culminating at a stage where no further development is possible appears quaint and laughable. To state that this end has already arrived and become embodied in the state seems ridiculous to say the least. However, Hegel does not fit in with this stereotypical image. As Robert Fine writes:
Hegel makes no claim to bird’s-eye wisdom, let alone to absolute knowledge. ‘The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk’ [...], he wrote, but he was writing at the dawn of the modern state. (Fine 2001:27)
While sparing no sarcasm in dissecting and criticizing Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and the tendencies in Hegel's later writings which led him to betray the critical potential of his own philosophy, Marcuse argues strongly that this critical potential itself mustn't be jettisoned - especially not by a critical theory guided by the ideal of resurrecting a sense of history, of humankind being able to shape society through its own imagination and its own activities rather than accepting the given social order as fate or as nature.

On the whole, it's impossible not to like Marcuse's book. It might not be as dazzlingly original as some other works of critical theory written around the same time (think The Dialectic of Enlightenment) and it sometimes becomes a bit predictable (I think here above all of Marcuse's yardsticks for evaluating Hegel), but I admire its clarity, erudition and firm grip of its subject.


Avineri, Shlomo (1972) Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (ch 5).

Fine, Robert (2001) Political Investigations: Hegel, Marx, Arendt, London: Routledge.

Hegel. G. W. F. (1991) Elements of the Philosophy of Right (ed. Allen W. Wood, tr. H. B. Nisbet), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Honneth, Axel (2014) Freedom's Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life, Cambridge: Polity.

Karatani, Kôjin (2014) Teikoku no kôzô - Chûshin, shûhen, ashûhen, Tokyo: Seidosha.

Losurdo, Domenico (2004) Hegel and the Freedom of the Moderns, Durham: Duke University Press.

Marcuse, Herbert (1969) Essay on Liberation,

Marcuse, Herbert (1999) Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory, Amhearst: Humanity Books.

Waszek, Norbert (1988) The Scottish Enlightenment and Hegel’s Account of ’Civil Society’, Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Zatôichi, Yôjimbô and imaginations of power

One of the most memorable scenes of Zatôichi (2003, dir. Kitano Takeshi) is near the end, when the blind itinerant masseur Zatôichi (Kitano Takeshi) in a stroke with his sword blinds the "Kuchinawa boss" (Hiura Ben), saying that death is too good for him. The sense of cruel satisfaction here is, I think, a little bit different from the one produced by the typical action movie endings when the bad guys get what they deserve. Here the sense of satisfaction is mixed up, at least to certain extent, with what could perhaps be called the pleasure accompanying intellectual development. Who is the Kuchinawa boss? Is Zatôichi really blind? Questions like these help build up a curiosity in the viewer that is at least as important as the mere satisfaction in seeing justice being meted out. The scene, then, is not simply there to bring closure to the film by distributing justice, but also to reveal new aspects of the story itself.
However, what the ending really illuminates is not so much the personalities of Zatôichi and the Kuchinawa boss.  What it brings into view, in a breathtakingly sudden act of illumination, is a particular image of power. Recall that the Kuchinawa boss is a mysterious existence, whose identity is unknown for almost the entire film. Although suspicions soon arise that he might be associated with one of the two rival gangs fighting for supremacy in the little town, he is clearly not identical with the gang's publicly well-known nominal head, Ginzô (played by great actor and rock band bassist Kishibe Ittoku). Ginzô is seemingly victorious after having crushed the rival gang with the help of a newly recruited yôjimbô, the masterless samurai Hattori (Asano Tadanobu). Zatôichi dispatches Hattori, Ginzô and most other gang members in a climactic showdown and then heads into a dark alley to find Kuchinawa. The film now departs markedly from the realism to which it until then had paid half-hearted lip service. In an almost dreamlike sequence he is attacked by ninjas, the leader of whom turns out to be the town's innkeeper (Emoto Akira) who, before being cut down, proudly declares himself to be the Kuchinawa boss. Zatôichi, however, is not fooled. Guided by unfallible intuition, he continues insides the inn where the innkeeper's henpecked underling, an old man with a crooked back, is waiting for him. He is the real Kuchinawa boss, who has now seen his life work being reduced to rubble. "You are the worst of them all", Zatôichi says. A brief exchange of lines follows, before the old man shows his tattoos and definatly asks his antagonist to cut him down - "Kire!". But Zatôichi's sword, quick as a flash, only cuts through his eyes. "Live your life in blindness", Zatôichi says contemptuously - his eyes nailing the old man to the floor, grey as steel and merciless as pistol muzzles - and then he leaves. Meanwhile the villagers are preparing a matsuri (festival). Everything starts anew, the earth is purified and renewed, the house that was burned down by the gang is rebuilt, and all the actors appear on the stage in a joyous step dance, some dressed in jeans and sneakers - as if bidding farewell to the autidence like at the theatre.

Although these final shots break with "realism", they perform a crucial function in visibilizing a form of power that can be characterized as indirect, multilayered and hidden. Zatôichi's journey through the dark alley is metaphorically a journey to the heart of this power, a journey that is necessary in order to cut off the roots of the corruption pervading the visible everyday world of the town (a corruption hinted at in the name Kuchinawa, "rotten rope", with the additional meaning of "snake"). That this journey is necessary explains why the final dénouement must involve an intellectual development. It cannot simply be a showdown with the visible "bad guys" but must also involve a dissection of the interior of the sick body, making this hidden power visible and surgically removing it.

The Zatôichi-character is certainly entirely improbable - a seemingly weak and helpless figure who journeys about as a unfallible, divine justice machine, never losing a duel. Yet he fascinates. Why? At least part of the answer, I believe, is that he embodies the fantasy that a cure to Japan's ills is possible. He is the man who cures Japan of its rotten heart, from the disease that has eaten itself into its soul - from the sense of stagnation and decay that has befallen the "Japanese model" during its recent "lost decades". Seemingly alone in seeing the real culprits behind the decay, his nightly journey to the Kuchinawa boss becomes a journey to the hidden heart of Japan. Guided by supernatural intuition, he becomes the savior of the small, orginary good people while all the experts stand clueless.

This image of Japan as ruled by a power that is hidden and unaccountable is also popular in literature. Turning to Murakami Haruki’s writings, for instance, one finds a vision of the system as an encompassing whole – composed of big companies, shady right-wing organizations and criminal syndicates – in which all opposition is recuperated and co-opted. In A Wild Sheep Chase, "the man in black" describes the shadowy syndicate headed by the right-wing “boss” in the following way:
We built a kingdom…. A powerful underground kingdom. We pulled everything into the picture. Politics, finance, mass communication, the bureaucracy, culture, all sorts of things you would never dream of. We even submitted elements that were hostile to us. From the establishment to the anti-establishment, everything. Very few of them even noticed they had been co-opted. (Murakami 2003:118) 
Matthew Strecher observes that this syndicate – being an organization which “is neither government, business, industry, nor media, yet which somehow holds all of these powers at its disposal” – is “a manifestation of the postmodern State: hidden, elusive, and unaccountable”. It is the very “adversary State against which his [Murakami's] generation battled in the 1960s” which “is now more powerful, and, indeed, more deadly, than ever” (Strecher 1998:358, 361). The picture of society as a total system is perhaps carried farthest in Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, in which Japan is dominated by two giant conglomerates known as the System and the Factory. While battling each other in a war of information, the two conglomerates are also suggested to be “two sides of the same coin” and maybe even run by the same persons (Murakami 1993:299).

Famous kuromaku Tanaka Kakuei
The pervasiveness of this image of power also in Japanese political philosophy is quite striking. Famous intellectuals like Maruyama Masao and Karatani Kôjin, for instance, have repeatedly struggled with how to theorize and critique the particular amorphous form of Japanese power, where the real centers of power are hidden and withdraw from public scrutiny (Here I won't write more about this, but if anyone's interested, please see Cassegard 2007). It goes without saying that this image of power is also closely linked to the way power is actually exercised in many layers of Japanese society - the most well-known example probably being the crucial role played in Japanese politics by kuromaku (lit. "black curtain") - powerful politicians or ex-politicians who act as wirepullers and king-makers behind the scene, often being far more powerful than the serving prime ministers.

Yet this image of power hasn't always been as pervasive as it is today. One way of bringing that out is to compare Zatôichi to an earlier, classic film to which it makes repeated references and of which it might almost be seen as a pastische, namely Kurosawa Akira's 1961 film Yôjimbô. Let me quickly enumerate some of the similarities. The setting is the same: a small rural town in which two rival gangs battle for supremacy and in which the good, small people suffer. In both films, strangers arrive in town that act as catalysts for the mutual destruction of the gangs and the restoration of peace. In both films, a masterless samurai arrives and finds employment as a yôjimbô (bodyguard) in one of the gangs. In both films, a revolver - a sinister piece of Western technology - appears in the final showdown but proves unable to stop the hero. Furthermore, in both films, the inn functions as a form of prototypical "public sphere" where people meet and information is exchanged about the situation in town.

Now for the differences. The most immediately striking difference is that in Zatôichi, it is no longer the masterless samurai who acts as the purifying force, but an itinerant blind masseur (ama). While Hattori is not evil per se, he soon becomes enmeshed in evil and part of the general corruption. Corruption has become much more pervasive. This is evident in the fact that the "public sphere" of the inn too has become corrupt. While the inn functioned as neutral ground and even as a shelter for the yôjimbô of Kurosawa's movie, it is now a place which is run by an innkeeper who reports to the Ginzô gang and who, in the end, turns out to be one of the gang leaders.  

Public sphere?
Instead of the masterless samurai, it is Zatôichi who acts as the cleansing catalyst - a figure belonging to the despised stratum of itinerants, which in premodern Japan also included beggars, lepers, mendicant monks and various kinds of preformers and prostitutes. At the same time, he is equipped with supernatural sword-fighting skills and seemingly also with supernatural intuition. From a realist vantage point, Zatôichi is clearly even more "impossible" than Kurosawa's hero. This "impossible", supernatural quality is underscored by his anachronic chapatsu hairstyle (hair dyed yellow, as among many young Japanese today). The uncanny, crow-like appearance and the equally uncanny ability to find his way - being quite unstoppable, despite his staggering gait - also suggest something almost divine. In terms of folklore, Zatôichi seems to be a form of kami, perhaps of the type Origuchi Shinobu called marebito (divine visitor). Indirectly, he also seems related to other creatures of folklore, such as the tengu - goblins living in the mountains said to possess divine fighting skills.

One of the more useful ideas given to us by Fredric Jamison is, I think, the one that ideology can be understood as the attempt to forge an "impossible", ideal solution to a real contradiction (an idea which, admittedly, ows a lot to Lévi-Strauss as well as the Frankfurt School). One of my friends, Göran Wernström, used this idea in his dissertation in order to argue that Kurosawa's films are animated by an impossible desire to combine socialism with a Confucian respect for hierarchy (Wernström 1996). To solve the contradiction, Kurosawa constantly had to portray "Confucian supermen" - as in Yôjimbô or the Seven Samurai - who through their superior fighting skills help bring about a society in which the small, ordinary people can live in peace but who then have to disappear from that society in which they no longer have a place, and thus "abolish themselves".

Confucian superman?
In Zatôichi, by comparison, there is no longer any hope in the elite, and no room for Confucian hierarchy. Instead, we might say that it is animated by an "impossible" desire to fuse populism (the idea that the "people" is right against the elite or establishment) with a celebration or belief in supernatural powers. The "people" in this case is a people without clear borders except against the elite: it comprises ordinary farmers and townsfolk, but also more marginal elements such as the town's "village idiot", prostitutes and former criminals.

What is problematic here, perhaps, is that this "people" is not really portrayed as capable of helping themselves. Despite the toughness and resolve of the Naruto siblings, for instance, they would have been helpless against the gang without Zatôichi's assistance. While Kurosawa's earlier film offered a kind of role model - a model for the elite, to be sure, but nevertheless a role model that at least some people might strive to emulate - Zatôichi offers little but faith in the possible arrival of the gods. There's little that the small people can do except to wait for the arrival to town of the divine surgeon with his razor-sharp lancet.

In view of the fact that Zatôichi is a film that is usually described as a comedy, that invites lots of laughter and that prominently features lots of beautiful dancing and a matsuri (festival) at the end, it might seem surprising that the film is actually so dark. It's image of society - a nest of corruption that can no longer be cured of its ills through ordinary human powers - is far darker than in the earlier film. This, perhaps, explains the prominent role in it of folklore and religion. In other films too, Beat Takeshi seems to delight in Japanese folklore. Perhaps this is best seen as a religious movie - an apocalyptic, millennarian, religious movie.


Cassegard, Carl (2007) “Exteriority and Transcritique: Karatani Kōjin and the Impact of the 90’s”, Japanese Studies 27(1): 1-18.

Murakami, Haruki (2003) A Wild Sheep Chase (tr. by Alfred Birnbaum), London: Vintage.

Murakami, Haruki (1993) Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World (tr. by Alfred Birnbaum), New York: Vintage.

Strecher, Matthew (1998) “Beyond ‘Pure’ Literature: Mimesis, Formula, and the Postmodern in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki”, The Journal of Asian Studies 57(2): 354-378.

Wernström, Göran (1996) Medvetet/omedvetet och filmberättande : en studie i Akira Kurosawas film Sju samurajer, Lund: Lund University.

Friday, 5 September 2014

What's good about popular culture and flea markets

The pleasure I get when watching a science fiction anime is similar to that of visiting a flea market. Like a flea market, the anime brings me the debris of history. Here and there I experience moments of recognition. Some spaceships look like aircraft carriers, soldiers wear WWI German uniforms and Char Aznable wears a samurai kabuto. Yet the scattered remains come in no apparent order and do not seem to form a message. Recycled in popular culture, they become images lacking connection to whatever they once may have signified.

At the same time the opposite process also occurs. As I sift through this refuse the images turn into symbols. This process is at work in dreams as well. In dreams, images are torn from their familiar context and lose the meaning they had in daily life, but at the same time they acquire new ones that are yet to be deciphered but nevertheless, so to speak, radiate from behind their back, like a halo or the rays of an eclipsed sun. The surrealist poet André Breton loved flea markets and travelled to them in search of such meaning, which he hoped would break forth, like a flash, when things were juxtaposed in a shocklike montage. Inspired by the surrealists, Walter Benjamin claimed that every piece of rags or refuse was a potential “dialectical image” which might trigger the sudden flash of recognition, the involuntary memory, which would help dispel the dreamworld of capitalism. 

If this is true, then popular culture is not just a depository of meaningless historical refuse, but also a place where this very debris might turn into an explosive language, capable of awakening and at least rudimentarily articulating a longing for that better future or Utopia, illuminated by which this present can be turned into an object to criticize.

But enough for today! With these words, let me signal my intention to discuss, if I have the time, some works of popular culture – beginning, perhaps, with Gundam or Godzilla – in future posts.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Is there any nostalgia in The Grand Budapest Hotel?

Although skeptical at first, I was enthralled after a few minutes by the movie I was watching, Wes Anderson's The Budapest Hotel. Not so much by its visual splendour - with the cake-like hotel, the mountains, the stylized miniatures and so on - but rather by the music. The score is by Alexandre Desplat, but some of the best tunes are adaptations of Russian balalaika music (both “Moonlight” and “Kamarinskaya”, performed by the Osipov State Russian Folk Orchestra, irrestibly made me happy). The use of Vivaldi’s Concerto for lute in D Major is also effective.

I also liked the skilfull way the characters were introduced and the comical alteration of speaking styles (the “good” protagonists, for instance, like to speak in harangues that sound like when you read poetry aloud). Here the talent of Ralph Fiennes, who plays the consierge Gustave H, is an important contributing factor. I also liked Harvey Keitel’s brief appearance as a tough, matter-of-fact prison inmate (“It’s got what we might call vulnerabilities”). In fact, this is a good movie for admiring the small, brief appearances of several actors.

As an aside, as I write this I realize again that part of the secret of “realism” in portraying people lies in sketchiness, in not revealing too much. During the movie some characters are faced by choices such as: Will Gustave employ the paperless migrant boy? Will the attorney Kovacs cave in to Dmitri’s intimidations? Despite these situations being treated in an offhand way, I found myself watching eagerly to know what choices they would make, since I was unable to predict it in advance. This is of course just like in reality, where we only know most people around us superficially. But it is unlike standard Hollywood movies, where part of the implausability of character portrayals consist in the they are made to fit into pregiven molds and hence become predicatable and knowable at once. To me, this realism was one of the sources of the pleasure of the film.  

So how about serious analysis? Well, it’s a charming aestheticized picaresque. The overt political gestures (the civilized, aesthetic repulsion for fascist barbarism) are commonplace and not much to make a fuss of. So how about the role of nostalgia? Nostalgia is indeed an explicit theme in the film. “There are still glimmers of civilization in this barbaric slaugtherhouse once known as humanity” is a phrase that occurs twice in the movie. Nostalgia is also evoked by the juxtaposition of the hotel as it was at the height of its splendor in the early 30s with how drab it became in the communist post-war period. As the film ends, we are told that it was inspired by Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday.

But what is done with this nostalgia? Not much. There is nothing in the film that upsets it or puts it in question (just think of the contrast with The Shining, another great hotel film, where the brilliance of bygone days is an uncanny abode of horror). The Grand Budapest Hotel contrasts the beauty and aristocratic refinement of the lost world of yesterday to the brutality of ascendant fascism – a repulsive enemy that can be rejected without controversy. Admittedly, the fact that Dmitri, the scion of an archduchess, is portrayed as a fascistoid bastard shows an awareness that fascism had historical roots also in aristocratic circles. But such traces of historical accuracy are not developed into a critique and fail to diminish the radiance of the bygone civilization. The same can be said about the fact that the main protagonist is an illegal immigrant boy who has fled a genocidal war. As shown by the behaviour of Gustave, accepting such immigrants with generosity and humanity is portrayed as something that goes hand in hand with the civilization of yesterday. But wasn’t this civilization itself racist and colonialist? It certainly was, but in defense of the movie one might add that it was more so in countries like Britain, France and Germany than in the old Habsburg Empire which seems in fact to have been more tolerant.

So nostalgia is in fact not really a central problem in this movie. It’s there, of course, but not as a problem, not as something it struggles with. Rather than sorrow at the loss of the lovely world of yesterday, the movie delights in its dazzling, fictional reappearance before us. No sorrow can take root in this world since it it constantly swept away by happiness. This delight is akin to that of a collector or connaisseur who finds a lovely piece of art at a flea market or the tourist who discovers a charming little restaurant in a back street. Nostalgia, then, is surface. The film is not at all suffused by any desire to stay in touch with the lost world, a world that is long gone and never really existed anyway - except as a graceful illusion. Near the end, the aged Zero Mustafa is asked by the “author” if he kept the old hotel in order to stay in touch with “his world”, the world of Gustave. No, he replies with a smile, that world was already gone at the time of Gustave, "but he sustained the illusion with marvellous grace”.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Is Japan still a "bad place"? Reimagining Japan after the disaster

Here are just some reflections on a book I just got into my hands, Nihon 2.0 (vol. 3 of Shisō Chizu β, edited by Azuma Hiroki, published 2012). It's interesting for the explicit attempt of the participating authors to reimagine Japan in the wake of the 3.11 disaster. Thus in the opening essay the editor, Azuma Hiroki, calls for a new creative engagement with Japaneseness, similar to that of Fukuzawa Yukichi at the time of Japan's opening to the West in the 19th century, another time of national crisis. Considering Azuma's previous work, it is hardly surprising that the volume contains lots of material dealing with otaku culture and a the text of a speech held by Murakami Takashi (famous for his "superflat" art) in Doha on the occasion of the exhibition of his latest work, The 500 Arhats. Somewhat more surprisingly, the volume also contains a respectful interview with the philosopher Umehara Takeshi and an entire draft for a new constitution of Japan.

The volume strikes me by its careful and circumspect, yet quite explicit nationalism. After Fukushima another, new Japan is needed. As Azuma states, "We need a new heart to build a new nation". This is certainly not to be confused with the rightist nationalism of the Abe government, but the mere fact that a language centered on the nation can be adopted so unabashedly by prominent intellectuals like Azuma is, perhaps, significative of recent trends in Japan. In general, I would say that Japan today is characterized by much nation-talk of various hues, as can be seen in the rise of xenophobic "hatespeech" groups as well as in the populist rhetoric of parts of the anti-nuclear power movement. A lot of different discourses are tugging at the term "nation" from various directions. 

Here I will focus on one of the texts in the book - "3.11 go no warui basho - Tôkyô” (The bad place after 3.11 - Tokyo), the transcript of a conversation between Azuma, Sawaragi Noi and Kurose Yôhei. I once used to read quite a lot of Sawaragi's books and essay and I put together an interpretation of his works in an essay I wrote a few years ago, "Japan's Lost Decade and Two Recoveries: On Sawaragi Noi, Japanese Neo-pop and Anti-war Activism" (in Nina Cornyetz & Keith Vincent, eds., Perversion and Modern Japan: Psychoanalysis, Literature, Culture, Routledge 2010).

In the essay I argued that the anti-war movement that reached its zenith in Japan in 2003 - in which Sawaragi participated by founding a group, "Korosuna", that used art and street parties to protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - became the occasion for Sawaragi to relativize his earlier bleak picture of Japan as a "bad place" and "closed circle". As he wrote himself at the time, by participating in demonstrations for the first time, he had discovered that the street was a "good place". This discovery of a "good place", I argued, went hand in hand with his discovery of a similarly "good" undercurrent in Japanese art which was marginal but nevertheless periodically surfaced to challenge officially sanctioned art. He linked this alternative current to millennarian ideals, the impact of the 1923 Great Kantô Earthquake, to anarchism and Dadaism, and to the activities of artists like Dadakan and Okamoto Tarô at the time of the Osaka world exhibition in 1970. By the way, the combination of earthquakes and millennarianism in this list is not so strange as it might appear. I explain some of the millennarian connotations of earthquakes in Japan here.  
日本・現代・美術Originally, he had put forth the idea of Japan as a "bad place" in his acclaimed book Nihon Gendai Bijutsu (1997). Here he claimed that Japan was a "bad place" for art, a place where art had failed to take root since modern art, in the sense of an imported "Western" institution, was founded on a "forgetting" of its violent origins, namely in the asymmetrical relation between Japan and the "West" which it sought to emulate. The book achieved much of its resonance due to the fact that Sawaragi's discussion seemed to have wider implications that went far beyond the field of art. In fact, Sawaragi defines "bad place" in general terms as a place for forgetting and repetition. In terms that resemble the political scientist Maruyama Masao’s scathing portrayal of Japan in Nihon no shisô, Sawaragi describes post-war Japan itself as a "bad place" and "closed circle" where social problems are pointed out only to be forgotten, where no accumulation takes places no matter how much a problem is discussed or debated, and where forgotten problems continually reappear.

The conversation with Azuma and Kurose revolved around whether Japan was still a "bad place" today after the 3.11 disaster. Sawaragi states that Japanese art has become more globalized, with artists like Murakami and Nara Yoshitomo being active abroad. But after them, not much has happened. Therefore, he thinks that the “bad place” still remains in place, wholly unchanged – a fact that was thrown into relief after 3.11. The earthquake had shown that Japan was still a place of forgetting and repetition. The occasion for writing Nihon Gendai Bijutsu had been the Great Hanshin Awaji Earthquake in 1995, he states, but now, with the 3.11 diaster, Japan had been hit by an even bigger catastrophe (Sawaragi et al 2012:350f). 

Notable in this discussion is how closely Sawaragi links the notion of “bad place” to earthquakes. Postwar Japan, he states, was built on the premise that the earth would not shake. This was part of the "forgetting" that constituted Japan as a "bad place". That is a point that was ignored in museums and art institutions in the era of high growth, and now when the earth has started to shake those institutions are unable to respond (ibid. 369).

We can note, however, that the bleak picture is not total. Sawaragi does state that he sees some hope in Murakami Takashi's The 500 Arhats as well as in the guerilla antics of Chim↑Pom, a group of young artists that became famous in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident when they used the cover of night to alter Okamoto Tarô's mural Asu no shinwa (The Myth of Tomorrow) by adding three smouldering reactors in a corner of the mural.

Chim↑Pom's addition to Asu no shinwa, April 2011.
Near the end of the conversation (ibid. 365-370), Azuma starts an interesting discussion about whether art has any important role after the disaster. He himself doubts it. He quotes the Osaka mayor Hashimoto Tôru, who said that what is needed now is not art but rather entertainment (geinô) and comic performances (owarai). Sawaragi immediately objects, asking if people will really put up with mere entertainment after the disaster. Azuma replies that he can't agree to position that people in pain need art, not entertainment, adding provocatively that what people need can only be measured by the market. He also asks Sawaragi to clarify why he thinks there is any need for art. 

To this, Sawaragi replies that regardless of whether the necessity of art can be defined or not, art will always keep being born anyway. He then repeats that when people lose their children, their siblings or friends, art will be necessary to reach that "deeper dimension where souls are pacified and redeemed". Referring to The 500 Arhats, he states that Murakami produced the work for the sake of pacifying dead souls after the distaster. Azuma remains unconvinced, however, saying that he knows of no case of art really having saved a person and that the very notion of salvation has become hard to grasp today. He then criticizes Sawaragi for being inconsistent: wasn’t Sawaragi's idea of Japan as a “bad place” supposed to rest on the fact that art in Japan was a mere imported fashion without any real anchoring in society to begin with (ibid. 368)?

Murakami Takashi's The 500 Arhats
Azuma's criticism of Sawaragi appears to hit the mark. Why is Sawaragi so concerned with defending the necessity of art, when he himself claims that that Japan is a bad place where art can failed to take root? Is Japan not a "bad place" after all? To understand Sawaragi's position here, I believe we need to recall that after his discovery in 2003 of a "good place" on the street, he in fact no longer sees the "closed circle" as total and that he also recognizes a subterranean, alternative current of "good" art in Japan that is capable of disrupting the "forgetting" dominating official art.

So how does Sawaragi reply to Azuma's final criticism? He starts by saying that he thinks a crack has opened up in the bad place after the disaster (ibid. 368f). Here Azuma quickly inserts: “So the bad place has turned into a good place? I cannot be so optimistic”. Sawaragi continues that he's not at all saying that after the earthquake Japan has become a good place where everybody can appreciate art. But thanks to the repetition of disasters that require mourning and the pacification of souls, people are starting to recognize that this is a bad place (ibid. 369). By finally recognizing that Japan is a country of earthquakes, we also become more aware of the meaning that has been produced in response to disasters earlier in history (ibid. 370).

On the whole, I tend to side with Sawaragi in this debate. Surely art has been important is articulating experiences of the war or the atomic bombings in ways that might not have been possible in other ways. But I also believe that he can be criticized in part. As Kurose points out, nothing says that the function of mourning must be fulfilled by high art or contemporary art (ibid. 370). Sawaragi himself has argued earlier that experiences of WWII were better preserved in manga and pop culture than in art where sensitive subjects have often been taboo.

Furthermore, Sawaragi is indeed inconsistent in arguing both that the “bad place” is still in place unchanged (early part of the conversation) and that a crack has opened up in it (concluding part). Here Azuma's criticism is justified. To avoid it, Sawaragi would probably have to drop the idea that the "bad place" is intact. I also think it would have been far more helpful to readers if he had explained how he relates the present situation to that of the anti-war movement in 2003, when he claimed a “good place” had appeared on the streets. The "crack", in other words, existed already then and is not something he discovered after Fukushima. What gets lost in the conversation are the changes in his thinking, above all the change from Nihon Gendai Bijutsu where he tended to portray the "bad place" as a closed circle to works following his engagement in the anti-war movement (such as Kuroi taiyô to akai kani or Sensô to banpaku), where he discerns an alternative, subterranean current in Japanese tradition that tends to produce “good places” whenever it resurfaces. As I've argued above, this latter idea is needed to explain the views he puts forward in this conversation. The idea of a submerged or forgotten awareness of Japan as a land of earthquakes that resurfaces in the wake of disasters is similar to the idea of a subterranean millennarian-anarchistic-dadaistic current in art that periodically resurfaces to disrupt the dominant order. But adopting this view of Japan as consisting of two rival traditions also means that Japan can no longer be viewed as a wholly bad place. There is a good pulse beating below the surface.    

Finally, there is the objection that what people need after a disaster is neither art nor entertainment. They need food, shelter and other daily necessities. More generally speaking, the need for political action will almost certainly also be greater than the need for art. What is needed after a disaster is a new society in which the disaster will not be repeated. However, what Sawaragi calls art is not opposed to that. The art he champions - from Dadakan to Korosuna and Chim↑Pom - has always been indistinguishable from activism. His defence of art is, in the end, a defence of activism.


Sawaragi, Noi & Azuma, Hiroki & Kurose Yôhei (2012) “3.11 go no warui basho - Tôkyô”, in Azuma Hiroki (ed) Nihon 2.0, Shisō Chizu β vol. 3:346-374.  

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Laclau and the return of the people

In his book on how "streets and tweets" are intertwined in contemporary movements like the Arab Spring, the Indignados and Occupy, Paolo Gerbaudo observes that these movements are popular movements in Ernesto Laclau’s sense – popular because they appeal to the “people” (Gerbaudo 2012:10f, 41f). He points out that this is a difference compared to the global justice movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The majoritarian character of contemporary movements registers a clear difference from the anti-globalisation movement. The latter was marked by a self-conscious minoritarian identity famously expressed in Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos’ statement: ‘Marcos is all the exploited, marginalised, oppressed minorities resisting and saying ‘Enough’. (Gerbaudo 2012:10f)
Examples of this popular orientation in today's movements come easily to mind: the Occupy slogan “We are the 99%” or the Egyptian uprising’s “The people wants the government to fall" or the Indignados' "We are everyday normal people". A similar turn to a majoritarian orientation took place in the post-Fukushima Japanese anti-nuclear movement, where it was common for participants in the mass-demonstrations in front of the prime minister's residence that started in 2012 to describe themselves as "people" (kokumin) or "ordinary people" (hitobito) (Kindstrand 2014). In striking contrast to this rhetoric, many of the early protests that had erupted in the wake of the Fukushima accident the year before were boisterous street partys arranged by self-consciously minoritarian activists - people who delighted in referring to themselves as "paupers" (binbônin) or "irresponsible dudes" (iikagen na yatsura) living outside mainstream society. 

What is populism?

Ernesto Laclau
What are we to make of this appeal to the "people" in recent protest? Let me turn directly to Laclau and his book On Populist Reason (2005). A central claim in this book is that populism is constitutive of the political as such. Constructing the ‘people’, he writes, is “the political act par excellence” (Laclau 2005:154).

What, then, is populism according to Laclau? He starts by distinguishing "popular" demands from individual demands concerning specific issues (which he calls “democratic” demands). He takes the example of migrants in a shantytown who turn to the authorities to demand a solution to some housing-related problem. If the demand goes unfulfilled, then "people can start to perceive that their neighbors have other, equally unsatisfied demands –problems with water, health, schooling, and so on" (ibid 73).

If the situation remains unchanged for some time, there is an accumulation of unfulfilled demands and an increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them in a differential way (each in isolation from the others), and an equivalential relation is established between them [...]. A plurality of demands which, through their equivalential articulation, constitute a broader social subjectivity we will call popular demands – they start, at a very incipient level, to constitute the ‘people’ as a potential historical actor. (ibid. 73f)
The defining trait of populism, then, is the expansion of the equivalential chains and their symbolic unification through the signifier of the 'people'. Through the articulation of a popular identity, a plurality of demands are unified and made equivalential, and at the same time an antagonistic frontier dividing society in two camps (the 'people' vs. power) is formed.

As Laclau himself points out, this is a broad definition of populism: “many phenomena which were not traditionally considered populist come under that umbrella in our analysis” (ibid. xi). It is thus not limited to what we today often see as typical populist demands as exemplified by anti-immigration parties, climate skepticism or the anti-abortion movement. Against Zizek’s argument that populism involves a proto-fascist tendency project the causes of real problems on some imaginary enemy, e.g. the Jews or immigrants (Zizek 2006), Laclau replies that symbolization is necessary in creating hegemony and that all political discourses do it, including activists on the Left who point to Wall Street as the root of evil or who burn the American flag. It's the way movements create unity and there's nothing inherently fascist in it (Laclau 2006:653).

At the same time, this definition is also a narrow one, since it doesn't admit of single-issue populism, i.e. populism without equivalential chains. This means that what we think of as typical populist demands (anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, climate skepticism etc) are not populist in Laclau's sense as long as they remain mere individual demands that don't rely on a popular identity ('the people') to unify a plurality of equivalential chains.

Peculiarities of the 'people'

Laclau points out that the category of the 'people' is characterized by a number of peculiarities. To begin with, it is never simply the totality of a population, since it is always pitted against an opponent. It is thus a particularity, but one that claims to represent totality. The people “is a partial component which nevertheless aspires to be conceived as the only legitimate totality” (ibid. 2005:81). More specifically, it claims to be both underdog and the whole; it is “a plebs who claims to be the only legitimate populus” (ibid. 81).

Tahrir 2011
This is a good place to correct a misunderstanding which I suspect can easily arise among Laclau's readers. When he writes that populism must emanate from an “underdog” that at the same time sees itself as the “people”, isn’t this a remainder of the kind of social determinism that he detests and criticizes in Marxism? If the discursive level is autonomous, then its formations must be impossible to derive from social categories - even categories as vaguely formulated as the "underdog". Although there are certain passages in Laclau that lend themselves to such an objection - e.g. when he discusses the impossibility of determining a priori who the hegemonic actors in a struggle will be and states: “All we know is that they will be the outsiders of the system, the underdogs” (ibid. 150) - the objection doesn't really hit its target. What he means is not that a “plebs” or an “underdog” in a socially pregiven sense constitutes itself as the “people”, but rather that the “people” constituted in populism is always conceived of as a “plebs-as-people”. In principle, it can’t matter to Laclau what the real social carrier of populism is, since social groups are themselves discursive products. The failure of Kemalism - one of his examples - to articulate a populism despite its attempt to appeal to a "people", was not due to the prominent role of elite actors in it, but rather to the fact that this “people” was not constituted as a plebs-as-people.

This brings me to the second peculiarity. The 'people' never expresses an already existing collectivity, but instead brings this collectivity into being by naming it. Since the individual demands that are unified in populism may lack a common denominator, the name itself must function as their ground (ibid. 99ff). The 'people' thus only has a nominal unity, not a conceptual one. That doesn't mean that it isn't felt to be real. On the contrary, Laclau points out that it is often the object of intense emotional investment. Drawing on Lacan, he claims that it becomes the object petit a which stands in for the lost Thing and thereby enables jouissance to live on (ibid. 112f).

What Laclau describes here may be phrased as a critique of the typical sociological tendency to "sociologize politics by reducing political standpoints to social factors. Despite this, the core of his argument appears to be quite expressible in terms of Durkheim's classical theory of the symbol. According to Durkheim, the social bond is established in moments of collective effervescence that becomes invested in symbols. These symbols are thus not post-facto expressions of a collectivity but rather instrumental in bringing it about and maintaining it. Building on Durkheim, Randall Collins stresses how the symbols are always emotionally charged since they store the emotional energy generated in moments of effervescence. The difference compared to Laclau is that Collins focuses on face-to-face interaction as crucial in generating the emotional charge while Laclau tends to describe the hegemonic operation in linguistic terms, which makes it more difficult to comprehend why the emotional charge arises in the first place. Laclau relies on an abstract Lacan-inspired explanation according to which human beings simply need to elevate certain objects into 'the Thing' to retain any connection at all to the lost wholeness once experienced in infancy and thus the possibility of jouissance. Here it seems to me that Durkheim and Collins offer better insights into the concrete processes whereby symbols expressing certain collectives are established. They do this since they don't need to posit any abstract lost wholeness, but can instead point to real lived experiences of effervescence. Such experiences are not really "lost" since they are possible to repeat, and each new such experience can contribute to the establishment of new symbols and the formation of new solidarities.  Gerbaudo points to that possibility in his discussion of how the physical togetherness of activists at the occupied squares in Cairo, Madrid and New York was a crucial element in the "emotional choreography" and "effervescence" that transformed these squres into "magnetic gatherings" that were sources of identification for the social movements (Gerbaudo 2012:13, 155f).

Conflicts surrounding the constitution of the people

Laclau points out that the 'people' is necessarily vague and subject to contestation, since it lacks conceptual unity. The 'people' can never fully control what kind of demands enter into the equivalential chains and which it must embody and represent (Laclau 2005:108).

In particular there are two kinds of conflictual dynamics that can destabilize and disturb its construction. The first of these is the classical hegemonic struggle played out between two well-defined antagonists, the 'people' vs. the 'regime' or 'elite'. The frontier between these camps is not stable. It can become blurred if the regime or elite itself tries to “interrupt the equivalential chain of the popular camp by an alternative equivalential chain, in which some of the popular demands are articulated to entirely different links” (ibid. 131). Laclau's favorite example is the success of Thatcherism in recruiting worker support. Another good example might be the "new spirit of capitalism", discussed by Boltanski & Chiapello (2005), in which an "aesthetic critique" centered on demands for self-realization and individual freedom is appropriated from radical left of 1968 and used to legitimize post-Fordist capitalism itself. 

A second potential conflict relates to other grassroots demands. Which demands can be included in the equivalential chains making up the 'people' and which are excluded? What if demands that are part of the chain clash with new demands trying to incorporate themselves into it (ibid. 139)? Laclau discusses this in relation to the exclusion of the Lumpenproletariat from the Labor movement. The relation of the Labor movement to this excluded other is not one of mere difference (representable within the symbolic field) but a heterogeneity (symbolically unmasterable other, the Real). In the struggle between Labor and Capital, the demands that fail to be incorporated into the populist chain established by the Labor movement are thus elements that threaten to disturb the struggle. When they intrude into the struggle, the Labor movement is “interrupted by a heterogeneous ‘Real’ which it cannot symbolically master”. The reaction of the main antagonists in this struggle is like “the reaction of two chess players to somebody who kicks the board” (ibid. 141).

Critical comments

Here I think of course of the problems of the majoritarian turn in Indignados and Occupy and the kokumin rhetoric in the anti-nuclear power movement in Japan. At least on a rhetorical level, the shift to a self-representation as the 'people' tends to exclude 'less respectable' minoritarian identities from public visibility. Laclau never really explains how populist movements should deal with heterogeneity and the problem of exclusiveness. Instead he goes on to argue that all hegemonic actors are constructed out of a heterogeneous material and that the Lumpenproletariat is therefore in a sense the denied foundation or ground of the labor movement (ibid. 150). By analogy, his claim in regard to recent protests would likely be that these movements too are constituted out of a heterogeneity which it then, in a second step, denies and partially excludes by setting up the name of the 'people' as a symbolic unity.


The people?
The problem of what becomes of minoritarians - those who refuse to identify with the 'people' or who are denied recognition as part of the 'people' - in populist movements is related to the difference between Laclau and Jacques Rancière. Despite the affinity that Laclau claims exists between them, his position in regard to heterogeneity is remarkably different from Rancière's. For Laclau the emergence of 'the political' always follows a populist logic - it demands the establishment of a symbolic unity that unavoidably leaves out or excludes certain demands. To Rancière, by contrast, the political is the eruption into public visibility of 'the uncounted part', of those who have no recognized place in the discursive field. It takes the form of a visibilization of heterogeneity and its effect is to challenge and upset established discursive formations.

While the populist movements described by Laclau may very well start off in this way, many of them soon gain recognition as actors in the discursive field, especially as they grow more successful and able to effectively hegemonize existing social struggles by taking up a variety of demands and thus establish an antagonism dividing society in two camps. To use his own simile, the populist movement and its opponent become like two chess players, whose respective identities contribute to the stability of the overall preconditions of the game rather than upsetting it. In contrast to such an established antagonism, the eruption of the political in Rancière's sense would be very much like the person "kicking the chess board" or the "interruption by a heterogenous 'Real'" mentioned by Laclau as forces that potentially threaten the hegemonic formations of populism.

Laclau is curiously blind to the differences separating him from Rancière. This may have something to do with his desire to portray populism as a radical break with existing institutions. This desire can be seen when he writes that not all political projects are equally populistic since that depends on the extension of the equivalential chain unifying social demands: “In more institutionalist types of discourse... that chain is reduced to a minimum; while its extension will be maximal in rupturist discourses which tend to divide the social into two camps” (ibid. 154). Here he is claiming that the more a political project is governed by a populist logic, the more it will reject existing institutions. But such a claim seems unfounded. Populism isn't necessarily radical. Examples of the extension and unification of equivalential chains in the name of the people abound in institutionalized politics. That, after all, is how most mainstream political parties in modern liberal democracies work. Conversely, radical anti-institutional protest can occur in movements that don't rely on any notion of the 'people' at all, such as self-consciously minoritarian movements of the kind Gerbaudo associates with the Global Justice Movement, ecological movements, and many single-issue movements. 

This returns me to the question of who is included and who is excluded in the new popular movements. What becomes of the minoritarian activists when the movements they helped start up or pave the way for become majoritarian movements by a self-defined mainstream 'people'? In addition to being rhetorically excluded through the establishment of the new majoritarian popular identity, they also seem to be theoretically excluded by Laclau himself. While Laclau criticizes Marx and Engels for depriving the Lumpenproletariat of a historical role - for reducing it theoretically to a role similar to Hegel's "peoples without history" -  doesn't he in fact repeat their gesture, basically claiming that no matter how much minoritarian activists try to challenge power, they fail to enter the proper domain of 'the political' as long as they don't submit to the populist logic?

Before ending, I should add that what I see as the real value of Laclau's book is his theoretization of populism as a way in which the political is constituted as an at least seemingly autonomous realm, independent of social forces in an almost quasi-transcendental way. This is most clearly stated in his discussion of how the 'people' comes into being through the force of naming, as an entity arising from a plurality of individual demands which it at the same time transcends and exceeds. The 'people' is always more than the merely individual demands it articulates, and yet, paradoxically, it would be nothing without them. It is an empty signifier, yet at the same time it stands for a reality which it itself calls into being. Laclau's theoretization of the 'people' quite clearly parallels Kantorowicz’ idea of the king’s two bodies, and might even be modelled on it (Laclau himself refers briefly to it on page 171). Just as the 'people' is always a particularity embodying the whole, the king is a particularity - a single mortal human body - embodying the 'immortal' whole of the state. In both cases an magical transsubstantiation takes place, as a normal, ordinary object is 'elevated into the Thing'. The result of this transsubstantiation is the production of the 'people' in the one case and of 'sovereignty' in the other. Just as the 'people', sovereignty is constituted as seemingly independent of social forces, an autonomous entity that can only be named but never reduced to any conceptual content (One aspect of this is that it always transcends the attempts to pin it down through the law or the constitution, as Schmitt pointed out). 

Unlike Laclau, however, I am not prepared to grant this semblance of autonomy the status of something that simply needs to be accepted for politics to be possible. Next to Kantorowitz' theory of the two bodies, Marx' discussion of commodity fetishism is probably the best known theoretization of the process whereby a product of social forces is reconstituted as a object enjoying a seeming autonomy from those forces. In referring to the autonomy of the political or of sovereignty as a semblance, I want to stress that it can also be made into an object of ideology criticism. This is a mode of analysis which Laclau explicitly rejects, since he believes that it must depend on a notion of a true representation of reality that can be used to criticize false consciousness (see his criticism of Zizek in Laclau 2006). But is that necessarily so? Ideology criticism can be carried out by juxtaposing the object to what it excludes or denies but which is nevertheless visible or at least detectable as that upon which the object depends. Sovereignty can be criticized by showing that its claims are a sham in moments of revolution that demonstrate, for all to see, that not only "he" who decides on the exception is sovereign, but also the movements that bring about "his" fall. Populism can be criticized by confronting it with the demands that it fails to include. Doing so is not at all to undermine the 'political'. It too is a form of politics.

”Listen to the voice of people. Return Fukushima"


Boltanski, Luc & Chiapello, Eve (2005) The New Spirit of Capitalism, London: Verso.

Gerbaudo, Paolo (2012) Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism, London: Pluto Press.
Kindstrand, Love (2014) “Crowds and Multitudes in the Disastrous Present: Populist Imaginations in Japan’s Antinuclear Movement”, forthcoming in Japan Focus.
Laclau, Ernesto (2005) On Populist Reason, London: Verso.

Laclau, Ernesto (2006) “Why Constructing a People Is the Main Task of Radical Politics”, Critical Inquiry 32(4):646-680.

Zizek, Slavoj (2006) “Against the Populist Temptation”, Critical Inquiry 32: 551-574.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

What is reification? Critical comments on Honneth

According to a popular understanding, reification means treating human beings as things. Reification would in other words be when people are treated in a way that disregards what makes them specifically human - for instance when we instrumentalize them for our own purposes or regard them as mere "cogs in the wheels" of some larger structure or system.
Axel Honneth

However, this conception is at odds with how the concept was used by the generation of social thinkers who introduced it in social thought - thinkers like Lukács, Bloch and Adorno. Contrary to common belief, to them reification had nothing to do with the opposition of“human beings” and “things”. To them reification means that an object, human or not, appears to possess substance independently of the process of its historical mediation. In this sense even the act of identifying a person as “human” in distinction to animals or things could be an instance of reification. Reification, in other words, is not the opposite of the human but of the historical. “For all reification is a forgetting: objects become purely thing-like the moment they are retained for us without the continued presence of their other aspects: when something of them has been forgotten”, Adorno writes in a letter to Benjamin (Adorno & Benjamin 1999:321). Here, then, reification doesn’t mean just to treat human beings as things. It’s to treat any aspect of the dialectically constituted world as a thing.

The concept of reification was first made widely known through Lukács' History and Class Consciousness, published in 1923. In his usage, the roots linking the concept of reification to Marx' idea of commodity fetishism are clear: just as the commodity appears to possess value in its own right, independently of the process of production, the reified "thing" appears to possess an essence in its own right, regardless of social or historical context. Thus Lukács criticizes "bourgeois thought" - characterized by a stance of putatively neutral, contemplative observation - for its treatment of concepts as rigid and timeless entities independent of history. Through its attempt to grasp things as if they had a fixed ahistorical essence that could be captured through formal categories or definitions, such reifying thought becomes blind to the dialectical movement of history, to the mediation of its objects through the “totality” of societal relations. What he counterposes to such thinking is dialectics, the ability to grasp shifting meanings by relating them to the whole. Controversially, he argued that this ability to grasp the whole was embodied in the proletariat, which he portrayed in Hegelian terms as the identical subject-object of history.

As Axel Honneth notes in his 2005 Tanner Lectures (available as pdf here and also included in his 2006 book Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea), the concept of reification has nowadays fallen out of use. A primary aim of his lectures is to revive it. He does so, however, by tearing it out of the theoretical context in which Lukács developed it. Linking it instead to his own theory of recognition - developed in a series of writings from The Struggle for Recognition (Honneth 1995) onwards - he follows the popular understanding of the concept by opposing it to the human rather than the historical. Rather than seeing it as inherent in capitalism, he redefines it as a "forgetfulness of recognition" not necessarily tied to any particular social formation. On the way he subjects Lukács to a rather patronizing critique. Below I will criticize Honneth's reformulation of the concept. I will not do so, however, by arguing that Lukács was right. Lukács was a problematical thinker whose proclivity to a dogmatic philosophy of history blunted his own best insights. Instead I will point to possibilities inherent in the concept which inspired thinkers like Benjamin and Adorno and which suggest how it can be made useful today.

Honneth's criticism of Lukács

Honneth subjects Lukács to criticism on at least two scores.

To begin with, he objects to the "totalizing" nature of Lukács' critique of reification. Such a critique, according to Honneth, only makes sense when viewed against a more primordial or genuine form of praxis in which humans take up an "engaged attitude" towards the world (Honneth 2005:192). Due to his totalizing critique, however, Lukács is unable to clarify adequately what a human relation not affected by reification would look like. To be sure, Lukács does employ a notion of non-reified life inspired by Hegel and Fichte, according to which view human agency is defined as when mind and world coincide. To Honneth, this view is utterly untenable. A more plausible view of agency is suggested by Lukács in passages where he describes engaged praxis using words like “cooperative”, “empathetic”, or experiencing objects as “qualitatively unique” (ibid. 101).

Honneth argues that what Lukács was aiming at in passages like these is similar to Heidegger's "care" and Dewey's "practical involvement" and to what Honneth himself calls "recognition". Being constitutive of social life, this more caring, existential relationship must precede the attitude of detached contemplation which Lukács associates with a reified view of the world. The former can never be wholly replaced by the latter; at most it can be "forgotten" in the sense of not being paid attention to. Thus reification is "forgetfulness of recognition" rather than its wholesale abolition. To forget is not to unlearn, but a “kind of reduced attentiveness... which causes the fact of recognition to fall into the background” (ibid. 130). Lukács' critique therefore cannot be totalizing, since it implicitly relies on the presence of unreified human behavior that is still present even in capitalism, and which can serve as a yardstick of the critique.

Secondly, Honneth faults Lukács for being unable to explain the causes of reification properly. Lukács saw reification as rooted in commodity exchange, but also extended it to the entirety of capitalist social life. But how can reification occurring outside the sphere of commodity exchange be explained? As Honneth points out, Lukács vacillated between on the one hand claiming that capitalism requires all activities to be assimilated to commodity exchange and on the other arguing along Weberian lines that it is the outcome of general processes of rationalization rather than capitalism per se (ibid. 97, 102). Honneth suggests that this difficulty was noticed by Lukács himself, who reacted to it by shifting direction in his approach. Instead of attending to the reified object he turned to the reifying gaze, arguing that when people take up the role of an exchange partner, which is ubiquitous in capitalism, they become “detached” observers, for whom the social surroundings habitually come to appear as a “second nature”, as mere thing-like givens (ibid. 98f).

But how should the emergence of this attitude be explained? In dealing himself with the question of causes, Honneth states that “we cannot move as directly and immediately to the sociological level of explanation as Lukacs did” (ibid. 130). Instead of moving much at all, however, he merely argues that to discuss causes one should distinguish between two types of reification:
To start with the first case, in the course of our practices we might pursue a goal so energetically and onedimensionally that we stop paying attention to other, possibly more original and important motives and aims. An example of this phenomenon might be the tennis player who, in her ambitious focus on winning, forgets that her opponent is in fact her best friend, for the sake of whom she took up the game in the first place.[...] The second kind of reduced attentiveness that provides a model for explaining how reification is possible derives not from internal but from external factors influencing our actions: a series of thought schemata that influence our practices by leading to a selective interpretation of social facts can significantly reduce our attentiveness for meaningful circumstances in a given situation. (ibid. 130f)
Having gesticulated in this direction, he abruptly drops the discussion of causes. It thus remains unclear what the external factors might be that he mentions.
It is clear that we are dealing here either with institutionalized practices, which cause contemplation and observation to become independent of their roots in recognition, or with socially effective thought schemata, which compel a denial of antecedent recognition. For now, however, I would prefer to leave this point aside. (ibid 131)
It's a pity that Honneth prefers to "leave this point aside", since dealing properly with it would have strengthened his theory. His theory of a struggle for recognition has often been criticized for being divorced from history. The notion of reification might have helped him anchor it better in social context. This, however, would have required him to actually discuss the social forces that have established it as a social pathology. By simply leaving the question of causes aside and describing it as a "forgetfulness" of recognition that can occur when playing tennis, the possibility of reification risks being turned into something close to an anthropological constant. The impression is strengthened that his account is ahistorical, being based on a model of recognition which is unconcerned with the social-historical origins of reification.

What is reification?

Honneth claims that Lukács' critique of reification is totalizing. But is this correct? As Honneth himself observes, a "totalizing" critique is difficult to square with the lukácsian celebration of the proletariat as a liberating subject that functions as a de-reifying force in history. Honneth criticizes Lukács for being inconsistent. A far more reasonable conclusion, however, would be that Lukács' critique isn't really totalizing at all.

The problem with Lukács is not that he fails to identify a model of non-reified praxis, as Honneth claims. The problem is rather that he theorizes the relationship between reified and non-reified realms in a too crude and rigid fashion. By linking up his critique of reification with a class metaphysics tied to a philosophy of history that predicts the victory of the proletariat, he himself succumbs to a reified view of history. Thereby he compromises his own criticism of reification and introduces an ambiguity in his own theory, which makes it amenable to being developed in two fundamentally different directions. On the one hand, the philosophy of history can be emphasized and the critique of reification de-emphasized, a route preparing the way for and adumbrating Lukács' own later turn to Stalinism. On the other hand, the critique of reification can be foregrounded and the philosophy of history jettisoned, which was the route travelled in Western Marxism by Adorno and others who were inspired by Lukács.

Georg Lukács
But how about Honneth's point that a critique of reification, in order to be valid, must take its point of departure in a notion of non-reified human praxis? Isn't this point valid? Not necessarily, if it is taken to imply the need for a theory of such praxis. All that is needed is a theoretical insight into the limits of reification. Such an insight can be grounded in experiences of shock or pain, giving rise to the sensation that "this cannot be all there is" or that "something is missing" (etwas fehlt), as Adorno put it (in Bloch 1988:1ff). What Adorno tried to show through his theory of negative dialectics was precisely the validity of such experiences as an impulse for critique.

Adorno’s negative dialectics dispenses with the Lukácsian notion of “totality”, but an even more significant amendment is his stress on self-preservation as the essential purpose of reified thinking, or “identity-thinking” - i.e. thought that strives to repress or shut out the perception of non-identity and thus the awareness that things can be otherwise, of qualitative change and history. This is significant since it introduces the idea, absent in Lukács, that reified thinking, far from being a stable structure, is constantly under siege by shocks and impulses. Approaching its objects from the standpoint of self-preservation, this sort of thinking cannot but sense the non-identical as a threat.

Adorno thus offers the idea that something in perception itself – namely, the perception of non-identity – offers the possibility of resisting and upsetting reified thinking. Similarly, to Benjamin shock could play the role of a liberating rupture that awakens us to history. This awakening was not only political, but also methodological. One way to understand this is by asking how we may express a viable notion of “reality”. The position of Benjamin or Adorno would be that this reality is history. Not, however, history as an objectified body of facts or of interpretations, but as a force which destroys our expectations. “History”, as Jameson wrote, “is what hurts” (Jameson 1981:102). History, then, is a force which is most keenly felt through its effects but which can never be directly represented. It is what breaks through and invalidates our expectations and the conceptual net by which we struggle to contain it. This means that reality can never be wholly expressed in words. But it can be known. We know it as that which outwits, upsets and defeats our words.

The fact that reality can be felt but not directly represented means that perception is not entirely governed by concepts. To perception belongs not only the categories through which we order reality, but also the failure of these orders in those sudden moments when something occurs and something is perceived which forces us to view reality in a new way. Concepts only correspond imperfectly to the fluid historical processes which we are nevertheless able to apprehend – to that “adventurously moving, latently expectant world” which Bloch called “the most real thing there is” (Bloch 1988:154). The discrepancy between concepts and what they claim to represent is what Adorno calls non-identity. For him non-identity was a central concern precisely for the reason that it is the language by which changes on the material or social level are communicated to the subject. It is the negative way in which consciousness registers the discrepancy between itself and the external world.

Honneth, then, goes wrong when he presumes that a theory of reification must rest on an anthropologically derived yardstick positing care, engaged praxis or mutual recognition as fundamental to social life. Indeed, even to talk of an ahistorical yardstick would be reification. What a theory of reification needs, as an index of wrongness, is simply history: a history that hurts, shocks and undermines identity. Adorno understood that, as did Jameson. Even Lukács did, although he made the mistake of trying to theoretically nail down this "history" by decreeing its subject to be the proletariat, whose praxis was supposed to do away with the reified categories.
As Lukács showed, only a thinking that itself does away with reified categories is capable of grasping the role of particular things in the evolving course of history. By reworking dialectics into negative dialectics, Adorno removes some of the reifying parts of Lukács' own theory while at the same time demonstrating the viability of a critique of reification that takes its point of departure in a form of thinking that can still be considered dialectical. Honneth, by contrast, tends to rely on formal, ahistorical categories of human behavior. To make the concept of reification fit into this ahistorical framework, he needs to shrink it. In his hands, it is no longer a concept for criticizing ahistorical essences, but for criticizing a dehumanizing way of treating other people. Although he does discuss the reification of non-human objects briefly, the fact that he redefines reification in terms of his theory of recognition means that his concept of reification is primarily modelled on human relations. As I have already suggested, this misses that to Lukács and others, thingness was not opposed to the "human" so much as to the "historical".


Adorno, T. W. & Benjamin, Walter (1999) The Complete Correspondence 1928-1940, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Bloch, Ernst (1988) The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Honneth, Axel (1995) The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Honneth, Axel (2005) Reification: A Recognition-Theoretical View, The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered University of California, Berkeley, March 14-16, 2005; (accessed 2014-01-18).
Jameson (1981) The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Lukács, Georg (1971) History and Class Consciousness. Studies in Marxist Dialectics, London: Merlin Press. 
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