Monthly Archives: January 2012
“Every subject stands at the crossing between a lack of being and a destruction, a repetition and an interruption, a placement and an excess” – Alain Badiou, “Theory of the Subject” (translated Bruno Bosteels)
One of the essential mystifications of art as a form of commodity is the confusion of the self as the subject of art instead of art engaging with and emerging into a subject. What do I mean by this? In poetry of the end from the twentieth century, from confessional poetry to hyper-form, the self has been the center of the lyric. The subject of the poem is often equivocated the subject of the speaker within the poem as if the poetry was speaking in one voice: a solitary voice.
But the crossing to which both a “subject” of the poem and a “subjectivity” of the reader/writer is not one that is constructed individually. It is both dialectical and dialogic—that is the subject of the poem and subjectivity of the writer/reader emerge from the event of reading itself. Furthermore, the trace of reading is the interpretative impulse between the two in which both one consciousness is opposed to another–the reader who assumes the voice of poem in reading is not the voice of the poem in the reader’s own mine—but also the two collectively inform each other as subjects arises from the disappearance of the event itself. There for not “poem qua poem” nor “what you are” constitute the subject to which the possibilities Badiou gives us are actually emergent.
As Badiou says in a talk at Lacan Ink,”The Subject of Art”, translated here by Lydia Kerr:
The point is that the relation, the subjective relation between an event and the world cannot be a direct relation. Why? Because an event disappears on one side, and on the other side we never have a relation with the totality of the world. So when I say that the subject is a relation between an event and the world we have to understand that as an indirect relation between something of the event and something of the world. The relation, finally, is between a trace and the body. I call trace ‘what subsists in the world when the event disappears.’ It’s something of the event, but not the event as such; it is the trace, a mark, a symptom. And on the other side, the support of the subject—the reality of the subject in the world—I call ‘a new body.’ So we can say that the subject is always a new relation between a trace and a body. It is the construction in a world, of a new body, and jurisdiction—the commitment of a trace; and the process of the relationship between the trace and the body is, properly, the new subject.
Despite the obscurity of some of the terminology I am employing, this helps us understand that the subject of a life or a work of art emerges in regards to an event, and the subjectivity is related to that emergence. What are the implications is have for the “I” of the poem?
So here I must to allow myself a fugue:
I have stated that I will never identify myself a poet, even though I write verse. Poet is, from the Greek, a maker. I do not make anything. When I sit at the pressboard desk and write for hours, be it with pencil or by the clicking of keys, I am not making. I am presenting what the events of the world have implanted in me and polishing it off moving further and further from that very event. This is not to say that the language does not emerge from my subjectivity, but that my subjectivity is not constructed all in my own person.
To identify oneself as a poet, then, is a pretense of originality: it is an illusion and one that treats poetic creation as a commodity instead of an emergence. The world is without self, and subject is not the self. A maker implies selfhood. This is against both my aesthetics and my politics. When I write about myself, as I do in my poem, “Neon Cross at 16th and Cherry,” I am not particularly concerned about my own selfhood, but rather the lack of it. The lack of self allows the subject of my being may emerge as the relational nature of the emergence of subjectivity is more obvious in that moment:
Browning buildings rest downtown, a meeting
of roads at the skeleton of a Jesuit mission. On
dusty glass, under the diminished glow of “-ESUS
S-VES,” there are two tubes of gas slowly burning
as if to denote where the vertical meets the
horizontal, or where alpha can slip omega
the tongue. A pigeon lays splayed in the
gutter nearby, a beetle crushed in the beak
hook. Sinew and feathers color the pavement
where bird crossed paths with a Ford pick-up
under the guidance of artificial light.
Alpha is a neon inspiration, flickering as a
Beacon to all poor sinners. Yet, Omega is more
abundant: the beetle, the pigeon, the fender, and
the abandoned soup kitchen. Alpha and Omega
may be laughing as they roll in the bushes, but
ants still crawl over blood on the roadside.
Here the narrator is an I, but I am not functioning to create the scene. The pigeon, the beetle, the electric lights of the mission have a being much larger than myself and it is there traces that we see in the words I use to represent them. The philosophical implications here are manifold. Life continues on without the artist and the disingenuous argument for the poem making anything immortal here is far beyond the point. This a subject presented in the language and idiom I understand. I did not make this—at least, I did not make it as a solitary act emerging solely from my consciousness. The language stems beyond me, the beetle’s crushed mandibles have long since decayed, the cultural baggage of English brings in revelations I did not know and do not intend, and the bird feathers have probably washed down a sewage drain.
But the constitutive elements cannot be said to be the poem any more than the sign and signified can be said to be co-terminus. The first aesthetic implication is that you are not the subject. Not the “you” of the reader or the you of the author. But this is not just the result of the discourse theory, for this not a jumble of disembodied selves discoursing to create an “author” either. This is the trace of an event emerging into art. The removal of the pretense of the confession makes easier the subjectivity within the poem manifest as the event of its creation disappears.
Douglas Lain is an author, blogger, and podcaster, whose two much recent books are “Wave of Mutilation” and “Pick Your Battle,” his memoir on Marxism and urban foraging. You can find Doug’s blog yourself and listen to his podcast.
Skepoet: You and I have been observing how ideologically constructed the idea of a non-ideological left has been in the media around occupy. I think you mentioned Tom Frank’s interview on Media Matters for an example, but you can see it in Klein and other thinkers. This seems very similar to the “non-ideological” presentation of the early 20th century conservatives. Do you think there is some pathology here?
Douglas Lain: What Thomas Frank did recently, during an interview with Bob McChesney, is stake out his own liberal-capitalist position as the one that is both reasonable and real, whereas the far-right and historical far-left are both utopian. He said that because the nation is suffering through hard times the Fox News closed/ideological universe is much more attractive to people. He explicitly compared Fox News viewers to American communists who wore blinkers when it came to the Stalinist crimes of the former Soviet Union. So, in a sense, Frank red-baited Fox News viewers.
You know, the slogan for my podcast Diet Soap used to cleanse your sins while losing weight, but that was before I fell under the sway of Zizek. So now my slogan is “now with ideology.” Rather than advertising Diet Soap as a product that will scrub away excesses and lead you to something pure the slogan promises to add something to you. That special “uh-huh” ingredient. (http://youtu.be/mTQlm4ICw5o) Now instead of a path into the neutral reality of the real world I’m looking for that bit of something special, the idea that I might add. I’m looking for the ideology I need.
The weird thing is that I hope to escape the drive for a non-ideological space by accepting ideology as somehow mixed in with the real world. That is, the world can never appear to us as neutral…and that’s a neutral fact.
Skepoet: Take Frank to be a liberal, but in a strange way, liberalism isn’t that “liberal” in the classical sense anymore. It’s assumes sort of an Endstaat of rational management. But I almost admire the libertarians for all of their delusions about markets because they actually still take liberal logic seriously. Do you think the cynicism is somehow pre-figured into Liberalism?
Douglas Lain: I’m not sure cynicism is built in, but defeatism is I think. Maybe those two attitudes aren’t very far apart. It seems to me that people who call themselves “liberal” today are actually people who are more closely aligned to a kind of Marxist longing or some kind of radical socialist tendency. Thomas Frank, for example, would like to transcend Capitalism. He definitely rejects classical liberalism, but he doesn’t believe in any radical alternatives to it. A schizophrenic blend of socialist longing and resignation to live within what is possible is what I see.
One way that that kind of resigned “liberalism” is maintained is by clinging to ideologies that deny ideologies. Post-structuralism, for example, is a nice shield against seeing the incoherence of this new “liberal.”
Skepoet: But there is something essentially conservative about Post-structuralism I think. I don’t just mean that in the way look of saying “Nietzsche was a reactionary” or “Paul DeMan was a fascist,” but in the sense that it privileges particularities to a point that any critique of the current becomes impossible to make on any grounds. Do you see this contradiction?
Douglas Lain: I agree with you, however in order to make the claim that poststructuralism has a conservative effect you have to first counter their claim that we are beyond structures. What, after all, could they be conserving or holding onto if there is no consistent totality out there?
Skepoet: Go back to classic skepticism, if there are no structures then there is no ground to oppose anything agreed to be popular opinion or current prejudice. Make sense?
Douglas Lain: I think that makes a bit of sense. But maybe we should figure this out a bit more firmly. For instance is there a difference between an ontological ground and an unconscious structure built on relationships between well…signs or signifiers…that determines or directs how we approach the world but that does not, ultimately, support the world. This is what I think Zizek means when he talks about the reality of the virtual, or what Lacan is on about when he speaks of the kernel of the real that the symbolic order relates to but does not contain.
What’s odd to me is how post-structuralism actually seems to be as teleological or ontological as any other philosophy precisely because these philosophers, like Coffeen’s Deleuze.
Daniel Coffeen is, by the way, the kind of philosopher I like because first of all he’s been nice enough to appear on my podcast several time (in fact he may be the most frequent guest, although Dennis Perrin and Margaret Kimberley are also stellar guests who I’m lucky enough to have on regularly), and secondly because he’s accessible as he writes what I think of as pop philosophy. That’s what I aspire to also, by the way. Not sure how well I do at either side of that though.
Anyhow, it was Hegel who sided with ancient skepticism over modern skepticism, which from my way of thinking would mean that an anti-humanist approach to radical philosophy would be properly Hegelian.
Here’s a quote from Hegel I’ve pulled at random from the internet: “Knowledge is not a matter of inference from noninferentially warranted states. There are no such states.”
Zizek says something quite like this when he argues that an argument that the slogan “There is no such thing as nature!” should be the mantra of ecologists today. And this is what I wanted to tell Coffeen recently when he was on the podcast, but didn’t quite manage to get across…or anyway, I didn’t convince him. But the experience of something, from a Hegelian perspective, can’t be taken at face value. Not even the experience of a concept can be taken at face value. Because there are no neutral, preconceptional or noninferential states.
McKenzie Wark recently quoted Zizek on his facebook wall in order to point out the monstrosity of Zizek’s love of violence, but this love of violence is a consequence of Zizek’s belief that there is no natural knowlege, no noinferential state.
Skepoet: Do you think Wark is correct there?
Douglas Lain: I think it might be a way to avoid a certain kind of responsibility, yeah. But it might also be a defense against the risk emancipatory violence brings to us. I’m 40 now and I’m pretty vested in my projects and compensatory dreams. What I’m wondering about is the possibility of over-identification as a strategy. Again this is Zizek stuff. The idea is to reject the unspoken rules of a given desire or game. So, for a writer, the rule that one used to rarely hear being explicitly stated is that one shouldn’t believe or be committed to the ideas in your own writing but should instead be committed to being vapid entertainment. In my circles that has started to be explicitly stated, however. In any case, I think framing the question in terms of responsibility maybe puts too much of an emphasis on voluntarism or heroic action.
I don’t quite know what the solution is, but I am working on finding the right line of questioning.
Skepoet: If the subjective of responsibility is plural, or collective, then it isn’t voluntary isn’t it?
Douglas Lain: It isn’t voluntary if its plural. That’s right, but the political act that we’re aiming at is in fact what will create a new subjectivity. The proletariat’s goal is to eliminate itself. And what Lacan said to the students in Mai of ’68 might apply equally well to us. What we’re seeking is a new master. Or, from my point of view, a new abstraction that would replace value as its produced under Capitalism. And, again, this is the tricky bit. It’s not just a matter of whether or not we’re determined subjects individually. That is, the charge against Althusser hardly seems to apply here because the problem exists even if we do posit that there is some natural basis for an individual’s subjectivity apart from the ruling ideas of his or her epoch. It might be possible to conceive of some natural basis for the individual. The basis might be the body. But a group subjectivity simply has to be ideological. Or, at least, that’s how it seems to me.
Skepoet: I almost think that the seeking for a new subjectivity in a master may actually manifest itself literally. What do you think of this?
Douglas Lain: If I’m understanding you correctly I think that’s the danger. Just as an example, not a political example really, a frequent guest on my little podcast is a guy named Jason Horsley and he has a somewhat Jungian approach to his spiritual questing. He realizes that being “a man” is a very difficult thing to do, especially without a real father, and he’s been trying to figure out a way beyond his need for a father, but he’s ended up acting out the most obvious Guru/father games. He followed an obvious Guru con-artist in Canda for awhile, and he tried starting his own mini-cult for a bit, but none of this has been any kind of solution for him. So, again, this is why I value theory is attractive to me, because it shows how we human’s have already created a God for ourselves that has no human face. The problem is that this God is hiding too much, maybe.
Skepoet: Recently you and I have gotten into debates with other Marxists about the Lacanian left? I joked that Lacanian left was a left which was not one, but I actually think that this is changing. I think the Lacanian left is what is emerging, but doesn’t quite know its subject position or the content of the symbolic order it wishes to advocate. What do you think that about this?
Douglas Lain: Well, I think it’s pretty hard to imagine a revolution being fought in the name of Lacan, but that might be a good thing. When it comes to imagining a better society I think the Situationists were on the right track, but that those ideas have been co-opted into post-fordist Capitalism.
One thing to remember is that 2011 was another 1968. The Arab Spring is huge, and while the Occupy Movement has been burdened by all the unconscious baggage of the old new left as well as the on the ground problems of homelessness and disaffection, it has been an incredibly hopeful moment. One thing that would be good to realis is that the people struggling in Egypt need Occupy to succeed in the US and Europe, and we need the Arab Spring to win out as well.
Skepoet: Well that is a pretty dark undercurrent given the way things are going between the Muslim Brotherhood and military or the way it was used by NATO in Libya. Do you think 1968 was a tragedy or a farce given the old Marxist turn of phrase?
Douglas Lain: I should read the Grundrisse I think, but I wonder if we might seek the farce. Zizek talks about how Christ can only be understood through Paul and Marx can only be understood through LENIN. Perhaps Mai ’68 will only be understood through its real world manifestation, it worldly corruption, in 2012? That would make McKenna fans happy maybe?
Skepoet: I am sure we’ll be doing this again, so I’ll be chatting with you again and co-writing with you. So in closing, who will be our Paul to our Christ, Lenin to our Marx, and Lacan to our Freud?
Douglas Lain: Of course the expected answer is Zizek!! And, given that I don’t have a better answer than that I’ll stick with it, even though I think Zizek is a clown. Maybe precisely because I think he’s a clown. Gotta keep my hands clean, after all.
Ross Wolfe introduced to me to Platypus Affiliated Society and is a member of my Aesthetics, Politics, and Theory: Red and/or Black group (of which Symptomatic Redness is a project). Ross Wolfe is currently a graduate student at the University of Chicago. The main focus of his work is in Russian history, but he is also interested in Central European history, Jewish studies, philosophy, and Marxism. He writes primarily about the history of avant-garde architecture, contemporary political issues (activism, current events), and topics such as the environment, technology, utopianism, and the history of the Left. He blogs at the Charnel House.
Skepoet: So you have been working with and critiquing Occupy Wall Street from your vantage point in New York. How did you get involved?
Ross Wolfe: I was first alerted to the #Occupy protests going on down at Liberty Plaza about one week after it began, by someone much further from the scene than I was — my good friend Steve McClellan, a graduate student in Central European history at Oregon State University. At that point, the movement had barely made any sort of splash in the mainstream media, and mostly established itself through YouTube videos and other decentralized, user-based means.
So I decided to take a visit down to Zuccotti Park to try and get a better sense of what was going on there. What I saw there (especially at this early point) was largely ideological incoherence. The politics on display at Occupy Wall Street were symptomatic in very much the same way that they had been at the resurgent anti-globalization protests against the G-8 in Pittsburgh back in 2009 and the G-20 conference in Toronto in 2010. Needless to say, my first reactions to the demonstration were fairly pessimistic. This was reflected in my initial write-up of my experiences.
Over the course of the following weeks, I committed myself to engaging with the #Occupy phenomenon in a more charitable and understanding way. The second and third short essays I devoted to a further reflection on and investigation of Occupy Wall Street tried to express this internal (perhaps even dialectical) tension. It is difficult not to feel a sense of ambivalence about this sort of phenomenon. My pessimism about the movement’s chances for success (whatever that would mean) remained, and I still did not relinquish my feeling of obligation to criticize those aspects in it that still struck me as problematic. Nevertheless, with the growing buzz around some of the movement and copycat Occupations spreading to a number of cities across North America and Europe, I soon recognized that this sudden outburst of political pathos represented an opportunity. Even though I continue to doubt that #Occupy will lead to any sort of immediate toppling of the world financial system, the existing network of state configurations, or the capitalist social formation as a whole, I am still hopeful that it might offer a chance to radicalize its participants politics on a more long-term basis, and potentially breathe some life back into the project of the Left.
Skepoet: Your background is in Marxism and architecture, correct? How do you see that relating to your activism?
Ross Wolfe:Yes. During my undergraduate years, I studied philosophy and history. I received a bachelor’s degree in each of these fields. As a graduate student, I shifted my focus in order to specialize in early Soviet history. Over the course of my university career, I’ve had the privilege of taking some excellent history classes with such scholars and as Sheila Fitzpatrick, Leora Auslander, Robert Bird, Aleksandr Semënov, Catherine Wanner, Paul Rose, and Nina Safran.
In terms of my politics, I suppose that I was always predisposed to radicalism. But this was mostly because of my fascination with past revolutionary movements, rather than through a rigorous and thoroughgoing examination. Nevertheless, this appreciation of the many great figures and events from the history of Marxism exerted an undeniable influence on my subsequent political development. The “political” side of my Marxism thus came mostly by way of studying the writings of Plekhanov, Lenin, Bogdanov, Trotskii, Bukharin, Preobrazhenskii, Kollontai, and others from the annals of Russian-Soviet history. This aspect of my Marxian Weltanschauung was generally deepened and enhanced through my involvement in the Platypus reading group at UChicago, which I began attending in 2009.
My earlier background in both classical (pre-Christian) and modern (post-Cartesian) philosophy, especially the German critical tradition, also largely informed my politics, especially in its theoretical aspect. The main authors I read were Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Montaigne, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Smith, Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein. I skipped over the intervening period of Scholasticism, under which heading I subsume Arab, Jewish, and Christian Aristotelianism alike. While an undergraduate at Penn State, I worked with some exceptional professors of philosophy — Brady Bowman, a Hegel specialist; Jennifer Mensch and Mark Fisher, both Kant scholars; and Denis Schmidt, a very well-known Heideggerian and student of Gadamer.
It was reading figures like those mentioned above that allowed me to so appreciate the more “theoretical” and “sophisticated” side of Marxist, through intellectuals and theorists such as Lukács, Korsch, Kracauer, Bloch, Gramsci, Benjamin, Sartre, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Lefebvre, and Foucault. I was also heavily influenced by Moishe Postone’s incredibly important reading of Capital, especially in its temporal aspect, as well as David Harvey’s work, especially in its spatial aspect. The training I received in both philosophy and history contributed greatly to my appreciation of Marx as someone who worked out the crisis apparent in radical bourgeois thought that had been raging for nearly a century prior to 1848. Though it seems almost tautological to say it, Marx remains for me the central figure for Marxism. His groundbreaking analysis of capital provides the essential framework through which any emancipatory politics of the future can be formed.
My preoccupation with architecture is, by comparison, a more recent development. My father published several books on the architectural and engineering dimensions of fortified towns in late medieval to early modern state-building in France and Europe more generally. His influence on my own work was indirect, however — mostly tangential. My interest in modernist architecture, and the history of the cultural and artistic avant-garde more broadly, was first sparked by some of Richard Stites’ brilliant observations regarding architecture in the Soviet Union. In terms of secondary sources and exegesis, the Soviet structuralist architectural historian Vladimir Paperny and the legendary Italian Marxist architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri have also been pivotal in forming my own interpretation of modernism in architecture.
Returning, finally, to the question you posed at the outset — regarding the way my background in Marxism and architectural history relates to my activism — I would have to say that the former has much more to do with my political engagement than the latter. The question of the connection between theory and practice — perennial within Marxist discourse — is obviously central to the way I conduct myself politically. One has to strike a balance between what the Romans called the vita activa and the vita contemplativa (later conceptualized surprisingly well by Arendt in The Human Condition). This almost can be seen as combining what Gramsci recommended as “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”
However, it is also important to be sensitive to the exigencies of one’s own historical epoch. In my estimation, certain pressing political questions of years past are no longer as immediately relevant as they once were. For example, the question of how a revolutionary party should be organized — whether as a vanguard, a body of representatives, or as an immanently “horizontal” structure — is misplaced, at least within a Marxist politics of the present. The reason for this is that there is presently no viable international Marxist (or even anti-capitalist) working-class movement to speak of at the moment. Despite the mass protests that have flared up recently throughout the Arab world, Southern Europe, and North America, it is premature to say that these have changed consciousness to the point where society at large is ripe for revolution.
When it comes to the way in which the other side of my primary interests (in avant-garde architecture, as well as European and Soviet history more generally) is manifested in my political activism, the connection is admittedly more obscure. I suppose that my understanding of history, and especially utopian and revolutionary movements/moments in history serves primarily to remind me of the possibilities for radical transformation that once existed, and which might someday exist again. Really, I don’t think of my own historical research as falling under the mnemonic genre of “history as memory” (as theorized by Paul Ricoeur and practiced by Jay Winter), but I guess that this is one of the functions that my study of history has assumed in shaping my activism. Just for the record, I personally don’t feel like an emancipatory architecture is possible until a truly revolutionary international movement is reconstituted. Until then, it remains chained to the dumb reality of the present, like everything else.
Skepoet: You have been walking a fine line on #Occupy in your writings between criticism and praise. So this is two questions in one and may be somewhat massive. So what do you see as the problematic tendencies within #Occupy and what do you see as its successes?
Ross Wolfe:As with nearly any spontaneous political phenomenon, #Occupy is a mixed bag. Given the widespread depoliticization that has taken place over the course of the last generation, this is only to be expected. Many of the same old symptomatic tendencies from the protest culture of the last few decades played themselves out even as some of the more innovative forms were taking shape alongside them. Though it’s to a certain extent unavoidable, these dead forms from the past slip back into the present unconsciously, in pantomime. As with the leftover sectarian Marxoid groupings that have resurfaced of late — which are little more than living fossils — the mindless repetition of these old practices points to the longstanding ossification of Left protest politics. Moreover, the recent fetishization of “resistance” as the primary means of combating the “hegemony” of certain cultural forms is telling. It attests to the feeling of helplessness that so pervades our present moment.
To begin with the problematic side of #Occupy, I would first of all point to this uncritical reenactment of the old, largely outmoded forms of protest from the past fifty years. For all my criticisms of the New Left of the 1960s, at least its members had the courage to critique their predecessors in the Old Left. Perhaps it was the intergenerational animus that existed at that time, but one of things that has disappointed me about this latest movement is that it hasn’t had that Oedipal moment, when they finally kill the New Left. Only David Graeber seems to gesture in this direction, with his admonition against the “obnoxious, self-aggrandizing macho leadership styles of the ’60s New Left.”
In leveling this criticism, I have in mind the more “carnivalesque” elements of the movement — the puppets, the “Zombie march,” the harlequinism, and the emphasis on spectacle. While I admit that these have some utility and even some precedent within the practice of revolutionary politics (going back several centuries), these tactics have limited effect. The quasi-Situationist method adopted by some of the protestors strikes me as being quite prone to narcissism and exhibitionism. Even with earlier iterations of this festival mentalité, such as the great celebrations of the French Revolution, writers as different as Hippolyte Taine and Petr Kropotkin both considered these displays excessive. Kropotkin, who regarded Taine as a vulgar bourgeois historian, had to agree that these festivals had their limitations. “Taine disparages the festivals of the Revolution,” he observed, “and it is true that those of 1793 and 1794 were often too theatrical.”
The theatrical routines I witnessed down at Liberty Plaza prior to the November 15th eviction often seemed to me politically empty. As I see it, the crucial difference between the subversive potential that thinkers like Bakhtin saw in the carnivalesque elements in the novels of Rabelais and the largely apolitical celebratory atmosphere of modern demonstrations has to do with objective sociological developments that have taken place in the interim. For the folk essence of political carnivals staged in societies where agrarian peasant culture still predominated has been lost, along with its freshness and ingenuous naïveté. With the disintegration of the “organic community” described by Tönnies under modern times, the immediate connection such festive practices held with cultural conventions has disappeared. It has instead been replaced by the contrived political carnival of hypermediated youth culture. I hate to be a buzzkill, but this atmosphere provokes my polemical temperament.
This is part of what initially was so off-putting to me about the scenes I witnessed upon first visiting Zuccotti Park back in late September. I thus described my first impressions of #Occupy in those early days:
“The endless beating of the drums, the pseudo-tribalistic dancing and chanting, the call-and-repeat sloganizing (“this is what democracy looks like” and other populist banalities, etc.), the predictable placards, the black-bandanaed anarchist chic — all this smacks a little too much of what has become par-for-the-course in the post-New Left political culture of orgiastic partying & protesting (it is no longer clear whether the two are separate activities). Combine this with the more generally confused hodgepodge of vaguely leftish political sentiments expressed at the demonstrations — anything from “End Corporate Greed and Corruption” to “We are Killing our Planet,” “Jobs not War,” “Endangered Species,” and “Nazi Bankers” — apparently disconnected one another as well as any broader project of social emancipation, and there you have it: Occupy Wall Street in a nutshell.”
Though these remained more or less constant features of the protests through October and into November, I tried to look past some of these more superficial elements to see what good the movement seemed to offer. For indeed, despite all the disorganization and well-documented inefficiencies, the sheer endurance of the encampment at Liberty Plaza was remarkable. It unexpectedly captured the political imagination of the day, and led to similar protests in over 800 cities across the globe. Now granted, some of these occupations have fewer than 10 people. But still, the sudden surge in political pathos provoked by #Occupy has been undeniable.
While the quality of the various working groups down at Liberty Plaza varied greatly (as you probably know from my long diatribes about the Demands and Vision & Goals groups), some of them were quite exceptional. The Think Tank working group was a particularly interesting project. It was a space for just an open discussion of some of the issues that seemed most pressing to the demonstrators and people living down at the park. Facilitation for the Think Tank was provided mostly by this group of extremely smart anthropologists who had been politicized by thinkers like David Graeber and David Harvey. Tim Weldon, Hannah Appel, and Lily Defriend are all great. Compared with other groups, the conversations hosted in the Think Tank were extremely fluid, flexible, and not bogged down by proceduralism. All in all, I really think it was the best group to come out of Liberty Plaza.
Though I think that the occupation of Zuccotti Park was excellent in terms of increasing the movement’s visibility, I actually think that the coordinated, forceful evictions of November 15th might have been a blessing in disguise, though this was surely not the police’s intention. Overall, it united what had been growing into a more and more fraught situation within the confines of the park itself. Tensions had been running high between the different elements of the encampment, at least here in New York, and there was a general feeling of ressentiment amongst the more “permanent” occupiers and those who they considered “outsiders.” Those who claimed residency in the park, through the mere act of staying overnight, had become valorized to an absurd degree, as somehow more “authentic” than those who lived elsewhere and instead came downtown everyday. The worst part of it was that the more “full-time occupiers” were often part of the disenfranchised student elite who couldn’t find work, but who were materially supported by their parents (as in the case of two of the movement’s unspoken leaders, T. Edward Hall III and Grayson “Ketchup” Vreeland). My friend Fritz Tucker recalled a particularly disturbing outburst the he witnessed toward the end of October:
“Daniel, a tall, red-bearded, white twenty-something — one of the six leaders of the [Structure working group] teach-in — said that the NYC-GA needed to be completely defunded because those with “no stake” in the Occupy Wall Street movement shouldn’t have a say in how the money was spent. When I asked him whether everybody in the 99% had a stake in the movement, he said that only those occupying or working in Zuccotti Park did. I pointed out that since the General Assembly took place in Zuccotti Park, everybody who participated was an occupier. He responded with a long rant about how Zuccotti Park is filled with “tourists,” “free-loaders,” and “crackheads” and suggested a solution that even the NYPD has not yet attempted: Daniel said that he’d like to take a fire-hose and clear out the entire encampment, adding hopefully that only the “real” activists would come back.”
I think that this was a sign of a larger problem within #Occupy, a problem that the evictions unwittingly resolved: the fetishization of the act of occupying physical space, especially parks open to the public. Not only did the police’s clearing out of the occupied spaces unite the mutually antagonistic elements of the #Occupy encampments against a common enemy, but this forced the protestors to reprioritize their objectives. In the immediate aftermath, on the November 17th“Day of Action” for example, the occupiers were so bent on reoccupying the Park itself that they focused the majority of their efforts on recapturing it, after their march on Wall Street itself proved unsuccessful. They were successful, however, in taking back Liberty Plaza and in marching on the Brooklyn Bridge, which drew impressive numbers. However, the park was again cleared not long afterwards. As a result of the eviction, the actions that #Occupy has since been taking — like the port shutdowns and the occupation of foreclosed homes — have been much more ambitious and symbolically powerful.
Skepoet: How important do you think criticism of the Left is FROM a non-sectarian Left perspective?
Ross Wolfe:In my opinion, this is one of the central problems facing us in our time. Perennially within the Left, one of the general truisms (and rightly so) has been that the only adequate standpoint for critique is one that is in some sense immanent to the struggle for emancipation. The practice of immanent critique is one of the Left’s most important inheritances from the Kantian philosophy, subsequently taken up by Hegel and then by Marx. All the greatest theorists and practitioners of Marxism in the twentieth century — Lenin, Trotskii, Benjamin, Adorno, and more recently Postone and Harvey — have engaged in this mode of criticism. Horkheimer explained this in an early (1926-1931) fragment entitled “A Discussion about Revolution,” later included in the collection Dawn and Decline:
“The inadequacies of revolutionary leadership can indeed be a misfortune. But however incompetently the political struggle against the inhumanity of the present conditions may be led, the fact remains that that is the form which the will to a better order can take at this historical juncture, and that is how many millions of the suppressed and tormented all over the world understand it. Any inadequacy of the leadership therefore does not negate the fact that it is the head of the struggle. Someone closely associated with a revolutionary party, a person whose theoretical and active involvement with it is beyond all doubt, may perhaps also fruitfully criticize the leadership from the outside for a time.
But a proletarian party cannot be made the object of contemplative criticism, for every one of its mistakes is due to the fact that the effective participation of more qualified people did not prevent it from committing them. Whether or not the contemplative critic would have strengthened such elements in the party by his own activity cannot be determined by his later statements about its actions, for it can never be decided whether his view would have seemed plausible to the masses in the situation at hand, or whether his theoretical superiority was matched by the required organizational talents, whether his policy, in other words, was possible or not. It will be objected that the leaders monopolize power in the party, that the party apparatus makes it impossible for the single individual to prevail, and that consequently any attempt by reasonable people is doomed from the start. As if any political will throughout history had not always encountered similar obstacles when it tried to assert itself! Today, it may be the intellectual before whom they pile up. But who other than those who practically overcome whatever defects there can prove that, all things considered, such problems are really the least significant? Bourgeois criticism of the proletarian party struggle is a logical impossibility.”
Immanent critique is, above all, a recognition that there is no absolute Archimedean point outside of society or politics from which to develop one’s theoretical or practical perspective. The only form of legitimate critique must proceed in andthrough a thorough engagement with the object of critique. This does not, however, preclude drawing upon certain outside sources as a basis for one’s criticisms. As Adorno put it in Negative Dialectics, “No immanent critique can serve its purpose wholly without outside knowledge… — without a moment of immediacy, if you will, a bonus from the subjective thought that looks beyond the dialectical structure.” In such a case, of course, these sources must be carefully related back to the subject at hand. For example, it was not invalid for Adorno to bring in the Freudian concept of the unconscious in criticizing Kant’s moral philosophy, as he related it specifically to the “pathological” influences on the will.
Once, in a conversation with you, I believe that you mentioned how we are all to some extent implicated in the revolutionary defeats that have come before us. You then raised a reasonable objection against those “who claim to stand both at once inside and outside of a given movement.” I agreed that all of us share the blame for the historical failure of the Left. But I felt that the worst betrayals had actually come from those who claim to stand wholly inside the revolutionary movements of their day and those who claim to stand wholly outside them. Those who blindly rally around whatever political cause is the order of the day and identify unquestioningly with it betray the need for the Left to be unsparingly self-critical. Those who stay aloof from the struggles of their time and write essays from afar, circulating them strictly within the academy and never bothering to engage these movements directly betray the need for the Left to actively participate in the emancipatory politics of the present.
This is, oddly, one of the metaphysical (and dialectical) contradictions that Marxism must seek to negotiate and to overcome. How can we realize a future that transcends the present reality, all the while realizing this transcendent future in a manner that is historically immanent to this present reality? The antinomy of immanence and transcendence is of the utmost importance to Marxism. I would even go so far as to say that it is precisely the task of revolutionary politics to stand simultaneously inside and outside of the various political phenomena that emerge before us. We must not identify with them so completely that our political commitment dies out as soon as this or that movement is defeated or ebbs away. At the same time, however, we must not distance ourselves from these movements so completely that we emerge from their passage wholly unscathed, outside of space and time and untouched by the realm of worldly events.
Marxism has the peculiar advantage of including a warning against the uncritical appropriation of tradition as part of its tradition itself. Indeed, in a famous line from a letter he wrote to Arnold Ruge, Marx called for “a ruthless criticism of everything existing.” This is where my answer reconnects with your original question of the importance of an explicitly non-sectarian leftist critical perspective. Because even those criticisms that are issued by the sectarians are ultimately dogmatic and rote in character. All these groups concern themselves with tracing out their theoretical bloodlines, from Marx ® Engels ® Lenin ® Trotskii or Stalin ® Cannon or Shachtman or Mao ® Grant and Woods or Hoxtha or Avakian. For them, history stopped immediately following the death of whoever their last canonized theorist, and subsequent reality has to bend to the dicta and formulae laid down in their sacred texts. Nothing betrays the spirit of Marxism more than a rigid adherence to its letter.
Rosa Luxemburg summed up the anti-dogmatic, anti-sectarian character of true Marxism in her great Junius Pamphlet (1915) as follows:
“[The proletariat’s] tasks and its errors are both gigantic: no prescription, no schema valid for every case, no infallible leader to show it the path to follow. Historical experience is its only school mistress. Its thorny way to self-emancipation is paved not only with immeasurable suffering but also with countless errors. The aim of its journey — its emancipation depends on this — is whether the proletariat can learn from its own errors. Self-criticism, remorseless, cruel, and going to the core of things is the life’s breath and light of the proletarian movement. The fall of the socialist proletariat in the present world war is unprecedented. It is a misfortune for humanity. But socialism will be lost only if the international proletariat fails to measure the depth of this fall, if it refuses to learn from it.”
The final thing I will say on this subject relates to the pedagogical aspect of Platypus, the group with which I associate and support the most fully. This concerns a line of Marx from that same letter to Rouge which informs our entire discursive practice of bringing different elements of the Left back into dialogue with one another: “I am…not in favor of setting up any dogmatic flag. On the contrary, we must try to help the dogmatics to clarify to themselves the meaning of their own positions.” Of course, this is not to say that the Left will ever be reconstituted by mere talking alone. Still, I feel that this is an important conversation to have. And there is something to be said for this, I think, beyond mere pamphleting and sloganeering, the old tactic of “consciousness-raising.” This was, indeed, what Marx himself felt was a crucial aspect of his own practice:
“Nothing prevents us, then, from tying our criticism to the criticism of politics and to a definite party position in politics, and hence from identifying our criticism with real struggles. Then we shall confront the world not as doctrinaires with a new principle: ‘Here is the truth, bow down before it!’ We develop new principles to the world out of its own principles. We do not say to the world: ‘Stop fighting; your struggle is of no account. We want to shout the true slogan of the struggle at you.’ We only show the world what it is fighting for, and consciousness is something that the world must acquire, like it or not.”
Skepoet:. You and I have noticed that while the current political moment, insofar as there is one, is largely a product of anarchist and liberal forms of politics. We have seen a “return to Marx” in both cultural studies and economics in light of the crisis, but we have not seen a return to Marx in terms of politics. It is easy to blame this on the Cold War, but I suspect there is more at hand. Why do you think Marxist politics has been so much less applied than Marxist economics or cultural theory?
Ross Wolfe:On the one hand, this is — as you say — a legacy of the Cold War. But you are right in your intuition that there is probably more to it than that.
If I may, I would like to first disaggregate the two main spheres you designate as the objects of Marxist theory: cultural studies and economics. When it comes to the former, I’m not so sure that there has been a revival in terms of providing a Marxist account of cultural, literary, or artistic phenomena, per se. In fact, this has been one of the few domains of study where a Marxian framework has still been employed at all, even if only nominally. Marxist thought in the disciplines of economics, sociology, and political science has for a while now been more or less suppressed at an institutional level within the academy. At best, it’s been pushed to the sidelines.
By contrast, Marxist theoretical perspectives have been deemed relatively acceptable when it comes to objects of cultural, literary, and artistic criticism. Here, at least, it’s considered fairly harmless — neutered of its revolutionary content. Of course, for anyone who is interested in Marxism as providing a window and a gateway into a better society, this is deeply unsatisfactory. What is more, the way that Marxian and critical theoretical thought has been deployed here (when it has at all) is also problematic. Most of the time, it’s used only in an eclectic and often seemingly arbitrary fashion. Of course, Marxism as a tradition is a complex methodological and ideological web, and so the specific concepts employed in cultural criticism can vary widely. But whether the concepts it draws upon derive from a straightforward historical or base-superstructure analysis, from dialectical critique, or possess an Althusserian/structuralist character, these are only viewed as one set of techniques among many others. They are reduced to just another “tool” in the postmodern “toolkit,” alongside phenomenological hermeneutics (Gadamer), semiotics (Barthes), deconstruction (Derrida), schizoanalysis (Deleuze/Guattari), or the archaeology/genealogy of the sciences (Foucault). The “toolbox” or “toolkit” metaphor is pretty widespread, figuring prominently into primers on postmodern theory by popular authors like Henry Rapaport, Jeffrey Nealon, and Susan Giroux. In what would seem to be a particularly cruel twist of irony, theoretical procedures like the Frankfurt School’s critique of instrumental reason have themselves become instrumentalized as means toward the endsof postmodern thought — dead-ends, but ends nonetheless.
In other words, in the sphere of cultural criticism the categories of Marxist theoretical discourse have largely been abstracted from the concrete political and historical context from which they arose, and thus stripped of any emancipatory significance. The greater project of global social transformation recedes into the background as these concepts of Marxian origin are made to serve the overriding liberal and multicultural concerns of postmodernity. In this capacity, the radicalism long associated with Marxism allows it to play an ostensibly “subversive” role. (The idea of “subversion,” like that of “cooptation,” has been diluted almost beyond recognition since the decline of the New Left). Such usages aim only at “destabilizing” the dominant, privileged, and hegemonic discourses of traditionally white, male, European, and Christian society. In this manner, post-structuralist feminists, radical “queer” activists, and post-colonial theorists supposedly write on behalf of those who have been historically marginalized, “give voice to the voiceless,” or “let the subaltern speak” (even if Spivak ultimately concludes that this is impossible). Sadly, I suspect that a lot this stems from a really terrible reading of Thesis VII of Walter Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”:
“With whom does historicism actually sympathize? The answer is inevitable: with the victor. And all rulers are the heirs of prior conquerors. Hence, empathizing with the victor invariably benefits the current rulers. The historical materialist knows what this means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which current rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional Practice, the spoils are carried in the procession. They are called ‘cultural treasures,’ and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For in every case these treasures have a lineage which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great geniuses who created them, but also to the anonymous toil of others who lived in the same period. There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is never free of barbarism, so barbarism taints the manner in which it was transmitted from one hand to another. The historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from this process of transmission as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.”
However, the politics to which this practice is attached never amounts to anything beyond cosmetic reforms to the status quo, a demand for a more inclusive form of liberal, bourgeois democracy. Proponents of such politics will usually pay some sort of lip service to a critique of liberalism, but by and large this goes no further than pointing out the various hypocrisies of the most celebrated figures of liberal thought — instances of racist, sexist, or colonialist double-standards they held or equivocations they made. This is a common complaint about identity politics and standpoint epistemology, but it’s a valid one. In the final analysis, for all their professed disdain for political liberalism, the only political demands they end up making prove to be liberal. Incidentally, this is one of the things I’m appreciating about reading Domenico Losurdo’s book on Liberalism: A Counter-History: just when it seems like he’s falling for this sort of cheap rhetorical trope, he discerns the hidden emancipatory content that radical bourgeois thought held. Or as he puts it, it is necessary to recognize in historical liberalism “a dialectic of emancipation and dis-emancipation.”
I would say that this is symptomatic of postmodern thinking, which has a well-known penchant for syncretism. But it’s certainly one of the major ways in which Marxist thought has been divested of its revolutionary political implications.
Returning to the other point you made, regarding the resurgence of an interest in Marxian economics, I would say that this is comparatively a more recent development. A lot of it has to do with the persistence of the cycle of neoliberal crises (which first began to emerge after the Oil Crisis of 1973) beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union, which for many neoconservatives was thought to portend “the end of history” (Fukuyama) or “the end of ideology” (Bell), after which the world would simply liberalize and markets would reach some sort of mythic equilibrium.
During the interim, a number of Marxist thinkers have, of course, attempted theorize the post-Fordist/neoliberal moment in which we still currently find ourselves. Following the disintegration of structural Marxism over the course of the late-1960s and 1970s, heralded as it was by the successive defections of Foucault, Rancière, and Poulantzas from Althusser’s tutelage, several authors sought to fill the void. Beginning with Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism in 1972/1975, and soon followed by foundational texts by David Harvey, Bertell Ollman, and Fredric Jameson in the Anglophone world (as “neoliberalism” or “flexible accumulation”), and by Moishe Postone and Robert Kurz in its German-speaking counterpart (in terms of value-theory). After 1989, there was a further call for members of the Marxist Left to engage in the project of “rethinking Marxism.” Robert Wolff, David Ruccio, and Stephen Resnick all emerged from the journal bearing this name, while Guglielmo Carchedi and Andrew Kliman rose to prominence as advocates of the TSSI version of value-theory.
With the back-to-back crises of global capitalism in 2008 and 2011, many have turned to this field of Marxian economics looking for explanations. Of course, the very abundance of Marxist theoretical accounts of the reasons for present crisis can just as easily be a source of confusion as it can help in elucidating the matter. Already, Ollman and Wallerstein are on record as declaring this to be the “terminal crisis” of capitalism. I think this is slightly premature, if not irresponsible, however. Greater Marxist theoreticians than they have made similar predictions in the past, when there was a much stronger international anti-capitalist movement, and still this collapse failed to materialize. Pronouncements such as this can only make otherwise fairly sound theorists seem like what Harold Camping was to 2011 or what John Major Jenkins promises to be with respect to 2012.
You’re right, though; there’s been a notable lack of Marxist political practice to go along with its social and cultural theories. A lot of this reflects the historical association of Marxism with forms of state totalitarianism throughout the course of the twentieth century. But it also has its roots in the further ossification of the various sectarian Marxoid groupuscules. Often I feel like these groups have succumbed to a temporal equivalent to the sort of blinkered spatial vision of which Marx accused the Young Hegelians in The German Ideology:
“[T]he Germans [or, if you like, the sectarians] lack not only the necessary power of comprehension and the material [to understand present reality] but also the ‘evidence of their senses,’ for across the Rhine [or post-1917, 1940, 1967, etc.] you cannot have any experience of these things since history has stopped happening.”
The Marxist politics that does present itself today is wholly inadequate to the peculiarities of our current moment. That’s part of the reason, I think, why groups like Platypus and Kasama Project — or even your Aesthetics, Philosophy, and Theory Facebook group you started — hold such broad appeal. They actually provide a platform in which serious political questions can be discussed, without recourse to empty formulae and past dogmas. Personally, I find the account traced out by Chris Cutrone in his article “Whither Marxism?” to be fairly convincing. As he puts it there: “The need for Marxism becomes the task of Marxism. Marxism does not presently exist in any way that is relevant to the current crisis and the political discontents erupting in it. Marxism is disarrayed, and rightfully so.”
I think the question of what an adequate Marxist politics for the present day might look like, should one appear at all, is an open one. It is up to us to clarify it and provide an answer.
Skepoet: Marxism itself was syncretistic in pulling from differing, even in some ways, diametrically opposed methodologies under a single rubric. What separates this syncretism from the post-modern?
Ross Wolfe:Excellent question. I was wondering in answering the last question if I should distinguish the kind of theoretical and methodological synthesis enacted by someone like Marx (who brought together the thought of classical French and British political economy, the critique leveled at it by its utopian socialist critics, along with the dialectical tradition of German Idealism) or his subsequent followers in the Frankfurt School (who integrated aspects of Weberian sociology and Freudian psychoanalysis into their critical Marxism) from what I would contend is the more haphazard theoretical amalgams produced by postmodern thinkers. This is, to my mind, a crucially important distinction.
Let me begin by saying that I think that there have been a number of productive syntheses produced by both Marxists and non-Marxists who have drawn upon disparate theoretical traditions in order to more adequately account for the phenomena they seek to describe. A number of non-Marxists, from Émile Durkheim and Max Weber to John Maynard Keynes and Joseph Schumpeter, took up aspects of the Marxian analysis in their own work but arrived at decidedly non-Marxist (even anti-Marxist) conclusions. Part of this was inevitable, given the strength of the international socialist movement that had been founded largely upon the basis of Marx’s critique of the capitalist system. Even if it had been systematically suppressed within the national universities, Marxist theory was simply too influential for anyone to ignore.
Durkheim assimilated Marx’s ideas into a Comtean and even a Saint-Simonian positivist framework, while Weber — who was the first academic of any note to teach Capital at the university level — modified Marx’s thought in light of the contributions of Nietzsche, the renowned Neo-Kantian philosopher Heinrich Rickert, and his contemporaries Georg Simmel and Werner Sombart (both of whom had already engaged with the Marx’s work). Keynes was even more explicit about his encounter with Marxist thought. Beyond the works of Marx himself, which he occasionally cited, Keynes lectured in 1925 at the People’s Commissariat of Finance in Moscow, and published a criticism of some of Trotskii’s more provocative formulations in 1926. In the end, however, Keynes appealed to Silvio Gesell’s Natural Economic Order (1918) in promoting “the establishment of an anti-Marxian socialism, a reaction against laissez-faire built on theoretical foundations totally unlike those of Marx.” (Gesell, though he participated in the short-lived Bavarian Soviet in 1918, clearly disagreed with Marx’s interpretation of history in favor of a naturalistic approach). Schumpeter, for his part, counted Marx as one of the world-historical “great economists,” using him as a bookend in his account of Ten Great Economists from Marx to Keynes. Of course, Schumpeter was no Marxist. Among the other economists included in Schumpeter’s collection were many important critics of Marx, such as Eugen Böhm-Bawerk and Vilfredo Pareto (whose theory of elites was itself important to Gramsci’s thought, also garnering the attention of Adorno in several of his lecture series).
Clearly many Marxists have supplemented their social and political stances with intellectual discourses falling outside of the Marxian constellation. I’ve already alluded to the Frankfurt School in relation to Weberian sociology and Freudian psychoanalysis. In the case of French thinkers like Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, coming out of a phenomenological background established on the basis of Husserl and Heidegger and a Kojèvean reading of Hegel, their Marxism was inflected with certain categories borrowed from German Existenzphilosophie. Unlike the members of the Frankfurt school, who like Trotskii were receptive to Freudian theory, Sartre at first rejected psychoanalysis. Of course, later he changed his mind on this score, admitting that “I was incapable of understanding [Freud] because I was a Frenchman with a good Cartesian tradition behind me, imbued with a certain rationalism, and I was therefore deeply shocked by the idea of the unconscious.” Both he and Merleau-Ponty felt the influence of the early Lukács, so there was certainly some affinity between them and the Frankfurt School (though the influence of Heidegger was shared only with Marcuse, among the latter).
Althusser’s appropriation of Saussurean structuralist linguistics (largely by way of Lacan) and Lévi-Straussian structuralist anthropology (though he was notably more critical of the Lévi-Strauss) in elaborating what came to be called “structural Marxism” was likewise justified. In so doing, he largely rejected the more Hegelian and “humanistic” aspects of Marxist thought, but he grounded this rejection in a thorough textual reading of Capital. And it’s not as if his disavowal of Marx’s indebtedness to Hegel was borne out of a merely superficial reading of (and reaction against) the great idealist. Althusser wrote his entire Master’s thesis “On Content in the thought of G.W.F. Hegel,” which he completed in 1947. Incidentally, I’d argue that the same thing can be said with respect to Lenin in his rejection of anarchism, or at least the sorts of anarchism he encountered in Russia toward the beginning of the twentieth century (which, like Marxism, was a far more specific phenomenon than what we encounter as anarchism today). Lenin was no stranger to anarcho-populist or «народник» thought; his own brother was famously executed for conspiring as a member of Народная воля (the “People’s Will”) in a plot against the tsar.
Without wanting to digress even further upon this already lengthy digression, I’m not sure if I should further qualify what I mean by “supplement” in light of the rather well-known gloss on the term provided by Derrida some years back inOf Grammatology. According to Derrida’s account, a “supplement” signifies an addition from the outside (or “exterior addition”), as opposed to a “complement,” which is supposedly already immanent to and harmonious with the essence of the object thus complemented. That Marxism or any other theoretical model should require a supplement would seem to suggest some sort of intrinsic deficiency, as it would be forced to look to something outside of itself in order to adequately account for the phenomena it purports to describe. At the very least, this procedure would seem to violate Rousseau’s celebrated ideal of “self-sufficiency.” (Rousseau is Derrida’s primary interlocutor throughout this needlessly obscure work).
I’d like to dwell on this point perhaps a moment longer, because I think it leads straightaway into the answer to the question you posed. Certainly, I don’t want to deny the independent origin and relative autonomy of discourses like Freudian psychoanalysis with respect to historical Marxism. So to some extent any combination of Freudian thought with Marxian thought would be a “supplement” in the sense Derrida described above. So does it follow that psychoanalytic categories simply be appended to Marxist ones, without any attention to the ways in which they might be fundamentally incompatible? Might this not constitute, to use a rather ugly phrase, the worst kind of theoretical “miscegenation”?
To this question we must answer with some reservation: maybe. It all depends. On what? For me, it all depends on the way in which hitherto unrelated disciplines are brought into relation. This, I maintain, is what fundamentally separates legitimate theoretical conjunctures from illegitimate ones. In some sense, I think that the instinct that any “supplement” that is imposed wholly from without delegitimates the synthesis thus achieved. With any addition to a theory it is ultimately necessary to ground one philosophy or theoretical outlook on the basis of another, so that their complementarity thus arises organically out of their pairing (i.e., “immanently”).
To stick to the problem of Freudian psychoanalysis it is clear that the object of its theory is primarily that of the mental lives of individual personalities, as well as the establishment of a more or less universal explanation of drives or impulses that serves as organizing principles for conscious activity. Of course, one of the common rebukes leveled at Freud is that his sample set of clinical patients was extremely biased, favoring a predominantly wealthy, bourgeois, Viennese, and primarily Jewish social and historical milieu. (Of course, his Marxist followers like Wilhelm Reich and Otto Fenichel volunteered their services to a less fortunate clientele, the working poor in Vienna, etc.). But since Freud’s own analysis would thus be bound to a more specific sociohistorical moment, which in turn would reflect the forms of consciousness generated by the underlying material dynamics of society at that given moment. Thus, far from being eternal categories inhering in the mental lives of individuals throughout time (in Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud practically elevated Eros and Thanatos to the status of cosmic principles), Freud’s exposition of the various layers of consciousness and the unconscious would rather appear to be the result of broader social and historical forces.
Perhaps this is more a sign of my own personal need for systematicity and a clear conceptual hierarchy, interlocking parts, some basic architectonic symmetry, etc., but I feel that in order to properly bring two separate discourses into mutual relation, it is necessary for one to be subsumed beneath the organizing principles of the other. There must be some sense of logical priority. Generally, I am skeptical about the Heideggerian concept of “equiprimordiality,” whereby there are equally fundamental, absolutely unrelated, and thus mutually irreducible spheres of Being that together shape experience. I tend to think monistically. So if we take another example, like the critical appropriation of Weberian ideas of “disenchantment” and “rationalization” by Marxist theory, it becomes clear that these tendencies Weber associated with modernity are actually byproducts of the further articulation of the logic of capital. Modernity itself, it would seem, is nothing other than the temporal symptom of the capitalist social formation. Its secularizing, desacralizing aspect grounds the disenchantment of which Weber spoke; its perpetual need to overhaul the means and technologies of production after relative surplus-value takes hold grounds the rationalizing tendency he noticed.
In this vein, Adorno suggested that Freudian analysis contained in its analyses of groups and individuals premonitions of the rise of the sort of consciousness that would underpin fascist ideology in the 1920s and 1930s:
“Such a frame of reference has been provided by Freud himself in his book Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, published in English as early as 1922, and long before the danger of German fascism appeared to be acute. It is not an overstatement if we say that Freud, though he was hardly interested in the political phase of the problem, clearly foresaw the rise and nature of fascist mass movements in purely psychological categories. If it is true that the analyst’s unconscious perceives the unconscious of the patient, one may also presume that his theoretical intuitions are capable of anticipating tendencies still latent on a rational level but manifesting themselves on a deeper one. It may not have been perchance that after the First World War Freud turned his attention to narcissism and ego problems in the specific sense. The mechanisms and instinctual conflicts involved evidently play an increasingly important role in the present epoch, whereas, according to the testimony of practicing analysts, the ‘classical’ neuroses such as conversion hysteria, which served as models for the method, now occur less frequently than at the time of Freud’s own development when Charcot dealt with hysteria clinically and Ibsen made it the subject matter of some of his plays. According to Freud, the problem of mass psychology is closely related to the new type of psychological affliction so characteristic of the era which for socio-economic reasons witnesses the decline of the individual and his subsequent weakness. While Freud did not concern himself with the social changes, it may be said that he developed within the monadological confines of the individual the traces of its profound crisis and willingness to yield unquestioningly to powerful outside, collective agencies. Without ever devoting himself to the study of contemporary social developments, Freud has pointed to historical trends through the development of his own work, the choice of his subject matters, and the evolution of guiding concepts.
One might add to this, considering the other major figure I’ve mentioned in connection with certain forms of Marxism, that Weber glimpsed the first vague outlines of the rise of fascism in his famous lection on “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). In this work, he enumerated the three main forms of authority used to legitimate a given political order: traditional, legal, and charismatic. With the last of these, it is not difficult to imagine that Weber had figures like D’Annunzio, Mussolini, and later Hitler in mind. So in a way, it’s quite possible that Weber had seized upon an ideological undercurrent in the age which in fact owed to the totalitarian pathos that was part and parcel of the totalizing and instrumentalizing rationality of capital. Again, Weberian sociology is hereby grafted onto the theoretical armature of Marxism, but not in a capricious or superficial manner. Instead, it is integrated — albeit critically — into the Marxist theory of society.
Certainly, this kind of historicism is easily vulgarized, so it’s important not to be too one-sided in attributing the reality of the phenomena described by psychoanalysis to historical accident alone. That’s one of the trickiest things about situating objects historically: one must distinguish between the historical knowledge of their existence and their raw historical existence as such. To put it into Hegelian parlance, there is a disconnect between an object’s being-in-itself and its being-for-another. In other words, it’s not enough to historicize ontology (the domain of being and existence) — one must also historicize epistemology (the domain of thought and knowledge). For it’s not as if the unconscious simply didn’t exist before its discovery by Freud. There can almost be no doubt that it did. What is significant about Freud and the context in which psychoanalysis crystallized is that knowledge had progressed to the point where the existence of something like the unconscious rose to the level of consciousness. It became available as an object for scientific reflection.
However, the specific social dynamics (i.e., the structure of the family) that determine the concrete contents of the psyche in ego-formation would be historically variable. Engels’ work on The Origin of Property, the State, and the Family already complicates the idea of regarding the family as a more or less static object, untouched by the vicissitudes of time. Subsequent studies in the field of anthropology on the development of kinship structures in primitive societies seem to further confirm Engels’ suspicions (which were themselves largely indebted to the earlier work of Müller-Lyer). With other objects, of course, it can be the case that at certain points in history a phenomenon either didn’t exist or didn’t exist in sufficient abundance for it to be conceptualized. The best example I can think of is the one Marx provides in a hilarious footnote in the first chapter of Capital:
“If a giant thinker like Aristotle could err in his evaluation of slave-labor, why should a dwarf economist like Bastiat be right in his evaluation of wage-labour? I seize this opportunity of briefly refuting an objection made by a German-American publication to my work Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, 1859. My view is that each particular mode of production,and the relations of production corresponding to it at each given moment, in short ‘the economic structure of society,’ is ‘the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness,’ and that ‘the mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life.’”
Marx said roughly the same thing of the three great British political economists of the modern era — William Petty, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo. Smith was able to see the importance of the detail division of labor in manufacturing in a way that Petty was not, and Ricardo perceived the effect of heavy machinery in large-scale industry in a way that Smith was not. Again, this was to be explained by the emergence of new forms of organization and industrial technologies.
So to return to my original point in a roundabout fashion, following this lengthy divagation, placing knowledge and existence into their historical context is not always coextensive, though it can be at times. The unconscious was not summoned into existence simply by Freud’s having conceptualized it. Discovery is not identical with invention, and collapsing these two categories into each other is an irresponsible move.
As it happens, this is precisely the sort of thinking that leads many postmodern theorists and historians to conflate the terms “discovery” and “invention,” the distinction made so long ago by Schelling toward the end of his early System of Transcendental Idealism. One commonly sees this kind of thing today, part of the irritable postmodern tendency to “gerundify” verbs in the titles of books, articles, or journals (Undoing Gender, “Maddening the Subjectile,” Thinking Nature, and so on). In my own field of study in Russian-Soviet history, for example, there are works like Larry Wolff’s Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment or Mark Bassin’s article “Inventing Siberia: Visions of the Russian East in the Early Nineteenth Century.” The insinuation, of course, is that geographical entities like Eastern Europe or Siberia didn’t preexist the act of knowing them. Such objects would thus seem to be more of an invention of the imagination than a discovery of cognition. Now of course there is some degree of non-identity between thought and being, a cognitive surplus imparted by the subject to its object of contemplation. These often reflect the preconceptions and prejudices of the subject. But to maintain that the object thus encountered is wholly the product of the subject’s imagination, the fantastic and fanciful invention, is absurd.
In contrast to the method of bringing together different strands of thought that I described above, I would submit that most postmodern thought is characterized by a pervasive and pernicious dilettantism. Not only this. Just as many have observed that the discourse of postmodernism tends to erase the line between “high” and “low” art — reversing the critical modernist position vis-à-vis mass culture — postmodernism almost seems to take a perverse pleasure in celebrating its own superficiality, kitchiness, and carefree eclecticism. I wish I could say this were only true of the movement’s epigones, and not of its major figures as well. But I can’t. Because it’s not only second-tier writers like Rodolphe Gasché, Stanley Fish, or Jean-Luc Nancy. It’s Derrida, Butler, Spivak, and even Deleuze as well, all of whom seem to jump around within the space of a single page — casually citing any number of abstruse theorists and philosophers, each of them endowed with apparently equal validity, even if their conclusions or methodologies are incommensurable and mutually exclude one another. Postmodern theory tends to favor the dabbler, the “Jack of all trades, master of none.” But often it’s not even that good. They’re usually too sloppy and careless in their reference to the various thinkers they so proudly trot out in order to make some sort of pseudo-clever rhetorical point to be considered truly competent with any of them.
To be honest, even Žižek is not immune to this sort of messy (or at least scattershot) mode of philosophizing. But I’m not sure whether he’s merely ironizing the antics of postmodern discourse, or if it’s all just a symptom of his genuinely spastic and hyperactive personality overall. Neither one would surprise me all that much, honestly. At least with him I do get the impression that he is a voracious reader who tends to know whereof he speaks, even if I disagree with him at times.
Ultimately, I think that one must neither be too theoretically promiscuous, nor theoretically puritanical. The former road leads straightaway to dilettantism, the latter to dogmatism.
Sarah Veale is a writer and religious studies student in Toronto Canada, with an academic and personal interest in Western esotericism. She currently writes about her experiences on Invocatio, a blog that discusses matters pertinent to Western Esotericism and the study of religion.
Skepoet: So at your blog, Invocatio, you write about Western Esotericism, how did you get involved or interested in it?
Sarah Veale: As someone who is both a spiritual seeker and a student of religion, I really wanted a space where I could hash out these ideas beyond the classroom. The blog actually started out focused on Buddhism. At the time, I was personally exploring eastern religions, and having some serious philosophical differences with those perspectives, and wanted to be able to think out loud about them.
Ironically, I found that I was frequently comparing Buddhist ideas to concepts in Western Esotericism, with which I’ve had an on-an-off relationship with since 1995. It got to the point where I was very rarely talking about Buddhism unless it was in a magical context. It sort of became a joke that my blog, then called X,Y and Zen, talked about everything but Zen! Finally, I threw in the towel, said it is what it is, and decided to focus on what I was really interested in.
With Invocatio, I attempt to discuss Western esotericism in a mostly academic context, but still have fun with it. Sometimes this means dismissing cultural tropes about magic, sometimes it means embracing them. I also bring in what I’m learning in the classroom and attempt to apply it to esoteric concepts or current cultural situations, and you can see these topics ebb-and-flow depending on what’s going on there. I’d say the blog embraces a multi-disciplinary approach towards studying a very particular area.
Skepoet: What is your religious background? What are your beliefs now?
Sarah Veale: I was born into a Roman Catholic family. My teenage years were spent attending a non-denominational Christian evangelical church. I’m not gonna lie, this was a huge part of my life. But you have to keep in mind, this was in the late ’80’s before evangelicals became highly politicized, so it was a different atmosphere than the one we have today. I attended bible camp, was baptized, participated in church youth groups—you name it. However, when people accepted Jesus as their saviour, I thought it would be like this super-big revelatory moment, and for me it wasn’t. I expected to have this big powerful experience, and didn’t get it. In hindsight, I suppose that was the beginning of my religious skepticism.
I began exploring ceremonial magick in my early 20’s, and this seems to be what stuck. In addition to an eclectic solitary practice, I’ve worked with a couple Wiccan groups, later explored Buddhism, and was most recently involved with a Thelemic order. Despite having practiced magick for so long, it took me a long time to really acknowledge it as my spiritual path. I currently self-identify as a Thelemite.
Skepoet: How does your academic background inform this?
Sarah Veale: Well, ideally, the two are kept separate. I’m a big believer in not mixing one’s personal beliefs with one’s academic work. I know it’s near impossible to not let some biases creep into one’s work, but I am a big fan of at least attempting to be objective. That said, the study of religion has forced me to evaluate my beliefs and reconcile them in a wider context.
For example, with Western esotericism, you get very similar accusations across the board: Mathers invented the Golden Dawn rituals, Blavatsky falsified her experiences, and Edward Kelley wasn’t a medium but an opportunist. It can go on and on. The picture ends up being painted that esotericism is rife with egotistic charlatans hell-bent on advancing an agenda created out of thin air. And don’t get me wrong, I think we should be skeptical of people making big claims that can’t be verified by outside markers. But unfortunately, this judgmental sort of approach also has the effect of marginalizing those who utilize such practices as a spiritual path, as well pushing the academic study of esotericism to the margins. We no longer take the phenomena on their own terms, but rather relate them to the dominant practices of the day, which somehow are devoid of these questionable aspects. This is dangerous and naïve.
However, I think the academic study of religion suggests that any religious phenomenon is manufactured. If you go back far enough, all belief is fabricated and subsequently advanced with some sort of agenda. Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad—you name it—all these guys started out on the edge of the religious thoughts of their day. It was only as the result of social and historical processes enacted over time that these movements turned into the global forces they are now. To me, it becomes apparent that time and numbers are the only things that make one path seem more legitimate than another.
While I think this has the effect of turning many academics into atheists, for me, it has only strengthened my personal…I don’t want to say belief, but need for some sort of spiritual structure in a functional way. That is, in a way that fulfills some sort of personal need that defies rational articulation. Knowing that every religion is built on a tenuous foundation had the strange effect of making magick just as legitimate as any other spiritual path. Furthermore, I think the functional view of religion is really coherent with magick as an applied tool for self-realization. Which is how I see magick anyway, I’m not a true believer by any stretch of the imagination.
For some reason, however, society makes fun of people who believe in these sorts of approaches while emphasizing tolerance for religious views which have just as much hocus pocus. For example, the Catholic use of relics immediately comes to mind as one religious practice that is deeply imbued with supernatural beliefs. To accept one view, but not another, to me, is a hideous double standard. Either all spiritual approaches are legitimate, or they are all false. The study of religion has really made me conscious of how, as a society, notions of acceptance are applied on seemingly arbitrary, but usually political, grounds. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a class that preaches tolerance of diverse views, and then five minutes later everyone is having a laugh at Scientology. You can’t do that and still claim some sort of enlightened ecumenism! That’s not how it works! If anything, this sort of invisible hostility to religious “otherness”—which really isn’t so “other” after all—shows the necessity of bringing marginal practices to light and emphasizing the need for tolerance of all spiritual beliefs.
Skepoet: What about Thelema appeals to you?
Sarah Veale: There are so many things that appeal to me about Thelema that it’s hard to know where to start. I think it appeals to me on both a philosophical and spiritual level. Philosophically, I think Thelema suggests that we have a participatory stake in our destiny. And this, to me, is extremely powerful. It completely abrogates any ideas of victimhood and places the individual in full command of their life. Thelema suggests that the choices we make are part of our will, and we have the ability to use our will to make our own choices. That’s very intense stuff!
I also find appealing the lack of dualism, which is a Platonic idea that the spirit is good and anything related to the body is bad. To me, this is a false dichotomy that negates the human experience. I mean, even the most spiritual person is still human, so who are we fooling with all this “super spiritual” nonsense? Eliminating dualism is, in itself, is a huge step forward. Not just within Western views of religion, which are heavily steeped in these ideas, but also within esotericism. I find Crowley’s embrace of the human body liberating. It really opens up, not just being human, but the possibility of fully realizing the totality of that experience. This is not to say that Thelema does away with the spirit, but rather that these two aspects, I find, are integrated with each other.
Of course, once you get rid of dualism, which reinforced female subjugation in a religious context, you clear the way for women to assert their equality and their power. And I think Thelema captures this wonderfully. I’m not going to pretend that women are always treated equally or that Crowley was the world’s biggest feminist, but he did do a lot to provide for central female roles within Thelema. Furthermore, he highlighted a variety of images and roles while recreating rituals that reflect gender parity in a way that wasn’t being done before. Are some of Crowley’s ideas heteronormative? Yes. But Thelema begins to bring women into the picture, not as imitation men, but as their own being. I know I sound like an apologist, but there is a lot of phenomenal imagery in Thelema, and I feel it is very important for women to have that well of inspiration to draw upon. So, this also appeals to me.
Skepoet: Why do you think so many people take an ecumenical posture while carving out specific niche exclusions for their tolerance or willingness to take seriously those ideas?
Sarah Veale: This is a big question and I’m not sure there is one single answer. For one, I think a lot depends on what we see as normative, that is, acceptable and unquestionable. Second, our current ideas of religious norms seem closely tied to ideas of cultural acceptance. This works by assuming that if we are to be accepting of one culture, then it follows that we must also be tolerant of their beliefs and practices, and religion fits under this umbrella. And I think that is a good thing, and that it is very important to respect and understand cultural identity.
However, once you take away cultural justification for religion, things lose these obvious social markers. Religion is no longer a phenomenon that can be tied to a particular group or idea, which society has demanded acceptance of in a very explicit way. So, on the one hand, you get tolerance for polytheistic Hindus, whose religion is tied to their cultural identity, but something like neo-paganism becomes more difficult to understand because it isn’t coming from this explicit place of long-spanning cultural heritage. Sadly, there seems to be a societal bias against religious choice. Inherited religion is something society views as good, but when someone actively chooses a faith outside of these parameters, there becomes this notion that people are “experimenting” or “confused.” Couple this with the deeply ingrained nature of our personal views of religion and it can make those who choose outside these boundaries very difficult to come to terms with.
I also think our society pays a lot of attention to tolerance, but in reality, we all have our irrational blind spots. I am just as guilty as anyone when it comes to this. We all bring our biases to the table and to see beyond them requires a constant questioning of where our assumptions are coming from. Not only does this take massive effort, it also requires looking honestly at one’s own views, and that can get messy and uncomfortable. If you’re in the accepted majority, why bother with it if you don’t have to? Of course, this adds a personal and political dimension to the problem of religious hegemony.
Skepoet Are there any other nondual paths that interest you?
Sarah Veale: To be honest, it’s not something I really think about. My practice is quite fluid and eclectic. For me, it’s not necessarily about following this path or that path, it’s about following my own path, if that makes any sense.
Skepoet Why have you decided to practice eclectically?
Sarah Veale Well, it’s not really a conscious decision—I didn’t wake up one morning and say, “I’ll be eclectic today!” That’s just how it goes, you know?
Skepoet: Are you familiar with Eric Hobsbawm concept of invented traditions?
Sarah Veale: No, I’m not. Do tell!
Skepoet: Here’s the quote:
“‘Invented tradition’ is taken to mean a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. In fact, where possible, they normally attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historic past…. However, insofar as there is such reference to a historic past, the peculiarity of ‘invented’
traditions is that the continuity with it is largely fictitious. In short, they are responses to novel situations which take the form of reference to old situations, or which establish their own past by
quasi-obligatory repetition.” – Hobsbawm, Eric (1983) Introduction: Inventing Tradition. In: Hobsbawm and Ranger, pp. 1-14.
I was wondering if you think this applies to Reconstructionism at all?
Sarah Veale: Ah, that’s really interesting. It is absolutely applicable to a wide range of esoteric and neo-pagan activity. Everything from Ceremonial Magick to Wicca to Freemasonry attempts to create some sort of legitimating link with the past, which is then reflected through its rituals. The validity of these “historic” claims, however, do not seem to be borne out by scholarship. For example, Ronald Hutton took a lot of heat when he suggested there was no continuous link between today’s pagan movement and ancient paganism. Of course, absence of evidence doesn’t mean this activity did not exist, but it does mean we can’t conclusively say that it did, at least not in the way a lot of these groups claim.
It is interesting to note that this “historical” foundation myth differs significantly from mainstream foundation myths. Mainstream religions usually posit an extraordinary experience—say a burning bush or virgin birth, as the social unifier. You ask how Islam began, and you tell the story of Muhammad and the angel Gabriel. But what’s proffered with these Reconstructionist traditions isn’t some phenomenal tale. What’s brought forward is the myth of “timelessness.” I wonder if this is a reaction to modern life, which is scientifically skeptical and rapidly changes? There seems to be an anchor of permanence in this myth that is absent from modern society, and it also evades explaining the miraculous in an atmosphere that scoffs at such phenomena. I mean, today we would laugh at anyone who claimed a virgin birth. Maybe the myths change to fit the times. I’m sure some academic out there has an answer for this beyond my self-indulgent chin-scratching!
But, and I really stress this point, this does not negate the validity of these practices for those who participate in them. The ritual and symbolism of these traditions, however tenuous the link with the past, can still hold enormous meaning and power for those involved. And this, I think, is what spirituality does best—create meaning. This goes back to what we were talking about earlier: how all religion is a manufactured response to some need. This is not to say that these old traditions, however minimally understood, should not be drawn upon—absolutely not. But rather, the symbolic and mythological import is enough on its own to be a legitimizing force
Skepoet: So what do you of tradition origin myths such as Gardner’s encounter with the traditional coven?
Sarah Veale: Well, Gardener’s Wicca is sort of a witchy-stereotype “Best of” list. He did a great job stitching a variety of sources into a coherent narrative. There’s some classical paganism in there, some ceremonial magic, and a dash of the witch aesthetic developed during the witch hunts. What’s striking is how Gardner’s interpretation of witchcraft caught on in the public consciousness. Today, Wicca is a recognized religion at many public levels, and the movement, if I’m not mistaken, continues to grow. Obviously, he tapped into the zeitgeist.
But I think the obvious answer to your question is this: suggesting a link with the past is far more legitimating than claiming to be the guy who put everything together. It takes something personal and makes it suprapersonal. It’s the difference between following a time-honoured tradition or the one your neighbour invented last week. Obviously, the former has a better cachet.
Skepoet: What do you see as the limitations on critically studying the history of Occultism?
Sarah Veale : Well, I’m currently in a religious studies program, but I will try to suggest what others in the field of occult research have suggested are some impediments. They seem to be two-fold, and involve both institutional and field-related issues.
Institutionally, it’s only in the past few decades that the occult, and I’m subsuming a whole host of activity such as paganism and western esotericism into this category, has really been accepted as a subject of academic study. Until recently, there was a tendency to confuse subject matter and method, and I think there was an impression that those working in this area were going to be reading tarot cards and summoning demons instead of instead of writing papers and doing research. Ronald Hutton observed that the most frequent question response he gets from colleagues isn’t one of magic’s cultural or social import, but rather whether or not spells work! So this suggests exactly where the level of discourse is in wider academia.
I touched on this earlier, but the occult seems to transgress notions of acceptability, many times in a very conscious manner as a strategy in and of itself. This has obvious ramifications when attempting to understand it within the codified world of academics, which has largely excluded it from discourse. For the longest time, magic was seen as a “deviant” form of religion, meaning it’s an aberration of normal practice. And this translates to the institutional level where research into these areas can be seen as aberrant of academic practice! There is actually a movement among some scholars of the antique period to cease using terms like “magic” altogether because they carry such pejorative baggage. The theory is that by even calling something magic, it introduces, in the words of Lyons and Reimer, a “virus” into the discussion which obfuscates objective analysis.
The third institutional issue is one which is just starting to come out, and that’s over the question of how much those studying magic should reveal themselves to be practitioners. Amy Hale, and others who recently presented at the American Academy of Religions conference, are on the leading edge of this debate. It seems that the above biases against the occult get amplified when scholars personally identify as part of that world. Now, the counter-argument is that all those in the field of religion are “encouraged” to keep their beliefs on the down-low, not just pagans. However, my personal experience suggests this isn’t the case. I have professors who openly acknowledge their personal religious pursuits in a very open manner within the classroom. But I think those who both study and practice in the field are held to a much higher standard, and this probably has a lot to do with attempting to establish this as a serious academic pursuit in the face of significant pressure. Caesar’s wife must be above reproach.
Once those barriers are passed, we need to turn to fieldwork, which has its own set of issues! I think the biggest problem is that it’s sort of traditional for authorship of occult documents to be…I think a nice word is unclear. There’s a lot of pseudepigraphia going on and tall tales being told. You know, the hereditary Wiccan whose great-grandmother was a witch and knew Aleister Crowley—those sorts of things. So, I think there are challenges there with sussing out the historical reality of the situation. There is also a lot of circular causation which plagues the occult world—where the effect becomes the cause projected backwards and so on. The Rosicrucians are a great example of this, where a movement that never existed turns into a real movement who then picks up the earlier mythology as literal fact. In other words, the copy-cat effect becomes the real manifestation! While I am certainly still a student, it seems to me of the utmost importance that source material is understood “as is” without coming to any conclusions that are really just pure conjecture. That rigor needs to be there.
Skepoet: Outside of Hutton, have you seen a lot of good scholarship on the topic?
Sarah Veale: What I’ve seen tends to be parenthetical comments. However, scholars, such as Antoine Faivre, have expressed similar concerns to Hutton. In addition, Wouter Hanegraaff has observed that the field is often considered “rejected knowledge” and that scholars in this area face much difficulty getting their work accepted by mainstream academia. He has a book on the intersection of esoteric studies and academia coming out soon which will, to the best of my knowledge, represent the first substantial research into the issue.
That said, I would be remiss if I did not mention the great advances that have taken place in the last decade. While the area still has challenges, at the same time, there are now journals and conferences and university departments devoted to studying esotericism and the occult. Things are looking up.
Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
Sarah Veale: Thank you again for thinking of me. This interview really gave me a lot to think about and was great fun!
Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 20
Saul Epstein is a Canaanite and a Jew, which he see sas a variety of Canaanite. Unlike Natib Qadish, which has a focus on Bronze Age Ugarit, or others who focus on Iron Age Phoenicians, he began to think of myself as a cosmopolitan Canaanite. He studies and honor the whole spectrum from Lithic hints through Greek and Roman Syria, through contributions to Christian and Muslim successors, and to Judaism itsel He is also a lifelong resident of Kansas City: the civic culture of the US and its roots in post-Roman Europe, the traditions of my neighbors — innovated and inherited — and the spirits of the land itself play significant roles in his religion.
Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?
Saul Epstein: I was born and raised Jewish, drifted through unexamined atheism to metaphysical nihilism, back to a more examined atheism with shades of pantheism. I did all this without ever giving up a sense of Jewish identity, or feeling a need to. Discussions with some serious polytheists forced me to give the idea consideration I’d never bothered with before, and I found that it provided a harmonious space for a variety of cherished ideas.
Growing outrage at the policies of the Israeli state and attendant tension between it and what I viewed as laudable Jewish ideals reached a breaking point during the 2006 invasion of Lebanon. I contemplated disowning Jewish identity, but then happened to read Jonathan Kirsch’s The Woman who Laughed at God. I decided Judaism, flaws and all, is too important to my identity to abandon, and that I would stay, celebrate and criticize, keeping my small voice in the long argument.
Skepoet: What is your academic background?
Saul Epstein: I have a BA in linguistics. I also attended a Jewish “day” school through 8th grade — which I’m not sure would ordinarily count as part of my academic background, but I mention in light of the following question.
Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?
Saul Epstein: With regard to my degree, I can’t say that I’ve ever given that much thought. Personal interest led me to include classes in archaeology, anthropology, mythology, philosophy and religion among my electives, and I know those both satisfied and engendered curiosity related to where I was coming from and where I wound up going. There’s been more exploration of that outside of formal education than in. But probably I explore the way I do in part due to having some academic background.
Attending the primary school that I did gave me early, relatively deep exposure to the idea and the practice of religion as culture, though the forms to which I was exposed didn’t swallow me. I think that experience helped make me, at my best, a better participant and a better critique. And, of course, it strengthened the special tie I feel to Yiddish tradition and Semitic generally.
Skepoet: Do you find it hard practicing in a Canaanite tradition where so much of the history has been obscured partly because of international conflicts between religious Jews and Muslim Palestinians? What sources do you use for your reconstruction?
Saul Epstein: I don’t know that the conflicts going on there recently present special obscurity that wouldn’t be faced by… almost anyone. The heavy damage was done by early Jews in the heartland as they worked to convince themselves that they weren’t Canaanite; then by Rome against Carthage; then by Christian Rome — but that affected many; then by Islam.
In my own view, though, each stage has been as much about the evolution of the underlying culture as it’s been about destruction, and as much about subversion as suppression (deliberate or not in either case). So there was a lot of water under the bridge by the time recent conflicts got started, and I don’t know that the current players are doing that much additional damage
Unless… you mean material remains in the south Levant that have doubtless been destroyed by the recent conflicts and even when preserved have been subject to misappropriate interpretation by parties more interested in providing justification for their religious or nationalist agenda than in sound research. That certainly withholds — sometimes permanently –
information that would be enormously helpful and meaningful.
But even there, effectively similar processes have been at work throughout the historical Canaanite sphere, parts of which are relatively far from Israel. And even when destruction hasn’t been due to conflict, it’s only been a recent and spotty phenomenon that destruction by “development” hasn’t been widespread. And material recovery left undone because it’s been more important to spend money on weapons and corruption. But, all those are general problems.
I’m not at all a strict reconstructionist (which term seems to mean different things to different people anyway) or any kind of purist. The latter would be a personal conflict and also seems to contradict extensive evidence that historical Canaanites (as with many in the wider
region/period) tended both to tolerate foreign cults (at least at safe distances) and to be as enthusiastic to trade “intellectual property” as they were to trade goods.
As my distinctive practices (to the extent they’re separate from continued participation in family Judaism) are relatively simple and often ad hoc, I tend to seek out sources primarily for non-specific inspiration and to deepen my sense of connectedness. I use whatever I can get hold of, though use of most of it requires some degree of deconstruction. But any period remains from or making reference to Canaan, Phoenicia, Carthage, Syria or cities or colonies thereof, from roughly 1500 years before the calendar through the first few centuries of the calendar form the core. Earlier remains from the eastern Mediterranean are generally of interest; later remains from a wider area, too, though they increasingly require special deconstruction.
References don’t have to be verbal, so I keep an eye out for what used to be called “Orientalizing” in Greek and other contexts. But as far as text, I rely most heavily on what constitute the core of the core: recoveries from Ugarit and Ebla, and the Hebrew Bible. Then I compare sources from nearby THAT context and from nearby my lived context to my felt sense of the principles and themes of that core and to my personal “voice” and make use
of what agrees or complements.
Skepoet: So you are not a reconstructionist. How do you feel about the seemingly increasing influence on reconstructionism on paganism?
Saul Epstein: Though I’m not a reconstructionist, I have tendencies and sympathies that direction. The stories of how elements of the present arrived are both essential and deeply meaningful to me, as are recoveries and survivals of records and artifacts. My interest in the past is personal in ways that don’t avail themselves to external justification, but I also see it as a critical aspect of ancestor veneration.
At the same time, I reject that we are or should be dominated by the past. Ancestors mixed innovation into their own practice, sometimes radically, and I know of no basis from which to determine a tradition has achieved perfection, especially given that context always changes. Ancestors also made mistakes, and veneration is in no way at odds with honest recognition of that.
So, principally I’m delighted by increased reconstructionist activity within the larger sphere of paganity. It being seen as a growing and viable option means there are more pagans overall and (an even more selfish consideration) reconstructionists do a lot of very good, very time-consuming work both in research and implementation that the rest of us can then make use of. And those of us who can operate in both mythological and historical modes very much appreciate that, and like to help when we can.
I do have two qualms, which aren’t necessarily related to reconstruction itself, but which do seem to come up a lot with regard to it. One is an occasional tendency to evaluate certain kinds of expertise or adherence to certain reconstructions as either best or exclusively good, not only for oneself and one’s closest fellows, but for everyone. I see this as less a problem of reconstruction itself and more a problem facing pagans (or perhaps humanity) in general. The other is a tendency to expect pursuit of a given path (especially a reconstruction) to be tied hard to a prior ethnic identity of a given person. I don’t discount the role such identity plays – it does for me, after all – but it troubles me when people move to close groups or individuals – to say nothing of gods! – off from each other based on it.
I see ancestry as including but not limited to the genetic, the linguistic, etc.
Skepoet: What do you say to the critique that a lot of neo-paganism is escapism?
Saul Epstein: Charges of escapism are so often empty cover for unhappiness that someone or something fails to comply with some number of established dictates, or fails to grant some number of unstated premises, that I have an unfortunate tendency to dismiss them out of hand. And I’m always tempted to ask, “Escape from what? To what?”
Even if the critique is that being pagan in a non-pagan society diverts or dissipates adherents’ energies away from participation in the larger society that might result in positive change, I see no evidence that pagan religions act more as channels away than they act as channels toward. And I don’t know what would necessarily make them more prone one way or another than religion on the whole – or than art, for that matter.
If the means by which one organizes her experiences and actions make her own life and the lives of those around her more pleasant, more meaningful, more beautiful, I consider those means admirable for her and am grateful if I get to be one of those around her, and that probably sounds pretty escapist.
Skepoet: What do you think about the divisions between Reconstructionists and Neo-pagans which seem to being getting more polarized. Do you see this as a real a problem?
Saul Epstein: I wondered if you were using “neo-paganism” in a somewhat narrow sense in the previous question, perhaps even specifically as distinct from reconstruction.
By Neo-pagans, do you mean Wiccan types? Ceremonial magicians of the Anglo-Euro esoteric or spiritist types? New Age? I tend to lump all those together as neo-Romantics, one collection of ways to be pagan.
If I’m on the right track at all… I see the distinction between that and reconstruction as real and something to be respected. Polarization seems to be unnecessary, and therefore a waste of spirit at best, and therefore a real problem only to the extent that we allow it to occur and grow.
Among the things I’ve always hoped pagans, especially those coming from positions of extreme minority, could cultivate among themselves and hold up as examples is an elaboration of the hospitality so many of us hold dear, which carefully recognizes when one is the host, when one is the guest, when strangers meet on more or less equal terms whether hosted by some other or not, and what the different responsibilities are in each case. It’s natural for people to want to surround themselves with similar and familiar, and that can be most strongly felt by someone weary of being the stranger. But it’s not always possible and it’s not always best.
From just a practical perspective, pagans face some shared challenges from the same sources and thus seem to be natural allies in at least some struggles. Since there’s no need for one group to somehow “win” theological, cosmological, or even ritual arguments over others, why should they make up political arguments?
Skepoet: What dichotomy do you use to classify pagan groups?
Saul Epstein: Do you mean to distinguish pagan from non-pagan?
Skepoet: No, more like how do you distinguish between one pagan type from another?
Saul Epstein: Oh, like a typology or taxonomy. That’s something I never did on my own, but began doing in response to recent disputes and debates over what belongs under the pagan umbrella, in terms of features, whole groups, etc. And it’s still not something I find too much value in doing, except to be able to participate in such conversations.
Partly, I like to reserve for myself the right to name (or label) myself, and to have those names be recognized as my names. If I expect that for myself, I have to grant it to others. So it’s not my business to be telling anyone that she is or isn’t X, or a real X, because of Y.
Patterns can be observed, of course, and the observations can be shared and compared when context welcomes it.
In particular the bright line some would draw between reconstruction and… anything else?… has often struck me as odd. Sure, reconstructions share an interest in and commitment to demonstrable historical details and harmonizing contemporary practice and attitude with those details. But beyond that, they would seem by definition to be as different from each other as any one of them is different from… whatever it is to which they’re being contrasted as a group. Perhaps more so. If they aren’t, doesn’t that say something about the limits (conscious or otherwise) to which traditions tend to get chosen for reconstruction, or how far it’s possible for people to really get out of their birth-cultures in order to get at a reconstruction?
Of course, before I’ve done too much speculation about such things, I realize that part of why I don’t engage heavily in making these sorts of distinctions is that I don’t feel that I know or understand enough. It’s likely I don’t fully understand what reconstruction is about.
So I suppose the short answer is that I distinguish groups from each other by listening to how people name themselves and their groups. Types take that into account, but also my observations, and in any case have been a reluctant reaction to the asserted typologies of others.
Skepoet: What do you think are the primary concerns with the pagan movement at the moment? I know this is a vague question, but I am interested in what people see as important within the community.
Saul Epstein: The primary concern seems to be identity: what makes this one what she is and what she’s not, both as distinct from other pagans and from not pagan; why she holds those ideas or to those practices and not others; whether that commitment is important enough to attempt transmission to one’s children and, if so, how. I think anxiety about identity drives a lot of conflict among pagans, even some not otherwise given to drawing up sides.
I consider these concerns important because they seem so important to so many others. That they aren’t directly that important to me I merely consider an interesting contrast. As for what I think the primary concerns _should_ be, I would have us focus on changing more societies around the world in ways that make them more comfortable with and for diversity. Whatever else may divide us, as traditions or as individuals, we are mostly religious minorities and depend on majorities for whatever religious freedoms we have or wish for. And I would have us reflect that concern inward in the ways we treat each other.
Skepoet: What does this identity focus actually imply? For example, most pagans ethos is communitarian in orientation, but the communities in which most neo-paganism is focused is technically speaking recreated and greatly in contrast to dominant culture. That puts the ethics of say Hellenismos or Asatru in radical department from its community of historical origin.
Saul Epstein: I think it implies at least two things, which can be complementary.
More obvious, and more common, it implies a collection of dissatisfactions with formal or conceptual aspects of the dominant culture or of an individual’s felt role in that culture. The situation is an ironic inversion of mid to late Antiquity, when the dominant culture WAS pagan but presented with increasingly vigorous experimentation with cults which turned from state or community and multiplicities of gods toward the individual and her relationship to one particular god. One difference, though, is that such cults seem to have been around in different forms long before the big empires, and to have been generally tolerated comfortably – some highly respected.
So, in other words, the dominance of the present dominant culture seems more total, which would seem to lend itself to greater levels of dissatisfaction. Not only that: a dominant culture which is pagan, especially in the classical sense, has more room to tolerate or celebrate religious diversity than a dominant culture which attaches moral implications to EXCLUSIVE devotion to itself.
Some of the dissatisfaction probably derives precisely from the way many contemporary societies present obstacles to community formation, and the appeal of communitarian reconstruction may lie partly there. It’s even possible that some of the intertwining of prior ethnic identity with reconstruction is driven by a desire to ground new community formation in something seen as not chosen, so as to make communities thus formed seem less ad hoc and more durable.
Less obvious, perhaps less common, it implies at least the potential for a critique of post-medieval Western religion which critique is not itself antipathetic to religion more generally.
Skepoet: How do you think the pagan community reconcile the tensions between the reconstructists and the neo-pagan occultists?
Saul Epstein: I don’t know. And by that I mean several things. I don’t pretend to deeply understand the tension – or for that matter the tensions I’ve noticed between some reconstructionists themselves, or between some occultists themselves, or between some of either of those groups and ecstatics or aesthetes. To be sure, it contributes that some people make stronger and broader claims than others, which in turn causes some people to feel a need to make counter claims, or just put effort into refuting others’.
I also don’t know how important it is that the tensions be reconciled – if that means reduced. I oscillate there between hope, despair and indifference. Without some established authority to ensure otherwise, most vibrant communities and societies are full of such tension. What may matter most is that we find modes through which to conduct our arguments and other business which promote us being a community, a society – allies (or at least trading partners) instead of enemies. Of course, that challenge is human rather than pagan. What may make the need acute for pagans is that we do have powerful enemies who are enemies of pagandom rather than this or that variety of it, and therefore we stand in need of each other as allies.
I do hope that pagans can be wise about the past, recent and distant, historical and mythological – and learn not to repeat our own mistakes or those of the various totalists. But to do that we do need to be able to see them as mistakes, rather than worthy models in which our particular tribe just played the losing role last time. In other words, we can’t pursue veneration that precludes critique; better to see critique as a necessary element of veneration. It would also help if each of our groups and traditions developed a better sense of boundaries, not as walls but as demarcations, a means for each of us to know when she stands inside (and subject to, even as a guest) a given group’s way, but also when two or more of us stand outside together and are equally guests with only unfamiliar spirits our hosts. I think we have all the tools we need, if we decide to use them.
Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
Saul Epstein: Just to convey my thanks to you and the readers for the interest. All the interviews have given me much to consider. And if anyone has further questions or comments for me, I can be contacted as email@example.com, or through my slow-stuttering blog at
While I am not sure I am ending this blog, and it may be that some posts appear in both places. My other leftist project is moving outside of facebook into a real writing space, we are aggregating our ideas, and some of our ideas into a group blog, Symptomatic Redness. If would check it out, and we are looking for more contributors there at this stage too, so inform me if you would like to take part. Many of the people I have interviewed and will interview have been invited as well.
Reification is a problem, but its always a problem as it is implied in symbolic language. The signified always has some level of a reification of what it describes. This leads us to a serious problem though: the distinctions between views are oven because of different sets of reified conceptual frameworks.
For example, cultural and economic analysis (identity versus class) are often put in a dialectical opposition as is nature versus nurture (biological versus environmental determinism) analysis, but many of these supposed binaries are false. This is not to take the post-modern view that all binaries are false and there are no real universal distinctions, but that the inter-relationship between these things are harder to tease out elements to speak about them.
For example, are cultures just manifestations of economics or economics just manifestation of cultures, the vulgar post-modernist and vulgar conservative often argue the later while vulgar Marxists arguing the former, but neither strictly speaking is true. Both culture and economy are abstractions of social relationships, but as abstractions they have view real affects. All of what is at stake is relational, so there is not true dialectical relationship between the concepts.
This means that both the economic analysis and the cultural analysis are different lenses of looking at the same set of social relationships, but the ideas that we look upon the relationships with DO shape, not only our subjective view of those relationships, but the relationship themselves. Therefore, cultural and economic analyses do end up creating real dialectical oppositions in the way we answer certain questions.
Is there a way out of this?
And now a few more words on the manufacturing revival. Friday’s Wall Street Journal had a piece (“In U.S., a Cheaper Labor Pool”) on how Caterpillar, which has been doing quite well lately, is threatening to close a plant in Canada and move operations to a low-wage site unless it gets big concessions from its union, the Canadian Auto Workers. That low-wage country its threatening to move to? The United States. The Journal also reports on other manufacturing firms moving south from Canada (but without crossing the Rio Grande): Siemens, Navistar, and Electrolux. The reason? American workers are very productive but they earn a lot less. Caterpillar claims that its workers in Illinois cost the firm less than half as much as their comrades in Ontario. Over the last decade, unit labor costs—wages and benefits paid per dollar of output—have fallen by 13% in the U.S. They rose by 2% in Germany, 15% in Korea, and 18% in Canada. When you factor in transportation and other costs, U.S. workers in some sectors are starting to become competitive with China, where wages have been rising sharply for years and workers have developed a habit of striking and ransacking the boss’s office. The trend towards bringing factory work back to the U.S. even has a name: onshoring. A revival of manufacturing would be good in many ways, but one based largely on low wages and high levels of exploitation is not something to cheer. – Doug Henwood
Actually, Doug Henwood’s entire analysis of the recent job’s report is really illuminating. The interesting point is that it appears that Globalization has reduced the labor pool of the US to an outsourcing sector for other countries, even China, where in some sectors wages are beginning to be comparable. This is Globalization, the great equalizer to the lowest common denominator what neo-liberals used to say about socialism. Welcome to the new normal. All that late 90s and mid-2000s want of manufacturing return as a way to save the economy? Well, look at it for what it is.