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Marx: An Epicurean in Hegelian disguise?

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“…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’


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?


Against the ‘enchantment’ of poetry and for the ‘arrogance’ of critical thinking

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Robert Walser’s stress on the small, the insignificant, the minor, the almost-invisible is constitutive of his aporectic – I prefer to call it asymmetrically dialectical — literary discourse that ‘arrogantly’ affirms singularity precisely in and through the ‘humility’ of “continually stepping aside” from the light of recognition that affirmation of singularity inevitably calls upon itself. In one of his stories, for example, a heroic figure erupts suddenly from the insignificant margins of life only to once again melt away and disappear.

Does this Walserian sensibility not resonate with Blanchot’s literary practice, which is an affirmation of the singularity of visible-invisibility (or arrogance through humility)? Blanchot’s reclusive life-practice, which can arguably be construed as the continuation of his conception and practice of literature — writing as a continuous process of withdrawal from itself — beyond the paradigmatic frame of the literary, was possibly a demonstration of this ethics (and singularity) of arrogance-through-humility. This is a quality that is neither arrogance nor humility, but something entirely novel in that it exceeds the anthropologically-indexed affective coordinates of arrogance and humility in their dualised existence.

Walser’s style, if we may still talk in those terms, is the constant articulation and questioning of style itself as something that is always imperfect, and intrinsically inadequate. In that context, we would do well to conceptually approach poetry, not so much as style — which is thinking poetry through a foregrounding of its experiential dimension that is the necessary anthropological register and anthropological-passional index of its historically determinate instantiation as excess of meaning and language — but as a mode.

To conceptualise, and envisage, poetry modally is to grasp it, and have it articulate itself, in a manner that its form is already always a demonstration of its own excess. (Here the importance of the experiential dimension of poetry as the necessary condition of its determinate emerging is doubtless acknowledged, but what is also indicatively underscored is that this dimension is, in itself, not a sufficient condition for poetry to continue being itself.)

In such a (singular) situation, the separation between enchantment and disenchantment is rendered a zone of undecidability, and is thus immensely complicated. For instance, is the singular in the excessiveness of its eruption, which amounts to a break with the thrall of the banal, an enchantment or a disenchantment? And this poses yet another question: what is the condition in which the line shifts, causing the defamiliarising singularity of the quotidian to lapse into the familiarity of the exchangeable and the banal? Is familiarity, insofar as it’s an anthropologically-indexed affect concomitant with the internalisation of domination, disenchantment or enchantment? And, in such circumstances, is defamiliarisation — as an anthropologically- and thus passionally-indexed affectivity of singularity in its excessive eruption — enchantment or disenchantment?

The real question then is, can poetry be approached, and envisaged, as a decision of dwelling in that zone of undecidability? There can, of course, be more than one literary register through which such dwelling in the undecidability of excess is accomplished: the savagely explosive registration of continuous excess (the surrealist poems of Eluard, Aragon and Peret, or Rimbaud’s poetry); the fragile web of language, but one which is baroque in its interminable convolutions and elaborations, and which gets spun through the ceaselessly persistent valorisation of the evanescent and the irreducible (Proust, Beckett); but also, excess as the quiet slipping through of the small, the insignificant and the minor through the meshes of the system (Walser, Kafka, Celan ). In none of these registers, however, does the undecidability with regard to the distinction between enchantment and disenchantment become less demanding in any essential sense. All that such registers of ontological excess in their variegated multiplicity appear to accomplish are different anthropological-passional indexing of the truth of undecidability.

The same – that is, the decision to dwell in the undecidable, the purely possible –holds true for politics as well. That, needless to say, renders poetry and politics, vis-à-vis one another, a question of encounter rather than of some kind of deep or hidden ontological similitude. It is not for nothing that philosophy as the passion for truth begins, as Brecht accurately pointed out, in wonder and awe.

Truth on one hand, wonder and awe on the other. How much more aporetic — and thus undecidable — can a situation be? In such circumstances, to grasp such undecidability as enchantment is to privilege the experiential dimension of such undecidability over its practical-evental/performative dimension that informs the former but is irreducible to it. To indulge in such privileging of the experiential over the performative (or the practical-evental) is to abandon the post-phenomenological rigour of thinking and envisaging sensuousness for a phenomenological (and thus descriptivist) accounting of the same. This phenomenological — and wholly experiential — mode of approaching the sensuous logically amounts to moving away from conceptions of immanence and allegory (which is the immanence grasped in its inscription) to conceptions of interiority and myth, and thus productivism. The latter is inconsistent in its sensuousness because experience remains in it a subjective depth that does little to suspend the objectivity of presence and its metaphysics. In other words, in the phenomenological accounting of sensuousness, experience in its subjectivity fails to seek the institution of its own commensurate materiality and, thereby, become its own surface. As a result, experience, and the subjective, remains interiorised as a depth that is always in diremption from its objectivised and objectified surface. This is, to say without pulling too many punches, the abdication of materiality to spirit. This is a return, albeit through the rear window, of the Hegelian notion of art as the identitarianisation of the negativity of religion. This is poetry, not as the condition and procedure of truth, but as religious mystification.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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