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Archive for August 22nd, 2015

Phenomenologies of Suffering, Phenomenologies of Joyousness: Beyond the Moral Voluntarism of Anti-Capitalism

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Theoretical practices on the working-class left today must be completely immersed in the spirit of chapter one of Capital, Volume I, because that is the only way in which militants of proletarian-revolutionism can hope to cleanse their politics of anticapitalism of the dross of moral voluntarism that has, for a while now, thoroughly obscured and blunted its critical edge. This is particularly important in this new conjuncture of capital because its openly barbaric character compels its so-called antagonists to hold on ever more tightly to a morally voluntaristic anti-capitalism.

In the first chapter of Capital, Volume I, Marx is at his rigorous best, as it were. Here he kind of prefigures his critique of political economy in its entirety by demonstrating political economy or capital in its basic cell-form. The spirit, and orientation, of the first chapter of Capital, Volume I, is critically significant because in that chapter Marx demonstrates with great acuity how commodity, as the basic unit of capital, has a two-fold nature: use-value on one hand. and, on the other, exchange-value and value (and thus also the bipolarity of labour between useful concrete labour and human labour in the abstract). Therefore, the moving contradiction — or the internally schizzed condition of social being — that is capital implies, and Marx demonstrates as much, that while exchange-value (which is representation of value) tends to be a negation of use-value, use-value in its concrete qualitative singularity is the necessary material depository/bearer of exchange-value. This is the paradox, or moving contradiction, that is commodity. For, even as exchange-value tends to be a total negation of use-value, use-value cannot be totally negated as that would cause exchange-relations themselves to disappear.

This then means that capital as the actuality of the law of value — which is the rationalisation of exchange as social relations — is not the elimination of use-values through their subsumption into exchange-relations; or, which is the same thing, subsumption by the law of value. Rather, capital as the subsumption of use-values and their concomitant concrete labours (and their immanent affectivity in its diverse experiences of singularity) into exchange-relations is their de-singularising instrumentalisation by the latter. This is most clearly evident in Marx’s explication of the elementary value-form. Here he shows how value — which is an abstraction from the materiality of use-value because it comes into being only in, as and through rationalisation of exchange of use-values into social relations – can express itself only in an exchange-relation, which is the appearance of a value equation, and thus through its embodiment (equivalent value-form being that embodiment). This embodiment, needless to say, is possible only through the instrumentalisation of the sheer bodily form of use-value. Concomitant with such instrumentalisation of use-values, which is clearly not their elimination or total negation, is the regimentation (and, once again, not elimination) of their respective concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations and affective experiences.

We can, in a more obvious kind of way, say that concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations as diverse forces of affectivity are regimented precisely because they first come into being within capital by militating against it. In other words, capital, as the actuality of the law of value, is possible only as the regimentation of that which militates against it as that regimentation. That is why capital expands in order to reproduce itself. And it reproduces itself in and through its recomposition. And it can recompose, and thus reproduce, itself only when it is determinately subverted and destroyed. For, recomposition of capital is its reactive response — via regimentation of concrete labours in their singular subjective operations as diverse affective forces — to its determinate subversion caused by the militation of those concrete labours in their singular subjective operations. In other words, capital is always the incompleteness of its own destruction. Thus capital as its own continual recomposition — and thus expanded reproduction — is the continuous hypostatising of the effects — or limits — of its own determinate destruction.

What Althusser terms subjectivation is arguably nothing but this regimentation and instrumentalisation of concrete labours in and as their singular subjective operations and immanent affective experiences. This regimentation, or instrumentalisation, is conceptualised as subjectivation because it is registered in and as the effect of a subject that is produced by such regimentation (or instrumentalisation) of concrete labour in its singular subjective operation as an affective force. Hence, subjectivation is the truncation of concrete labour as singular affective force in its subjective operation. This is the source of the various experiences, and phenomenologies, of suffering and pain in capitalism. Thus, phenomenologies and experiences of suffering are not on account of affective forces (as the multiple singularities they are) being completely absorbed into, and totally negated by, capital as an entity external to them. Rather, phenomenologies of suffering stem from the truncation and thus de-singularisation, rather than complete elimination, of multiple affective singularities in their concreteness. In other words, a phenomenology of suffering must be grasped not as something that stems from the elimination of an affective singularity in its operation, but as something that is so precisely on account of its instrumentalised and truncated, and thus partial and de-singularising, operation. A phenomenology of suffering is, therefore, not actually a phenomenology of suffering. From the vantage-point of Marx’s explication of commodity — and labour — as something that is characterised by its two-fold nature, it’s, instead, a truncated, interrupted and partialised phenomenology of joyousness.

Clearly then, for the Marx of Capital — particularly in the first chapter of volume I — capital as an objectivity is the operationalised demonstration of its own immanent critique. Althusser is, therefore, entirely correct in observing that Marx’s critique of political economy shows capital in its objectivity to be a symptomatic demonstration of its own Real-impossible (“process without subject”). That is, however, not to suggest, in the manner of an obdurate determinist, that capital as the symptomatic demonstration of its own immanent critique and thus its own immanent impossibility is also the gradual actualisation of the Real-impossible. That more and more of capital will be less and less of it. To think the actualisation of the Real-impossible in gradualist terms is, in fact, an absurd paradox. Such evolutionist social democracy is not at all the point of symptomatic reading that is Marx’s critique of political economy. The point of such symptomatic reading, instead, is to actualise that which is revealed by the symptom. That, in other words, means, subjectification (as opposed to subjectivation) of the immanent critique of capital — which capital as an objectivity is shown to demonstrate or symptomatise — into an active political force of desubjectivation. And that is precisely the reason why concrete labours as diverse affective forces in and as their singular subjective operations must be conceptually articulated — of course, by going through the dialectic of phenomenologies of suffering and phenomenologies of joyousness to their antipodes — as an indivisible post-phenomenological construction of austere and neutral extensionality.

In such circumstances, it would be deeply erroneous, and politically unproductive, to not see the dynamic of subsumption of living/concrete labour by dead/abstract labour (value) as a dialectic. [Regardless of how crisis-ridden, precarious, and thus tautological this dialecticity might have become, the mode of the dynamic called capital will always be dialectical.] And to grasp this dynamic as a dialectic is to come to terms with the fact that subsumption of concrete labour into the web of exchange-relations is also equally about the internalisation of the rationality of exchange-relations (or the law of value) by concrete labour as a singular affective force in and as its subjective operation. That is the reason why politics animated and orientated by an approach that stems from Marx’s critique of political economy can have little to do with ethics as politics, and yet is something that is not completely exhausted by the political. Instead, such politics can, and must, only be the indivisible singularity of the ethico-political, which is basically the dialectic as the mode of determinate presentation of the antidialectic, or its own asymmetry. This amounts to is ascesis, as care of the self, being articulated in its indispensable integrality to the operation of the political. This is how, following Alain Badiou and Sylvain Lazarus, one can think politics as the operation of its own immanent thought, and as thought-relation-to-the-real respectively.


Prayer as Revolution, Revolution as Prayer

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Prayer, thought in its extreme, is dystopian irony. That is because it’s a radically pessimistic act, and thus act as such in its pure immanence. The act of praying comes into being, and perseveres in itself as that act, precisely by disavowing all that is (and, in advance, all that can and will be ‘that is’). For, when one prays, is it not for that which is not? And does that, therefore, not render prayer in its impersonal genericness as the pursuit of the real that is not mortal reality? It is thus an act that can only proceed through disavowal of all mortal hope, and is yet an act. Prayer, therefore, is an earthly, mortal act that proceeds both despite and because of the lack of mortal hope.

That prayer is an act constitutive of the negation of all mortal hope, even as it proceeds affirmatively precisely through such hope, renders it a dystopia that is ironical in its dystopianism. Prayer, therefore, is an act that is in its affirmation ceaseless precisely because its motor is that of absolute, unmitigated pessimism. Or, conversely, prayer is a mortal act that is impelled by a hope that is in excess of all hope one can be mortally conscious of. It’s driven in its affirmation, to borrow Kafka’s messianic language, by the fact of there being infinite hope that is not for us. It is, to borrow from Benjamin’s essay on Kafka, an act that proceeds in and through the dialectic of “rumour and folly”. In other words, it’s the dialectic of faith and doubt — or faith as doubt .

Thus prayer is not merely faith, it’s reason too. For, reason pushed to its radical extreme is nothing but the excess of all mortal (and moral-normative) determinations, the hope they induce, and their power. Prayer as this radically pessimistic — this ironically dystopian — act is the mode of singularisation of faith and reason (faith as the coming-into-being of reason a la Thomas Muenzer). Prayer then is the act that doubts the consciousness of hope of its concrete mortal agents through which it must nevertheless necessarily proceed.

And what of redemption? Is that not the goal of prayer? Without doubt! But that goal of prayer is prayer itself: prayer as its own goal. Hence, redemption is the world as the act of prayer persevering in itself. More precisely, redemption is the world in and as the mode taking-place and thus in radical antagonism to world in and as the mode having-taken-place. For, insofar as the world in mode taking-place is interruption of the world in mode having-taken-place, it’s redemption. This is what a Spinozist utra-rationalist faith — seemingly an aporia — would arguably amount to. One that is far more rigorous in its post-phenomenological radicalism than the experiential and phenomenological radicalism of Nietzsche’s anti-rationalist “will to power”.

In such circumstances, one can speak legitimately of prayer as redemption — i.e. if prayer is not to remain mere illumination by existing only in the interiority of thought and experience, but appear as the in-existence/in-existing it thus is vis-a-vis the world in its existence/existing — only if one speaks the revolution. In other words, while prayer (as illumination) is the practice of thinking, and thus experiencing, the redemption to come, redemption, or revolution, is the prayer as its own immanent thought (or, experience) in action. So, revolution is fundamentally an affirmation, not a negation. Such affirmation is, however, not simply an assertion and celebration. It is, instead, the negativity or void in and as the time of its own determinate presentation or taking-place. and thus an excess of what exists. This is in radical contrast to negativity simply being the negation of what is. Revolution is, therefore, the actuality — or shall we say, profanation — of this ironically dystopian modality of prayer in its radical, and thus messianic and exilic, form. Therefore, revolution as its own affirmation can only be more revolution: Marx’s “revolution in permanence”.

Some random and provisional thoughts on Marxian conceptions of production

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Production as in capitalist production is, pace Marx, always immaterial. That value, as the realisation of production, is, in Marx, objective and thus immaterial proves that. Materiality would then reside only in the singularity/singularisation of destructive creation, as opposed to and in subtraction from creative destruction that is condemned to be productive. Hence, production, following the Marx of Althusser, is an effect of its own displacement and excess, and thus a symptom of its own negation, or better, absencing. Not for nothing does Marx see the recomposition of social relations of production — or the change/increase in the organic composition of capital — in terms of the liberation of developed productive forces from social relations of production that can no longer contain them. Therefore, the so-called productive forces, when seen in the longee-duree of their action, reveal themselves for what they are — active forces of transformative destruction in their reactive rendition. It’s only by grasping productive forces in this fashion can one think practice in its anti-historicist immanence in and against capital, which is the realisation of the abstraction of historicist thought. In such circumstances, radical transformation — transformation as novelty as opposed to transformation as mere change — can neither be the Hegelian circle of movement that seeks to neurotically conceal the brokenness of its own circularity, nor, for that matter, can it be the circle of Nietzschean/poststructuralist repetition, which is merely the obverse of Hegelianism because it openly embraces the brokenness of the circle and makes the broken circle into a virtue. [The circularity of Hegel’s dialectic is broken, and thus neurotic, because his dialectic is about the negation of the concretely realised absolute as already always being the historically concrete realisation of the absolute. This is what Hegel’s conception of employed negativity — negativity that is always already productively employed — basically amounts to.] In such circumstances, radical transformation can only be the ceaseless indivisibility of Spinozist extension — the conception of conatus at work in Spinoza’s thinking — that amounts to the suspension of both the Hegelian circle and its poststructuralist (‘repetitive’) obverse.

However, some astute Hegelian Marxists (Adorno. Moishe Postone and Zizek particularly come to mind) — to give them their radical due — think the schizz in Hegelian thinking in its extreme by mobilising the brokenness of Hegelian circularity against precisely the Hegelian circle itself in order to emancipate the former from the latter. For instance, Adorno’s conception of the dialectic in terms of its negativity shows us the way forward on how to think negativity (of the dialectic) in and as its own presentation, and thus as affirmative excess of the dialectic. His conception of “negative dialectics” — and constellation — demonstrates how one can think the dialectic as a mode of presentation of its own negativity. As a result, it is aligned, as it were, with a way of thinking the dialectic that sees and demonstrates it as the mode of presentation of the determinate excess and voiding of precisely the dialectic itself as an abstraction. Such articulation, or thinking, of the dialectic in terms of its excessive and antagonistic asymmetry is what renders it materialist. That is arguably why Pierre Macherey, a faithfully committed Althusserian-Marxist, reads Adorno’s concept of “negative dialectics” affirmatively as an elaboration of the Spinozist conception of conatus — the ceaseless indivisibility of extension –, albeit one that is articulated in and through the discursive register of Hegelian-Marxism. Which is why, one is compelled to ask, how much of Hegel there really is in such ‘Hegelian’ thinking? Is this not a way that even as it indisputably passes through Hegel takes us to his antipodes? And is this way, in being more Hegelian than Hegel, not already something entirely different? After all, this Adornoesque move to mobilise the brokenness of Hegelian circularity against precisely the Hegelian circle itself in order to emancipate the former from the latter transforms the former into a quality that is radically distinct from that of brokenness-of-the-circle. This new quality is nothing but Spinoza’s conatus as the ceaseless indivisibility of extension — this is also how Marx thought “real history” as the infinity of beginnings in their ceaseless indivisibility. Hence, one feels prompted to ask, together with Macherey, “Hegel or Spinoza”? And answer with him; Spinoza of course; but the Spinoza who comes to us through Hegel and after him

What does it mean for science to find, not seek?

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“Personally, I have never regarded myself as a researcher. As Picasso once said, to the shocked surprise of those around him—I do not seek, I find.
“Indeed, there are in the field of so-called scientific research two domains that can quite easily be recognized, that in which one seeks, and that in which one finds.
“Curiously enough, this corresponds to a fairly well defined frontier between what may and may not qualify as science. Furthermore, there is no doubt some affinity between the research that seeks and the religious register. In the religious register, the phrase is often used—You would not seek me if you had not already found me. The already found is already behind, but stricken by something like oblivion. Is it not, then, a complaisant, endless search that is then opened up?”
–Lacan, ‘The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis’

Is science — or more precisely scientificity — to be thought in terms of discovery and recognition, and thus in terms of knowledge in an epistemological sense? Or, is it to be thought in terms of invention, and thus in terms of action in its praxical sense? Science as that which is recognised and determined by thought? Or, science as thought in and as its own action? Science as thought in its capture by the cogito? Or, science as thought in its escape from such cogitative capture? These are clearly two radically distinct levels of abstraction and two equally radically separate temporalities of the dialectic, which are being constantly produced in and through the internal division of the dialectic itself. That, to my mind, is basically what is at stake here. And if we say, in agreement with Lacan, that the approach to the question of science can and must only be the latter, then how do we grapple with the problem of knowledge within such a conception of science and scientificity? What does such an understanding of science — and scientificity — do to our conceptions of knowledge and the epistemic? Does it lead us then to abandon, just like the phenomenologists of difference, the very idea of knowledge and the epistemic? Or, is the category of knowledge retained through an alteration — shall we say a radical alteration — of its status, function and conception? And what then does such alteration of status, function and conception of knowledge amount to in opposition to its more traditional epistemological status, function and conception? Should we then here not think the status and function of the concept as symptom (in the Lacano-Althusserian sense) and/or allegory (in the Benjaminian sense), as opposed to thinking them as epistemology?

Written by Pothik Ghosh

August 22, 2015 at 8:42 am

Criticise with weapons even as you wield the weapon of criticism, but don’t mix the two up

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That our wielding of the weapon of criticism does not exhaust and preclude the task of criticising with weapons is something Marx says in his A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Needless to say, old chap Karl is right on the mark. But through this formulation of his, Marx is also clearly drawing our attention to the fact that the weapon of criticism and criticism with weapons are two different levels of abstraction of the indivisible real movement of the universalisability of the singular. And in revealing that real movement in and through its two different levels of abstraction, Marx is asking us, his readers, to be attentive to the fact that the indivisibility of the movement – precisely that which renders such movement real — from one level of abstraction to the other does not mean those levels stand conflated. Clearly, one cannot have criticism with weapons at the level that is constitutive of the wielding of the weapon of criticism, even as the movement from the one to the other has to be uninterrupted for it to be real. The respective discursive specificities that operationalise through inscription the different activitities of criticism (which are singularities in and as those different activities) of respectively different discursivised rationalities must be attended to, and maintained in and as their difference, for them to retain their respective singularity. This, needless to say, is not a blow for local ideology formation and discursive rationalities. It’s precisely meant to be a critique of such local ideology formation, albeit obviously in the specificity of the local. The universality of such singularities is, therefore, clearly not about rendering them mutually conflatable, and thus replaceable, which would amount to their de-singularisation.

Such universal-singular is, instead, a movement constituted in and by the unlapsed indivisibility of different moments of criticism (as activity) of respectively different discursive rationalities. These different moments of activities of determinate criticism of different discursive rationalities (read ideologies) are nothing but different moments of performativity of differing away from different identities. This is precisely what many of our comrades — who have fallen into the easy but extremely damaging habit of getting drunk on Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feurbach without any sense of how one is supposed to drink this potion — miss when they seek to drag criticism with weapons on to the level of the weapon of criticism. The result: ad-hominem attack on producers of ‘rightwing’ philosophical, scientific and aesthetic works passing itself off as polemical criticism of their works. As a consequence, what the weapon of criticism amounts to, in such circumstances when it stands conflated with criticising with weapons, is throwing out the baby of such theoretical, scientific and aesthetic thinking and production with the bathwater of what the practitioners of such thinking and/or producers of such theoretical, scientific and aesthetic works would have their engagement in such practice yield. So, ad-hominem attacks on producers of such works on account of their politics as thinkers, scientists, artists is extended seamlessly to the politics of the process of theoretical and/or aesthetic production they are engaged in. Hence, the labeling, and rejectionist abuse of such theoretical and artistic work — without any attempt to dialectically separate such work as the instantiation of the process of its production that renders the work text from the work per se in its asserted completeness — has become de rigueur at the level of abstraction constitutive of the weapon of criticism.

Of course, there cannot be any dispute that the task constitutive of the level of abstraction of weapon of criticism is to inquire into how a particular theoretical, scientific, or aesthetic practice (and thus process of production) produces the ontic effects it does to dialectically brush the former against the latter in order to reclaim it in, as and for itself. That is what Althusser’s class struggle in philosophy – or Marx’s wielding of the weapon of criticism at the theoretical level of abstraction it is constitutive of – arguably amounts to. However, that, contrary to the widespread assumption among comrades, is not at all the same as judging such theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practices (or processes of production) by the effects or the ontic violence they produce. In other words, while class struggle in philosophy – or Adorno’s theoretical moment of class struggle – is all about figuring out the particular articulation of theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practice (or process of production) that produces a certain kind of effect or ontic violence, it’s certainly not about rejecting theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic works that when grasped as such effects are rendered thinkable as instantiators of those theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practices (or processes of production) in the specificity of their concrete articulations.

In short, while a theorist/philosopher, scientist and/or artist must be criticised with weapons – i.e. shot – for politically practising and purveying the violent and oppressive ontic effects they produce a la their rightwing discourses; those discourses as instantiations of theoretical/philosophical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practices (or processes of production) cannot be labelled rightwing, counter-revolutionary, status-quoist philosophy, science and/or art, and thus junked into the waste-bin of history. Rather, they should, as mentioned above, be engaged in the internality or immanence of their practices, or processes of production. This, in order to grasp their incompleteness, and lapse of rigour, that leads them to produce the violent, reactionary, status-quoist ontic effects they do. For, without such engagement — and their rejection would amount precisely to a refusal to engage with them in their processual internality – theoretical, scientific, and/or aesthetic practice will always remain open to such lapse of rigour, and thus also to the politically pernicious consequences concomitant with such lapse. And being a card-carrying radical is absolutely no guarantee that one will not be the locus of such lapse of rigour in theoretical, scientific and/or aesthetic practices (or processes of production). History has, time and time again, demonstrated that.

Therefore, in order to be a committed militant of revolutionary transformation one must be committed to the actuality of the real movement in its indivisible unfolding from the level of abstraction of the weapon of criticism to the level of abstraction of criticism with weapons, precisely by maintaining their separation from one another as two distinct levels of abstraction. A committed militant would, therefore, be one who makes himself/herself constantly aware that while there are thinkers/philosophers, scientists, and/or artists, who are rightwing, reactionary and/or status-quoist, there is or can be no rightwing theory/philosophy (better philosophising), science, and/or art. For instance, Heidegger and Schmitt, and Pirandello and the Italian Futurists were, as philosopher-individuals and artist-individuals, part of rightwing political projects in their respective countries (Nazism in Germany, Fascism in Italy). But that does not, therefore, make their philosophising/thinking and writing rightwing as such. Rather, what we need to figure is how and why do they have their philosophising and aesthetic production construe themselves as things that seamlessly blends with the reactionary political projects they participate in as philosopher-individuals and artist-individuals. That, presumably, is how one ought to also approach the ‘relationship’ between anti-communist and/or anti-working-class politics of such Indian writers and poets as Nirmal Verma, Ajneya, Ashok Vajpeyi, Kunwar Narayan, Satinath Bhaduri and O.V. Vijayan and their literary production.

Not surprisingly, the absence of such awareness among most militant comrades has ended up making their practice an integral part of the pernicious political logic that they seek to destroy and which is supposedly affirmed only by their opponents, who claim that the theoretical and artistic works they produce exhaust the task of criticism in its entirety by having the level of abstraction of criticism with weapons – or the singularising moment respective to that level of abstraction — disappear into the level of abstraction of the weapon of criticism. [Of course, the militant task even here is to make sense of this lack of awareness in supposedly militant political practices in terms of its material basis.] This, then, amounts to a reinforcement of the constitutive duality of “party of philosophy” and “party of practice” that Marx had criticised in the Introduction to his ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right’ in order to break with it.

Pragmatism and theoreticism – notwithstanding the appearance of their unmitigated enmity with one another and, in fact, precisely on account of such ‘enmity’ – are essentially the same. They are a constitutive diremption; a disjunctive synthesis. Revolution, or communism, can, in such circumstances, be nothing else but a movement that is real. And a movement will be real only when it’s a movement of breaking with this constitutive duality – this disjunctive synthesis – of pragmatism and theoreticism. Hence, a movement is a real movement only when it constitutes itself through abolishing, resisting and precluding the suture of the level of abstraction of criticism with weapons (the level of practice, wherein practice is the instantiation of its own immanent thought) with the level of abstraction of weapon of criticism (the level of philosophy, wherein thought is its own practice of thinking). As the Swiss-German writer Robert Walser put so acutely: “Everything at its proper time. So, fighting and throwing stones at its, and good intentions at its. It’s important to know every side.”

Historical Materialism is “Historicity without History” but it is not, therefore, Genealogy

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Historical materialism is historicity without history. And yet it is by no means genealogy. Of course, isnofar as it is historicity without history — which is the historicity of politics as permanent excess — historical materialism as a historiographical textuality is bound to have a genealogical form. But thought in terms of its practical actuality, the historicity of genealogy is merely a facticity or phenomenality of interiorised experience of difference. Precisely for this reason, genealogy is no more than the obverse of historicism. On the other hand, the historicity of historical materialism is now-time as the uninterrupted ongoingness of determinate excess of presence in its historical index — i.e. infinite difference and infinite deployment of infinite difference in its historical index.

The two citations below — from Adorno and Benjamin respectively — enable one to think this radical distinction between post-Hegelian phenomenology of Heidegger, and historical materialism, and thus, by extension, between genealogy (a phenomenologically reductive hermeneutic of difference) and historical materialism:

“…[Benjamin] seems to converge with the general intellectual current which protested against idealism and epistemology, demanding ‘the things themselves’ instead of their conceptual form, and which found an academically respectable expression in phenomenology and the ontological schools stemming from it. But the decisive differences between philosophers have always consisted in nuances; what is most bitterly irreconcilable is that which is similar but which thrives on different centres; and Benjamin’s relation to today’s accepted ideologies of the ‘concrete’ is no different. He saw through them as the mere mask of conceptual thinking at its wits end, just as he also rejected the existential-ontological concept of history as the mere distillate left after the substance of the historical dialectic had been boiled away.”
–Adorno, ‘A Portrait of Walter Benjamin’ (Prisms)

“What distinguishes images from the “essences” of phenomenology is their historical index. (Heidegger seeks in vain to rescue history for phenomenology abstractly through “historicity”.)….”
— Benjamin, Convolutes N, ‘On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress’ (The Arcades Project)

Why a Marx-Inspired Materialist Historiography cannot Afford to be Historicist and yet it often is

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A historically determinist (or hitoricist) historiography takes root when the line shifts from construing the discursive inscription of the immanent forces of history-as-movement as their limit, to making sense of such inscription as teleology. It’s this historical determinism as Marxism — which is arguably the result of reading Marx as if he was Hegel than retroactively read Hegel as Marx (i.e. read Hegel against his grain) — that has been the stageist bane of Marxist political interventions in the so-called non-European societies such as ours. The result: Marxist political discourse in the tropics has become a discourse tailor-made for the legitimation of the ideology of liberalism that can ‘survive’ and ‘succeed’ only by instituting its own materiality, which in this late capitalist conjuncture can, paradoxically, be nothing save neoliberalism.

All politico-ideological pleas of formal equality — all leftist struggles to win various violated or un-enforced juridical rights amounts precisely to that — can today succeed only by reinforcing the exchange-principle, and its basis in value-relations as the qualitative equalisation of qualitative differences through their quantitative differentiation. This would mean the reinforcement of value-relations through reinforcement of exchange-relations in their increasing precarity. And since this increasing precarity of value-relations would, in being reinforced, still be animated by the realisation or expression of value as qualitative equalisation in and through quantitative differentiation, such reinforcement of value-relations in its increasing precarity can only amount to increasing oppressiveness. The neurotic simultaneity of oppression and resistance — which is manifest in our current society and polity as the hegemony of competitive identity politics and lobby politics (both in their secular and so-called pre/non-secular forms) — is evidence of that.

In such circumstances, if one reads the Marx of Capital, in terms of his Afterword to the Second German Edition of Volume I, one will clearly see how Marx reverse-shifts the line, as it were, from teleology to limit, in his reading of history. That, arguably, is what his materialist operation on the Hegelian dialectic — the extraction of the rational kernel (of the dialectic) from its mystical shell (of a prioiri orientation) in his famous, and by now much-abused, words — amounts to. This is precisely the moment of Marx’s complete liberation from historicism. It’s this that gives us the Late Marx, who speaks affirmatively, for instance, of the ‘pre-capitalist’ Russian mir as the germ of a possible Russian road of historical development that could bypass capitalism, which for historical determinists was/is a necessary and un-bypassable milestone.

What does this non-teleological historiographical approach of Late Marx — which comes out of his explication of the logic of historical development in its bare and abstract form in Capital — amount to? It means the incompleteness of capital at particular spatio-temporal locations, once capital has come into being anywhere or everywhere else, is already an integral part of capital. Thus, struggles even at those locations that have the discursive appearance of pre-capitalism must be against capital. Which is to say, those struggles have to seek to abolish all teleology, including their own that will be imposed on them as their respective limits by their respective determinate locations. In terms of a philosophy of history, it means one approach each and every moment of history as being internally divided or schizzed between two temporalities — that of contingency and necessity (or, difference-as-differing-away and difference-as-identity). More precisely, it means every moment of history is an internal division between the time of form in and as its contingent instantiation (event) and the time of form as the concrete mediation of its structuring or being-placed. Walter Benjamin adumbrates precisely this as the historical materialist approach to historiography in his ‘Theses on Philosophy of History’, particularly theses V, VI and VII.

One should, however, have no qualms in admitting that even Late Marx’s historical vision is haunted by a tension between historicism and non-teleological history. Considering that Marx envisaged his critique of historicism (the Hegelian dialectic) — as any seriously radical and profoundly engaged critic ought to – from within such historicism, his battle against historicism is always conducted under the ineluctable shadow of the latter.

Marx’s constant endeavour in Capital is to show how capital — which is nothing but historicism in concrete action — is, in its, objectivity, a moving contradiction and thus constitutively neurotic. That is because Capital shows how commodity, which is the basic unit of capital (capital in its cell-form), is an objective demonstration of itself as the mobilisation of its own immanent critique or negativity — what with commodity being qualitative difference that is use-value in its sheer bodily form embodying or phenomenalising its own negation, which is value as the substance of qualitative equalisation. We can, in other words, say that capital for Marx is qualitative differences or use-values and their respectively singular concrete labours in their limit. But precisely in not being recognised in their limit, use-values are rendered neurotic commodities, wherein use-values in their qualitatively different (or singular) bodily forms embody, in and as the equivalent pole of an exchange-relation or value-form, the substance of qualitative equalisation (value) that is their negation as singularities.

As a result, the conception of limit – which belongs to a rigorously materialist historiography – would, in Marx, often find itself encoded in the historicist language, and, at times, even conception, of destiny and inevitability. The most infamous example on that count is the little that Marx wrote on the Latin America of his times. Be that as it may, we ought to read such ‘Eurocentric’ articulations of Marx, pace Jose Arico, as the exception to the rule of materialist historiography that is definitively posed, if not also instituted, by the approach that Marx’s Capital articulates.

In such circumstances, it would not — and should not — at all be an anathema for a Marx-inspired materialist historiography to deal with questions of culture, consciousness and mentalite as a history of phenomenology of difference. But where it would differ from both the established historigraphes of culture, consciousness and mentalite on one hand; and the equally canonised historically determinist historigraphy of the so-called Marxist historians from South Asia on the other, is in its demonstration of how such differences (as subjective experiences) are both themselves and already always their own limit, and thus subsumption into regimes of necessity. It’s in this sense that a radical Marxist historiographer could – in fact, necessarily should — draw as much from the historiographies of culture, consciousness and mentalite as from the various strains of determinist ‘Marxist’ historiography. For, only in drawing from both these kinds of historiography – by thinking difference and its subsumption together, but in their separateness — will he/she be able to complete the incomplete materialism that orients both those historiographical approaches. This rigorously comprehensive materialist historiography — which is exemplified by the historiographical practices of such rarely found historians as C.L.R. James (in Black Jacobins), Timothy Mason and Arno J. Mayer — is a synthesis of both the aforementioned historiographical approaches. And in being such a synthesis the materialist historiography in question breaks with the historiographical horizon constitutive of this duality.

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