Monday, June 18, 2007

Some Responses

[Update: not incidentally, there's a post on related questions over at Style of Negation]

In the
comments box of Kasey's Limetree, Sweet Jane and the indefatigable Kent Johnson were debating the merits of Zizek's recent interview in Soft Targets, a journal that imagines itself a Bataillean investigation into violence, a latter day Documents. Kent, misconstruing the points that Zizek made (who was sounding more reasonable than usual, it must be noted) declared that Marx would probably have "largely" discarded the Labor Theory of Value today (Simon chimes in, equally incorrectly, to my mind). The only possible response to this is, I think, like

(insert strange facial contortion here, upturned palm, here)?????

I respect Kent and think that, when he's not paranoiacally worrying that Flarf has gone all Baader-Meinhof on him, he's capable of making strong arguments, but huh? Last time I checked almost everything within my range of vision was produced by, to some extent, people who, not owning the means of production for such books, tables, foodstuffs, diapers, etc., did not receive as compensation for their labor its social value. . . Is everything made by machines where Kent lives? Does he have one of those Star Trek mystification-thing-a-mabobs? Can I get one? As for the following idea, of Simon's:

There is a great deal of "violence" in captialism; what I am most engaged by is that this is a deeply indirect violence, a violence done to the psyche, to the soul, to the spirit. It's an armchair thought in many ways, but I, at least, am aware that the greatest suffering of this psychic violence are precisely those that we -- meaning people like Josh and I -- are most concerned with politically.

I can only say I would like to see Simon explain this to a Pakistani person who works 16hrs/day for less money than it takes to feed his/her family. Do you think this person wants a psychic solution? Or the value of his/her labor? Therapy or health care and full remuneration? OxyContin of the masses? This sounds to me like the worst of liberal idealism. Sadly, this is a tendency that anarchist thought, much of which is very valuable to me, and important to my anti-vanguard politics, can fall into quite quickly (cf. Chomsky channeling Rousseau and telling Foucault, ridiculously, that he thought that people were basically foundationally good ). I think I take the side of Marx in The German Ideology against Stirner/ Feurbach. Idealist thinking like this only further proves that Marx is, in fact, deeply useful today. To the extent that I am not aware, every time I drink a cup of coffee (as big of a commodity as oil), that this is a relationship between me and somebody working a plantation in Nicaragua, then Marx's analysis of the commodity still holds. . . And it's not common sense if nobody ever talks or thinks about it when they invite you over for coffee.

The point that Zizek makes in the beginning (via Benjamin) and that Joshua reiterates, that capitalism involves a repetitive, sustaining (law-preserving) violence, that is the very foundation for those soi-disant acts of poor on poor violence, needs to be repeated until people understand it. Unemployment, broadcasting of classist/racist ideology, lack of adequate housing, social services, education, etc., these are bases for Simon's poor on poor violence. I don't know if therapy (psychic solutions) or religion (spiritual solutions) will be much help here. From the idealist, pre-Roussauvian tradition, how about this:

I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not among inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbors and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under color of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead. (Montaigne, "On Cannibals)

I agree, for sure, that there's a contradiction between Zizek's advocation of, on the one hand, absolute refusal, and on the other, the seizure of state power for the purposes of socialist political change. [What do you get when you cross these two? A state that does nothing?]. In any case, Zizek does say he only supports Hamas to the extent that they want to destroy the increasingly the rogue state of Israel, not kill Jews. More and more, that seems like the rational response to the political situation.

Below, an excerpt from an essay I'm writing for Johannes's and Joyelle's Action, Yes, might constitute some kind of response to Kent and Simon.

6. In the internet, the commodity appears to have committed suicide. This is the “communism of capital.” The abundance of the developed world, those final fruits of a half millenium of exploitation, are delivered right to your living room, they are manipulable, plastic, they have a history that recedes into the future. But they are also completely purged of any substance. An equality without qualia. Everyone gets their fifteen embarrassing minutes of fame, yes, but everyone is always someone else.

6.1 That is, everything arrives “just in time,” meaning never. Without an ideological enemy in sight, without opportunities for fixed capital investment, and with an increasingly dephysicalized work force connected more and more by cheaper communication networks, but who were without adequate health care, unable to buy houses, unable to afford the luxuries constantly promised them, it seemed that, for the legendary “average American,” social unrest would be the order of the day. The internet gives this unrest an arena. Riot on the discussion boards, not the streets. So, too, were the rise of “alternative” and “indie” and “non-mainstream” forms of cultural production a means of capuring truly anti-capitalist sentiment at the end of the American era. The methadone of the masses. Pseudo-satisfactions for real needs.

Information is the New Body Armor

7. The internet is not separated from the real geography of the world by a continuous border. Rather it is folded intensively into this geography. It lives in the pores of the real geography of the world, copresent. Without our knowing it has walled, sectioned, cantonized and infiltrated at multiple levels the space of the real. When a real geographical space is enveloped on all sides, without egress, alternate temporalities, too slow or too fast, begin to form. These can spread and are, in other terms, what is known as revolution. Fredric Jameson’s important call for a cartography of the totality of postmodern space is, ultimately, victim to a certain structuralist predisposition to synchronic spatialities. Sadly, the structure of the internet is subjected to the shuffle play of capitalism’s unconscious and so, on its own, a map will merely allow one to wander in weird ellipses inside the lung-sac of the breathing, sweaty folds. Rather, we need a a kind of proprioception of the collective, a form of class hatred, hatred of capital, a compass that blinks, brightly, beside the red light of TINA (There is no alternative) the green light of EXIT.

8. The internet, then, is a Green Zone, a distribution of autonomies and dollar-forms, templates, in which the miseries of the world arrive shorn of all their burdensome material determinators and accumulates. With nasal, aristocratic delectation, the provisioners of MySpace toss out the m’s and n’s to the multitudes in order that it not spell “internment” or “interment.” We are all interns at Google, producing value whose redemption is scheduled for a future to which we will not be invited.

9. Social software: the porous, osmotic hyper-sensitized softness of which masks the rigidity of its regulative supports: it feels like consumption, but it’s really production. Anywhere a price is prominently missing, it’s production: of false needs, of distraction, and most importantly a production of social relations vital to the precarities of the present. I will not say, like some, that the petit-bourgeois of the blogs and listservs, laboring in para-corporate purgatorial cubicles, have become a revolutionary class. If there is to be revolt against capitalism, it must no doubt occur from and with the developing world, the massively displaced peasantry of China, the orbits of dispossession and immiseration, hunger and disease and bad faith ringing Sao Paolo and Lagos, not to mention the least developed parts of the post-industrial world. But laboratorial leisure, leisure made labor, provides a crucial supplement, a clean distribution of experience necessary for the functioning of capital today. As this petit-bourgeois class becomes, more and more, a kind of second proletariat, as the teaching adjuncts and clerks and “executive assistants” who provide much of the content of the internet get forced below a living wage, such tertiary or quaternary production becomes more and moe necessary. These classes need to organize as well. Their—or our—refusal is essential. Those who would controvert such a notion, by pointing to the absence of internet commodities produced for exchange and assigning to web denizens the role of cultural reproduction, misunderstand the nature of the post-Fordist economy. Rather than commodities arising to mark the unevenness of development between classes and countries, it is this uneven development itself which the web produces.


Anonymous said...

I have not read this entire, but Jasper, really -- you completely miss me when you write --

I can only say I would like to see Simon explain [the psychic violence of capitalism] to a Pakistani person who works 16hrs/day for less money than it takes to feed his/her family. Do you think this person wants a psychic solution? Or the value of his/her labor? Therapy or health care and full remuneration? This sounds to me like the worst of liberal idealism.

I explicitly, explicitly, meaning it was the entire point of my essay, unhook what I call my "strong misreadings" of the Western political tradition in my criticism from my political values -- which you can safely take to be boringly progressive and concerned with all sorts of real things.

Again, I hate to belabor this but you have me absolutely backwards and I am miffed at how to be clearer. I explicitly note, for example, that there is a massive distinction between violence and scare-quotes-violence. You even quote my scare-quotes!

Argh. Jasper!

Anonymous said...

So, OK, having clarified what's going on here -- I hope I'm not disappointing anyone who took me for a real life bomb-thrower or, on the other hand, some kind of mystical shrink of the masses -- let me address other aspects of your post.

First of all, since you and pretty much everyone else wants to play the "real life" card, let's be clear. When you write "capitalism involves a repetitive, sustaining (law-preserving) violence", this is a metaphor it is not real life actual violence Earth to theory come in.

Second of all I want to address the rhetoric of your response to me, which I'll quote again:

Do you think this person wants a psychic solution? Or the value of his/her labor? Therapy or health care and full remuneration? OxyContin of the masses?

Look, you seem to be using Marx here not as an economist with something to say about interest rates, but as someone giving you insight into your personal situation, your moral stance, etc. -- "this is a relationship between me and somebody working a plantation in Nicaragua".

Indeed, I would say the primary interest for you and for others here has little to do with sociology. We're not talking about the details of microcredit or domestic violence or primary education; these are pretty much treated as ciphers.

I think you are, actually, good Hegelians, in that all of this discussion is primarily metaphysical-psychological.

So own it. Why do you short-circuit talk about the psyche of someone other than yourself? What does it mean that some of the people in your paragraphs disappear as autonomous subjects with a psyche that can be damaged?

Jasper Bernes said...

Perhaps I misread you, but I don't think so.

First of all, you say that Marx is discredited, and I attempt to show that no, the labor theory of value and his account of ideology, is super-relevant. This, for instance:

Look, you seem to be using Marx here not as an economist with something to say about interest rates, but as someone giving you insight into your personal situation, your moral stance, etc. -- "this is a relationship between me and somebody working a plantation in Nicaragua".

I disagree: mine is *NOT* a moral position or a personal stance, it is Marx's *basic* definition of the commodity fetish, that a social relation between people appears as an object. This is what the money form of the commodity naturalizes; it makes this relationship invisible, and it is inextricably bound up with my personal stance. I don't know if you've read this part of Capital recently, but this is exactly what it says. I think this is still relevant, whatever Althusser (who keeps much of this, anyway) or Kent Johnson says, and despite all of the post-Kojevean nonsense about the perniciousness of Hegel, which, I'm told, has much to to do with 20th-century French philosophy and politics.

I think this is very *real*: when I drink a cup of coffee, I am saying, to someone, produce this thing that I will consume for x dollars. As my parents used to say, money doesn't grow on trees.

Interest rates, too, the money that I earn from my retirement fund from when I was teaching, is also a relation between me and people: in fact, due to the Byzantine complexities of contemporary economics, a relationship between me and lots and lots of people, a relationship I barely understand or can map, but one that I know exists. And, for me, Marx isn't only an economist, nor is his economic theory everything: much is different, and much is the same today, in the new 19th- century, no that the short 21st-century, 1989-2001, has ended.

Second, I deny the distinction that you make between "real" violence and metaphorical/metaphysical violence. If you force somebody to do something, with a metaphorical gun to their head, that is violence, the reality of the "gun" notwithstanding. If you do damage to somebody's health, by working them to death, denying them food, healthcare, etc., which is their right as producers of value, that is violence: real violence. Just as saying something sexually explicit to somebody every day, against their will, is real harassment, on the same order as physical harassment. So I just deny this distinction very strongly. Similarly, even forms of non-violent protest are a kind of violent force--a strike for instance, is a kind of violence, and to the extent that the pacifist part of the Civil Rights Movement courageously withstood real racist violence, it too is a form of force. My view of history sees political relations changing pretty much exclusively through this kind of force, and not through legislation. Legislation may respond to this force, acknowledge, legitimate it, but the force almost always comes first. The New Deal, Civil Rights, etc. There were strikes and protests that preceded this legislation. I don't know if you agree or not, but I don't see much changing without this. And I don't think intellectuals like you or me can really be the main force for change. I believe that those who are most exploited drive social change.

I hope that I didn't deny the examples I use of an autonomous psychic life (although using people as examples is dangerous) and I if I do, well, that was certainly not my intent and I apologize. I have no doubt about the reality of psychic suffering, although I am probably unable to put myself in the shoes of the people in the examples I quote; it's just that it seems, as I'm reading it that, to you, the relationship between this violence and material conditions is reversed. You think that material solutions, structural changes (or Marxist solutions) are a band-aid/medicinal patch. I think that psychic, spiritual solutions, although not without some agency, some ability to re-constellate conditions, raise consciousness, etc., will probably be inadequate. To me those are the band-aid.

I mean, this seems to me crucial to any anarchist politics, right? Anarcho-syndicalism is about mutual aid (material aid) collectivization of the means of production. . .

Maybe I'm still misreading. If so, all apologies. But I think we have substantive points of disagreement.


Anonymous said...

Jasper, of course you misread me. Your response does not address the fact that you claimed (and still claim, above) that I believe the response to third world poverty should be one of "therapy." This is not the case, and my essay is quite clear about how I treat "theory" in relation to actual political action. Please.

Now, onwards. I can't go one more round with someone who believes that Marx -- or some derivation of Marx -- can provide a cogent, workable economic system. Marx was wrong about the nature of capitalism's collapse, wrong about the dictatorship of the proletariat, wrong about how class functions in history. These are all central theses of Marx, they are all distinct predictions, and they are all false. It's not surprising that Marx gets so much stuff wrong because at some point he stopped being an economist and became a (my phrase) torqued Hegelian.

Now, you can take him as a guy who said some interesting quasiliterary things, that's fine . . .

mine is *NOT* a moral position or a personal stance, it is Marx's *basic* definition of the commodity fetish, that a social relation between people appears as an object.

Do you not see that what you are talking about here is your own psychological state? Crucial words include "appears" -- and Marx's use of the word fetish: it is a piece of cultural analysis and you're talking about what it's like to suffer that illusion. That's fine.

Your remarks on violence here are to the point. We need national health care, a stricter OSHA, &c. &c.. How horribly progressive of you.

Your remarks on violence are about eight miles from the extended poetic fantasy Zizek draws in the essay you defend.

I draw your attention to your rhetoric again. You mock the idea that your Pakistani has a psychic life that needs attending. We're poets here, can't you see that?

My point is, look, if you're going to go into these extended arabesques where you treat -- as Marx did -- a society as a spirit with a distinct consciousness, psychological attributes, etc. -- well, you might as well include the Pakistani's as well.

Anonymous said...

I should add that I don't think our disagreement is particularly fruitful. You (and Joshua, etc.) believe that these philosophical games have political relevance.

I (and much of the rest of the world) are deeply suspicious of any kind of vanguard intellectuals who have a theory about the world and seek to implement it politically. As much as you claim that "the workers" will be the drive, it's at least clear who's rhetorically in control. (It's also equally clear that this all takes place in some fantasy world where people actually listen to us, Zizek etc..)

To put it another way: you should feel free to read my work, anyone's critical work as having actual political content, just as I feel free to read your works as intellectual-aesthetic performances that one is careful not to confuse with reality.

Performances -- which is why I continue to query your rhetoric in between trying to inject (what I see as) a dose of reality.

I don't think we'll come around to the other side any time soon.

Jasper Bernes said...

Boffo! I say, again.

Yes, the appearance is psychological. The social relation is real. It is not "metaphorical" or analogical or anything like that. It has to do with the way people live. What about that isn't clear? If you threw a rock at my head, the feeling of pain would be psychological, the rock real, no?

And yes, there are many areas where Marx was wrong. I don't know that he was wrong about dictatorship of the proletariat, since we've never had such a thing. Certainly the Leninist interpretation, which meant a dictatorship of pseudo-proletarian bureaucrats taking over an essentially pre-capitalist country isolated from the possibilities of worldwide revoltuion was wrong, and I would be the first to fault Zizek Provocateur for his defenses of such an idea. As for the tendency of capitalism to move toward collapse, well, the game's not up yet. Look's pretty bad outside, no? And we did have a collapse, just one that was remarkably well-managed by capitalism's (and Nazi Germany's) adoption of socialist strategies, otherwise known as The Great Depression and The New Deal. I don't think that discredits the philosophy. And you have your timeline wrong with Marx, the economist part comes after the more Hegelian stuff, which is early on. Again, I wonder (and I ask this seriously, and not to offend): how much of this is from reading Marx and how much from reading about him from critical commentators? What have you read? All that said, I have plenty to say about the necessary changes to the way we think of value as being produced. You say my ideas, or Marxist ideas, are incorrect, but you have no counterproposal. How does the the production of profits work?

It doesn't seem like you got from the Zizek what I did; I don't see any poetic rhapsody, except for some ambiguous remarks about the French revolution. He says he supports Statist intervention, not
Stalinist purges. He says that Stalin's collectivization was a consequence of the Leninist interpretation, but he's hardly rhapsodic about that, or the favela or banlieu riots. But perhaps you don't know the Benjamin and the Agamben he's referring to in the beginning, which sets the agenda and tone? Zizek and I are saying the same thing there, and that's what I defend, not his remarks about terror at the end, although again, I don't think you can have social change without some violence. I just don't see anything like that in history. Do you?

I don't know what you're saying in your last paragraph. I don't treat any society as if it were a consciousness anywhere. I don't want or need metaphysical ideas like that, and if that's implied, then it should be blamed on the passive voice. It's hardly my intention. Nor, again, am I trying to dehumanize people who exist in conditions that are already plenty inhuman. Just because I don't believe in Vitamin C as an effective solution doesn't mean I don't believe in the common cold.

I've said all I need to, I think. Please do respond, though, if you want to.