Beyond Capital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spinoza as a precursor of the materialist dialectic

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PROPOSITION XXVI. The human mind perceives no external body as actually existing unless through the ideas of the modifications of its body.

Demonstration. If the human body is in no way affected by any external body, then…the idea of the human body, that is to say…, the human mind, is not affected in any way by the idea of the existence of that body, nor does it in any way perceive the existence of that external body. But in so far as the human body is affected in any way by any external body, so far… does it perceive the external body
–Q.E.D.
Corollary. In so far as the human mind imagines an external body, so far it has not an adequate knowledge of it.
Demonstration. When the human mind through the ideas of the modifications of its body contemplates external bodies, we say that it then imagines…, nor can the mind…in any other way imagine external bodies as actually existing. Therefore…in so far as the mind imagines external bodies it does not possess an adequate knowledge of them — Q.E.D.
–Spinoza, ‘Ethics’

If one carefully attends to Spinoza’s understanding of substance as conatus, one can probably see how Spinozist substance can be read as a rupture from both the Cartesian, and Kantian, conceptions of subject-object duality. A rupture that is, if one may be allowed to speak in Alain Badiou’s terminology, subjective materiality in its singularisation. So, what is often termed Spinoza’s objectivism, is, in my opinion, ontological subtraction from the the subject-object duality, and its constitutive horizon of a symmetrical and thus idealist dialectic.

Therefore, the Spinozist substance, as far as I am concerned, is unrelenting antagonism to such a horizon of dialectical symmetry. And precisely for that reason is his substance or being — or his substantive being — nothing but the antagonism to the dialectic, which thinks dialectically precisely to preempt its subsumption by the dialectic, and its own interruption as antagonism thereof. All this, in order to keep being the antagonism or ontological excess it is.

In such circumstances, there is no question of Spinoza being a solipsist. For, singularity, particularly if it’s thought in terms of the relentlessness of antagonism to the dialectical machine, can by no means amount to solipsism. Spinoza, then, is, for me, certainly not a solipsist. But I wouldn’t call him an objectivist either. Pace Macherey, I read him as a materialist who philosophically prefigures the materialist dialectic.

One will see Spinoza as a solipsist only when one conceives materialism as objectivism, and does not grasp materiality as ontological excess — the actuality of uninterrupted exceeding of the subject-object duality and the horizon of symmetrical dialectic this duality is constitutive of. And it’s this ontological excess that is the approach at work in Marx’s theoretical practice of critique of political economy as is its philosophical presupposition.

This Marxian critique in its operation as “practical practice” — which would render such “practical practice” praxis — would be nothing but precisely this actuality of uninterrupted exceeding of the subject-object duality and the horizon of symmetrical dialectic it is constitutive of. In other words, Spinoza’s substance is subjectivity as a process of desubjectivation. Or, conversely,. Spinoza’s being is a subject that is substance precisely in being-aftersubject.

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 instantiation.as 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:

“LEAP

“LEAP

“LEAP

“LEAP

“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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