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

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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.

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Some random thoughts on the rationalism/irrationalism divide

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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.

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.

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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