Word

February 27, 2011 § 25 Comments

Seriously, fuck theory. This current round of accumulation is ‘accelerationism’. It’s ‘hyperstition’. It’s ‘post-human’. It’s the real path to ‘the singularity’. It’s definitely ‘object-oriented’. The object being ‘oriented’ is Capital’s full spectrum dominance over the remaining crumbs of civil society.Make no mistake, this is the wave of the future. The Shock Doctrine in excelsis, yet still it fails to surprise me. It’s on its way to the UK too. Having faith in ‘Red Ed’ saying diddly squat about it is ‘speculative’ without the ‘realism’. A narrow mandate, riding on resentful discontent, knows it has to shoot that dying horse to proceed with its raid. Just as Cameron has covertly enlisted the EDL, Walker knows how to use the Tea Party. History shows us that fascists always come in handy for this kind of heist. If they move, kill ’em.

The decline of the west continues unabated. Capital may not be in decline, but society certainly is. This time, our decline won’t be carved in stone, rather zeroes and ones. However, I mustmention again that’s likely to be another franchise on its way to enclosure. Our toys can beconfiscated whenever it suits them. Like theory, this is all play; nothing more. To pretend any virtual dance of speculation is ‘political’ is a delusion. If I was being mugged, the last thing on my mind would be Hegel’s epistomology; or indeed the action in the comments box. If all this doesn’t drag the west kicking and screaming back to reality, then nothing will. At least they could find a job in the Matrix, a notion now as quaint as its soundtrack.

Or it’s ‘The Arabs’ achievement of Spirit:

Hence our hope for the cycle of struggles spreading in the Arab world to become like Latin America, to inspire political movements and raise aspirations for freedom and democracy beyond the region. Each revolt, of course, may fail: tyrants may unleash bloody repression; military juntas may try to remain in power; traditional opposition groups may attempt to hijack movements; and religious hierarchies may jockey to take control. But what will not die are the political demands and desires that have been unleashed, the expressions of an intelligent young generation for a different life in which they can put their capacities to use.

Kasper again here:

The pressure to generate ‘content’ becomes more intnense, despite things becoming so much more socially/economically/culturally clear. The 2.0 age invites vacuity – Mcewan’s speech another example. The less we have to say, we have to say it more. I think certain bloggers have slowly realised this, which is why many are posting entries at much slower rates (in calmer tones) than before – when they do, alienation from their own words is palpable.

Well, it’s a nice excuse at least. No promises on the next post.

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The Wisconsin Question

February 20, 2011 § 1 Comment

I know everyone on the progressive left is saying that behind Scott Walker’s attack on Wisconsin’s public sector unions is a Republicans vs. Democrats battle (Maddow’s headline: “THE SURVIVAL OF THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY”) — the only three such unions Walker made an exception for are police, firefighters, and state troopers, the only three that supported the Republican party. But might there be another, more straightforward reason for excluding them?

The state trooper’s union did support Walker. Of the state’s police and firefighter’s unions, however, only Milwaukee’s broke rank, over failures to fix their radio system. Nor did they offer much in terms of campaign donations.

As Maddow argues, yes, unions are among the few big institutional donors for (some) Democratic causes. Another one is Wall Street. And is Walker’s assault really in a different ideological universe from Obama’s 2-year pay cut (read: tax hike) for federal employees?

Here’s one state trooper’s alternative theory for Walker’s apparent favoritism of law enforcement:

Much of the backlash comes from the fact that the Wisconsin State Troopers’ Association, a lobbying group which is not affiliated with the WLEA, endorsed Walker during last year’s campaign, against the wishes of many in the union. And the Troopers Association was quick to applaud Walker’s move to exempt the State Patrol from the curtailment of bargaining rights. The Troopers’ Association, a group that lobbies for benefits, isn’t affiliated with the WLEA,

But Fuller doesn’t think Walker is paying off the Troopers’ Association for its support. He thinks Walker needs the support of the largest police contingent under his control. The State Patrol has about 380 troopers and more than 100 inspectors on hand — not to mention the fact that the State Patrol provides the governor’s personal bodyguards. And while Walker has raised the specter of calling on the National Guard to step in if needed due to any strikes, quelling any unrest from his assault on public workers will likely fall to the State Patrol and local law enforcement agencies.

“What we think is he needed to have the State Patrol because it fits into whatever plan he had for dealing with the fulfillment of his budget proposal,” Fuller says. “There’s conversation from other unions about walkouts and things like that. There are going to be protests here in Madison at the Capitol that he’ll most likely need to have law enforcement coverage for. And to me, the State Patrol is ideally suited for that.”

And if summoned, the troopers will heed the call, he says.

“We’re at his disposal,” he says. “We’re all state employees and we’re law enforcement officers. We’re sworn to protect the citizens and serve at the governor’s command. In that way, what choice do we really have?”

Union officials also speculate that Walker’s exemption of local law enforcement agencies is similarly motivated. If his push to strip bargaining rights from non-law enforcement jail personnel and state prison guards prompts walkouts, “you’re going to need deputies and cops to go into those jails,” says Mike Sacco, president of the WLEA local that represents UW and Capitol cops.

I’m not saying campaign support and undermining his Democratic opponents hadnothing to do with this — in fact I’m sure they did. But as a causal explanation, class warfare seems a little more to the point.

Love and Marriage (1)

February 17, 2011 § 7 Comments

Some notes on modern romantic love, by which I mean, love that tends toward monogamy. If there are other possibilities for romantic love, this is the only one I feel capable of thinking all the way to the end: love as a singular, all-encompassing commitment to a single individual, freely entered. The boring kind, in other words. But I won’t pretend this isn’t the situation in which most of us love and think about love, for better and worse (one could say the same thing about romantic love that Fredric Jameson says about capitalism: it’s easier to imagine the end of love than the end of monogamy).

Thus delimited, love is a relation that forces together two contradictory imperatives. An overriding passion grounded in the other, and the seemingly inevitable consequence, an ethical demand that it be rationally administered. There is usually some window of time before the second shoe drops. But if the love is to be sustained, if the initial passion is to be honored, then the couple is obligated to detach that feeling from its immediacy and subject it to rational analysis. Can we fulfill each others’ individual needs. Will we live together. Will we marry. Will we have children. How to divide the housework. How to stay ‘sexy.’ To separate love from these questions is to abandon the whole problem. But if we reduce romantic coupledom to a practical arrangement — like ‘the dominant form of bourgeois social organization’ — we’re not really talking about love anymore either. This is unbearable. When we suffer, our therapist tells us that suffering is reduced by discussing it rationally. Why should the same not be true of love? Even if our reasoning is hedonistic (as it should be) we will have lost something if we equate it with passion. Maybe the pleasure of any emotion is in its seeming immediacy. Not as an overcoming of the self (let’s at least take responsibility for our feelings), but a form of lateral thinking drawn from embodied experience, and which bypasses the plodding labor of analytic thought. Love is hard work, but if it feels like work, it’s not love. The truth of this statement should be a clue that we might be playing a sucker’s game.

Reasoning about love, like any kind of reasoning, is always situational and therefore has a history. Its institutional history is the history of the secularization of marriage and the establishment of distinct gendered identities supposed to ‘complement’ each other in love (even if today the first seems opposed to the second). In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici explains the importance of marriage to the state and the birth of the modern idea of woman through a history of the witch trials — an assault on women bordering on genocide. In response to the material gains won by the peasant revolts (1350-1500) and a population crisis, the mission of the ruling class was clear. The workforce needed to be disciplined and its reproduction needed to be put under the control of the state. Marriage and the family had to monopolize all social life and come under the supervision of a centralized state. The repression of all collective forms of sociality and sexuality (“sports, games, dances, ale-wakes, festivals, and other group-rituals that had been a source of bonding and solidarity among workers”) was a necessary condition. And another was accomplished through a patriarchal class compromise: the delegitimization of unwaged labor, the expansion of private property through enclosure of the commons, and the restriction of property ownership and wage labor to men pacified their revolutionary desires while enlisting them as the overseers of their wives and children, who were now reduced to domestic slaves.

“According to this new social-sexual contract, proletarian women became for male workers the substitute for the land lost to the enclosures, their most basic means of reproduction, and a communal good anyone could appropriate and use at will…in the new organization of work every woman (other than those privatized by bourgeois men) became a communal good, for once women’s activities were defined as non-work, women’s labor began to appear as a natural resource, available to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink.”

All of that was the carrot. There was also the stick: though all women could be accused, any woman who had an independent existence outside the confines of marriage (elderly widows, pagans, midwives, prostitutes, etc.) was in special danger of being tried as a witch, tortured, raped, and killed — estimates run anywhere between 40,000 to 100,000 executions. A new female image was constructed around plays like The Taming of the Shrew, part of a propaganda campaign that sought to literally demonize women, defining them as lusty, willful, and irrational. “The definition of women as demonic beings, and the atrocious and humiliating practices to which so many of them were subjected left indelible marks in the collective female psyche and in women’s sense of possibilities…For the witch-hunt destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism.”

After the witch trials ended towards the end of the 17th century, middle class women were to conform their bodies to the image of a new feminine ideal, combining Christian (asexual) morality, a contradictory though ornamental eroticism (‘beauty’), and enlightened manners, a piece of private property who could be trotted out for public display when needed. But as we will see, the image of the witch would always remain latent, ready to accuse any woman (of any class) who refused or failed to live up to the impossible ideal of femininity.

Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, in addition to being a materialist critique of psychoanalysis and a study of Nazi ideology, also includes a survey of what he calls the “monogamization” of Europe from the Reformation through the Enlightenment. The divided self of psychoanalysis, existentialism, and other theorists of ‘modern alienation’ is the result, Theweleit argues, of a sexual division more rigorously policed than ever before. This was the formation of modern gender roles, through unequal restrictions on sexuality and an unequal division of labor (waged vs. unwaged). Marriage conceived as the joining of sexual opposites developed along with the new class divisions of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. ‘New moralities,’ whether progressive or regressive, always appear as criticisms of ruling class hypocrisy, and are displayed on the bodies of women. The quasi-divine feminine of the bourgeois romantic poets, for example, was a reaction to the ‘immoral’ sexual promiscuity of 18th century noblewomen. For the rising middle class, for whom women’s domestic servitude was most successfully naturalized, marriage was not to be determined by anything other than true love. They felt justified in rejecting noble intrigues as pathetic and corrupting attempts to compensate for loveless arranged marriages. With the bourgeois in power, it was working class women whose sexuality was then persecuted according to the new ‘progressive’  standards (now through quiet internment in prisons and asylums instead of public burning). The witch trials themselves could be seen as another example, albeit ideologically distinct, of patriarchal ‘new morality’ undermining solidarity within classes. Both masculine hardness (the ignorant, ‘violent’ man of the proletariat) and masculine castration (the liberal, ‘sensitive’ man of the bourgeoisie) respond to the disturbing malleability of female images and their power to frame female bodies. For Theweleit, the proto-Nazi Freikorps officers he analyzes thus represent an extreme rather than a deviation of normal masculinity:

“The men construct an image of a high-born woman (‘white countess’). They then worship that image, which must be asexual. They persecute the sexuality of the ‘low-born’ woman — proletarian, communist, Jew (=whore) — by first making her a prostitute, then murdering her; meanwhile lack is maintained in relationships with their own (child-bearing and asexual) women through their exclusion (as nameless wives) from social productions and from the contrafraternities of men. All of these forms of oppression — adoration, murder, exploitation — are related.”

According to this account, romantic love is a relation to the other defined by the desire to reincorporate a missing part of the self, a compensatory response to intolerable social and (in consequence) psychological divisions. Those divisions go hand in hand with the Enlightenment model of subjectivity, capable of what Theweleit calls “self-distancing,” the separation of ego from affect, of essential selfhood from secondary qualities. A masculine subjectivity, always capable of slipping into unrestrained violence when threatened by its ‘unconscious’ — that is, when other entities fail to conform to the alienated ego’s idealized notion of what it lacks. Women, on the other hand, are expected to serve as mere regulating conduits for male desire, binding it to productive social institutions through their enforced economic dependency. Man desires an image, and he gets a nag. Woman’s desires are secondary to her oppressor’s, and she gets a tyrannical child (if not also tyrannical children).

Understood in this way, love is modernity’s containment strategy for threatening, ‘anti-social’ desires, disguised as a good-natured concession to romantic critics of ‘soulless modern society,’ in which men and women are both, in cruelly contradictory ways, dependent on fantasy for emotional fulfillment.

Thankfully this is not the whole story. The next installment will advance from the nebulously defined ‘modern’ to the equally nebulous ‘contemporary.’


We Will Belong No More

February 10, 2011 § 6 Comments

“Capitalist culture may have reached a new stage: while industrial and even advanced capitalism enabled and demanded a split self, shifting smoothly from the realm of strategic to domestic interactions, from the economic to the emotional, from the selfish to the cooperative — the internal logic of contemporary capitalism is different: not only is the cost-benefit cultural repertoire of the market now used in virtually all private and domestic interactions but it is also as if it has become increasingly difficult to switch from one register of action (the economic) to another (the romantic).”

— Eva Illouz, Cold Intimacies

If our dreams are part of the fabric of the world, then surely we do not live in it.

The implosion of fantasy life as distinct from everyday life is most often discussed in the context of a decontextualized remark of Fredric Jameson’s, that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Does the end of the world mean anything? That apocalypse is, according to this meme, easier to imagine than the end of capitalism already suggests a meaning. A failure of ‘our’ ability to imagine alternatives to self-destruction, born out of ‘our’ failure to think about capitalism.

Supposing such an intimate relation between imagination and cognition is typical of those who make the utopian imagination the register of social change. As a defense and redefinition of (Hegelian) resolution, mopey modern man is to overcome his many problematic divisions, between himself and other classes, other races, other genders, not to mention his interior divisions and perversities, by accepting them as constitutive of his selfhood. He will subject this newly objectified self to rigorous analysis, as a proxy and ideal model for the contradictions of ‘society at large.’ Having reached this Archimedean point, he will then narrate his way to self-mastery by way of narrating the social totality — precisely (and artfully) articulating his objections to the world while taking part in the multiplication of fantastic alternatives (as producer or critic).

This definition of the critical intellectual, while fading for a long time, still gets propped up by those who want to maintain it as a profession. An artist, and/or a theorist, and/or a poet, who delivers messages from another world, who is able to grasp the truth of the real world more fully than those dumbly immersed in it. Sometimes this world is contentless (“One should bear in mind that the philosopher’s task is not to propose solutions, but to reformulate the problem itself, to shift the ideological framework within which we hitherto perceived the problem”), other times it has an excess of content. But when the narrow audience for this sort of thing has Internet access to any information and any fantasy it could ever want or need, then members of cultural institutions who survived by serving as arbiters and gatekeepers, from magazines to humanities departments, can’t continue without becoming more like ‘intellectual entrepreneurs‘ (or like intellectual laborers) than they already were. It has been plain since the ’80s if not earlier that there is no difference between the middlebrow cliché ‘culture’ and the academic cliché ‘social context’; but perhaps it has finally become impossible to keep pretending.

So, the desire called utopia, the Marxian rebuttal to the liberal triumphalism of 1989, can’t be separated from its manifestations. While it does transcend genre, including novels, films, advertisements, video games, manifestos, hashtags, and academic monographs, there is no general will that links Ursula LeGuin to Levi’s, or that separates them; no authentic human essence, no Spirit (however paradoxical and negatively defined) behind both labor activism and, um, Levi’s. The only binding agent is capitalism, that is, the common set of economic relations that determines the conditions for their existence. A self-conscious utopia, in the sense of a vision of a better (post-capitalist) world, is a fantasy object, a promise and a wager, and can be earnest, disingenuous, ironic, playful, or anything else. But then critique is the same thing. If their function was at one time pedagogical it’s hard to imagine how they could serve now. Even the goals of “cognitive mapping” (Jameson’s proposed solution to this problem), “to endow the individual subject with some new heightened sense of its place in the global system,” seem unteachable. Because let’s be frank: precisely as a total system, the world is not that indecipherable, our positions within it not that opaque. What is being asked for is a technique, an aesthetic, a form, maybe even a technology, with the power to counteract first world apathy. This means countering both the 24 hour entertainment machine in which that population is immersed and its own interest in maintaining comfortable lives untroubled by other responsibilities. Any aid to “cognitive mapping” would seem to require more emotional and affective force than intellectual. This is why critiques of left-wing popular revolt from the standpoint of theory are always in bad faith: because if there are any images and words that can emotionally, affectively situate their audience within the global system in all its violence and the immediacy of struggle against it, then why not those produced by actual revolutionaries.

Utopia is not just an impossible promise, it is a cultural product. But the target audience of first world petty bourgeois culture workers is, to say the least, unlikely to embrace revolutionary praxis in any significant numbers as a result of consuming more ‘culture,’ however ‘correct,’ ‘well-crafted,’ or ‘independently produced.’ In its inevitable failure, it stands in for what is desired: the classic Freudian lost object, or the objective manifestation of prophecy. The principal surplus of utopian niche product, then, seems to be not revolution but consolation. In the book quoted from above, Illouz identifies a style of “therapeutic communication” assembled from Freudian psychoanalysis, feminism, and Victorian male-oriented self-help literature, which she argues became the mainstream emotional jargon for 20th century America and reaches its apotheosis in forms of sociality specific to the Internet (she looks at online dating, but it’s just as applicable to Facebook). Its defining feature for Illouz is the compulsion to ‘objectively’ narrate emotional suffering, requiring skills and learned behaviors that (though she is more coy about this point than I am) reinforce class divisions just as surely as do ‘intelligence’ or ‘taste.’
“Emotions are by their very nature situational and indexical; they point to the ways in which the self is positioned within a particular interaction, and in that respect, they are a sort of shorthand for the self to understand how and where it is positioned in a particular situation. Emotions orient action by using tacit and concrete cultural knowledge of a particular object and making us take short-cuts to evaluate this object and act toward it…In contrast, value-rationality, cognitive, and instrumental rationality and the process of ‘commensuration,’ all required to perform fluently the [therapeutic] model of communication, form a cognitive style which empties relationships of their particularity and transforms them into objects which, because they are evaluated through standards of fairness, equality, and need-satisfaction, become more likely to know [typo?] the fate of commodities traded.”
Shifting this analysis over from individual confession to the culture industry more generally, utopian narratives, imagery, and critiques, tending as they do toward thematic obviousness and overt rearrangement of clichés, begin to look like so many derivatives of the radical imagination, adding up to an asset bubble of fanciful, comforting representations safely detached from the actual revolutionary labor to which they serve as substitute and prophylactic. The old expression of romantic longing thinly disguised by its contemporary anti-sentimental style, consisting of plausible scenarios, ethical theories, constitutions, action plans, and devastating critique. Or: the commodification of collective desire as a form of distinction. It is in this way, I think, that fantasy becomes the stuff of our lives.

I write these unoriginal remarks so that they may stand as this blog’s starting assumptions.

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