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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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Political militancy and the question of literature

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I am no literary scholar. I have neither the qualification nor the inclination to be one. Therefore, I wouldn’t know – and can’t say – how a literary scholar ought to go about his/her business of engaging with literature. However, I can probably talk about what an aspiring militant seeking to engage with the literary can and ought to do.

The question before such an individual cannot be how the literary can serve the political – or, for that matter, how the political can serve the literary. The question, instead, must be; can one approach the literary and the political as two paradigmatic conditions of the singularities of literature and politics, and constellate them as those generic singularities. Politics, as opposed to the political, and literature, as opposed to the literary, is precisely about such constellating of generic singularities. [Here one must be clear that politics and literature as generic singularities, even as they are informed in their determinate instantiations by the particularites of their respective paradigmatic conditions, of the political and the literary, are irreducible to those conditions. The paradigmatic particularity and the singularity whose instantiation it informs are in an asymmetrical dialectic.]

In other words, an aspiring militant is faithful to his aspiration only when he seeks to equally engage with the literary and the political by struggling against – that is, criticising both theoretically and practically – the pushing of the political into the literary and vice-versa. For such an individual, it can never be about the ‘enchantment’ of poetry against the ‘disenchanted’ arrogance of critical theory, or vice-versa. It’s not even about being even-handed with regard to this binary so that some sort of reconciliation, either additive or aggregative, can be effected between the two, and the binary as the distributive structuring of differences can exist by striking a balance (a golden mean as it were). Rather, an aspiring militant must approach critical theory and poetry as two determinate anthropological-passional registers, and two determinate historical indices, of thinking in its affective (and thus impersonal) singularity. Thinking — we would do well to remember here a la both Heidegger, and Badiou’s Platonist matheme — is that which has not yet been thought and which perpetually resists thought.

So, if it is not the normativity of logos (political philosophy, critical theory) over the literary, it cannot be the poem-as-difference either. For a radical critique of the logos — which is the force-field of identities and within which the subjective experience of difference that is the poem is already always subsumed, thereby articulating the poem as an objective identity (difference-as-identity) – what is required is concept of the impossibility of conceptualisation (logos).

In other words, we need to rearticulate logos as difference in its limit. This is what the matheme, thanks to Badiou’s radical reinterpretation of Plato, amounts to. And that is the reason why I personally prefer the matheme, over Heidgger’s “poetic-thinking”, as a rigorous explication of thinking as the presentation of the void of thought. [It is on account of its rigour that the matheme enables an anticipative-prefigurative articulation of future-directedness, which is much more powerful and radical than what Heidegger’s “poetic-thinking” affords.]

Therefore, both literature and politics as generic singularities are instantiations of that singular affectivity of thinking in its indivisibility. It must be mentioned here that they are generic singularities only in their tendency to mutually constellate with one another as the uninterrupted process of singularisation (Badiou’s “singular-multiple”).

Unfortunately, there are far too many people – including both terrorists of the political, and terrorists of the literary — who miss this only to unreflexively indulge in such stupid and pointless instrumentalism from one end or the other. The former in the name of some kind of romanticised radical political valour, and the latter in the name of the enchantment of poetry and suchlike. And then, of course, there are those middlemen, even more stupid, who have made it their lifework to effect a reconciliation between the two instrumentalist modes so that the binary can continue to perpetuate itself even as their privileged position as oh-so-balanced and oh-so-ecumenical scholars is preserved and reinforced within the system that is this binary.

These middlemen can often be seen neurotically holding forth on the enchantment of poetry for the benefit of those who are engaged in politics, and on the valour of the movemental for the benefit of those who are engaged in literature. Such propensities, needless to say, are animated by the objective reality of capitalist modernity, which is a horizon constitutive of mutually competing particularities seeking to accomplish their sovereignty through such competition.

It ought to have become clear by now, I assume, that I’m distinguishing singularity from sovereignty, which is the particular seeking to institute the universality of its own particularity. Therefore, an aspiring militant who seeks to engage with literature can be faithful to both his aspiration and his engagement only if his activity is informed by the following conception: there can only be singularity, no sovereignty. Or, if, following Georges Bataille, he does decide to affirm sovereignty then he must carefully attend to the conceptual valency of sovereignty in Bataille’s thinking, and discourse, of “transgression” “radical evil” and the “general economy” of expenditure (as opposed to what Bataille calls the “restricted economy” of production and accumulation). If he does that he will see that, for Bataille, singularity is the only sovereignty that can be affirmed.

The affirmation of literature (together with politics) as a generic singularity, if situated rigorously in that context, is not an “art-for-art’s-sake” kind of argument. Not at all. Instead, what such affirmation amounts to is literature is so autonomous, or singular, that it’s not even for itself, to say nothing of being for the political. The autonomy of literature that a militant engaging with literature must affirm — if he’s to be truly committed to his literary engagement, and thereby to his militancy — is not the sovereignty-seeking aestheticised particularity of literature, but literature as the “inaesthetic” (Badiou) evental-process of singularisation in the determinate paradigmatic condition of the literary.

It, therefore, follows that to think the singularity of literature, or, for that matter, the singularity of politics, is to necessarily think them in their respective limits. To not do that would hypostatise the eventality of the singular with the paradigmatic condition, wherein it is determinately instantiated. That would amount to politics as the revolution of the event turning into counter-revolutionary antipolitics of evental revisionism.

Politics then is nothing else save the actualisation/actuality of this mode of thinking singularities in their respective limits. More importantly, it’s such thinking in action. In such circumstances, the only radical possibility before militant politics, as far as literature is concerned, is to demonstrate and reveal, not politics in literature but politics of literature. That is, not the demonstration of what literature says about politics, but the demonstration of politics in what literature in being literature is. More precisely, the politics of literature is literature being the revelation of the formal economy it is as literature.

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