Enough Already

March 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

As meager revenge for rebooting Guantanamo, here is a wonderful rant against Obama and the Democrats from 2009. Enjoy. (via)

I recognize also that one reason it’s so difficult to have the discussion about the point at which it makes sense, if not to break with the Dems at least to stop lying to ourselves about the cataclysmic significance of voting for them or not, is that the election year is in a way not the optimal time to have it. This is precisely because of the immediateness of the stakes and the kind of politics—i.e., by definition not “transformative,” if we take the term to imply potential to alter the terms of political debate substantially—elections warrant and require. The problem, though, is that even within the ineffectual enclaves that pass for a left, as well as all the more solid left-of-center interest configurations— labor, enviros, women, civil rights, etc.—”politics” increasingly has come to mean only getting someone elected or defeated or some bill or initiative passed or defeated.

So elections are the only context around which it’s possible that even politically attentive people and those who see themselves as activists are inclined to discuss political strategy at all. And then, because the frenzy of electoral jockeying stokes passions and leads to extravagant claims, the discussion becomes overheated, and distinctions between tactics, strategies and goals blur, with the first likely to drive the other two rhetorically. The predictably exaggerated claims that support electoral mobilization, e.g., “Obama is a transformative politician,” etc, strive to channel and subordinate all political discussion to the immediate goal of winning what can be won right now and not really entertaining questions about how much, not to say whether, it’s actually worth winning, or even whether the victory could be pyrrhic.

So we “don’t have time” to have the strategic political discussion about how to try to change the terms of debate during the election year, and “we don’t have time” to have it between election years because (a) there are other, equally instrumental objectives that consume everyone’s time as immediately more pressing—some other 8% adjustment to fight for or against – and (b) the dilettantish left persists in the belief that some gimmick—some Special Candidate, some clever slogan (“No, we’re really the ones who ‘support the troops'” or “We need a policy that helps ‘working families’ and the ‘middle class'”)—can magically knock the shackles from the eyes of the majority that already exists as our constituency but doesn’t yet know it, if we could only find the right one.

Then we’re back to the next election year, and some new candidate becomes the embodiment of all our hopes and dreams and the one who’ll call that majority together for us. Frankly, I’ve begun to suspect that the election year version of the “now is not the time” argument and its sibling, the “get him elected first then hold him accountable” line, as well as their first cousin, “Well, that’s what they all have to do to get elected,” reflect nothing better than denial of the grim reality that we can’t expect anything from them or make any demands of them. After all, how can we hold them accountable once they’re in office if we can’t do it when they’re running, when we technically have something we can withhold or deliver?

The fact is that they know we don’t have the power to make them do or not do anything and treat us accordingly, and they will until we develop the capacity to force them to do otherwise. I know this is a difficult message for those who like to believe that politics is about good people and bad people, or that writing really smart position papers that demonstrate the formal plausibility of a win/win agenda that satisfies everyone’s concerns should be enough to counter the influence of those $30,000 per head corporate and hedge fund contributors, but that’s just not the way the deal goes down.

So the question is: how are we to break this cycle to be able to try to build the movement we need to do anything more than staunch the bleeding? Consider as well that the staunching looks less and less meaningful to the growing population that gets defined as on the wrong side of the triage line and that each iteration of the losing game further shrinks the ranks of the relatively secure economically, drives more and more people to the margins, and shifts the thinkable terms of political debate, as well as the electorate’s center of gravity, more and more to the right. We have seen, for example, that after nearly thirty years of bipartisan government-bashing, even in the wake of massive catastrophes like the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the notion of public obligation to provide for the citizenry’s well-being is steadily being wiped out of public consciousness.

(And, by the way, those precocious NGO engineers are energetically instrumental in doing a lot of the wiping.)

And it’s crucially important for those who identify with the left to recognize that there is no designated moment at which the crisis becomes intolerable and “the People” either “wake up” or “rise.” That is simply not the way politics works. Absent concerted, organized intervention, it could go on indefinitely, with all kinds of inventive scapegoating available to stigmatize the previous rounds of losers and provide desperate reassurances to the next. And that would be a political situation and social order likely to grow ever uglier and more dangerous.


The Limits of Utopia as an Aesthetic Category

March 3, 2011 § 13 Comments

Via Gerry, it seems Fredric Jameson is coming out with a new book on Volume 1 of Capital. I’ll save my knee-jerk criticisms of the basic outline until after I’ve read it, but I wanted to highlight the coda of this short preview, in which he gives what might be his most succinct ‘definition’ of utopia and its importance to critical theory:

Perhaps I can make all this clearer by returning to my own work on Utopias and adding a new set of conclusions to it. I there posited two kinds of oppositions: the first one was the opposition between Utopian models or projects and the Utopian impulse. The former included the various proposals of the classic Utopian texts as well as the various historical attempts to realize Utopia in revolutionary practice. The latter, the Utopian impulse, designated the ever-present often unconscious longing for radical change and transformation which is symbolically inscribed in everything from culture and daily life to the official activities of politics and goal-oriented action. I now want to reidentify these two rather different manifestations of Utopia in a new and clearer way: for I have come to realize that the Utopian texts (and also the revolutions) are all essentially political in nature. They all embody so many tinkerings with possible political schemes in the future, new conceptions of governance, new rules and laws (or their absence), in short an endless stream of inventions, sophisticated and naïve alike, calculated to solve problems that exist on the political level. Thus, to give but one example, I will now claim that Thomas More’s inaugural Utopian gesture of the abolition of money (by no means original with him) was not an economic gesture but a political one, and expressly articulated as a means of solving any number of acute social problems.

In that case, I am led to affirm that the Utopian impulse, on the other hand, is profoundly economic, and that everything in it, from the transformation of personal relations to that of production, of possession, of life itself, constitutes the attempt to imagine the life of a different mode of production, that is to say, of a different economic system.

Now I turn to my other opposition which has to do with what can be imagined and what cannot, with the apparently outrageous proposition that Utopias do not embody the future but rather help us to grasp the limits of our images of the future, and indeed our impossibility of imagining a radically different future. Utopia, I claimed, is the radical disturbance of our sense of history and the disruption whereby we approach a thought of the radical or absolute break with our own present and our own system. But insofar as the Utopian project comes to seem more realizable and more practical, it turns into a practical political program in our world, in the here-and-now, and ceases to be Utopian in any meaningful sense.

I will now reidentify this thought with one of the premises of the Marxist tradition, namely the distinction between the two stages of social revolution or, if you prefer, the difference between the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat (which I will interpret as social democracy) and communism itself as such. You will now have understood that this distinction between politics and economics, between the achievable Utopia of the Utopian planners and the deep unconscious absolute Utopian impulse, is one between the social-democratic moment and the moment of communism. Communism can only be posited as a radical, even unimaginable break; socialism is an essentially political process within our present, within our system, which is to say within capitalism itself. Socialism is capitalism’s dream of a perfected system. Communism is that unimaginable fulfillment of a radical alternative that cannot even be dreamt.

If then Utopia is what allows us to become aware of the absolute limits of our current thinking, then such are the limits and such is the contradiction we have become able to confront. I have elsewhere described it as a contradiction between Utopia and Cynical Reason. If so, then it virtually produces its own slogan: Cynicism of the Intellect, Utopianism of the Will!

I’ve already argued that what I suppose you could call ‘concrete utopias’ provide an easily commodifiable form of emotional consolation under the pretense of ‘intellectual cognition’ (I would not necessarily equate imaginary solutions with intentional communities, no matter how ‘unrealistic’ — this implies too much false consciousness on the part of participants).

I also don’t think a “utopian impulse” can be separated from its concrete manifestations, only asserted in yet another utopian tract. This whole aesthetics of utopia seems to parallel the structuring opposition of Sontag’s ‘camp:’

18. One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naive. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”) is usually less satisfying.

In which ‘pure camp’ is the property of the critic who names it, never the producer, for whom too much self-awareness drags him or her inexorably into the horrors of mere kitsch. Though with the proviso that for Jameson there is no ‘pure’ manifestation of the utopian impulse — it is entirely a critical category.

Or, going further back, we can compare with Schiller’s opposition between naïve and sentimental poetry:

The opposite of naive perception, namely, is the reflecting understanding, and the sentimental frame of mind is the result of the endeavor, even under the conditions of reflection, to recover the naive perception according to the contents. This would occur through the fulfilled ideal, in which art encounters nature again. Should one pass through those three concepts according to the categories, so will one meet nature and the naive frame of mind corresponding to it always in the first, art as annulment of nature through the freely working understanding always in the second, finally the ideal, in which perfected art returns to nature in the third category.

If revolt (any “practical political program in our world”) is fully naive, never transcending nature’s limits, then the utopian imagination is sentimental (using our limitless powers of reflection to both expose and gesture beyond our existential limits), and to fully work through it we (critics) must make ourselves receptive to an eschatological revolution as communism’s unimaginable break, “in which perfected art returns to nature.”

But Jameson takes things even further — by splitting concrete (sentimental) utopia and the utopian impulse into ‘political’ vs. ‘economic’ registers (which of course no one thought were fully separate until well after Marx), he seems to distance himself not only from naive practical action, but also from the imagination of utopia itself, retroactively determining all ‘naive’ action (socialism) as ‘merely political’ and elevating economic change tout court to the terrain of the unthinkable. And so the most advanced materialism — the rational and considered (re)organization of relations of (re)production — transposes into the most advanced idealism — the thought of materialism’s impossibility.

Love and Marriage (2)

March 3, 2011 § 1 Comment

The aim of all of this, by the way, is not to deny the universality of ‘love feelings’ (detectable in the brain!). The problem is the reduction of a complex range of emotions to a narrow set of psychological, ethical, and political conclusions — to denaturalize the sense of lack that romantic love promises to completely fill, to relearn it as something that has been expropriated.

Complicating the more or less neat story of my last post, peoples’ movements — feminism, anti-racism, anti-colonial, queer — have succeeded in broadening the scope of privileged subjectivity and substantially redefining it. Adorno and Horkheimer’s critique of “instrumental reason,” the reduction of reality to the logic of utility maximization for ‘humanity,’ needs to be modified. There is a good deal of confusion on this issue. Large bodies of work exist on the mutual reinforcement of white supremacist patriarchy, capitalism, Enlightenment liberal theory, and their effects on our capacity to live together. But accounts of how these new social movements of the late 20th century both influenced and were appropriated by their reactionary opposition are less cohesive.

Post-Frankfurt School sociologist Eva Illouz’s work seems to me to be on the right track. As I posted last, she argues that a therapeutic style of communication, assembled from Freudian psychoanalysis, feminism, and professional self-help literature, became the mainstream emotional jargon for 20th century America. Just as feminism forced a rethinking of class among the left, Illouz argues that it also forced a rethinking of what it meant to be normal, and what it meant to be a man, albeit not necessarily in line with feminism’s goals. Psychoanalysis altered how the ‘first world,’ both male and female, explained itself, as both subject to the telos of self-help — personal realization and happiness within a basically naturalized capitalism. Whether ‘sick’ or ‘healthy,’ male or female, we are compelled to talk about ourselves and our love relationships in the language of therapy, constructing narratives around originary childhood traumas meant to explain the sources of unhappiness: failure to achieve professional success, a happy marriage, or otherwise find satisfaction. (“I can’t love women because my mother didn’t love me enough!” “My hyper-competitive drive is compensation for childhood bullying!”) In addition to normalizing psychological suffering, we learn to understand ourselves as individual bundles of individual neuroses, addictions, and traumas. Illouz argues that this actually encourages the “self-distancing” described by Theweleit. Converting our feelings into a highly conventional language may in some ways expand our repertoire of feelings (as even a debased language is capable of), but it is also a way of detaching them from the limitless potential for self-realization we assume lies beneath all superficial detail. We affirm our uniqueness by commodifying our personal qualities, as either tools to be exploited or barriers to be overcome through consuming specialized products and services. Rather than understand our problems in social and political terms that might lead to communities of shared interest (in the manner of feminists, labor unions, environmental activists, etc.), we seek confirmation from various support groups tailored to suit our special brand(s) of suffering, the point of which is to render us self-sufficient. Ironically, the communities of interest are the ones denounced with the label “identity politics.”

Readers of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, in which modern medical and legal institutions produced confessing, self-scrutinizing subjects for whom the truth of the self (and ultimately truth itself) is to be found in sexual desire and forms of perversion, should find this story familiar. Against Foucault’s argument that the modern institutionalization of the self produced new pleasures (“pleasure in the truth of pleasure, the pleasure of knowing the truth, of discovering and exposing it”), however, she notices that the pleasures of inquisition are not distributed evenly — rather, the therapeutic narrative increased the emotional suffering it was supposed to alleviate, extending it in new directions and creating new dependencies and therefore new ‘opportunities.’ It is inessential whether or not we enjoy carving ourselves up for various market-based interactions, guided by the recommendations of experts; in any case we are coerced. A person who fails to make themselves legible in this way is quite literally antisocial, with consequences up to and including institutionalization (is there any earlier indicator of insanity than an inability to make the reasons for one’s ‘own actions’ commonly understood?). In any case it is striking how much mileage Foucault gets out of assuming the universal appeal of kink.

Another problem I have with Foucault’s account is his lack of distinction between monogamy as a sexual relation and as a form of social reproduction guaranteed by marriage. Against the (unreferenced) ‘Marxian’ argument that reproduction is the economic base to sexuality’s superstructure, he writes:

“People often say that modern society has attempted to reduce sexuality to the couple — the heterosexual and, insofar as possible, legitimate couple. There are equal grounds for saying that it has, if not created, at least outfitted and made to proliferate, groups with multiple elements and a circulating sexuality: a distribution of points of power, hierarchized and placed opposite to one another; ‘pursued’ pleasures, that is, both sought after and searched out; compartmental sexualities that are tolerated or encouraged; proximities that serve as surveillance procedures, and function as mechanisms of intensification; contacts that operate as inductors.”

But I think what Foucault is actually noticing is that sexuality and the normative force of the couple are two different things. Sexualities proliferate, and a scientia sexualis can develop, only when untethered from social reproduction (whether construed as biological, economic, or ideological). And this is just what Foucault argues — the modern production of sexualities only requires a stable center (heterosexual monogamy) to define itself against,  a kind of fiction whose practical influence over any individual’s sex life need not be binding (and Foucault repeatedly implies it’s silly to believe it is). But what he ignores is that the real strength of this normative model persists even if it has little to do with sexuality. This is the freedom (that is, the power) to form social bonds that are both lasting and legitimate, which go beyond single human lifetimes to become institutions. These are mediated by the family, and at the family’s core is the couple, the one permissible free choice in this domain. The institutionally guaranteed predictability of domestic life and its separation from the public is what allows for our age’s sexual diversity (which, incidentally, still seems most open to enjoyment by bourgeois white men). Everything may be open to the swinging husband no less than the adolescent of means, but these ‘life stages’ exist on a single continuum. And that is why I write about love, instead of sex.

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