A QUICK NOTE ON THE POST-PHENOMENOLOGY OF MARX AND HOW TOTALITY IS A PHANTOM THAT IS REAL


Hegel’s phenomenological story — i.e. phenomena as constitutive moments of the unfolding of the dialectic of essence and appearance — is theoretically central in Marx. Yet, Marxism is post-phenomenological. But what is post-phenomenology? It is nothing but praxis — practice that in its actuality is, at once, itself and its own dialectically-inflected critique. This is “practical materialism”, which Marx radically distinguishes from Feurbach’s “contemplative materialism”. The latter in being a partial materialist critique of Hegel’s dialectical spiritualism is rendered, in the final analysis, subjective-idealism and thus a necessary complement of Hegelian spiritualism. Hence, in its theoretical or cognitive moment (Marxist) post-phenomenology is phenomenology as both the symptom of praxis in its interruption, and a placeholder of the praxis to come.

In that context, one can clearly see how Walter Benjamin’s “dialectical image” (dialectic as an image of its own standstillness), or, for that matter, Brecht’s “gestus”, are nothing but discursively articulated conceptions of the post-phenomenology of praxis in its theoretical or cognitive moment. Something that radically re-defines the cogitative order itself to render thought the image and/or concrete index of its own determinate excess and suspension. This reveals how such conceptions are radically and modally distinct from such essentially phenomenological conceptions of Heideggerian discourse as historicality and the ontico-ontological nature of Being — their seeming resemblance notwithstanding.

Many new-fangled theorists and fashionable ‘radical’ philosophers in their post-Marxist zeal to either reject, or, more dangerously, appropriate Marx, tirelessly insist that totality is a phantom. But if one adheres rigorously to what one has sought to demonstrate above — i.e. the post-phenomenological character of Marxism, which amounts to extenuation of phenomenology precisely through its radicalisation — one will have to admit that even as totality is a phantom it is a real phantom (a “real abstraction” a la Marx). Alfred Sohn-Rethel in his critique of Althusser insists that Marx’s conception of commodity abstraction is, contrary to the French philosopher’s explication of the same, not merely metaphorical but literal. That is to say, the commodity-form is not merely a symptom of its own impossibility — a mark of its own inexistence as it were. Rather, the value-expressing commodity-form — one ought to say following Sohn-Rethel’s critique of Althusser — is a symptom of its own impossibility precisely because it exists as a commodity-fetish in a literal sense. Marx’s explication of commodity-abstraction, particularly in Capital, Volume I, points unambiguously in that direction.

Marx demonstrates how commodity abstraction — and therefore the value-bearing commodity-form — is a living contradiction. He reveals with great clarity how commodity abstraction — or valorisation — is about difference being qualitatively equalised precisely in its being difference. He, therefore, also shows that there is no qualitative equalisation — valorisation — without qualitative difference because the question of exchange, and thus qualitative equalisation, arises only when there is qualitative difference. That is to say, a commodity-form is qualitative difference bearing its own negation, which is qualitative equalisation. That is how commodity-form/value-form, in being itself as a unit of qualitative equalisation, is a symptom of its own negativity; and is, therefore, a living contradiction.

There is no doubt that Althusser’s rearticulation of Marx’s concept of commodity abstraction in Lacano-Freudian terms of “symptomatic reading” is, from a strategic-interventionist standpoint, a crucial theoretical breakthrough. But it is likely to pave the way — as it unfortunately often has — for a post-Marxist, poststructuralist appropriation of Marx. That, not surprisingly, has rendered Althusser’s conception of relative autonomy of contradictions into an absolute autonomy of difference — a good example of this is Deleuze’s affirmative conception of “difference-without-opposition”.

This problem cannot be obviated unless Althusser’s revolutionary anti-humanist theoretical breakthrough — which he accomplished through the Lacano-Freudian symptomatic reading of Marx’s conception of commodity abstraction — is supplemented with Sohn-Rethel’s Hegelian-Marxist critique of the same. This would serve to underscore the fact that Althusser’s entirely valid anti-humanist critique of Hegelian historicism (and Left-Hegelian humanism) is essentially radicalisation of Hegel by thinking Hegel in the extreme — an operation that amounts to brushing Hegel against his own grain.

Clearly, Althusser’s anti-Hegelianism, in radical contrast to the anti-Hegelianism of his post-Marxist epigones and poststructuralist compatriots, is not a premature jettisoning of Hegel but his rigorous extenuation. This is an aspect of Althusser’s thinking that is quite evidently there in such essays of his as ‘Marxism is Not A Historicism’ (in Reading Capital) and ‘Lenin as Philosopher’ (in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays). And supplementing his symptomatic reading of the commodity-form with Sohn-Rethel’s critique of the same is likely to foreground that aspect of Althusser’s discourse and thinking. In fact, the Spinozist moment in Althusser, and more significantly in Pierre Macherey, emerges arguably as an integral dimension of this manoeuvre to radicalise Hegel in order to have Hegelian historical reason exceed and surpass itself. This, for example, comes out most clearly in Macherey’s Hegel or Spinoza, wherein Spinoza is made to function deconstructively within the symmetrical Hegelian dialectic of recognition (historicism + humanism) to radicalise and transfigure it into an asymmetrical, materialist dialectic of anti-humanist action.

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.

For a new aesthetic of revolutionary exhibitionism against the aestheticised politics of liberal bourgeois voeyurism


There is a need to think a new revolutionary aesthetics of exhibitionism against liberal exhibitionism — for me, the latter is basically the politics of commodity abstraction and society of spectacle a la Situationists such as Guy Debord. However, in order to do that the scopic drive will need to be rethought and re-envisaged, not in terms of contemplativeness, but contemplativeness pushed to its extreme that renders the contemplated object into a dialectical image. [Now, this is already a displacement of contemplation into practical-materiality — or, at any rate, the former being placed under the condition of the latter — in Marx’s sense of the terms as he explicates them in his Theses on Feurbach and The German Ideology.] That is crucial if desire is not to be conflated and confounded with its cathection (investment). Such cathection or investment being the interruption and concomitant distortion of desire precisely on account of its determinate instantiation. After all, as Lacan would tell us, the “petit object a” is not much more than a metonymy of desire.

And here Nietzsche’s acute poser about whether truth is not a woman can be deployed rather productively. “Woman” here in its Nietzschean articulation must, arguably, be grasped in terms of “becoming-woman”. That is, woman not as an anthropological difference (which is difference-as-identity) but as an ontological difference (difference as differing away from identity). Translating this antidialectical conception of “becoming-woman” into the conceptual framework of the asymmetrical or materialist dialectic we could say, following Lacan, that woman-as-truth or becoming-woman is to be understood as the Real that cannot be inscribed within the horizon of the symbolic even as it founds that horizon. Clearly then, ‘woman’, in “becoming-woman” or Nietzsche’s “woman-is-truth”, is now no longer thinking of even ontological difference but is, instead, a limit-conceptual figure of ontological subtraction.

This, I beleive, dovetails with what I have tried to get at above with regard to grasping the exhibitionism/voyeurism couple not simply as a dialectic, but as an asymmetrical dialectic, and thus as determinate presentation of exhibitionism-voyeurism singularity in excess of their symmetrically dialectical coupling as exhibitionism/voyeurism duality. In that context, the exhibitionist desire of revolutionary militancy is not merely exhibitionism but Dionysian exhibitionism (a la Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, for instance). And here, therefore, the exhibitionist revolutionary-militant is not a declarative-constantive object — or a directive tribune — vis-a-vis a milieu of passive contemplators/consumers he/she subjectivates thus. Rather, he/she is a semiosis of impulse or symptom of performativity, which is the object-exceeding force in the distinct temporality of its own singularising/singular subjective-materiality. Something that renders this sign/symptom a unit of the milieu of active and continuous producers in the Brechtian sense.

In fact, that is precisely the reason why I think Marquis de Sade’s ‘pornography’ poses and articulates a revolutionary-republican aesthetic. If we attend carefully to the apparently pornographic discourse of his literary production — particularly, his ‘Philosophy in the Bedroom’ — we see that not only does it have a didactic form but one whose mode is Dionysian (performative), which this form strives to transparently reveal. Clearly, De Sade’s discourse ceaselessly registers the thinking of the ethical imperative of desire and the moral law together, but in their separateness. It’s this form and mode of what I wish to call the Dionysian didacticism of desire — and not just any form of BDSM pornography — that renders De Sade’s ‘pornographic’ discourse the index of counter-contemplative revolutionary-republican aesthetics. And it’s arguably this formal and modal dimension of De Sade’s literary discourse that Foucault misses when he critically describes the former as “the sergeant of sex”, who, in Foucault’s estimation, elevates transgression itself into a law.

After all, it’s not for nothing that Lacan impressed on us the indispensability of thinking Sade with Kant. In short, the new revolutionary aesthetic of exhibitionism-voyeurism — as a historically concrete reconstitution of the revolutionary-republican aesthetic of De Sade — will be one wherein a form of contemplation is already always a demonstration of the displacement of contemplation. That is to say, such an aesthetic will truly fulfil itself only when exhibitionism is already always the demonstration of excess of exhibitionism in its limit.

Therefore, the problem of pleasure, from the standpoint of revolutionary politics, is ineluctable. However, the question then is whether pleasure is merely subjectively interiorised experience that is grasped by way of phenomenological reduction, or, is the question really of pleasure founding its own duration and historicity. For, if it’s the latter, then it is already a post-phenomenological displacement of pleasure beyond its phenomenological experientiality, albeit necessarily in and through that experientiality and phenomenology of pleasure. Hence, what we have is pleasure as an existential experience informing the constitutivity of an austerely neutral extension, which is the historicity of suspension of history — “historicity without history” in Alain Badiou’s terms. This, to my mind, amounts to pleasure founding its own duration and historicity.

And this, as far as I understand, is the path Freud also prefigures and indicates in his engagement with the question of pleasure. For him, the problem of pleasure is not, in the final analysis, one of interiorised experience, subjective intentionality and thus joyous productivity. Rather, the problem of pleasure (read in terms of jouissance) brings to him, particularly if we read him through a Lacanian lens, the question of lack and/or trauma as the Real. This, from what I understand, is the crux of his “beyond the pleasure principle”. And this reveals why Freud is no phenomenologist of pleasure, one who would be concerned merely with the question of alternation between the reality principle and the pleasure principle. Rather, Freud’s concern — in his concerted engagement with the problem of pleasure — indicates the need to develop an approach that thinks the problem of pleasure and its politics in terms of the suspension of the horizon of this alternation of the reality principle and the pleasure principle.

To think the question of pleasure in those terms – i.e. to think pleasure as an experiential-phenomenological moment of the post-phenomenological movement of its own overcoming (beyond the pleasure principle) — is to already have pleasure-as-joyous-productivity displace and thus transfigure itself into the neutral of subtraction. An engagement with the affective experience of pleasure, if it’s rigorous, is, arguably, bound to lead one towards its post-phenomenological beyond – which, in the same movement, would also obviously be a radical break with the horizon of the reality principle. That is demonstrated, besides Freud, by Roland Barthes: a thinker of pleasure for whom the twinned-questions of “zero degree” and “the neutral” are what ultimately matter.

As for me, I have been helped quite a bit in this respect by Badiou’s critique of what he calls “democratic materialism” – the differing alternation of bodies and languages (or joyousness and its interruption) – as also his attendant critique of Deleuze’s anti-Freudian productive conception of desire (“desiring-production”).