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

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“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.


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

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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 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:





“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.

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