Category Archives: philosophy

Some provisional notes on the materialism of thought, and modernism as “an aesthetics of necessary failure”


The fundamental question, insofar as modernism is concerned, is what does modernism make its diverse forms say about themselves. Depending on what modernist forms say about themselves — i.e. whether those forms construe, envisage and articulate themselves as myths of non-meaning, non-cogitation and non-thought; or, allegories (in Benjamin’s sense) or symptoms of the same — we need to internally divide modernism into two temporalities, two periodisations and two politico-aesthetic trajectories: fascist (or postmodernist, that is, neoliberal) and critical. And yet, as ‘consumers’ who are already always producers, even the fascistic and/or postmodernist politico-aesthetic temporality of certain modernist forms — something those forms speak as the intentionality of their producers — we need to brush against their own grain.

Brecht brilliantly anticipated that through both his intervention in the famous realism/modernism debate, and through the dramaturgy of his theatrical productions. So, the problem, from where I stand, is not whether a phenomenology of thinking haunts an aesthetic form. The problem for me, instead, is whether or not such a phenomenology is able to found itself in and as its own materiality by finding its own historical index and historicity. This is precisely where Benjamin’s post-phenomenological thinking — contrary to the dominant poststructuralist current that seeks to interpretatively assimilate him to difference-thinking — stands rigorously and radically distinguished from both Husserl and Heidegger’s phenomenology of thought. The ‘Convolutes N’ of his The Arcades Project unambiguously declares that. And it is precisely such post-phenomenological thinking — in its radical separation from the phenomenology of thought — that Badiou, following Althusser, rightly affirms as the materialism of thought.

What, therefore, needs to be stated here unambiguously is the following: post-phenomenological thinking, or the materialism of thought, is not some premature abandonment of phenomenology of thought. Rather, it amounts to the extenuation of what is sheer phenomenology precisely by traversing it to its post-phenomenological antipodes, wherein it stands realised as its own materiality in and as the institution of its own duration and historicity. Conversely, sheer phenomenology of thought in its existence is – from this Benjaminian-Badiouian perspective — the incompleteness of its realisation as the post-phenomenology or materiality of thought, and thus the incompleteness of its own extenuation. [As an aside, it must be said here that this reveals how the line that separates mystified revolution, which is mysticism of difference (Fascism, Bonapartism, social democracy and/or neoliberal postmodernism) from revolution as difference demystified is perilously thin.]

If we attend closely to Badiou’s conception of “fidelity to the event”, we will see that what underlies this conception is precisely the move of extenuating phenomenology of thought by traversing it to its post-phenomenological antipodes, wherein it is its realisation as its own materiality. The event, for Badiou, is not truth, but an interiorised subjective illumination. And yet the event is, for him, indispensably crucial because it enables what he terms fidelity to the event, which in and as its own actuality is the truth of the event in its forcing. That is why, for Badiou, even as the event is not truth; truth is the truth of the event in its forcing. So, for Badiou truth is not the thought of the event. Instead, truth is the event as its own thought in action. And this event as its own thought in action is already the thought or the truth of the event in its forcing. That is precisely why Badiou thinks the event — contra phenomenology of difference and poststructuralism — as neither event of being nor being of event; but as the supernumerary supplement to being that in being identified thus is already always integrated into being. Therefore, for Badiou, the post-phenomenology or materiality of thought is not an out-of-hand rejection of phenomenology of thought. Rather, phenomenology of thought is for him not sheer phenomenology, but is the post-phenomenology or materiality of thought as already always its own limit and thus the already always crossing-of-that-limit.

As a consequence, Badiou’s post-phenomenology or materiality of thought — unlike the post-phenomenology of poststructuralism such as Foucault’s genealogy or Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic ontology – is not a future-anteriority that is retrospectively constructed in, as and through the production of phenomenological effects, which as those effects are no different from the effects produced by Hegelian and Left-Hegelian phenomenologies of identity-as-identity and identity-as-change-of-identity respectively. Badiou’s post-phenomenology is, therefore, clearly, not hermeneutics. Rather, it’s a future-anteriority that is an adventure of construction in being an anticipatory, prefigurative ‘hermeneutic’ thought in action.

Materiality, therefore, cannot be the rejection or abandonment of the idea. That would merely be the inversion of the constitutive diremption — or idealist dialectic — of idea and matter, taking us towards a positivist and vulgar materialism that would continue to confine us within the structure and/or force-field of idealist rationalism. Rather, materiality is the singularising rupture — or rupture as singularity — with that constitutive diremption. This means materiality is the moment of the idea in its emerging as the instantiation of its own absence as the cause of such emerging. In other words, materiality is about the inseparability — and thus singularity — of matter and its idea. Hence, it’s also the movement that is constitutive of prefiguring the overcoming of its interruption by anticipating the limit this movement generates by virtue of precisely being that movement. Materiality then is, as its own (immanent) thought, the already always grasping of its own limit.

This, in my view, is what one learns from the poems of Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, particularly Alberto Caeiro’s; Badiou’s rigorously engaged reading of the same, and Adorno’s explication of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure.
In fact, it is in this context of materiality being its own (immanent) thought as the already always grasping of its own limit that Adorno’s conception and explication of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure needs to be situated and made sense of. Modernist forms as forms of non-meaning, non-thought and non-cogitation, vis-à-vis the forms of historical-realist meaning and sense, do not call on us to approach them in a melancholic contemplation imbued by “aecidia” — something that Benjamin warned against. Such forms call on us, instead, to approach them, as Benjamin would have us believe, by intensifying our contemplation of them to such an extent that such contemplative thought turns into its radical opposite: the thought of historcisation that is, therefore, thought in action. This is thought immanent to being now-time; or, ontological subtraction as its own thought in action. Therefore, to grasp modernist forms in terms of Adorno’s conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure is to see how such forms call on us – regardless of what the intentionality of their respective producers is or was – to grasp themselves as something that must already always be exceeded.

Clearly, Adorno’s conception of modernism is in line with Benjamin’s deployment of Schlegel’s romantic conception of aesthetic criticism, wherein a work of art is, at once, itself and an articulation of its own criticism. This is also what Brecht, through the conception and practice of his V-effect, points towards, as does Badiou through his “inaesthetic” conception of art as the real of reflection.

Benjamin’s aforementioned approach to the question of art is, admittedly, from the side of the producer. And that is largely true of Brecht too. But do such approaches of Benjamin and Brecht not, therefore, imply that the consumer is already always the producer, and that he/she thus reads forms not as forms, which would reduce the question of form to that of sheer style, but as modes. To read form as mode is to read form as the transparency of its own formation. We would do well to pay attention to Andre Breton’ glass-house in Nadja, the one he wished to inhabit as a writer, and which Benjamin also affirmatively alludes to in his essay on Surrealism. Thus, to read a form as a mode is to grasp it as the determinate excess of form, and subtraction from the abstract logic of formalism that the concrete form, which is being thus exceeded, mediates.

To read form as mode is to grasp a form as articulating its own criticism, and thereby already always being its own excess and voiding. Adorno’s conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure, not unlike Badiou’s inaesthetics, amounts precisely to that. What Benjamin and Brecht merely imply for the consumer’s side through their insistence that the producer of a form have that form articulate itself as mode, stands cogently formulated as the consumer’s task in Adorno’s conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure.

Clearly, Benjamin and Brecht on one hand, and Badiou and Adorno on the other, together complete the asymmetrical or singular dialectic of productive consumption and consumptive production that Marx clearly indicated while laying bare that same dialectic as the symmetrical and thus idealist dialectic of capital.

In such circumstances, I don’t feel like quibbling much when I am confronted with a certain heuristically recursive reading of this conception of aesthetics of necessary failure as itself a necessary failure. Nevertheless, I cannot stop myself from saying that this conception as the concept that it already is, operates at the modal, not formal, level of abstraction. As a result, this theory is an affirmation of itself in and as its singular temporality and mode by already always being an articulation of the criticism of its own discursive-formal specificity that interrupts its singularity precisely in instantiating it. So, unless one’s insistence about the Adornoesque conception of modernism as an aesthetics of necessary failure itself being a necessary failure proceeds through such specification, it runs the risk of becoming a theoretical argument for founding a ‘new’ historicist aesthetics – or, an aesthetics for a ‘new’ historical realism.

Of course, I have my share of problems with Adorno. The way he explicates his concepts of negative dialectics and constellation demonstrates the dialectic as the mode of presentation of its own negativity. This clearly points us towards thinking the dialectic as the affirmative mode of determinate presentation of its own void, and thus excess, in its limit.

In other words, Adorno’s concepts of negative dialectics and constellation clearly point towards thinking (and envisaging) a new order of affirmation that is non-productive. And yet Adorno himself is not able to fully see what his concepts point towards, and walk that path of thinking (and envisaging) affirmation as a non-productive order of ‘being’. His concepts of negative dialectics and constellation show he understands that negativity can escape from its Hegelian dialectical inscription only if it’s thought in terms of the uninterruptedness of destruction. And yet he cannot understand how such an (im)possibility can actually happen. That is because he is unable to think of negativity in terms other than that of destruction. In other words, we find him unable to think negativity in terms of adventurous constructionism of subtraction as an actuality, which would be the actuality of destruction in its uninterrupted ceaselessness. It is not for nothing that Badiou conceptualises and envisages subtraction as that which is the articulation of destructive antagonism towards the sublationary force-field of the (idealist) dialectic. This is why Badiou terms his subtractive affirmationism political negativity.

In such circumstances, Adorno’s failure to think the happening of the (im)possible, which his “negative dialectics” conceptually articulates, can possibly only be ascribed to the limit imposed on his thought by its objective conjunctural location. This failure of his to draw the non-productive affirmative consequences from his own concepts of negative dialectics and constellation is clearly evident in his melancholic conception of the “totally administered society”. Something that then risks generating its own obverse: the Heidegger-like affirmation qua the irrationality of poetic-thinking, and the deconstructive infinite finitudes. And yet, unless we are able to arrive at this criticism of Adorno by showing how his concept of negative dialectics frees negativity of determination from being merely the negation of determination to become its own moment of presentation as negativity, we won’t be able to think and envisage the non-productive order of affirmation in and against the productivity of capital. And that, ironically enough, would make us bring the Heideggerian deconstruction, we strive to throw out of the front door, back in through the rear window.

The heuristic-recursive insistence that we see Adorno’s modernist conception of aesthetics of necessary failure as itself a necessary failure unwittingly risks upholding the ways of deconstruction, and the infinite regress that is concomitant with it. This, as far as aesthetic production within a Marxist field is concerned, could easily compel artists to submit their productive activity, paradoxically enough, to a kind of Lukacsian aesthetic imperative of historical realism.

Some random thoughts on the rationalism/irrationalism divide


If we historicise religion in terms of its pagan provenance we can clearly see religion as unreflexive atheism. That reading is precisely what is at stake in Gramsci’s critical entanglement with the consciousness and culture of what he termed the subaltern. Something that comes across rather clearly in his critique of Bukharin’s manual of Marxist sociology.

On the other hand, the conception of the rational in Hegel’s system of philosophy of history is deeply theological — theology here to be read as the mystification of religion through a hypostasis of its material basis. Albeit, the historical thinking of metaphysics and idealism that is prominently at work in Hegel while he is building his system of philosophy (of history) provides us with the resources needed to reconceptualise rationalism as materialism, against the Hegelian-systemic grain of theology as it were.

One way, my preferred way, of reading materialism off Hegel is provided by Althusserian Pierre Macherey’s deconstructive reading of Hegel’s criticism of Spinoza. He also demonstrates a similar approach when in his affirmative reading of Adorno’s mobilisation of Hegel’s conception of negativity in ‘Negative Dialectics’, Macherey rigorously explicates such Adornesque mobilisation of Hegelian negativity as Spinozist conatus, which is an extensional, and thus non-productive, positivity.

In that context, religion needs to be approached not as a closed system of mystification but, like every other thing in modernity (especially, its theologised commodity of secularism), as a terrain problematisable in terms of it already always being internally divided between the materiality that is its emerging or political (re-)emerging, and its mystified, theologised presence. It’s perhaps time now to revive once again the (Marxian) project of reconceptualising reason/rationalism in terms of materialism as constant movement of internal division between idea and matter, and thus as critique, polemicality and politics, rather than get caught in the (Weberian) historicist and positivist binary of rational contra irrational.

Some critical observations on the Kantianism of Levi-Strauss’s dialectic and how a ‘formalised in-humanism’ could be extracted from it


“The savage mind totalizes. It claims indeed to go very much further in this direction than Sartre allows dialectical reason, for, on the one hand, the latter lets pure seriality escape (and we have just seen how classificatory systems succeed in incorporating it) and, on the other, it excludes schematization, in which these same systems reach their consummation. In my view, it is in this intransigent refusal on the part of the savage mind to allow anything human (or even living) to remain alien to it, that the real principle of dialectical reason is to be found. But my idea of the latter is very different from Sartre.
“In reading Critique it is difficult to avoid feeling that Sartre vacillates between two conceptions of dialectical reason. Sometimes he opposes dialectical and analytical reason as truth and error, if not as God and the devil, while at other times these two kinds of reason are apparently complementary, different routes to the same truths. The first conception not only discredits scientific knowledge and finally even leads to suggesting the impossibility of a science of biology, it also involves a curious paradox; for the work entitled Critique de la raison dialectique is the result of the author’s exercise of his own analytical reason: he defines, distinguishes, classifies and opposes. This philosophical treatise is no different from the works it examines and with which it engages in discussions, if only to condemn them. It is difficult to see how analytical reason could be applied to dialectical reason and claim to establish it, if the two are defined by mutually exclusive characteristics. The second conception is open to a different objection: if dialectical and analytical reason ultimately arrive at the same results, and if their respective truths merge into a single truth, then, one may ask in what way they are opposed and, in particular, on what grounds the former should be pronounced superior to the latter. Sartre’s endeavour seems contradictory in the one sense and superfluous in the other.
“How is the paradox to be explained, and avoided? Sartre attributes a reality sui generis to dialectical reason in both the hypotheses between which he hesitates. It exists independently of analytical reason, as its antagonist or alternatively its complement. Although in both cases Marx is the point of departure of our thought, it seems to me that the Marxist orientation leads to a different view, namely, that the opposition between the two sorts of reason (analytical and dialectical) is relative, not absolute. It corresponds to a tension within human thought which may persist indefinitely de facto, but which has no basis de jure. In my view dialectical reason is always constitutive: it is the bridge, forever extended and improved, which analytical reason throws out over an abyss; it is unable to see the further shore but it knows that it is there, even should it be constantly receding. The term dialectical reason thus covers the perpetual efforts analytical reason must make to reform itself if it aspires to account for language, society, and thought; and the distinction between the two forms of reason in my view rests only on the temporary gap separating analytical reason from the understanding of life. Sartre calls analytical reason reason in repose; I call the same reason dialectical when it is roused to action, tensed by its efforts to transcend itself.”
–Claude Levi-Strauss, ‘History and Dialectic’ (The Savage Mind)

That dialectical thinking is fundamentally and precisely all about vacillation — envisaging dialectical reason and analytical reason as complementary, and then oppose them to one another as truth and error – is something that is completely lost on Levi-Strauss when he criticises Sartre for his (left-Hegelian) articulation of dialectical thinking by way of such vacillation.

The problem with Sartre’s articulation of dialectical thinking is not this vacillation between analytical reason as the concrete instantiation of dialectical reason as the determinate overcoming of analytical reason, and dialectical reason as the abstraction of such overcoming. In fact, the explication of dialectical reason as such an interplay of the concrete and the abstract, makes such vacillation its lifeblood. The problem, instead, is that this vacillation is orientated in Sartre’s thinking in terms of pure seriality. But even on this count the stress of Levi-Strauss’s criticism of Sartre falls not so much on his conception of pure seriality as on the escape that this pure seriality is meant to be, in my view an unrigorous, articulation of. That, needless to say, leads Levi-Strauss to a conception of dialectical reason, wherein it is not the pure seriality of escape from analytics. Rather, for Levi-Strauss, dialectical reason is destined, in its infinite perpetuation, to yield analytics. He construes the infinition of dialectical reason as the infinite proliferation of infinite analytics or analytical reasons. Thence his conception of the savage mind as one that totalises.

Therefore, the paragraphs excerpted above — which are, in a sense, the crux of Levi-Strauss’s theoretical and philosophical approach – unambiguously demonstrate that his conception of savage mind is not only an anthropologised and ethnicised conception, but is, in the same movement, a kind of Kantian elevation of the same to the status of a metaphysical tribune of pure reason, which is a governmentalising constitutivity of multiple practical reasons by way of adjudicating among them and thus interpellating them into being integral parts (placeholders) of that constitutive governmentality.

It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the dialectical reason Levi-Strauss affirms through his conception of savage mind is — notwithstanding his insistence that its provenance is in Marx – basically Kantian. And this, not surprisingly, compels the French anthropologist to conceptualise or formalise the dialectic as a structure, a deep structure to be precise. Or, how else can one explain Levi-Strauss’s conception of dialectical reason here as an expressivist totality of infinite analytical reasons (or, infinite analytics of finitude)? And this Levi-Straussian conception of structural dialectic is arguably nothing but a reformulation of Kant’s “transcendental dialectic” (in his Critique of Pure Reason), albeit in the discursive locality of ethnology and modern anthropology.

Kant’s “transcendental dialectic” is a formalised dialectic, wherein the dialectic is grasped in its abstraction and thus conceptually rendered a transcendental or a priori structure and form that is expressed in and by an infinite multiplicity of concrete practices and their respectively specific practical reasons. Here we can clearly see how Kant’s transcendental conception of the dialectic – not unlike Levi-Strauss’s structural dialectic — renders it a govermentalising, adjudicatory metaphysical tribune of pure reason vis-à-vis an infinite multiplicity of practical reasons that are, therefore, mutually relativised analytics precisely on account of being mutually articulated.

That is so because Kant does not grasp practical reason (or analytic) as the effect of the noumenon (thing-in-itself) as the determinate excess of the horizon of relationality. Rather, for Kant, the noumenon becomes the basis for envisaging a new order of relationality among multiple practical reasons because in his eyes there is an ontological similitude among all of them precisely because those multiple practical reasons in their difference determinately express the noumenon (thing-in-itself) as the excess of the horizon of relationality. Therefore, it’s not for nothing that speculative materialist Quentin Meillasoux sees Kant as a figure of Ptolemiac counter-revolution, not Copernican revolution, in western philosophy. The noumenon is precisely that which cannot be inscribed within the horizon of relationality – or the symbolic order — that it nevertheless founds in the process of effectuating itself as the determinate presentation of void of the horizon of relationality, or the symbolic order. Kant’s philosophical move is counter-revolutionary in that he thinks the noumenon only, however, to conceptually articulate it by privileging its effect over itself as its own instantiation.

The fundamental philosophical kinship between Kant’s “transcendental dialectic” and Levi-Strauss’s structural dialectic shows, among other things, why the latter’s attempt to articulate a critique of ethnology, as a discourse complicit in the colonial enterprise, by way of developing the discipline of structural anthropology ends up as a heroic failure. Thanks to his Kantian conception of the dialectic as an ahistorical, and thus metaphysical, structure, the ethics of Levi-Strauss’s anthropological critique of colonialism is unable to develop a political register for articulating itself. In fact, his Kantian conception of the dialectic as an ahistorical deep structure does not allow his ethicality of critique to move beyond its moral registration. And that, not surprisingly, once again restores the colonial civiliser, albeit this time around as the benevolent anthropologist-tribune, who is now there to enforce the moral law of mutual respect between the savage and the civilized (or the raw and the cooked) by way of instituting the structuralist epistemological project of relativism in order to conscientise the latter.

In this context, it must be said that Levi-Strauss’s conception of the dialectic as an a priori deep structure, not unlike Kant’s “transcendental dialectic” with which it has a fundamental philosophical affinity, amounts to what Hegel called “bad infinity”. The “bad infinity” of Levi-Strauss’s structural dialectic derives, not unlike Kant’s “transcendental dialectic”, from it being transcendental in its infinite totality. That does not, however, imply that we take recourse to Hegelian, or for that matter Sartre’s left-Hegelian, “good infinity” as the way to critique and break with this Kantian/Levi-Straussian bad infinity. For, this Hegelian – or left-Hegelian – “good infinity” is nothing but transcendental bad infinity by other means. By introducing history as the unfolding of the geist – or an expressivist, quasi-materialist human ontology in case of the left-Hegelians – all such good infinity amounts to is transformation of infinite totality of transcendental bad infinity into infinite totalisatiion.

What we need to do, instead, in order to rigorously critique and break with the transcendental bad infinity of Kant, and the Kantian Levi-Strauss, is to think the Hegelian good infinity in its extreme. This Hegelian conception of good infinity, a la the quasi-historical dialectic of Hegel, admittedly enables the envisioning of the historical dialectic by providing what is, in essence, still an ahistorical dialectic with the appearance of epochal motion. And while that can, and often is, dangerously deceptive because the repetition of the ahistorical structural dialectic now has the appearance of historical motion and epochal change, it also opens the way, as it did for Marx, to think it in its longee-duree, and thus in its extreme, so that its appearance of the structure-exceeding historical motion becomes its own immanent thinking, rendering that historical motion and the attendant epochal change real, and not merely apparent. This thinking-in-the-extreme, it must be stated here, is not something that has to be forcibly interpolated into this quasi-historical dialectic. Rather, the very fact that the transcendental or formal dialectic now has a historical appearance, renders Hegel’s quasi-historical dialectic — his so-called good infinity — something that virtually calls out to be thought in the extreme, and thus against its own grain. After all, the shift that is effected, from infinite totality of transcendental bad infinity of the Kantian dialectic to infinite totalisation (repeat totalisation) of the so-called good infinity of the Hegelian dialectic, shows that totality is no longer an accomplished a priori fact but is a project that one has to perpetually seek to accomplish through a perpetual process of totalisation. Clearly, the a priori, and thus teleology, of infinite totality continues to persist but now as a schizz, a crisis: it opens itself up precisely in closing itself.

To get a sense of what thinking Hegel’s good infinity — or his quasi-historical dialectic — in the extreme amounts to, we might do well to attend to the following excerpt from Fredric Jameson’s The Hegel Variations:
“…the form of of the syllogism can also be useful if we focus attention, not on its results or conclusions, but rather on that ‘middle term’ shared by both subject and predicate–a kind of Hoelderlinian primordial unity, from which…both terms emerge and to which they strain to return at the end of the logical process. Even these examples, however, suggest yet a further lesson, namely the need to stress an open-ended Hegel rather than the conventionally closed system which is projected by so many idle worries about Absolute Spirit, about totality, or about Hegel’s allegedly teleological philosophy of history.
“Indeed, the doctrine of the middle term suggests a very different Hegel who may serve as a corrective to the traditional ones: this is the Maoist Hegel proposed by Alain Badiou, in which the metaphysical spirit is expansive rather than centripetal or cyclical. Here the central dialectical movement is identified as One dividing into Two, and it is clearly quite distinct from those figures that emphasize (for example) the return of consciousness into itself….”

Clearly, this move of brushing Hegelian (and left-Hegelian) “good infinity” against its grain, also, at once, does the same to the transcendental bad infinity of Kant and Levi-Strauss. Such against-the-grain reading of transcendental bad infinity – which is concomitant with the thinking-in-extreme of the so-called good infinity of Hegel – will amount to an affirmation, not of some new good infinity against bad, but an immanentist bad infinity in radical antagonism to both the transcendental bad infinity of Kant and such Kantians as Levi-Strauss, and the good infinity of Hegel.

This immanentist bad infinity, which is immanentist in an active practical-materialist sense, is the infinity of remainder and/or excess. More rigorously and precisely, it’s the infinity of determinate production of void vis-à-vis the horizon of relationality or symbolic order in its concrete mediations. This is, therefore, not escape as Sartrean pure seriality but is, instead, a leap that seeks to suspend precisely such seriality that is merely the obverse of the bounded seriality of Kant’s transcendental dialectic (or Levi-Strauss’s structural dialectic), or, for that matter, the seeming open-endedness of the Hegelian geist in its historical unfolding. This immanentist bad infinity is a conception of nowness or finitude in its uninterrupted infinition. This immanentist bad infinity, or finite-infinity — the transfinite in Badiou’s Cantorian set-theoretic terms – is “infinite thought” in radical and thus unpunctuated antagonism, not only to the infinite totality of transcendental bad infinity of Kant (and Levi-Strauss) and so-called good infinity of Hegel; it’s also in radical antagonism to the phenomenological and/or deconstructive conceptions of practice of infinite finitudes. In the latter, the suspension of infinite totality/infinite totalisation is thought as the difference of the “a-whileness” (Heidegger) of finitude as an interiorised and thus phenomenologically-reduced experience.

In radical contrast to that, the immanentist bad infinity — which late Althusser variously conceptualised, by way of a protracted detour through Greek atomism, Lucretius, Machiavelli, Spinoza and even Heidegger, as “transcendental contingency”, “necessity of contingency” and so on – is the remainder or excess (as the determinate production or presentation of void) as the institution of its own duration and historicity.

This immanentist bad infinity — which stands affirmed in breaking with transcendental bad infinity of Kant by brushing it against its grain in the process of thinking the Hegelian good infinity in the extreme – is also a reading-against-the grain of Kant’s formalised “transcendental dialectic”. So, this immanentist bad infinity, as an against-the-grain reading of Kant’s formalised dialectic (and thus of Levi-Strauss’s Kantian structural dialectic too), is an envisioning and articulation of the dialectic as the limit-form of the ontological excess of both the dialectic itself as an abstracted structure, and the individualised hypostasis of concrete practical reasons that in being hypostatised thus mediate into being the dialectic as that abstracted structure.

This conception of the dialectic as limit-form of ontological excess, as opposed to the formalisation and abstraction of the dialectic into a transcendental structure as in Kant (and Levi-Strauss), is what Badiou terms “formalised in-humanism” in his The Century. Badiou’s “formalised in-humanism” is, unlike in traditional epistemology, not an identity between the form or concept, and its object of “in-humanism”. Rather, as the term demonstrates through its fraught lexical and semantic appearance, it’s meant to articulate the form or concept of precisely the impossibility of formalisation or conceptualisation. And, for Badiou, this impossibility in being an active occurring – a “taking-place” – is the Real in its human-exceeding in-humanity. In other words, Badiou’s “formalised in-humanism” – which is our immanentist bad infinity in and against the transcendental good infinity of Kant’s formalised dialectic – is an allegorical conceptual figure of constellated construction of transindividualised ontological excess. This would be nothing save the truth of the absent-cause – the a priori of no a priori as it were – in its forcing.

Marx: An Epicurean in Hegelian disguise?


“…the principle of Epicurean philosophy is not the gastrology of Archestratus as Chrysippus believes, but the absoluteness and freedom of self-consciousness — even if self-consciousness is only conceived in the form of individuality.
“If abstract-individual self-consciousness is posited as an absolute principle then, indeed, all true and real science is done away with [aufgehoben] inasmuch as individuality does not rule within the nature of things themselves. But then, too, everything collapses that is transcendentally related to human consciousness and therefore belongs to the imagining mind. On the other hand, if that self-consciousness which knows itself only in the form of abstract universality is raised to an absolute principle, then the door is opened wide to superstitious and unfree mysticism. Stoic philosophy provides the historic proof of this. Abstract-universal self-consciousness has, indeed, the intrinsic urge to affirm itself in the things themselves in which it can only affirm itself by negating them.
“Epicurus is therefore the greatest representative of Greek Enlightenment, and he deserves the praise of Lucretius:

“Humana ante oculos foede cum vita iaceret
In terris oppressa gravi sub religione
Quae caput a caeli regionibus ostendebat
Horribili super aspectu mortalibus instans,
Primum Graius homo mortalis tollere contra.
Est oculos ausus primusque obsistere contra,
Quem neque fama deum nec fulmina nec minitani
Murmure compressit caelum………………………
Quare religio pedibus subjecta vicissim
Obteritur, nos exaequat victoria caelo.”
(“When human life lay grovelling in all men’s sight, crushed to the earth under the dead weight of religion whose grim features loured menacingly upon mortals from the four quarters of the sky, a man of Greece was first to raise mortal eyes in defiance, first to stand erect and brave the challenge. Fables of the gods did not crush him, nor the lightning flash and growling menace of the sky…. Therefore religion in its turn lies crushed beneath his feet, and we by his triumph are lifted level with the skies.”)

“The difference between Democritean and Epicurean philosophy of nature…has been elaborated and confirmed in all domains of nature. In Epicurus, therefore, atomistics with all its contradictions has been carried through and completed as the natural science of self-consciousness. This self-consciousness under the form of abstract individuality is an absolute principle. Epicurus has thus carried atomistics to its final conclusion, which is its dissolution and conscious opposition to the universal. For Democritus, on the other hand, the atom is only the general objective expression of the empirical investigation of nature as a whole. Hence the atom remains for him a pure and abstract category, a hypothesis, the result of experience, not its active [energisches] principle. This hypothesis remains therefore without realisation, just as it plays no further part in determining the real investigation of nature.”
–Karl Marx, ‘Difference Between The Democritean And Epicurean Philosophy of Nature In General’

SOME SYLLOGISTIC ‘QUESTIONS’, AND OBSERVATIONS

What do we have here? Marx, the Epicurean affirmationist and anti-dialectician in a Hegelian garb? And was this not who Marx really always was? Is this not the Marx that Althusser and his band of Althusserians, particularly Macherey and Badiou, produce through their detour via the Greek atomists (and Spinoza in Macherey’s case), thanks to the ‘discovery’ of the “epistemological break” between Early Marx with his expressivist human ontology and subject and Late Marx with his antagonism between concrete labour and productive forces on one hand, and abstract labour and social relations of production on the other? Was this not the Marx that was always there, right at the very beginning — this being his doctoral dissertation — and who had only momentarily been obscured by the dross of Hegel’s dialectic and Young Hegelian dialectical anthropology? Did not the Marx of Capital, but especially of the Grundrisse, continue doing what he does in this doctoral thesis of his: mobilise and deploy the dialectical discourse against itself in order to have it break with itself? Is it not this break with the dialectic and its structure — which is tantamount to the universalisibality of the singular — that is evident here when he writes:” Abstract-universal self-consciousness has, indeed, the intrinsic urge to affirm itself in the things themselves in which it can only affirm itself by negating them.”? Sure, he uses the Hegelian-dialectical terminology and conception of negation to articulate this anti-dialectical universal. But is that anything more than his historically given threshold of sayability? So then, is the dialectic of productive forces and social relations of production that Marx elaborates really meant by him to be a dialectic? Or, is the relentlessness of the dialectical machine — that is his magnum opus Capital — not actually meant to indicate the relentlessness of the antagonism of the singular universalising to the dialectical universality? In fact, is that not the direction he unambiguously indicates in his Grundrisse, what with the text tending clearly towards according conceptual primacy to labour vis-a-vis capital and its labour theory of value?

The Althusserian conception of materialism of thought — which in Badiou’s conception of “subjective-materiality” finds a more rigorous and developed reformulation through Mallarme, but also Pessoa — is an Epicurean-subtractionist conception. Epicurus is so extreme in his anti-universalising rigorous particularism that it amounts to subtraction from the diremptive horizon of the universal and the particular, and is thus universal-singularity. Marx’s reading of Epicurus’s philosophy of nature points clearly in that direction. In the portion excerpted above he writes: “If abstract-individual self-consciousness is posited as an absolute principle then, indeed, all true and real science is done away with [aufgehoben] inasmuch as individuality does not rule within the nature of things themselves. But then, too, everything collapses that is transcendentally related to human consciousness and therefore belongs to the imagining mind.” The last sentence of this quote is particularly irrefutable as evidence on that count.

And this is the direction Althusser pursues in his later conception of aleatory materialism or materialism of the encounter. Badiou follows that path even further as is evident from his conceptions such as truth as “fidelity to the event”, the “universal-singular” and “subtractive ontology”. Both of them correctly grasp the materialist dialectic as the culmination of Epicurean rigorous particularism and thus subtractive universal-singularity. This evidently makes this materialist dialectic the operation of forcing the truth of the aleatory, the encounter, or the event a la Badiou. In fact, when Althusser articulates his conception of materiality as pure happening (the encounter) sans all matter, it is this Epicurean subtractionist conception of materiality that he strives to affirm.

That Marx himself adopted this Epicurean-subtractive modality of thinking – albeit in the discursive idiom of Hegelian dialectics — is evident in how he envisages and articulates his conception of natural history of capital in Capital, Volume I. Marx’s conception of natural history with regard to his discursive representation of capital as its own immanent critique – Adorno was to later further develop this conception of natural history in his Negative Dialectics — reveals how the emergence and generalisation of productive labour is constitutive of diremption between man, and nature-as-matter. Something that, therefore, renders labour, in its situation within and animation by that horizon of diremption, fundamentally immaterial.

Marx’s conception of capital in terms of natural history, therefore, also demonstrates that labour can emancipate itself from its constitutive condition of immateriality (or ideality) only in, as and through its self-abolition. That is encapsulated in clear programmatic terms in his Critique of the Gotha Programme. And labour in self-abolition would basically be materiality as a rupture with the horizon of constitutive diremption of labour in its immateriality and nature-as-matter, to be an affirmation of the singularity of nature as nonidentitarian excess of identity, or as the negativity of the historical in and as its own determinate presentation.

Clearly, therefore, materiality, a la Marx’s conception of natural history, is not simply nature-as-matter because matter is nothing but the constitutive obverse of the immateriality or ideality of labour. Rather, materiality, in this conception, is the duration and/or historicity of nature as nonidentitarian excess. This is precisely materiality without matter, as materiality should and can only be. In that context, the Althusserian conception of materialism of thought, and Badiou’s conception of “subjective-materiality” is an Epicurean-subtractionist rearticulation of this natural-historical conception of materiality without matter.
We can, therefore, also easily claim that Althusser and, especially, Badiou’s subtractionist rearticulation of the materialist dialectic – something they accomplish by reading the materialist dialectic in Marx through the prism of Epicurus and Greek atomism – is a reformulation of the Marxian conception of natural history in the discursive register of Epicurean and Greek atomism. Can we not?

Nietzsche’s Hellenism: A case of heroic failure


Is it any longer historically possible to retrieve the non-moral ethics of Classical Hellenic antiquity? For, is the inescapable modern condition of our historical being — not just in the West and the Muslim world, but even in our apparently pagan polytheistic society too — really pagan and polytheistic? Objectively speaking, isn’t the polytheistic appearance of our society not the realisation of a metaphysical pantheism? One where every difference is not singular, as it would be in a situation that is historically and fundamentally pagan, but a particularity of a universal, because each such difference is a placeholder for that universal. Conversely, are societies where monotheism, in some form or the other, determines the religious belief of the majority and gives their respective cultures the appearance they have, really monotheistic?

Wasn’t, therefore, the attempt to retrieve Greek ethics constitute Nietzsche’s most heroic failure? The following passage from Karl Loewith’s ‘Nietzsche’s Revival of the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence’ — the second appendix of his ‘Meaning in History’ — unambiguously reveals that: “Nietzsche undoubtedly achieved the metamorphosis from the Christian ‘Thou shalt’ to the modern ‘I will’, but hardly the crucial transformation from the ‘I will’ to the ‘I am’ of the cosmic child, which is ‘innocence and forgetfulness, a new beginning and a self-rolling wheel.’ As a modern man he was so hopelessly divorced from any genuine ‘loyalty to the earth’ and from the feeling of eternal security ‘under the bell of heaven’ that this great effort to remarry man’s destiny to cosmic fate, or to ‘translate man back into nature,’ could not but be frustrated. Thus, wherever he tries to develop his doctrine rationally, it breaks asunder in two irreconcilable pieces: in a presentation of eternal recurrence as an objective fact, to be demonstrated by physics and mathematics, and in a quite different presentation of it as a subjective hypothesis, to be demonstrated by its ethical consequence. It breaks asunder because the will to eternalize the chance existence of the modern ego does not fit into the assertion of the eternal cycle of the natural world.”

In such circumstances, when pantheistic modernity — and the capitalist mode it is constitutive of — is an inescapable global condition, might it not be, politically and intellectually speaking, a better idea to save the tradition(s) of monotheism from the conformism it has fallen into — one which articulates and construes monotheism in terms of church-like institutionality — by historicising and rethinking the tradition(s) of monotheism as a witness of the messianic eruption of the singular, thereby seeking to practically render such eruption of the singular multiple. In other words, would it not be politically more meaningful not to shun the conceptual in the name of some kind of phenomenology of multiplicity and difference? Something that would not only give rise to the problem of epistemological void but would also result in infinite regress as the only possible practice and thinking of politics. Would it not, instead, be more productive — both intellectually and politically — to re-envision the conceptual in terms of the impossibility of knowledge: that is, concept of the impossibility of knowledge? Adorno in his Negative Dialectics, for instance, gives us precisely such a rethinking of the conceptual when he affirms the concept as one that is orientated towards nonconceptualities.

An observation on why Spinoza’s conception of the ethical is materialist


“We see that this natural Divine law does not demand the performance of ceremonies—that is, actions in themselves indifferent, which are called good from the fact of their institution, or actions symbolizing something profitable for salvation, or (if one prefers this definition) actions of which the meaning surpasses human understanding. The natural light of reason does not demand anything which it is itself unable to supply, but only such as it can very clearly show to be good, or a means to our blessedness. Such things as are good, simply because they have been commanded or instituted, or as being symbols of something good, are mere shadows which cannot be reckoned among actions that are the offspring, as it were, or fruit of a sound mind and intellect.”
–Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise

A rather obvious reading of the above passage would be to see it as a version of the fantasy of pure reason. But then we could also follow in Macherey and Althusser’s ‘Spinozist’ footsteps and read this quite differently. Spinoza’s god is the singularity of being and reason — a la the Spinozist conatus. His conatus or being can, therefore, be construed as the uninterruptedly, as opposed to sequentially, continuous excess of symbols that are deposited in and as the determinate moments constitutive of precisely this infinitely excessive, and thus dispersive and non-teleological movement, and which as those symbolic deposits tend to acquire a life of their own by getting instituted as commands (or, as Spinoza would say, human laws). That Spinoza conceives of being as a willing-knowing singularity becomes evident if we follow, later in this text, his explication of god as the concomitance of willing of things that come to comprise the world and the knowledge of those things.

Read in this manner, this Spinozist ‘version of the fantasy of pure reason’ can be envisaged, as it indeed is by Althusserians, as a theoretical mode to ground the practice of ideology-critique, which as that practice is derived from Marx’s articulation of his dialectical method as the theory of critique of political economy. Following Marx, who adopted Hegel’s dialectic only to see it precisely as the inverted reflection of the antagonism to the dialectic itself, Althusserians, particularly Macherey, would read ideology — which Althusser quite correctly characterised as the movement of its own displacement — as the image, or symptom, of its own absence, void or impossibility. And this is an approach that can arguably be read off Spinoza, including from his unambiguous suggestion here that “symbols of something good, are mere shadows” of that good.

The reason why Spinoza is open to such a reading is possibly because his thinking of being a la conatus — which for him is also, at once, “the offspring, as it were, or fruit of a sound mind and intellect” — precludes the need for it to be the ground for some kind of a moral law. In Kant, on the other hand, we have the moral law kick in as retroactive rationalisation (read metaphysicalisation) — and thus prospective regimentation — of multiple instantiations of pure reason as practical reason.

Spinoza as a precursor of the materialist dialectic


PROPOSITION XXVI. The human mind perceives no external body as actually existing unless through the ideas of the modifications of its body.

Demonstration. If the human body is in no way affected by any external body, then…the idea of the human body, that is to say…, the human mind, is not affected in any way by the idea of the existence of that body, nor does it in any way perceive the existence of that external body. But in so far as the human body is affected in any way by any external body, so far… does it perceive the external body
–Q.E.D.
Corollary. In so far as the human mind imagines an external body, so far it has not an adequate knowledge of it.
Demonstration. When the human mind through the ideas of the modifications of its body contemplates external bodies, we say that it then imagines…, nor can the mind…in any other way imagine external bodies as actually existing. Therefore…in so far as the mind imagines external bodies it does not possess an adequate knowledge of them — Q.E.D.
–Spinoza, ‘Ethics’

If one carefully attends to Spinoza’s understanding of substance as conatus, one can probably see how Spinozist substance can be read as a rupture from both the Cartesian, and Kantian, conceptions of subject-object duality. A rupture that is, if one may be allowed to speak in Alain Badiou’s terminology, subjective materiality in its singularisation. So, what is often termed Spinoza’s objectivism, is, in my opinion, ontological subtraction from the the subject-object duality, and its constitutive horizon of a symmetrical and thus idealist dialectic.

Therefore, the Spinozist substance, as far as I am concerned, is unrelenting antagonism to such a horizon of dialectical symmetry. And precisely for that reason is his substance or being — or his substantive being — nothing but the antagonism to the dialectic, which thinks dialectically precisely to preempt its subsumption by the dialectic, and its own interruption as antagonism thereof. All this, in order to keep being the antagonism or ontological excess it is.

In such circumstances, there is no question of Spinoza being a solipsist. For, singularity, particularly if it’s thought in terms of the relentlessness of antagonism to the dialectical machine, can by no means amount to solipsism. Spinoza, then, is, for me, certainly not a solipsist. But I wouldn’t call him an objectivist either. Pace Macherey, I read him as a materialist who philosophically prefigures the materialist dialectic.

One will see Spinoza as a solipsist only when one conceives materialism as objectivism, and does not grasp materiality as ontological excess — the actuality of uninterrupted exceeding of the subject-object duality and the horizon of symmetrical dialectic this duality is constitutive of. And it’s this ontological excess that is the approach at work in Marx’s theoretical practice of critique of political economy as is its philosophical presupposition.

This Marxian critique in its operation as “practical practice” — which would render such “practical practice” praxis — would be nothing but precisely this actuality of uninterrupted exceeding of the subject-object duality and the horizon of symmetrical dialectic it is constitutive of. In other words, Spinoza’s substance is subjectivity as a process of desubjectivation. Or, conversely,. Spinoza’s being is a subject that is substance precisely in being-aftersubject.

What is “true metaphysics” and why materialists should embrace it?


Whether one aspires to be a militant of revolutionary action or strives to be an artist committed to a radical aesthetic, one would do well, in a certain sense, to follow Foucault in giving up the Kant of Critique of Pure Reason, and its project of theoretical philosophy as analytic of finitude, and affirming the Kant of Critique of Practical reason and its project of practical philosophy as the ontology of the present.

However, instead of conducting this operation in the Foucauldian mode, which amounts to abandonment of the Kantian project of theoretical philosophy as analytic of finitude from the standpoint of Kantian project of practical reason (or ontology of the present), which is thereby rendered ethics a la care of the self, one would do well to adopt a different modality for setting aside the Kant of the First Critique and its project of theoretical philosophy. And that modality would be thinking the Kantian project of theoretical philosophy as analytic of finitude and the Kantian project of practical reason as ontology of the present together, but in their separateness — in a dialectically articulated separateness to be precise.

That would arguably be constitutive of what Alberto Caeiro (a heteronym of Fernando Pessoa) calls “true metaphysics”. This “true metaphysics” is, pace Badiou, thought as already always the presentation of its own void or the instantiation of its absent-cause (which is non-thought) in its limit. Hence, it’s not about thought as knowledge but thinking as that which exceeds thought as knowledge by subtracting from it. It’s thinking as excess of — or, more precisely, subtraction from — its own cogitative capture. In the words of the Marx of The Holy Family, it’s matter that thinks. Not what matter is in thought, but matter as its own immanent thought in action as disavowal of matter in thought.

Thus propositional knowledge is not, in the first instance, its own limit as knowledge. Rather, it is the limit of the presentation of the impossibility of knowledge (which is ontology of the present) that therefore then amounts to propositional knowledge being its own limit. Not metaphysics but metaontology. That in Caeiro’s words is “true metaphysics”.

So, Caeiro as “the keeper of the flocks” — a witness to the emerging of thought as the instantiation and interruption of the non-thought, whose importance as such a witness lies in his vigilance that prevents thought from valorising its limit and thus become metaphysics. Here is a poem by Caeiro that acutely demonstrates that even as his “true metaphysics” is thinking the void, it is not nihilism.

“If at times I say that flowers smile
And if I should say that rivers sing,
It’s not because I think there are smiles in flowers
And songs in rivers’ running…
It’s because that way I make deluded men better sense
The truly real existence of flowers and rivers.

“Because I write for them to read me I sacrifice myself at
Times
To their stupidity of feeling…
I don’t agree with myself yet I forgive myself
Because I’m solely that serious thing—an interpreter of
Nature—
Because there are men who don’t understand its language,
Being no language at all.”

True metaphysics, a la Caeiro, is a new order of affirmation that is not productive. Badiou’s in-existing as invention (his “nothing-as-something”) is, as far as one is concerned, what Caeiro’s true metaphysics amounts to. Not for nothing does Badiou insist, “Non-thought is rather, for him, the living wisdom of thought itself, and in particular of philosophy in its entirety.” The Swiss-German writer, Robert Walsermust also be mentioned here in that context. Walser’s prose fiction both declares and seeks to enact precisely that singularity of “living wisdom” — excess as ontological subtraction amounts to that — in its inimitably peculiar minoritarian register. Here is a small tale that comprises his ‘Six Little Stories’ in his A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories: “Now I’ve just remembered that once upon a time there lived a poor poet, very oppressed by dark moods, who since he had seen his fill of God’s great world, decided to put only his imagination into his poems. He sat one evening, afternoon, or morning, at eight, twelve, or two o’clock, in the dark space of his room and he said to the wall the following: Wall, I’ve got you in my head. Don’t try to trick me with your strange and placid visage! From now on, you are the prisoner of my imagination. Thereupon he said the same thing to the window and to the gloomy view it offered him day after day. After which, spurred on by wanderlust, he undertook a walk that led him through fields, forests, meadows, villages, cities, and over rivers and lakes, always under the same beautiful sky. But to these fields, forests, meadows, villages and rivers he continually repeated: Guys, I’ve got you locked tight in my head. Don’t any of you think any longer that you make an impression on me. He went home, constantly laughing to himself: I have them all, I have them all in my head. And presumably he has them there still, and they can’t (however much I want to help them do so) get out again. Isn’t this story very full of imagination???”

Some random and provisional thoughts on Marxian conceptions of production


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

Between Left-Hegelian Anthropology and Marx’s Materialist Dialectic: Some Random Observations on C.L.R. James


The transfer of philosophical categories to political practice in an immediate kind of way is one of C.L.R. James’s key theoretical proposals in Notes on Dialectics. He clearly states as much in the third paragraph of page 17 of the book: “Let us transfer this [the categories] to the labor movement. (These transfers are rough but Hegel intended them to be made. That is precisely what logic is, an algebra, but an algebra in constant movement.) ‘Categories’ of the labor movement are, I repeat, union, reformist party, reformist international, revolutionary party, revolutionary international, etc.” This proposal and insistence to transfer philosophical categories to political practice in an immediate kind of way is, I would argue, typical of the Left-Hegelian modality of “contemplative materialism” that Marx criticised in Feurbach’s critique of Hegel. This immediate way of transferring philosophical categories into political practice renders the dialectic a methodological foundation — which is no more than the obverse of dialectic as a (metaphysical) system in Hegel. This, I must say once again, is not the break that the materialist dialectic amounts to. The materialist dialectic, if I allow myself another repetition, is dialectic as the determinate presentation of its asymmetry, which is to say, the dialectic as the determinate presentation of the excess of itself as an abstracted structure. In other words, thinking the dialectic in materialist terms is to think it as an image of the actuality of its own asymmetry. It is to think dialectic as an image of “dialectics at a standstill” (Benjamin). In that context, the modality of the dialectic as a methodological foundation means, among other things, that one does not grasp knowledge as the limit-form of practice (knowledge as praxis in its limit on account of its determinate condition) but rather grasps knowledge as the realisation of practice or praxis. In fact, in this instance, practice and praxis stand conflated. It must also be mentioned here that the algebraic modeling of movement – something that James, as an avowed follower of Hegel, proposes here – is yet another instance that shows how knowledge is, for him, supposed to be grasped as the realisation of practice and not as the latter’s limit-form.

It is for this reason that one critically terms this, following Marx of The German Ideology and Theses on Feurbach, “contemplative materialism”. The only difference between this modality of contemplative-materialist thinking and practice, and that of Hegelian dialectical idealism is that while in the latter practice is realisation of knowledge (the infinity of the geist grasped in and as its finite concrete realization), in the former knowledge is grasped and envisaged in terms of realisation of practice. In either case, knowledge is not seen as the interruption of praxis on account of its determinateness. What merely happens is that from the a priori idea or geist of the latter the locus of ontological expressivity shifts to the historically concrete human agency of practice and the thinking of practice by its historically particular human agency in the former. The result of this shift of the ontological locus of expressivity from a priori idea to a historically concrete practice in terms of how it’s thought by its historically concrete human agency is no more than the radicalisation of the successive continuity of movement that is capital. And what this radicalisation of the successively continuous movement basically amounts to in terms of politics is no more than continuous democratisation of value-relation being mistaken for the real movement in its uninterruptedness, which should actually amount to the suspension of the logic of value-relation itself, and not its continuous democratisation. That James tends to oscillate from one to the other — the real real movement and the mistaken real movement — is often evident in his directly programmatic political writings. We come across this oscillation of James in, for example, ‘Every Cook Can Govern’, particularly when tries to demonstrate how the form of direct democracy as practised in the Athens of classical antiquity is the almost fully-developed political form of revolutionary democracy that socialism is supposed to replicate.

Therefore, in this mode of thinking there is no attempt to grasp a determinate historical practice in terms of its own immanent thought by detaching it from the sense it acquires in the thought of the historically concrete human agency or agentic-subject that, from the perspective of such “practical-materialist” (Marx’s words) modality of thinking practice, would merely be the historical index and anthropological register of its determinate instantiation.as praxis (practice as its own immanent thought in action). Clearly, this particular modality of thinking practice — wherein a historically concrete practice is thought necessarily only in terms of the sense it is given by its historically concrete agentic-subject — has its basis in an expresivist-ontological conception. And it’s due to this particular modality of upholding the centrality of practice that such thinking is arguably termed “contemplative materialism”. That is precisely the reason why both Hegelianism and such Left-Hegelianism, which has as one of its foundational proposals the immediate transfer of philosophical categories to political practice, inhabit the the same Hegelian idealist paradigm as the obverse of one another. And that is precisely why the difference in the respective political practices they generate is the difference between liberal-conservatism and radical republicanism and/or social democracy. A difference, if I I am allowed to be telegraphic here, objectively amounts to little in this late capitalist or neoliberal conjuncture.

Of course, I’m not saying that this expressivist thinking of the dialectic as a trans-epochal method is all that there is to Notes on Dialectics. The work is choc-a-block with many many brilliant insights into what the ‘structure’ of dialectical thinking as a rigorous articulation of materialism amounts to. Here is one from Part II of the book: “In reading on ‘Quality’ in the ‘Doctrine of Being’, Lenin writes in very large writing:

“LEAP

“LEAP

“LEAP

“LEAP

“This obviously hit him hard. He wanted it stuck down in his head, to remember it, always. He makes a note on it as follows:

“At the basis of the concept of gradualness of emergence lies the idea that the emerging is already sensuously or really in existence, only on account of its smallness not yet perceptible and likewise with the concept of the gradualness of disappearance.”

Now this acute observation of James’s unambiguously indicates that humanity as fully realised sensuousness can be generic only in its construction, and not in the Left-Hegelian (mainly Feurbachian) humanist sense of being an a priori expressivist ontology and/or the dialectic as a transhistorical methodological ground. This observation of James shows that if one is faithful to Marx, especially the Marx of Capital and Grundrisse, one can never think of the dialectic as a method, much less as a system. Fredric Jameson too says as much in the opening essays of his book, ‘Valences of the Dialectic’. Instead, one has to think of the dialectic, as Marx clearly does in his ‘Afterword to the Second German Edition’ of Capital, Volume I, as the presentation of precisely the determinate excess of itself as an abstracted structure. Hence, the dialectic, when one is in strict fidelity to the Marx of Capital, is not symmetrical, something that both Hegel through the neurosis of his dialectical thinking, and his apparent Left-Hegelians and/or Marxist-Humanist overturners would insist. It is, rather, asymmetrical and thus materialist.

It’s because of such keen insights into the materialist nature of the dialectic in Marx (and Lenin) that I like this book by James, even as I wonder; why then does he continue, more often than not, to swing towards a kind of Marxist-Humanism. After all, it’s not for nothing that James chooses to concentrate on Hegel’s Logic, and not Phenomenology.

Yet, there is no denying his oscillation between that and a Left-Hegelian-type expressivist dialectical anthropology. Therefore, for all its brilliant and lucid insights into the structure and nature of the materialist dialectic, this work by James does not, for me, constitute a decisive break with the Left-Hegelian, expressivist articulation of dialectics,. The former, as far as I am concerned, is in James’s thinking tainted by the latter. It is, therefore, no accident that James described himself as a Marxist-Humanist.