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


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


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.

Some Random Observations on Robert Walser’s Prose Fiction


‘A Schoolboy’s Diary And Other Stories’ is the fourth Robert Walser book I’ve read so far. And what strikes me about the Swiss-German writer, among other things, is the following: if the ontological characteristic of art and literature be rupture with distribution of the sensible constitutive of the horizon of meaning; and thus rupture with cogitation, signification and measure, then there are two modalities for this ontology of the immeasurable or the meaureless to register itself. The first is that of an explosive evental heroism while the second is inconspicuousness of self-effacement, or progressive minimisation of the self. A kind of persistently joyous self-evacuation, or kenosis. It’s the latter that Walser’s ‘prosaic’ literary discourse offers.

If the first inspires a romanticism of the political as the moment of an eruptive break with the tyranny of the monumental, the second arguably instils in us fidelity to that break with the monumental in the ethical form of persevering in the measure-eluding inconspicuousness of the minor. This puts the Walserian minor on the same page as Walter Benjamin’s “destructive character”. Benjamin described the destructive character with reference to Brecht thus: “…challenges everything almost before it has been achieved.” And Brecht is correct in characterising this destructive aspect of his character as “manic”.

In Walser, this mania emerges, however, not as anxiety but in hues that are pleasing, clam, tender and sweet..In Walser’s work this mania, or hysteria — which necessarily always manifests itself in pleasantly whimsical and achingly wistful tonalities — is, at once, both an articulation of infantilising petty-bourgeois neurosis equivocating between difference and measure, and that of its radical opposite: the minoritarian movement of the universalisability of measurelessness or singularity. Distinct from the Nietzschean master-morality and its heroic register of pagan-warrior nobility is Walser’s equally pagan natural-historical morality of radical solitude and peaceability, which is registered by smallness, insignificance and fleetingness. In a certain sense there is, as my wife Paramita once remarked after reading The Assistant, a certain unmistakable affinity and resonance between Walser and Vinod Kumar Shukla. That Robert Walser told fairy-tales of modernity will be quite apparent to anybody who cares to read anything by him. His work, however, is arguably an accomplished poetry of materialist ethics too.

Revolution as Return (I)


What is return anyway? Don’t we hit return on our keyboard to start a new paragraph?

Benjamin did not conceive revolution as an act to secure future, as redeemer of future generations, but as retribution – it avenges in the name of the downtrodden generations. The revolutionary class is “nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.”

In fact as Calvino points out future is actually a return – “forgetting the future” is “to forget the return” – forgetting “his home, his return voyage, the whole point of his journey.”

Calvino notes that folk tales are of two types. One is of the riches-rags-riches type and the other is the rags-to-riches type. In the first type “the idea of poverty” is connected to “the idea of rights that have been trampled on, of an injustice that must be avenged”. On the other hand, the second one reflects “a consolatory miracle or dream.” It is this that constitutes the “social conscience of the modern age” – the common sense that preserves the status quo. For Benjamin the social democratic historicist myth-making is of the second type – it makes “the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice.”

It is the first type that characterises revolutionary consciousness in capitalism, which is simply never to forget the primitivity of accumulation, the original fall. It is this that makes the struggle against capitalist accumulation revolutionary, or else it will be mere adherence to the historicist reformist conception of progress – the rags-to-riches type. It is not insignificant that every time capitalist accumulation takes a new turn and expands itself, the conception of primitivity of accumulation is enriched – the (hi)story of transition and primitive accumulation is retold. That is why there are many odysseys in the Odyssey.

Returning is reconquering. “In the collective unconscious the prince in pauper’s clothing is the proof that every pauper is in reality a prince whose throne has been usurped and who has to reconquer his kingdom.” Calvino further asserts,

“The return must be sought out and thought of and remembered: the danger is that it can be forgotten before it even happens.”