Monday, 22 December 2008

In the Interval

[T]he interval between an event of emancipation and another leaves us fallaciously in thrall to the idea that nothing begins or will ever begin, even if we find ourselves caught in the midst of an infernal and immobile agitation.
Badiou, The Century (p. 140)

I have journeyed among dead forms
David Jones

I hunt among stones
Charles Olson

This is not an original set of observations, but was prompted by a re-reading of Badiou's The Century for both the book and an introductory lecture on modernism.* What struck me with more force was Badiou's conception of agency in terms of passivity:
Passivity is in effect nothing but the dissolution of the 'I', the renunciation of any subjective identity. In the end, in order to cease being a coward one must fully consent to becoming. The crucial idea is this: the reverse of cowardice is not will, but abandonment to what happens.' (125)
Badiou goes on to write of an 'almost ontological passivity' (126) in which the stakes are an 'unconditional abandonment to the event.' (125) What then happens in the time of the interval? Or, more pessimistically, what if another event does not take place? It seems to me that this possibility is perfectly thinkable from within Badiou's set-up, even if would appear to imply the end of his own thinking. Even if we were not to accept this, what if an event were not to take place in our lifetime? (Writing as someone born in 1969)

If we read the reverse of cowardice as courage, and everything in Badiou invites us to do so, then this is elsewhere defined by Badiou as 'endurance in the impossible'. Courage is a 'discipline of time', which takes time as its raw material and is indifferent to the time imposed by the law of the world. The similarity to Benjamin is obvious and striking. In the 'Theses on the Philosophy of History’, Benjamin remarks that in the class struggle ‘refined and spiritual things’ makes their presence felt ‘as courage, humor, cunning and fortitude’ which ‘have retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.’ Courage appears to apply to the endurance of the event, the necessary abandonment to it (so it is possible to say many events are happening, I simply lack the courage to abandon myself to them). Also, however, I would argue courage figures the endurance of the interval as well.

What concerns me are the limits of this endurance and this courage, and of course its correlation with passivity. Peter Hallward has signalled his disagreement with this in his recent review of Logics of Worlds (pdf). Against Badiou he defines the necessity of a project that 'will also require us to privilege history rather than logic as the most fundamental dimension of a world, and to defend a theory of the subject equipped not only with truth and body but also with determination and political will'. I understand his is developing a new project based around the rehabilitation of the concept of will. From Badiou's perspective we could argue that this involves a return to the passion for the real qua destruction, in terms of the imposition of will. That is to say, the recovery of the twentieth-century conviction of 'historicist voluntarism': that the will can impose the rupture of the sequence of 'continuous, homogeneous time', rather than await (at the risk of attentisme) the coming of the event. Hallward's project implies the re-correlation of courage with will.

Badiou, certainly in The Century, implies that this is impossible (in the negative sense). The sequence is closed and what is required is a new subtractive discipline. This, in what perhaps might be an over-forced reading, is evident in Charles Olson's 'Kingfishers' (1949) (pdf). Here, the subtractive discipline of modernism is correlated to the endurance of an event - the Chinese Revolution (see the excellent reading by Perry Anderson in The Origins of Postmodernity - far more erudite and accurate than mine).** I want to also reconstruct this courage, evident in Olson's poem, as perhaps relevant to the endurance of the interval as well.
'The dawn light is before us, let us rise up and act' Mao

The difficulty that the poem probes is change, with its well-known opening: 'What does not change / is the will to change' (a translation of Heraclitus' Fragment 23). The difficulty is the possibility of this change when the 'pool is slime' (a reference to the Aztec-Mayan 'well of sacrifice', into which victims were thrown bearing messages to the gods and wearing feathered head-dresses).

This tension figured in the Kingsfishers' nest, composed of 'excrement and decayed fish' and which 'becomes a dripping, fetid mass' as the young grow. It is the state 'between / birth and the beginning of / another fetid nest', which is change. The discipline or courage of time is subtractively premised on the acceptance of 'rejectamenta'.
To accept change entails the rejection of 'the too strong grasping of it' that 'loses it'. Olson's invocation of feedback loops suggests a conception of agency in terms of 'ontological passivity', for which change 'presents / no more than itself'. Yet, this passivity is also the relation of enthusiasm (pace Kant) to the distant revolution: 'The light is in the east. Yes. And we must rise, act.' In the West we are in an 'apparent darkness', which is really 'the whiteness which covers all' - it seems to me this is the perfect metaphor for the 'empty' time of the interval between events.
What is required is to look into this whiteness, to look with candour into the 'rejectamenta' of the West (Olson has more specifically in mind America, and Mexico / Central America in particular).
'with what violence benevolence is bought
what cost in gesture justice brings
what wrongs domestic rights involve
what stalks
this silence'
This leads to the final question (and answer) provided by the poem:
'shall you uncover honey / where maggots are?
I hunt among stones'
According to Davenport this is a reply to Pound's 'that maggots shd/eat the dead bullock', itself a reference to Mussolini hanging by his heels. The 'taste for stone', he argues, is a widespread theme in modern literature, reflecting on the classical conception of stone as a dead substance.
To force my reading I would suggest the possibility of the refusal of the reversibility of the rejectamenta (maggots = honey). This would be semi-supported by Olson disputing the reversibility of Mussolini as utopian symbol (for Pound, obviously). Then, the 'hunt among the stones' could be read as the discipline of time that can subtractively 'measure' the 'will to change'. This suggests not a pure passivity, but the working over of the subject in an 'activity' that accepts the event, but at the same time occupies the discipline of 'hunt[ing] among stones'. To hunt among stones is to work in this 'whiteness which covers all' and, of course, against it.

* Rather irritatingly we have been 'told' to update all bibliographies with post-2000 works, the endless progress of knowledge you see, and constantly improving research, dictates an ironic ethics of recuperated modernism; 'One must be absolutely modern' (Rimbaud).

** What's depressing, writing on Anglo-American Modernism, is dealing with the fact that virtually all of them decry the Russian revolution / the general strike. Enough allegorical readings about the decline of the West, turns out it's all (largely) anti-Bolshevik polemic.


Guy Davenport, 'Scholia and Conjectures for Olson's "The Kingfishers"', boundary 2 2.1/2 (1973-1974): 250-262.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Merry Christmas

Reuters / John Kolesidis
See this link for the further images

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Notes on 'Capitalism as Religion'

This fragment was written by Benjamin in 1921, and, as usual for Benjamin, I find it both highly suggestive and deeply enigmatic (in fact any offers on interpretations. further analyses, gratefully received). I understand Michael Lowy has a forthcoming article on exactly this topic, which may well certainly provide more detailed contextualisation and analysis than i can offer).

Benjamin argues that capitalism is not so much inspired by a religious spirit, but an actual religion addressed to the same anxieties as actual religions. Capitalism as a religion has four elements:

1. 'capitalism is a purely cultic religion, perhaps the most extreme that ever existed'.
Capital is a system of religious beliefs and practices with 'no specific body of dogma, no theology'. We could link this to the arguments of Zizek, Pfaller, and Santner that capitalism qua cult is a materialised set of ideological rituals. As the pure mechanism of accumulation it can have no theology or dogma per se (although it may have temporary forms of such theologies), because these would potentially disrupt a purely cultic veneration of objects - as objects of production / consumption. Capitalism is concrete (captured in Don DeLillo's anecdote, in White Noise, concerning the sense of feeling blessed when one's estimation of the balance of our bank account is revealed as accurate by the ATM.)

If we realise that religion did not originally serves any higher or moral purpose but was 'severely practical', then we can see that 'religion did not achieve any greater clarity then about its "ideal" or "transcendental" nature than modern capitalism does today.'

2. 'the permanence of the cult'
There are no "weekdays." There is no day that is not a feast day, in the terrible sense that all its sacred pomp is unfolded before us; each day commands the utter fealty of each worshipper."

Rather than the usual model of capital as abolishing or rationalising the sacred - making everyday a workday - Benjamin reverses this to argue that everyday is the feast day. What capitalism imposes is this unremitting requirement for its own worship without mercy. I'm reminded of Blanchot's quip that we have prisons to try to remind us that we are not all living in a prison (although whether Blanchot spent any time in a US supermax prison I can't say). Capital's lack of particular festivals / churches / places of worship makes everywhere a place and time of worship.

3. Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement.

Although this appears obvious, here is where things become particularly enigmatic for me. Benjamin argues that this sense of guilt generated by capitalism is caught up in a larger movement that attempts to make guilt universal, 'to hammer it into the conscious mind' and 'to include God in the system of guilt and thereby awaken in Him an interest in the process of atonement.' It would appear that we have here a moment of potential reversibility - in which 'total' guilt could open to 'total' redemption:

[C]apitalism entails endurance right to the end, to the point where God, too, finally takes on the entire burden of guilt, to the point where the universe has been taken over by that despair which is actually its secret hope.'

The difficulty, however, is that capitalism cannot provide tis atonement of reformation, it has not 'stable element' from which to launch this project. Capitalism offers no reform of existence, but its complete destruction. It appears that capitalism itself has its own redemptive, or even messianic project: 'It is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation.' How this messianic 'promise' crosses over with Benjamin's own thinking of the messianic redemption by the proletariat in the 'Theses' is, to say the least, unclear to me. The Nietzschean ubermensch is the realisation of this transit through despair - the absolute immanence in with God has been incorporated into human existence.

4. 'God must be hidden from it and may be addressed only when guilt is at its zenith.'

Capitalism, as 'pure cult', celebrates an 'unmatured diety', which is the secret of capital.

In a surprising twist Benjamin identifies Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx, as all operating within the hegemony of this conception of capital as religion. Again as far as I can grasp it this appears because they all encrypt this conception of perpetual guilt, the ciphering of God as the unmatured diety, and the same measure of transcendence or appearance of God at the moment of absolute guilt / despair:

'[Freud's theory] is capitalist through and through. By virtue of a profound analogy, which has still to be illuminated, what has been repressed, the idea of sin, is capital itself, which pays interest on the hell of the unconscious.'

'The paradigm of capitalist religious thought' ... 'The idea of the superman transposes the apocalyptic "leap" not into conversion, atonement, purification, and penance, but into an apparently steady, though in the final analysis explosive and discontinuous intensification.'

This point seems to critique avant la lettre the kind of post-Nietzschean 'accelerationist' positions found in Lyotard and Klossowski. This 'intensified humanity' has not escaped religion, but merely generalised the sense of guilt; this is the truly capitalist religion of 'pure cult' that escapes transcendence through a cultic operator of practices of intensity. This would seem to imply the crippling of arguments for the intensification of humanity as rupture.

'the capitalism that refuses to change course becomes socialism by means of the simple and compound interest that are functions of Schuld (consider the demonic ambiguity of this word [it means both "debt" and "guilt"]).'
Perhaps I am "forcing" this commentary, but it seems that here Benjamin is implying a critique of accelerationist positions of reversibility in which absolute guilt becomes the 'gate' of redemption. What is implied, and taken-up again in the 'Theses', is the necessity to make capitalism 'change course'. In the 'Theses' Benjamin remarks on the fatal error of German Social Dmocracy that:
The conformism which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving. (my italics)
To go with the current would be to follow the cultic dimension of capital and its own internal ubermensch.

University Life

Should anyone in academia in the UK not be sufficiently depressed as it is, then the new issue of ephemera might help do the job. I particularly liked the title of the article by Eeva Berglund, "I Wanted to Be an Academic, Not ‘A Creative’: Notes on Universities and the New Capitalism".

Saturday, 13 December 2008


I've been continuing to try and worry at questions of agency in contemporary theory, not least again in a recent paper on Agamben developed out of the notes of the image I posted previously. I'm not demanding a simple-minded solution because these limits seem to be imposed by the structures of capital / contemporary social forms. One theme that has previously interested me is where themes of passivity intersect with questions of theodicy and providence, which is to say how inadvertent forms of agency seems to be relied on to produce some final working out of radical change (rather than God's plan). In the form of theodicy this supposes that all current evil will actually turn out to be for the good. As Chrissus and Odotheus sarcastically remark on Hardt and Negri: 'In fact, it is this being [the multitude] that has power even when everything would seem to bear witness to the contrary. All that domination imposes is really what this being has desired and won.'

In terms of providence it is the undercurrent of determinism in orientations that would, at first sight, to be convinced of radical contingency. I'm not theologian enough to yet analyse the interlocking of theodicy and providence, although I am interested to hear form anyone on this, and will be doing some reading myself. Purely by chance (or providence?) I came across this quote from Gramsci on determinism in Marxism:
[determinism] has been made necessary and justified historically by the “subaltern character” of certain social strata…. When you don’t have the initiative in the struggle and the struggle itself comes eventually to be identified with a series of defeats, mechanical determinism becomes a tremendous force of moral resistance, of cohesion and of patient and obstinate perseverance…. Real will takes on the garments of an act of faith in a certain rationality of history and in a primitive and empirical form of impassioned finalism which appears in the role of a substitute for the Predestination or Providence of confessional religions. (Gramsci 1971, 336)
The cleverness of Gramsci's argument is propose the historical accounting for historical determinism. Perhaps then the kind of determinism that lurks in Hardt and Negri, for example, expresses this sense of a series of defeats?

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Real Abstraction

In his text on Kafka's Odradek Slavoj Žižek states that: ‘Reading Kafka demands a great effort of abstraction – an effort, not of learning more (the proper interpretive horizon to understand his works), but of unlearning the stand interpretive references, so that one becomes able to open up to the raw force of Kafka’s writing.’ (136)

What interests me is that it requires a greater effort of abstraction to unlearn the abstract framings that already surround and penetrate Kafka's text, so that one can then approach that text as concrete. It strikes me that this is one way in which to understand a procedure for grasping the 'real abstractions' of capitalism: the abstraction of labour under real subsumption and the abstracting effects of the commodity-form (of course these can be linked together under the aegis of the commodity-form, as labour itself is the commodity). Rather than a humanist or anthropological short-cut to the concrete (something like the risk partially run in The German Ideology), we have the passage through abstraction as a procedure.

In a rather unlikely pairing we can link this to Badiou's operations of subtraction (although it is striking that Badiou nowhere substantially thinks the commodity-form) and the Hegelian procedure as parsed by Fredric Jameson: ‘stupid stereotype, or the “appearance”; ingenious correction, the underlying reality or “essence”; finally, after all, the return to the reality of the appearance, so that it was the appearance that was “true” after all.’
Perhaps we could minimally justify this pairing by noting that the capitalist real abstraction takes the form of the Hegelian subject - positing its presuppositions. In this way Badiou's anti-Hegelian procedure of subtraction would gain purchase, although when applied to these real abstractions. In a more tricksy fashion perhaps Hegel's own procedure offers a pharmakon, a passage back through the process of real abstraction that can impose further abstraction upon it. The irony of real abstraction is, of course, that it is 'lived' as 'concrete' - if in the mode of a spiritualisation of everyday life. To gain purchase on this requires a 'greater effort of abstraction'.

Jameson, Fredric, ‘First Impressions’, London Review of Books 28.17 (7 September 2006)
Žižek, Slavoj, ‘Odradek as a Political Category’, Lacanian Ink 24/25 (2005): 136-155

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Excremental Extinctionism

Thanks again to the Institute for sight of an excellent paper by Lorenzo Chiesa on Carmelo Bene without Deleuze, which will be forthcoming in the collection Deleuze and Performance. In light of Reza's project for a cultural speculative realism, Bene would appear to be an ideal addition for a new section on theatre.
To give a sample:

‘Life ends there where it begins. Everything is already written in the fetid state, not the foetal one. What remains is only flesh that is going off’

porn is ‘what cadaverises itself, what makes itself available as mere object. In porn [there] are only two objects that annihilate themselves reciprocally. Can you imagine two stones copulating? It gives you an idea’

‘we are shit, no metaphor intended. The important thing is to know it. Taking cognisance of this [prendere atto] and flush the toilet, that is, transforming into act [trasformare in atto]’

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

How to write like Agamben

1. Take a suitably lengthy, informative, and arcane wikipedia entry - my suggestion is this on Noah's Ark.

2. Use as many of the original language reference and most arcane features in said entry to trace a genealogy of said "symbol" (remember to introduce the most esoteric or unusual by beginning with "As everyone knows")

i.e "As everyone knows Muhammad ibn al-Tabari's 915 work تاريخ الرسل والملوك suggests the donkey was the last animal on the ark, and the means by which Satan entered".

3. Make analogy between said entry and a feature of the current geo-political situation (i.e. Noah's ark as symbol of vanguard exodus), i.e.
"the donkey, as the entrance of the Satanic principle into exodus, is the prophetic sign of its fatal contamination in modernity by the biopolitical reduction of the subject to bare life."

4. Remember to make every such sign or symbol reversible: so "the donkey is at the same time the messianic sign of bare life transfigured: "And Jesus, when he had found a young ass, sat thereon; as it is written" (John 12:14)".

5. Add in some contemporary reference, perferably to pornography / contemporary media events / some index of the present
(ok, so the donkey conceit will now end...)

6. And loop around again

Flippant, but prompted by a recent reading session on Agamben (who I have written on, and quite like) and a conversation with the Institute on the way in which Wikipedia can make us all Agambenian.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Notes on the Image

These are notes for my role as respondent at Goldsmiths on Tuesday, and will also be forming the basis of for a plenary on experimental film studies I'm giving in Bradford next year.

In 1838 or 1839 Louis Daguerre took this ten minute exposure of the Boulevard du Temple, although the street was busy the lengthy exposure time meant only one person was recorded - the man having his shoes shined in the bottom left of the image. This is the first known photograph of a human being.

Giorgio Agamben takes this image as the moment of the Last Judgement, in which we are revealed in our most minor, everyday gesture (gestus), which "is now charged with the weight of an entire life" ("Judgement Day" 24). In Revelation we are judged by the book: "And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works." (20: 12) Our last judgement today will be made by the image. The opportunism of the photograph allows it to capture the momentary gesture, to fix us in that gesture that "collects and condenses in itself the meaning of an entire existence." ("Judgement Day" 24) In the Islamic tradition if a deed is denied on the Day of Judgement then the body part that committed it will testify against them. The photograph could be understood as the testifying of the gesture, which we must yield to.

The photograph yields the image of desire, and the messiah comes for our desires: "With fulfilled desires, he constructs hell; with unfulfillable images, limbo. And with imagined desire, with the pure word, the beatitude of paradise." ("Desiring" 54)

And yet, the photographer must not only grasp the eschatological but also the historical index of the event. What the photographer achieves is the crossing of the specificity of the historical index with the power of the gesture; in Benjaminian terms the fracturing of "empty, homogeneous time" by messianic "now-time".

For Agamben this photograph of the nouveau roman authors outside the office of Editions de Minuit in 1959 by Dondero captures precisely this intersection of history and gesture. Contrary to the usual understanding of photography as deadening the subject such images present not an absolute commodification or reification, but the (paradoxical) release of the gesture through its absolute fixing. Here the casualness, the very everydayness of the gestures - a slouch, a puff of cigarette smoke - is what makes the image open for redemption.

The image also makes a demand on us, an exigency: the demand the person not be forgotten. As Agamben reports this image by David Octavius Hill of a fishwife demands that we have the name of this woman who was once alive. This is not an aesthetic demand but "a demand for redemption" ("Judgement Day" 26).

"The photograph is always more than an image: it is the site of a gap, a sublime breach between the sensible and the intelligible, between copy and reality, between a memory and a hope." ("Judgement Day" 26)

We could only say that Agamben would reject the digital image if it were somehow able to close or deny this gap, which is to be doubted. While the digital image may be subject to more radical manipulations than the analogue image, although this would itself require demonstration, while it may trouble or erase the distinction between original and copy, can it completely deny the index of redemption? The angel of photography could also be a digital angel, as the digital too is subject to the apocalypse.

It is also film, particularly silent film, which is the site of for reclaiming gesture and registering its loss. In film the image is broken to release its gesturality, disrupting the "mythical rigidity" of the image ("Notes" 50).

What emerges is the "antinomic polarity" of the image:

1. Image as the reification and obliteration of a gesture (imago as death mask or symbol)
2. Image as the preservation of dynamis intact

In this second form of the image it refers beyond itself, remaining as "fragments of a gesture or as stills of a lost film wherein only they would regain their true meaning." ("Notes" 55-6) This threatens the litigatio, the paralyzing power of the image, via the "liberation of the image into gesture" ("Notes" 56). At the same time the gestural "image" is the space of ethics and politics, the space of pure means, of the proper sphere of the generic human as a being-in-a-medium.

This polarity means that the image is therefore never pure commodity, the absolute "thing", or completely simulacral. We have to distinguish between the commodification of the spectacle - reification - and the image as a "kind of thing" (specie di cosa) ("Special Being" 56). While there is an etymological link between species and commodities, and money, we must not collapse the "kind of thing" into the thing. What we have to resist is that "transformation of the species into a principle of identity and classification [that] is the original sin of our culture, its most implacable apparatus [dispositivo]." ("Special Being" 59) What is denied by this transformation of species into identity is the possibility of common use - that moment when a particular singular gesture, without resembling any other gesture, resembles all others. ("Special Being" 59) The gesture does not single us out as a particular singular identity, but only singles out generic being for redemption. The spectacle is separation of this generic being, the jealous appropriation of the gesture to identity and classification.

To analyse this capture of the image by the spectacle, the splitting of the thing from the kind of thing, we must analyse profanation. Profanation refuses the separation of consecration by returning things to free use. The fundamental operation of religion is separation, and we might recall Vaneigem's remarks in The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967) on how the capitalist spectacle repeats the fundamental and "archaic" forms of power. Capitalism is itself a religion, as Benjamin presciently analysed. It is an entirely cultic religion, it is an endless process of separation, and it is continually guilt generating. What capitalism aims at is the creation of the unprofanable, that which cannot be returned to common use but only consumed.

This separation can be countered by profanation and play, in which "the powers [pontenze] of economics, law, and politics, deactivated in play, can become the gateways to a new happiness." ("In Praise" 76) This is "play" as detournement, which Agamben rather unwisely restricts to children and philosophers. Once again, we return to the thing as thing, as "pure means", but in this way as the means for a new use. As the "frozen" gesture indexes redemption in the photograph, so profanation "freezes" the "object" from its capitalist teleology. This action requires, I would argue, an effect of negation: "The creation of a new use is possible only by deactivating an old use, rendering it inoperative." ("In Praise" 86)

Agamben notes that this profanation it itself not a simple exit from one state to another, but a continuous operation itself:

The classless society is not a society that has abolished and lost all memory of class differences but a society that has learned to deactivate the apparatuses of those differences in order to make a new use possible, in order to transform them into pure means. ("In Praise" 87)

Of course this sphere of pure means is highly fragile, and in our society only appears as a temporary state, vulnerable to reversal into a deadly threat (as when the object as toy becomes menacing enemy).

"In its extreme phase, capitalism is nothing but a gigantic apparatus for capturing pure means, that is, profanatory behaviours." ("In Praise" 87)

It does so by capturing them as the spectacle, exhibiting pure means as Benjaminian "exhibition-value". The supreme instance of this unprofanable separation is, for Agamben, pornography. In pornography the originary intimacy of erotic photography has been nullified.

The casual intimacy of this image by Bruno Braquehais is exchanged for a brazen address, an exaggeration of exposure - shameless contact.

"In the very act of executing their most intimate caresses, porn stars now look resolutely into the camera, showing that they are more interested in the spectator than in their partners." ("In Praise" 89)

Agamben argues that he is not condemning pornography per se, but rather the neutralisation of the possibility of allowing erotic behaviours to idle, their profanation. What is reprehensible is to be captured by power, not the behaviour in the first place. This kind of idling can be found in the the indifferent gaze of Chloe des Lysses - a lack of complicity with the spectator, and a refusal of the brazen.

But this kind of profanation appears only temporarily, as the "solitary and desperate consumption of the pornographic image" (!) ("In Praise" 91) blocks this kind of possibility of profanation. The disgrace, according to Agamben, lies not in pornography itself, but in the apparatus of the fashion show or the pornographic shoot, that turns the sphere of pure means into a separated site of pure consumption.

"The unprofanable of pornography - everything that is unprofanable - is founded on the arrest and diversion of an authentically profanatory intention. For this reason, we must always wrest from the apparatuses - from all apparatuses - the possibility of use that they have captured. The profanation of the unprofanable is the political task of the coming generation." ("In Praise" 92)

Certainly we might agree with the necessity for profanation, and the resistance to separation. There are difficulties, however, not least Agamben's surreptitious recourse to the notion of capture and ontological resistance from Negrian Marxism, versus a more dialectical Debordian analysis. While the Negrian model gives us a neat opposition between original behaviours and their later capture it risks underestimating the penetration of capitalism, not least through the commodity-form. In the case of Agamben his remarkably erudite and sophisticated prose diverts us from a political ontology not far from sixties style invocations of the "machine" / the "total system" / or, even the "man", capturing our pristine ontological inventiveness. We are back with a dualism of opposition between "life" and "power" that, considering Agamben's work on bare life, seems naive. It also runs against his thinking of the image against the image, its dialectical (why not?) position as commodity, historical index, and index of redemption.

The irony is that Agamben is usually mistaken for a revised Frankfurt school-style radical pessimist (and a reading of Homo Sacer wouldn't suggest that this isn't entirely off the mark). In fact, here he evinces a measure of optimism, and a suggestion of ontological primacy, that seems to be equally problematic. Between those two spaces lies the image, and a more complicated analysis of profanation - not least beyond its instantiation in mere individual gestures.


"Judgement Day", "Desiring", "Special Being", "In Praise of Profanation", in Giorgio Agamben, Profanations, trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Zone Books, 2007).

"Notes on Gesture" in Giorgio Agamben, Means Without End, trans. Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

Monday, 24 November 2008

Edufactory and surplus value

'Are we bad for wanting to make a profit? ... Call it surplus if you're squeamish'

Saturday, 22 November 2008

The Metaphysics of Time

First, like everyone, I appreciated the effect of slight drunkeness; then very soon I grew to like what lies beyond violent drunkeness, when one has passed that stage: a magnificent and terrible peace, the true taste of the passage of time.
Debord, Panegyric

Facist Affirmationism

Thanks to the Institute

Monday, 17 November 2008

Capital and Agency (Encore)

One way to return to the question of capitalism and agency posed by the work of Deleuze and Guattari is via the work of Chris Arthur, Roberto Finelli, and Moishe Postone. Each argues that Marx analyses the operations of capitalism as instantiations of the Hegelian dialectic. This means that Capital is the (Hegelian) Subject. To summarise Chris Arthur's useful discussion:
1. capital subsumes singulars under the universal of value
2. capital is a self-valorising system of accumulation
3. capital is a concrete universality

Capital qua subject operates through form-determination: inscription of materiality in terms of the value form. Hence we have the operation of capitalism as that of real abstraction; as Finelli puts it Capital is 'spiritualistic' (in the sense of the Hegelian Geist). Finelli analyses this process as one in which capitalism is capable of positing its presuppositions, which is to say re-signifying and subsuming materiality, and especially labour, within itself as its condition. He goes on to argue that Arthur still relies on a 'logic of contradiction', which holds to a certain resistance to abstraction in an 'exterior' or 'anthropological' minimum (labour-power / species being, etc.). His own 'logic of subtraction' proposes that positing the presupposition goes all the way down. Hence his interest in the hollowing out of the concrete in postmodern society, a la Fredric Jameson's work on postmodernity and finance capital.

This has implications for agency: Chris Arthur argues that the proletariat is the 'counter-subject' emerging as capital's repressed other; Finelli argues for a new richness of difference developed through a new need for recognition (here the 'subject' seems to be something like a post-proletarian contestation); and Moishe Postone dismisses the proletariat as agency because it is bound to capitalism through its constitution via labour (I, like Chris Arthur and many others disagree with this contention).
Reading back to Deleuze and Guattari we could say they too accept Capital as subject, true as axiomatic rather than Hegelian, but the effect is largely similar. I would argue that then they turn between the logic of contradiction and the logic of abstraction, and so between different forms of agency. In the first they hold on to a logic of ontological excess, which while not humanist does also vector through the human. This is 'absolute deterritorialisation' as the 'outside' qua excess of forces - a Nieztscho-Bergson line of vitalist exteriority. Obviously this line is developed most tightly by Negri in terms of the excess of potenza / labour-power / constitutive power over potere / capitalist command / constituted power. Here agency is the rupturing outside, the marginal, and so on.

But at the same time they also operate with a logic of abstraction, or of absolute deterritorialisation as accelerationism. In this case, like Finelli, the absolute dominance of capital in its re- and de-signifying power eventually finds its own internal limit and explodes the horizon. This appears to be the anti-humanist 'line' articulated here, for example ("One more effort Deleuzo-Guattarians, to become anti-humanists"). This is, of course, the point of Lyotard's intervention, which is to shore-up this side of Deleuze and Guattari against any humanism of desire. We could say then that as Finelli is to Arthur, so Lyotard is to Deleuze and Guattari.

My own 'position' (should it amount to such) is poised rather uncomfortably between these two. I'm inclined to accept Finelli's analysis and description of capital at the same time as wondering, like Chris Arthur, where this leaves the question of resistance and agency? Contra my earlier statement on Lyotard then, I can accept capitalism as the only Subject (that is Hegelian Subject as universal subsumption and enrichment of difference). The pending question is the re-conceptualisation of agency that would destroy this Subject, and I am inclined to the re-articulation of the 'differences' posited by capital but through the work of the negative the situs analysed as detournement (which I regard as a political and not an aesthetic strategy).

I certainly accept the exhilaration of accelerationist anti-humanism (cf. SBA) and the point made by Schoolboy Errors that it is preferable to the endless 'quasi-humanist' cultural Deleuze/Guattari (I happen to like the irony that my book will be coming out from the home of such studies - Edinburgh University Press - fly in the ointment again). What concerns me is that we are left not so much with anti-humanist 'agency', but no agency at all. The point of tension then appears to be a slide into a passivity of 'agency without agency'. The risk then is that this is all too congruent with 'invisible hand' / 'cunning of reason' arguments, that are the province of Hayek and Von Mises, et al.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Second Annual (Conference) Report

Back from HM and this is an admittedly fragmentary although lengthy report (which seems to model perfomatively the experience). The 'report' is partially fragmentary because of the success of the conference, which was so well attended that I couldn't physically get in to see certain sessions (as well as exhaustion).
The panel Workerism: A Generation After (Saturday 8 November) began with a paper by Massimiliano Tomba and Riccardo Bellofiore, which was originally the afterword to the new Italian edition of Steve Wright's essential Storming Heaven. The paper critically questioned the 'holy trinity' of operaismo: Panzieri, Tronti, and Negri. While recognising the power of workerism to articulate a non-objectivist Marxism, criticisms came of the tendency to a 'paradoxical Leninism' in the privileging of a particular sector of the working class (ie mass worker / social worker / multitude). Instead MT & RB insisted on the necessity of further inquiry into the labour-process as 'contested terrain' - particularly in understanding the 'refusal of work' as a means of denying the concrete conditions of labour and connecting with others struggles. So, as MT noted how the struggle of the workers at the petrochemical works of Porto Marghera in the 1970s for better conditions immediately entailed dealing with the wider 'externalities' of pollution, health care, and so on (and how it was regarded, at the time, by Negri as only expressing the 'right-wing' of workerism). MT & RB suggested a new articulation that re-attended to worker's inquiry, and which developed the capacities of workerism to offer 'ecological' analysis through the critique of constant capital - connecting such contemporary concerns back to the labour-process.
Steve Wright's Revolution from above? dealt with the 1970s writing of workerists on money. He noted how this implied attention to the capitalist power of command (rather than the usual emphasis on worker's self-creativity) and was germane to the current context of 'the mania of getting rich without the pains of producing' (Marx). The discussion ranged over work by Sergio Bologna, Christian Marazzi, and Lapo Berti, dealing with the 1970s fiscal crisis - 'One, Two, Many New Yorks' as I believe Marazzi commented on the fiscal counter-attack by capital.
Matteo Mandarini discussed Massimo Cacciari and Mario Tronti (pdf of a previous paper here) via their articulation of politics as an 'intervention that changes fate and bends it to one's will' (Cf. Machiavelli). He suggested a re-attention to the arguments for a political rationality autonomous from the struggle in the immediate proces of production; the problem that worker's struggles provide information conduits for capital - conduits that are being better used by capital than by the left; and that the weakening of struggle creates and information deficit for both capitalism and for workers. His closing point was then need to articulate politics with the information that struggles give. Again, which is a point Steve Wright has made, the call implied the need for the re-discovery of worker's inquiry (reference could, and perhaps should, have been made by panellists to these recent attempts - whether that reference be positive or negative is open of course).
On Sunday, the first session Marxism, Communism and Historical Time involved my own paper, which I won't narcissistically comment on but you can have if you email me. Andrew McGettigan gave an excellent paper on the relation of Benjamin to Bergson, arguing that in the capitalist imposition of an 'eternal present' any alternative conception of time could only appear metaphysical and speculative. He then correlated Bergon's model of the time-cone (from Matter and Memory) and Benjamin's jetzeit (now-time), as providing just such a model and articulation. Bergson's seemingly irreducibly metaphysical model finds itself re-inscribed as a model of the revolutionary re-actualisation of the past, in which the time-cone drives itself down through the field of the present (P in the above diagram).
Interestingly (to me), in relation to questions of subjectivation and anti-humanism raised around accelerationism, Benjamin's orientation to this ruptural 'telescoping of the past through the present' involved a 'masochistic' destruction of the existent (capitalist) subject. Debate and discussion turned on Marx's own thinking of temporality (of which more below), the question of subjectivation, and the necessity of destruction to mark Benjamin off from a 'Sebald' model of recovery. I was particularly interested in the Benjaminian project of winning the masses to Bergsonian metaphysics - good work if you could...
The panel From the Grundrisse to Capital had Massimiliano Tomba (MT) drawing out Marx's proposal of a new anthropological type in the Grundrisse - the 'social individual'. Linked to this was a pondering of time, articulated through a double schema that is at once evolutionary and invariant. Reading Notebook 5 (on Pre-capitalist forms) with Notebook 7 (the Fragment on Machines) together provides a dialectic of development - the birth of a new developmental model of time, coupled to the dissolution of capital. In Capital this is modified through a consideration of the specificity of the origin of capital and the necessity of primary accumulation, moving away from a universal model of time toward a more conjunctural analysis.

The second paper, presented by Peter Thomas (co-written with Geert Reuten) traced a similar analysis through 'the law of the tendency of the fall of the rate of profit'. In the Grundrisse this takes an organicist / teleological form of diachronic exhaustion. In Marx's later notebooks, not entirely reflected by Engels editing for what we have in Capital volume 3, we have a model of time as a qualitative intensification of synchronic moments. This was the most resonant paper for me, connecting to our panel on time. Thomas argues that Marx slowly abandoned his 'breakdown theory':

"These contradictions [the highest development of productive power coinciding with a depreciation of capital], of course, lead to explosions, crises, in which momentary suspension of all labour and annihilation of a great part of the capital violently lead it back to the point where it is enabled [to go on] fully employing its productive powers without committing suicide. Yet, these regularly recurring catastrophes lead to their repetition on a higher scale, and finally to its violent overthrow." [Grundrisse Notebook 7)
Against this eschatological theory of an immanent self-destructive capital obeying a law, Marx moves to a more homeopathic model of crisis as cure - cyclical and restorative. In this case we can no longer rely on crisis but have to attend to how capital uses crisis to increase exploitation and to articulate a conscious political project to resist and destroy capital.

The final panel session I attended was The State in the Bolivarian Revolution: Marxist Analyses, where Don Kingsbury presented a sympathetic but critical analysis of the Bolivarian process. He made some common ground with George Ciccariello-Maher's analysis of dual-power, and argued that currently (pending the regional elections in November) the tension is between a reformist social-democratic Chavismo and a more radical series of base elements. He noted, anecdotally, that upper-class Venezuelan's tend to say that the standard of service has dropped since the 'revolution' (ha ha). Debate, led by Jeffrey Webber, turned on the lack of structural adjustments to wealth distribution and worker's control, as well as the national and international constraints on the process - primarily oil and financial capital. This was a fascinating debate on what we actually might mean when we say 'socialist revolution', including the part played by material and ideological changes.

(exercising pannage - for IT)

The final plenary I attended was Peter Linebaugh's Mrs. Gertrude Kugelman and the Five Gates of Marxism. This was a vatic performance, which as one conference-goer commented would not have been accepted if it had been given by a woman. Taking Marx's statement from the Manifesto that 'The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims' as a mantra Linebaugh ranged over reproduction - both intellectual, productive, and of children - law, primary accumulation, and the defence of the commons. The five gates, in case you should be wondering, are the 'empirical' chapters of Capital (10 on the working day; 14 on the division of labour and manufacture; 15 on machinery; and 25 on the composition of the working class), which Linebaugh insisted needed to be read and articulated with the theoretical chapters if we were not to fall into a fascination with the logic of capital at the expense of material struggle.

More impressive in the prepared elements, the slightly revival-meeting style grated with your truly. This is a useful primer for his recent work, but in our dissident pocket the feeling seemed to be the law and constitutionalism weren't really going to cut it when it comes to 'what is to be done'.

What I missed: Ian Birchall insisting we must burn Debord, Kees van der Pijl - who seemed to be getting rated a lot, and too many papers by friends.

What I bought: Nomads, Empires, States; Negativity and Revolution; Fables of Aggression; and the usual couple of issue of HM.

Props to Alberto, IT (a trooper displaying communist discipline), Drew, Don, Gail, Alex, Dhruv, Alice, Rodrigo (thanks for the issue of Turbulence), Steve Wright (buy Storming Heaven), the guy who kindly mentioned more about Arrighi to me after my paper, and Nick (for tolerance and contribution to what seemed like a massive drinks bill at dinner).

ps It's really annoying constantly being asked to subscribe to HM; there is such a thing as overselling

Tuesday, 4 November 2008


Is Black and Red Dead?

September 7th and 8th, 2009
Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice
University of Nottingham

Crowned heads, wealth and privilege may well tremble should ever again the Black and Red unite!
(Otto Von Bismark, upon hearing of the split in the First International)

The anti-statist, libertarian currents within the labour movement have repeatedly emerged during periods of acute political and economic crisis, from the council communists to revolutionary anarchism. Is this one such historical juncture in which dynamic reconciliation is not only welcomed but vital? To rephrase the question, what can we learn from 150 years of anti-statist, anti-capitalist social movements, and how might this history inform the formulation of a new social and political current, consciously combining the insights of plural currents of anarchism and Marxism? The modern feminist, queer, ecological, anti-racist and postcolonial struggles have all been inspired by and developed out of critiques of the traditional parameters of the old debates, and many preceded them. Possible themes may include (but are not limited to):

• What is the political relevance of the ideological labels "anarchist" and "Marxist" in the contemporary geo-political climate?
• Has the sectarianism of the left contributed to this failure and can its present make-up contribute anything more to radical social transformation than navel gazing and ultimately political irrelevance?
• To what extent are these fault lines still constitutive of the political imagination?
• To what extent do capital and the state remain the key sites of struggle?
• Has the current market crisis provided an opportunity for a renewed and united left as a coherent alternative?
• What are the historical points of divergence and convergence between the two traditions?

We welcome papers that engage critically with both the anarchist and the Marxist traditions in a spirit of reconciliation. We welcome historical papers that deal with themes and concepts, movements or individuals. We also welcome theoretical papers with demonstrable historical or political importance. Our criteria for the acceptance of papers will be mutual respect, the usual critical scholarly standards and demonstrable engagement with both traditions of thought.

Please send 350 word abstracts, including full contact details, (no later than May 1, 2009) to:

Dr Alex Prichard (ESML, University of Bath):

For further details and conference updates please visit our website

Monday, 3 November 2008

Birthday negated

Thank you to all those who sent best wishes on my birthday yesterday. The virtual card above is kindly from IT - uncannily like my actual life. I can say we had a very nice Indian meal, the Gerhard Richter show was disappointing, and the evening viewing consisted of Iron Man / and Zizek: the movie - how postmodern. 'Normal' service may be resumed in a couple of weeks, but I can be seen at the following:

‘The Future Lasts a Long Time: longue durée Marxism’, ‘Many Marxisms’, Historical Materialism annual conference 2008, School of Oriental and African Studies, Central London (Sunday 9 November 2008).

Chair and discussant: Alberto Toscano
Benjamin Noys
The future lasts a long time: Longue durée Marxism
Andrew McGettigan
What is orientation in Marxist thinking? Communist practical reason and historical time

‘Outsourcing Authority: On Lars Von Treir’s The Boss of it All’, The Žižek Centre for Ideology Critique, Cardiff School of European Studies, Cardiff (18 November 2008). 5pm

Respondent to John Lechte’s ‘Agamben’s Politics of the Image’, Goldsmiths, the University of London (2 December 2008).

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Contra Affirmationism

[This is the prospectus to my book, thanks to Gilles Grelet for its original publication.
In retrospect I realise it has more of an 'accelerationist' and quasi-anarchist feel that I'd now feel comfortable with - still a record of my continuing series of errors]

[1] Theory has become hegemonised by affirmationism – the doctrine of adaptation to the world in the name of the affirmation of the world. Create! Organise! Produce! – these are the master-signifiers of the affirmationist, the blackmail to either live in this world or make a “new” world.
This world we must leave.

[2] “All that exists is good”. This is the slogan of what we could call vulgar affirmationism. It appeals, simultaneously, to the density and fragility of the world. In its density the world cannot be subtracted from but only added to or affirmed. In its fragility we must cosset the world and protect it from any hint of violence. At once we are superfluous to the world and its heroic protectors. What we are left with is the patient labour of weaving of new links, new connections, and new material. Build your networks! Extend your own empires of thought and practice!

[3] “All that comes to be is good”. This is the slogan of “critical” affirmationism. Now it is not so much the world itself that is dense and fragile but all that can be actualised in this world. We are called not to affirm the world as we find it but to affirm the construction of a new and better world. The world as it is is doubled by the reservoir of potential, of the virtual from which everything can, and must, be drawn out. A dense realm of possibility, and so fragile it must be carefully brought out by us. Build your networks and extend your counter-Empire!

[4] In its more seductive “critical” form affirmationism maintains and appeals to the signifier of revolution. This takes place in two forms. The first is that of the affirmation of becomings and flows, where all that is good exists in reserve to be actualised in movement. We release or unchain the “spontaineity” of flows, we accelerate through and beyond capital. This is the fantasy of movement, or of the “movement of movements”. The buried moment of negation secreted deep within this orientation is only that of flight.
The second is that of the affirmation of the void or event. It has at least has the merit of beginning from the necessity of some minimal negation against the density of the world, or of allowing this possibility. Of course all it can then do is to supply that void, that unleashed negativity, with its “proper” form. This is the patient work of organisation and fidelity, where heresy is only a point of departure.

[5] Since Nietzsche we have learnt to be ashamed of negation. We see it only as the sign of ressentiment or, even worse, idealism. Of course the great gesture of Hegel was to make negation function as the motor of philosophy, the motor of the fundamental and repeated scission that generates the circle of the empirical and transcendental. Out of the ashes of Hegelianism emerged the signs of catastrophic negativity. No sooner that this possibility had composed itself then it was refused through the construction of “great ontological machines” (Bataille), re-tooled as the new war-machines of counter-philosophy.

[6] The fatal irony of affirmationism is that it releases a catastrophic negativity no longer attached to ontology or philosophy. We refuse the pseudo-liberation of the great ontological machines for the liberation of “unemployed negativity” (Bataille) against and outside those machines. This is no counter-philosophy, no new move in the theoretical game, but a rupture that proceeds indifferently, which no longer requires us.

[7] The axiom that unemployed negativity proceeds without “us” is the refusal of the blackmail of practice as it is currently staged; it is the refusal to produce a humanism of negativity. Non-dialectical negativity offers no work of purification or production, nothing new that would take the form of a semblant, and nothing that would form a new subject. The “subject” of non-dialectical negativity is the sorcerer’s apprentice, who finds that negativity rebounding on their constitution as “subject”. This rebounding does not depend on the triggering of the subject – unemployed negativity is as much the effect of the supernova as it is of revolutionary violence. At no point does the subject posses negativity, but exists as the remainder of its traversal; the subject is unemployed.

[8] On the other side, the “matter” of non-dialectical negativity is the negation of the prison house of the matrix immanent-transcendental-transcendent (as well as all existing materialisms). It is “active” but not as force, or even worse “life” – which would reinscribe it in some Nietzschean affirmationism, quasi-philosophical physics, or miserable neo-vitalism. If it is anywhere unemployed negativity “beneath” philosophy; we hate most of all that it should be mistaken for the grandness of the tout Autre – another new name for a deracinated God. This is matter that does not stay in place and refuses theoretical assignment.

[9] The true heretic does not make a new church.

CFPs and other business (never personal)

A call from Reza and Nicola for a special issue of Glossator on commentary and black metal. I guess I happen to know a few people who might / should contribute - eh, and eh. I know nothing about said topic so you will be spared my tender mercies.

Also this call from Speculative Heresy. Did I happen to mention I'm writing a book contra affirmationism?

Btw thanks to infinite my Habermas review is appearing in the next issue of the Philosophers' Magazine. I've always quite fancied living in a Habermasian world, as I hope you'll see from the review.
39 on Sunday and off to this.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Accelerationism II.2

Two excellent posts by Owen and Mark, which demonstrate the 'general intellect' at work.

1. Owen makes the important point that 'accelerationism' doesn't have to be an ultra-leftist catastrophism but can involve the rational re-use of capitalist developments in constant capital to reduce variable capital, if we destroy the capitalist relation of accumulation (which is of course the proverbial big 'if'). This would, of course, be different from the capitalist reduction of variable capital through 'social exposure' (ie dumping workers into the reserve army of labour or out of the monetary relation altogether). Interestingly, I was reading this exact point being made by Richard Brenner in his essay on "Karl Marx's Theory of Crisis".
If we were to hypothetically leave out of the account real social relations of production today (capitalism), then improved technology and increased labour productivity would tend naturally towards the reduction of working time. Mechanisation would help convert the worker from semi-slave of constrained by a rigid division of labour into a supervisor of production, someone able through the progressive and sustained reduction of the lenght of the compulsory working day to participate in supervision and planning of ever wider spheres of production, distribution and consumption (socialism).

2. On Mark's post, just to say almost complete agreement... It was Landianism I had in mind with 'Deleuzian Thatcherism'; as for my choice of Lyotard as the text of accelerationism this was due to his outbidding of Deleuze & Guattari and his almost complete embrace of the consequences (I particularly like his sarcasm directed at Baudrillard concerning the lack of the 'good hippies' of symbolic exchange...).
It's slightly uncanny but Mark's three points were floating around in the cesspool that is my 'mind' and on the fantasmatic of capital permit me to refer to Mark's article in Film-Philosophy (a pdf).
In light of Mark's work I was thinking of the hyperstitional as a means of probing the 'real abstractions' of capital; especially as sketched by Roberto Finelli and Alberto Toscano.

3. One issue here (raised implicitly by Mark) is that of reterritorialisation as essential co-dynamic of capitalist deterritorialisation; [correction follows] Eric Alliez argues that the problem of Badiou's reading of Deleuze is that inscribes a constant and necessary relation between reterritorialisation and deterritorialisation. In doing so Alliez argues that he produces 'Capitalism and Paranoia', not 'Capitalism and Schizophrenia' - in which every deterritorialisation is immediately recuperated by reterritorialisation. For Alliez, we have to always fold capitalist deterritorialisation onto absolute deterritorialisation - hence, to quote Deleuze on Bergson - 'Dualism is therefore only a moment, which must lead to the re-formation of a monism.' This then is the sticking-point between Mark's formulation that 'it is was Deleuze and Guattari who proved to have the better handle on capitalism, precisely because they insisted on reterritorialization as the necessary counterpart of capitalist deterritorialization.' (which correspond to Badiou's position - and my own inclination) and SBA's position, which is more classically Deleuzian.

4. This is where the problem of agency comes in (again). I chose Lyotard as the exemplar because he seems pretty explicit that capital is the subject (of revolution): "[Capital] is the unbinding of the most insane pulsions" (138). If we want an alternative then we have to find some 'good hippies', or otherwise get into that various sub-Baudrillardian gestures of embracing the market that seemed to have a mercifully brief flowering in the 1980s/90s. Mark has made further comments on Lyotard here. In a sense this re-makes my point - Lyotard is the examplar because of this disappearance of the critical. This is exactly the point on which he departs from Deleuze and Guattari. Of course Lyotard's later political evolution - traced by Perry Anderson (see my comments here) - doesn't exactly make one convinced by this position of capital as absolute subject (subject as substance and subject?).

5. SBA has commented further on agency here, and re-iterating a strong accelerationist position rather than the previously canvassed Badiouian alternative. The action particularly takes place at the end of the post:
Outside either a vitalist ethology of ‘natural’ auto-self-maximisation, or some kind of Marxist-Hegelian dialectical drive towards the elimination of contradiction in the same, how might we be able to ground the very need for an inhumanising desubjectivation at all? Though we might wish to create a system which has had done with judgement, to ground the praxis (and here we return to the “sticky” issue of agency) necessary to arrive at this state requires the illegitimate use of the very devices the praxis seeks to erase.
This seems to imply a kind of reverse Munchausen effect - instead of the subject pulling itself up by its hair it destroys itself by a 'self'-erasure. This may be formulated along the lines Reza suggests as an exposure to being 'butchered open' (see Reza on hauntology in relation to SBA's posts here). The difficulty is the passivity implied in this sense of agency - to be butchered by the processes of capital do we have to do anything more than just live and await our demise? How could we acclerate this process (and if so why)? Then, also, which particular humans would perform this self-destruction of the human?

6. Finally to try and clear up the Achcar matter (on which I was perhaps rather unclear), I'm in agreement with this point by Owen:
"Mind you, for that I don't subscribe either to the Gilbert Achcar view - it's always relative privation which causes revolt. The starving might not start revolutions, but the only insurrection during a boom I can think of is the abortive May."
A couple of things to add, first this can involve psychic immiseration, which I'm sure Owen includes in relative privation. This was the situ point about the misery of everday life qua accumulation.
Second, I posted the Achcar comment more for a reflection on the 'accumulation of struggles' as precondition for agency, hence I was going back to the 60s/70s. Mark and Owen, and everyone else who said, is perfectly right that (a) booms don't necessarily need to revolution (I have no 'one size fits all model of revolution', anything would be nice), and (b) the recent 'boom' hasn't. Of course that's because that 'boom' involved the massive decomposition of working-class power in a waning cycle of struggle. What concerned me was the mechanisms to translate disenchantment and privation into struggle, and whether (as Mark points out) the crisis is more likely to lead to barbarism than socialism in the absence of such accumulated struggles.
It seems appropriate that I should have to write a couple of lectures on Dickens, as he is a writer of catastrophism, and has his own version of accelerationism in 'free circulation' (he hated blockages of all kinds). Mercifully for the students this won't be much discussed by me.

Monday, 20 October 2008


This is a term I've coined (unless someone out there proposed it w/o my knowledge) to describe the kind of strategy beautifully conveyed here. In a sense it has a fairly impeccable pedigree as one of the "spirits" of Marx, especially the oft-quoted passage from the Manifesto on "all that's solid melts into air". To quote myself, this is "an exotic variant of la politique du pire: if capitalism generates its own forces of dissolution then the necessity is to radicalise capitalism itself: the worse the better. We can call these positions accelerationist."

Unsurprisingly I'm made more than a little nervous by these attempts to argue "the path leads only over the dead body of capitalism" (Brecht, see below). A "red thread" can be traced from Marx, via Brecht, down to the libertarian current of the early 1970s. Rather than seeking the subject of revolt as the marginal to capital, the subject of revolt is the subject in capital (although the dangerous elision is that the subject of revolt simply is capital). As Lyotard, whose Libidinal Economy is the book of accelerationism, puts it: "in the immense and vicious circuit of capitalist exchanges, whether of commodities or ‘services’, it appears that all the modalities of jouissance are possible and that none is ostracized."

Interestingly, in a previous post titled 'Against Hauntology' Splintering Bone Ashes (SBA) sketches two options:

Firstly (if we believe the hauntologists discursive a priori), as I have hinted at above, we might think a more nihilist aesthetic which seeks not merely to foreground the processes of postmodern audio-necromancy, but rather to accelerate the system to its ultimate demise, to speed up the rate of fashion-flux to a point of irredeemable collapse. Rather than an act of reverence, of mourning, of touching at impossible universes from a distance, this would be a deliberate and gleeful affirmation [option a]. Alternatively, we might consider Badiou's analysis of the emergence of the new, which would entail a more strategic examination of precisely where the pop-musical evental sites and historical situations exist within our current time: those regions which appear, from the in-situational point of view, to be marginal, and properly undecideable. [option b]
Obviously I'd choose option b, and in a sense, although departing from Badiou precisely on the grounds of his "affirmationism", this is the argument of The Persistence of the Negative. The later post firmly chooses option a. While this is one way to cash out the politics of speculative realism, and hence admirable, I'm not sure it exhausts those possibilities or is the only such politics extractable.

In terms of artworks I find a lot to agree with in the critical remarks concerned with hauntology, and can certainly see the jouissance of the nihilistic embrace of capital qua accelerator. Much of the shock of Detroit Techno in its initial phase (to show my age) was its choice to embody the robots of the production lines of Ford (which had obviously been a factor in the devastation of Detroit), rather than the "humanism" of Motown. In a way this it is impeccably Brechtian.

That said I feel there are definite problems with this as political strategy (as well as artistic - cf. the late Warhol - Jeff Koons - Damien Hirst line). Instead, unsurprisingly, I prefer the position of Benjamin: "Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake."


Some examples of accelerationism:

Behaviourism is a psychology which begins with the needs of commodity production in order to develop methods with which to influence buyers, i.e., it is an active psychology, progressive and revolutionizing kathode (Kathoxen). In keeping with its capitalist function, it has its limits (the reflexes are biological; only in a few Chaplin films are they already social). Here, too, the path leads only over the dead body of capitalism, but here, too, this is a good path.

Roland Barthes
There is only one way left to escape the alienation of present-day society: to retreat ahead of it.
Pleasure of the Text (1973)

Galloway & Thacker
One must push through to the other side rather than drag one’s heels.
The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (2007)

Sunday, 19 October 2008


IT / ICR with Badiou on the crisis, ICR with Tronti, and via What in the Hell... this site, which has some excellent analysis.
This point by Mike Davis is interesting in terms of questions of agency:
"On the contrary, the social contract for the post-1935 Second New Deal was a complex, adaptive response to the greatest working-class movement in our history, in a period when powerful third parties still roamed the political landscape and Marxism exercised extraordinary influence on American intellectual life.

Even with the greatest optimism of the will, it is difficult to imagine the American labor movement recovering from defeat as dramatically as it did in 1934-1937. The decisive difference is structural rather than ideological. (Indeed, today's union movement is much more progressive than the decrepit, nativist American Federation of Labor in 1930.) The power of labor within a Walmart-ized service economy is simply more dispersed and difficult to mobilize than in the era of giant urban-industrial concentrations and ubiquitous factory neighborhoods."
(my italics)

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Phuture agency

There is an excellent review of the new Virno here. I think it's a very interesting work, especially in light of reflections on agency. I have to agree with said reviewer that the comments about the New Orleans superbowl are reprehensible, I'm hard pressed to understand why no one pointed out the possible problem at an earlier stage to Virno. It's certainly a case for postcolonial critique.
One thing I found particularly odd was Virno's rehabilitation of Schumpeter's Unternehmergeist (entrepreneur-spirit). This, however, started to make a little more sense after reading Robin Blackburn's 1991 piece on 'Socialism After the Crash'. The essay offers a fascinating discussion of the 'calculation debate' and the possibilities of market-socialism, including this comment:
So far as I am aware no-one pointed out that Hayek’s argument from the dispersed nature of knowledge could also be deployed against a narrow capitalist entrepreneurialism by advocates of social and worker self-management.
I'm not sure if this exactly coincides with what Virno means and, like the concept of "exodus", it remains highly under-developed. This seems all the more problematic in the current context of financial crisis, in which these forms of "agency" would have to connect the multitude to power over the macro-economic. This might be another reason to agree with IT that his pitching of innovation and negation at this level of abstraction is of more use to those turning a capitalist profit that to those wanting alternative egalitarian social forms.
At a slight tangent I've also recently encountered the work of Malcolm Bull, which has the merit of asking exactly the question that has been troubling me:
Within contemporary radical politics, there are a lot of questions to which there are many possible answers, and one question to which there is none. There are innumerable blueprints for utopian futures that are, in varying degrees, egalitarian, cosmopolitan, ecologically sustainable, and locally responsive, but no solution to the most intractable problem of all: who is going to make it happen?
(The Limits of Multitude)
The result, at least in Bull's summary is that:
Without these agents [communist states / parties of the left] there appear to be only two forces capable of shaping the contemporary world: market globalization propelled by governments and multinational corporations, and populist reactions that seek to assert national or communal sovereignty. (Limits)
We are left with the choice between the 'invisible hand' (under which, to use Karl Polanyi's words, 'human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation’) or forms of populist will. It may be we could argue Peter Hallward's attempts to argue for a generic or communist will are one way to try to escape this alternative. What's provocative about Bull's argument is that he assimilates the Negrian multitude precisely to the 'invisible hand' / Hayekian tradition. This throws a more sinister light on the lack of specificity of Virno's models of agency; is his work another ruse of the (capitalist) cunning of reason?
That said Bull's own solution seems to partake of a slightly odd version of the same logic:
To the contemporary crisis of political agency, Hegel’s theory of the state offers both an explanation (in terms of the inadequacy of any one form of agency) and two possible resolutions: it excludes the non-dialectical options of a global market society or global non-market state, and reduces the viable options to a global market state and a global, potentially non-market society. A global civil society might be willed into a global market state, or else a global state might, through the workings of the invisible hand, collapse into some form of global civil society. The former is the natural expression of the Hegelian dialectic transposed to a global context; the latter has the form of Gramsci’s appropriation of the anti-dialectic.
(States of Failure)
Here the dialectic, or anti-dialectic, implies a passing over through the invisible hand to a global civil society. He appears to argue that the 'anarchy' of capitalist barbarism offers a path through to socialism, via this barbarism registering the failure of the state: "the invisible hand invests the failure of utopia with the utopian promise of the failed state." Again, I'm not really sure how this specifies more forms of agency? Perry Anderson's question to Bull carries weight:

an impasse between the globalizing market and populist reactions to it implies that they are of equivalent weight, neither advancing at the expense of the other: is that what the last twenty years suggest? If the current version of the global state (sc: us hegemony) is dissolving, why should not it issue into Huntington’s patchwork of regional market powers, delimited by civilizational spaces, rather than a global civil society, market or not? ("Jottings")
I'd say this alternative is plausible because, as Anderson points out, this implication of symmetry (perhaps derived through the metaphorics of chaos theory) that doesn't seem to really register the 'balance of forces'. For me a similar problem afflicts Immanuel Wallerstein's claim that as we are entering in a crisis for the system, not a crisis of the system:

We have to remember finally that the outcome of the struggle during the present chaotic transition is not in any fashion inevitable. It will be fashioned by the totality of the actions of everyone on all sides. We have only a fifty-fifty chance of prevailing. One can define fifty-fifty as unfortunately low. I define it as a great opportunity, which we should not fail to try to seize.
I wonder if the metaphorics of chaos theory used also by Wallerstein ("equilibrium" / "bifurcation") leaves the strategic questions a little hanging in terms of balance? Anyway one thing I should say about Bull's use of Hegel is that Hegelians have a habit of being right.

For what it's worth my own position is more Andersonian on this; sceptical, but not without hope.