On Blaise Pascal
The phenomenon of Jansenism has interested me on and off for about ten years now. There are many reasons for this. The most important of these is that I love a good loser. In contemporary Catholic / Christian thought, Jansenism is the big loser: its rigorism, antiquarianism, and apocalyptic opposition to the decadence of contemporary life are in diametrical opposition to modern thought as currently conceived. Even people who are accused of being too strict in terms of morality or religious practice are hardly Jansenists in the sense that Jansenists were. Our ideas of what these things are have moved so far towards the liberal side of the spectrum that even our conservatism is quite libertine when taken in context. More than likely, we are the first to absolve ourselves of any crimes or culpability for anything. What I have done has always been rational, what I want is always sensible, my moral compass is always right, etc.
The one thing you cannot question in contemporary discourse is: what I want. What I want is always legitimate, my desire is always infallible. My vision of the good and happy life is natural, it must be defended at all costs, and imposed on those poor misguided souls who disagree with it. That I think is part of the problem with our civilization as it exists. In order for things to function well, we must assume that the natural order of things tends towards justice and cooperation. Things are never that bad, never that hopeless, and contain a rational kernel that will lead us to a better and brighter tomorrow. This is just as much the psychological center of Marxism as it is Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” pastoral optimism. Perish the thought that things were never meant to work in the first place.
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I will be taking some time off of blogging here to focus on a poetry manuscript, and my other publishing projects. There are two other regular bloggers here and I will be back once my manuscript is finished. If it is irregular for a while, I apologize but we have not exactly been regular anyway.
“Gli uomini prima sentono il necessario; dipoi badano all’utile; appresso avvertiscono il comodo; più innanzi si dilettano nel piacere; quindi si dissolvono nel lusso; e finalmente impazzano in istrapazzar di sostanze.” [Men first feel necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.]
–Giambattista Vico, The New Science, bk. 1, paragraph 241
“I’m getting sick of the left. You win.” – Anonymous friend this afternoon
Today I was informed that some cadres from a little organization called the ISO decided to make fun of a mistake made on my blog: confusing Timothy Brennen with Robert Brenner. Mea culpa: I am a literary scholar so the crosswiring is par for the course. Now, of course, this Trotskyists who substitute a form of cultural capital in mockery for having a coherent and practicable politics have long since withered to irrelevance like a grape left to dry with a pick-axe in the head. Vico was right about barbarians of intellect, whose logic substitutes for anything practicable and properly political. What Nietzsche was on about more than Marx is the pettiness of this sort of politics: it is beneath even contempt for to mistake graduate school mockery for, well, something worth hating says more about you than them.
Now, what of the more amusing things about “currently existing socialist left” is the way it fights among the more silly or pathetic elements of itself. Often reducing analysis to pat categories which are both unfalsifiable as models and often self-canceling this categories are. Furthermore, they are essentially a spectacle: need to explain why the scholarship is stale, there still is no revolution, Trotsky still has his pickaxe in his head, Bordiga is just a fading memory among cultists and specialists like his 40-year-old spaghetti dinner? Well, we can mock and engage in call outs. It makes one feel like a celebrity amongst a tiny church around 150 people on facebook mostly from NYC.
It short all this facebook barbarism is a way not to engage, to abnegate responsibility, and to police movement whose recent failure can be summed up as rationalizations for failing to even engaged with a failed movement.
Bring on the facebook barbarians, they do not even know they are merely amusing themselves.
The Mandate of Heaven.
The question of the demand for an alteration of the world brings us back to Karl Marx’s often quoted statement from his “Theses on Feuerbach.” I would like to quote it exactly and read out loud: “philosophers have only differently interpreted the world, what it comes down to is that it be altered.” When this statement is cited and when it is looked at, it is overlooked that altering the world presupposes an alteration in the representation of the world. A representation of the world can only be altered by adequately interpreting the world.
That means: Marx’s demand for an “alteration” is founded upon on a very certain [or determinate] interpretation of the world, and because of this, this statement is shown to be without weight. It gives the impression that it speaks decisively against philosophy, though the second half of the statement presupposes, unspoken, a demand for philosophy. – Martin Heidegger On Marx
On may think this is a refutation of Marx, but I have never read Heidegger that way. His parsing is almost more “dialectical” itself than Marx’s original statement. Regardless, the strong sense of what Heidegger says here that without a necessary vision and understand of the processes of history, the demand to change the world falls into naught–for without a fix demand about what the world should be and without an understanding about what the world is, the changing of the world is not possible as one is just reacting to images and images of images.
In this Heidegger echoes his supposed arch-nemesis Adorno, whose distrust of calls for action for action sake actually led to supporting the very systems on is want to oppose. Think of the counter-culture? Was the that not a way to re-brand popular culture? Can this to be said to be a counter-tendency or a way to revitalize both the economic and political system the counter-culture opposed? Well, then again, look at Hot Topic’s existence for that. The fixed point this must be philosophical and historigraphical for those who want to draw lessons from history or create models on which to analysis the past. Heidegger acknowledged that the Marxist conception of history was probably the most advanced even though his actual politics led to almost diametrically oppose it. The reason was that Marxian analysis took teleological assumptions from idealist philosophy and tried to ground them in testable material.
This is not to say that history of “Marxism” is particularly strong on this point: a lot of the typologies produced under USSR and the CCP have been laughably bad to the point of being nearly secular dispensationalism. I have been having discussions with an internet friend on the theories of Jairus Banaji on the theories around modes of production as well as the “Political Marxist” historical work of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. I have been torn between these two visions, although I think reading Mike McNair’s three part treatment of the subject of Banaji, has convinced me that fear of teleology on Banaji can be problematic. Still, it seems like all the vulgar Marxist talk of base-superstructure, ignores that “modes of production” are not discretely separated from the state or cultural structures.
For example, whether you accept Banaji’s thesis that capitalism developed off of the latent merchant trades of the Byzantine courts and the Catholic expansion or Wood’s thesis that capitalism emerged out of a culture the English kingship which never fit, exactly, the mode of feudalism that characterized the regions we now call Italy, France, and Germany, it is clear that relationships of power and ideas of politics and religion have material effects on “the modes of production” as they effect them. As McNair says, “The point I am making is that the ‘base’ is the total material division of labour in the society, not those forms which are immediately analogous to the capitalist ‘economy’.”
Furthermore, either Brenner or Wood’s theories or Banaji’s indicate that the “Asiatic despotism” of Marx was a “here be dragons” moment in which “modes of production” not understood in other cultures were not quite ignored. The development of the Qing does not fit feudal patterns nor is it explainable in the same way that one can see in the 18th century liberal revolutions. Even in Europe, explaining why Sicily maintained a feudal structure 200 years after the rest of Europe, even those under monarchies, had abandoned this particular social relationship. The “modes of production” and the periodization of the relationships within the larger abstracts that we use to describe economies are vital, but they are also vital to be subtle and nuanced enough not to collapse real difference in economic and social functioning.
In recent trends in ultra-left, communization has gone on to use theories of real subsumption to periodize capitalism and discuss why various attempts at both revolution and reform have seemingly failed, or, at least, not worked out as planned. I think these discussions of historigraphy are vital if anything of that kind is attempted. There are too many questions and distinctions not understood: what is the exact distinction between skilled and gang slavery, how did this effect early modern chattel slavery: what are the implications for robotization? What forms of political arrangements led to the feudal collapse? What are the roles of merchant and guilds in capitalist organization? Is late antiquity almost arriving at a kind of proto-capitalism that collapses from the inability to move away from a slave economy and by terrible currency manipulation, or is this a moment of more primitive relationships? Does Calvinism change the culture of work enough to effect capitalist development, or is it unrelated? These things would matter for dealing with theories of real subsumption as the kind discussed in Endnotes and Theorie Communiste, It seems vital to any real attempt to periodize capitalism to understand its early emergence, and the fact we can’t decide whether it is unique to England and then spreads or it was already developing in Byzantine empire? Why did it not develop in Sung dynasty where the material wealth was probably there? Is China’s mode a new form of capitalism or a development that is clearly in line with prior theories of state capitalism? Our models must be able to explain this if one is act. To change the world, one should be damn sure one understands it. If these questions cannot be answered within a model, to the dustbin of history with these theories of history.
The mandate of heaven.
I was watching a talk linked at the North Star, Socialism at the Ballot Box, which I viewed as the rejection of my tenure as an editor there. There is a lot to talk about and some of it deeply personal, but I felt like I had egg on my face as to what is going to be done in left-publications that regard themselves as pre-political. It is definitely the case that I feel more than a little betrayed that my critiques of leftwing myopia weren’t really listened to. I, however, did leave as editor and that of my own doing. When you work for a left-wing zine, you see yourself growing on in numbers of views from several hundreds to a few thousand a day, the rush can make you forget you that libertarian websites in the US have triple the traffic and right-wing sites in Europe often have double. All of which are dwarfed by center liberal and conservative policy magazines.
Which is to say something else, the global context for placing very small scale city electoral wins is misleading. It’s parataxic, it sees small victories as signs that most of the rest of “the working class” is actually on the same page with some like Sawat. The elections of Europe indicate this… in past decade and a half, Europe has swung slightly left only after the first round of Bush wars and then those parliaments were crushed in non-confidence as soon as the crisis hit. Europe, in fiscal policy terms, is actually to the right of the US right now. The assumption that these riots reflect a pure popular will, or that this will have lasting effects on the political system without further collapse seems to be tenuous. Between that one end, and infinite splitting and character assassinations on the other: one realizes that diversity is not going to be really possible in the left. We who build on system critique cannot stand with those who don’t, and are constantly confused those who do end up just doing the same electoral stuff that has been done for a century with diminishing returns.
So What’s Left?
It seems foolish to build politics on sour grapes, so giving up on the idea of “the left” as a means to bring about things seems to be the logical result. Furthermore, the harder question which everyone from Thomas Frank to Left Communists at Endnotes have tried to ask, why has this happened in the first place? Thinking that you can have revolution through-dog-catcher election like one sees in Jacobin, In These Times, etc., leaves one with an inflated sense of success and basically ignores the question of historical limitations. Even the election of socialist Presidents in Europe have rarely changed the game on the table. On can look at the history of France. In the end, we split or become cynical. The history doesn’t repeat, but that rhyming is a bit too dead on.
Communism is the Truth that Fulfills All Truths: Why Christians and Atheists (& Muslims, Hindus, Etc) Will Someday Reach the Same Destination
from Plato onwards, Communism is the only political Idea worthy of a philosopher. – Alain Badiou
Reading this line from Badiou a few years ago pushed me over a hesitation to embrace the word “communism” in a full-throated sense. I wrote an essay not long after this point on Plato’s Republic where I explored how Plato connected the ability of his ideal city’s guardians to achieve justice to their having forsaken private property. In fact, re-reading Book V last night only confirmed for me what Badiou is saying, that Communism is the fulfillment of political rationality. If Plato’s philosophy of ideal justice requires communism in this sense, I hold that a profound truth has escaped the notice of many in our time, including advocates of Marxism. That truth is that communism does not belong to Marx and his successors, but to humanity as a whole.
Marxists often want to define just how communism will be brought into being. They have a theory of the proletariat revolution led by a Communist Party. The leadership of the Communist Party is composed of the advanced activists and theorists who correctly understand the necessary path to take towards Communism. Of course, history is littered with the failures of Communist governments. It isn’t adequate to slap a label on your philosophy and call it Communism. Communism does not belong to Marxists, but to humanity.
If communism is as old as Greek philosophy – actually older – then is it so surprising that it also makes an appearance in the most popular world religion, Christianity? The gospels are only comprehensible as a communist event with a vision of a classless society at their core. The Book of Acts presents the “Jerusalem Commune” where the followers of Jesus set up a system of wealth redistribution among the members of their new movement.
I am not arguing that Communists should become Christians, by no means. I am contending that Communists, whether atheist or Christian, have a common heritage that is older than Karl Marx. I am contending that Communism’s central axiom, “from each according to ability, from each according to need” is rooted in universal human relationships. Every healthy nuclear family operates as a commune. In “primitive communism” sharing was simple and direct exchange. It is the ruling classes throughout human history who have rejected this basic relational ethos and imposed class domination on the majority of all societies.
The rebirth of Communism in our times will not fall into the classic divides of the left of Marxist vs. Anarchist vs. Religious communists. In our post-secular world, communism is only possible with an inclusive alliance of Atheists, Christians, Muslims, and others.
Or, communism may fail to be achieved. Humanity may be forever trapped in an undesirable system of class domination. Many science fiction dystopias paint such a picture. I am an optimist, but I am not a fatalist. Humanity could fail to fulfill its own potential. That will be tragic, indeed. But, even such a failure does not prove that Communism was not the true fulfillment of humanity’s potential.
Let me be clear, while I am bothered by a narrativizing trend, in no way I am implying that one can have a non-narrative or non-theoretical understanding of empirical fact. Even the selection of what counts as a fact and the typologies around that. This is a tautological and fundamentally about definitions. My issue is simpler than that and yet harder to articulate clearly, one has a set of typologies that lock out any possible outside data, paradigms and models cannot change and cannot come anything closer to useful or true. We cannot ignore that all knowledge is situated in a theory, even if it is just some implicit theory of mind.
This is the tricky thing about language though and about metaphors in our models. I may imply some kind of naive realism about facts because I am pushing my language to try to talk to a general audience about two fundamentally separate but related issues: one) the way psychological heuristics can be used to disengage and disarm any criticism and two) when a paradigm, historical methodology, teleological stance, or something goes wrong and can no longer adapt to new facts. To use a metaphor, when this happens, ideas become brittle and break. In politics, this is PARTICULARLY common, and especially when politics stand in for moral positions they way one used to treat religion as being.
Let’s look at this in other places, however, as politics isn’t the only limit. I was reading an excellent post at edge,
But the rhetoric of science doesn’t just risk the descent into scientism. It also gives science sole credit for something that it doesn’t deserve: an attention to the construction and operation of things. Most of the “science of X” books look at the material form of their subject, be it neurochemical, computational, or economic. But the practice of attending to the material realities of a subject has no necessary relationship to science at all. Literary scholars study the history of the book, including its material evolution from clay tablet to papyrus to codex. Artists rely on a deep understanding of the physical mediums of pigment, marble, or optics when they fashion creations. Chefs require a sophisticated grasp of the chemistry and biology of food in order to thrive in their craft. To think that science has a special relationship to observations about the material world isn’t just wrong, it’s insulting.
Beyond encouraging people to see science as the only direction for human knowledge and absconding with the subject of materiality, the rhetoric of science also does a disservice to science itself. It makes science look simple, easy, and fun, when science is mostly complex, difficult, and monotonous.
A case in point: the popular Facebook page “I f*cking love science” posts quick-take variations on the “science of x” theme, mostly images and short descriptions of unfamiliar creatures like the pink fairy armadillo, or illustrated birthday wishes to famous scientists like Stephen Hawking. But as the science fiction writer John Skylar rightly insisted in a fiery takedown of the practice last year, most people don’t f*cking love science, they f*cking love photography—pretty images of fairy armadillos and renowned physicists. The pleasure derived from these pictures obviates the public’s need to understand how science actually gets done—slowly and methodically, with little acknowledgement and modest pay in unseen laboratories and research facilities.
The rhetoric of science has consequences. Things that have no particular relation to scientific practice must increasingly frame their work in scientific terms to earn any attention or support. The sociology of Internet use suddenly transformed into “web science.” Long accepted practices of statistical analysis have become “data science.” Thanks to shifting educational and research funding priorities, anything that can’t claim that it is a member of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field will be left out in the cold. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of science offers the most tactical response to such new challenges. Unless humanists reframe their work as “literary science,” they risk getting marginalized, defunded and forgotten.
Hence all the “scientific skeptics” I met with undergraduate degrees in the humanities. I used to think it was rare, but when I was involved in that I noticed it was actually quite common because people who work deeply in scientific thought realize how precarious some of these ideas are, and ones who are particularly reflective realize that rhetoric matters. That is not just because it convinces the public to fund science. Rhetoric matters because it has subtle effects on our typologies and methods. It banks on things we see and don’t see, and like the vulgar Marxists I was talking about earlier, often this enthusiasm for “science” is dangerous to any idea of science itself–it romanticizes it while also emptying out the relationship to other areas of life. It may damage the funding in the humanities but even STEM itself won’t always be safe. In fact, ask the B.S. in Biology how much work they have in their field.
When you no longer can adjudicate and adjust to changing inputs and the world around you, the metaphors that color your dealing blind you to facts that would, when your model is adjusted, make your theory stronger–in the sense of more useful. When that cannot happen, things fall apart.
That is what is wrong with the narrative cop-out: it is not we should become naive realists about facts and values. To imagine that we don’t have an ideology. We are always situated: the bigger problem is can our worldviews adapt to our historical and physical circumstances, can they process information, and can they help us bring about what we really want. If a worldview can’t deliver on its end, what do you think it will deliver you personally?
(Dis)Loyal is looking for a more bloggers who work with historical or political concerns with an eye turns history and theological developments. We are interested in the history of ideas, and their effects on the present. We are do see ourselves as a right or left project explicitly, and have a tendency to be skeptical of liberalism as it currently exists. While we assume a secular audience in that we do not presume shared values or faith-positions, and most of us in the past have come out of a Marxist view of history, we are welcome to other serious considered views and backgrounds. We are aiming to diversify our views and analysis.
If you are interested e-mail skepoet at dionysuseats at gmail dot com.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” ― Joan Didion, The White Album
Many of you know that I do not take most those who think of themselves as “the left” all that seriously seriously, although I have tried in all sincerity… twice for several years in in the last two decades I have tried: once beginning with the Battle for the Seattle and the cycle of depoliticization that followed, and once that started about seven months before Occupy. This blog began as me writing about questionable liberal and conservative-minded political trends in education and stoicism, but in 2010, after two years of reflection, I got back involved with “the left.” I will spare you the details, they have been recounted before. In the last year, I have made several posts distancing myself from various trends in left-wing thought: “political” Marxist sectlects (not to be confused with the school of political Marxist historical analysis around Timothy Brennan, which I still value), left liberalism and Neo-Keynesianism, overly confident Marxist teleology, the call-out culture around “the left,” the use and mis-use of the idea of privilege and searching it out in cultural artifacts as a meaningful tactic, etc.
With the noted exception of a few Left Communists and Marxist-Humanists, I have interacted with, the theoretical and analytical work of most the leftists I have worked have been bogged down in typologies and asserting ideological readings which cannot be disproved. Narrative-mongering and resorting to typologies from Lacan and Freud, or worse by some doctrinaire party communist in the 1960s, have by and large been used as a way to avoid doing material analysis. For example, in response to my question on “What happened to the all the leftists in the 1970s?,” I got several answers. None of which from people old enough to remember the 1970s activists and none of which incorporating any data or trying to find the specific members of cadres. I got narratives which explained things from a particular ideological point of view: labor aristocracy, latent racialism, the siren call of activist Democratic work, Reagan’s renewal, etc. No narrative accounting, few anecdotes, no statistics, no follow-up on cadres: even lamest businesses tend to do exit interviews, but not the left.
Why? I have no idea and would be committing a similar “sin” against the left to psychological explain away this tendency, or to super-impose an ideological reading without trying to do the fieldwork first. I know several ex-leftists: some became religious, some began libertarians, many just walked away. This is only two years after Occupy. The thing I have noticed by the way “the left” typologizes is that it has pat labels to seemingly avoid engagement: opportunism, determinism, ultra-leftism, vanguardism, trade-union consciousness, brocialism, etc. These labels shut down discussion and end the debate, but also contradict each other in substance. While they made have been meaningful categorizations–and in some specific contextual cases might still be–by and large they function as derailment mechanism.
In my life, I have noticed that movements that are more serious do not this, and this at one time included by Marxism and anarchism. Libertarianism, as an American path, definitely has similar trends: it has a wonky side, which one can see in various guises, and a side that has categorical disclaimers which function to shut people up (that statists, collectivist, etc). The later is decadent to the theoretical apparatus. It is clear to leftists when they deal with internet libertarians that many of these terms serve to shut things down and stand-in for pat readings of the past, but many of these same leftists do not acknowledge the tendency in their own movements. It has been noticed that earlier Marxist texts, particularly those prior to the 1960s in the English and French speaking worlds, were much more concerned with facts and figures. Despite both the Hegelian methodology and the literary flourishes, Marx does deal with tons of hard economic data. When talking to a some Marxists on a skype call a few weeks ago, I was told that such concern, “was a weird Marxism because most people do not care about these things. We need the entire world to become Marxists.”
This may sound like a stereotype from a Joan Didion piece about the 1970s, but I assure you it was 2014 and with a math professor saying thing in all earnestness. It would be wrong to tar all Marxist thinking with such a brush–many economists and historians using Marx as a methodological starting point still do deep work on the questions around empirical facts. I suspect too many years of post-Marxism, and then return to Marx via Lacan, have given an academic vocabulary for non-engagement on one end, while years of denouncements and need categorical claims of activists have done the same on the other. When paired with a tendency to tell broad stories without looking at evidence beyond, at best, the textual or anecdotal, one has a confirmation bias heuristic on speed.
So these easy narratives, they stories we tell ourselves have to be based in the facts of the world around us and not typologies which inhabit us from dealing with facts and then honestly self-criticizing. In so much that individuals have heuristics that discredit before criticism, or even empirical facts or scientific ideas, are engaged with, any political vision they may believe in is not even a remote possibility. It remains an eschatology, and not a meaningful teleology. This is not to say that one should turn to postivism or that we exist without any commitments to principles or values which are beyond mere facts. The latter is particularly problematic. We need those kinds of commitments and stories to live. Questions of fact, however, must be answered at first. To avoid empirical questions is to reduce politics to idea-policing and role-playing, which the latter is far more fun than ideological righteousness for a cause one has no one of ever understanding, much less bringing into practice.