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Tag Archives: Critical Theory

Nostalgia + Kantianism = Revolution?

Narrating the Left: Residual Marxism

Dead Voles has a very nice paragraph on the problem of the Left and Critical Theory, in particular the seeming failure of Americans to hold the nostalgia that Europe does (more than a paragraph, but that is what I repeat here):

Europe is a couple of generations closer than we are to a real left. The critical theorists are hopelessly wrapped around their own fannies confined to dealing with Habermas’ Kantianism, but they still occasionally remember what it’s all supposed to be about. The residual Marxists are wandering around forlornly trying to make sense of themselves in the world of Merkle, Sarcoszy, and Berlusconi, but they still retain a nostalgic sense of loss that some of them can still connect. Here in the US there are no such memories (oh, the odd blog) and no such nostalgia; and more important, not a clue about connection. Sociology was the most obvious academic victim of the cold war. At Brandeis (read “exile from New York”) I was the beneficiary of the death struggle – the end of ideology or the triumph of the will, depending who you talk to. As you said, theory decoupled from practice is meaningless, and by the end of the sixties the decoupling was essentially complete. In its place came the hodgepodge of single issue special interests you’ve talked about so many times.

What is in a Name? Does The Rose Smell as Sweet?

Perhaps this points us toward the historical and DNA difference between Anarchism and Marxism: there was a time in the history of the early 20th century that both conceptual frameworks were providing political paths divergent from growing Industrialized Capitalism. This is the difference between the love of the author versus the love of practice. As David Graeber notes in his Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology [click here]:

Even if one compares the historical schools of Marxism, and anarchism, one can see we are dealing with a fundamentally different sort of project. Marxist schools have authors. Just as Marxism sprang from the mind of Marx, so we have Leninists, Maoists, Trotksyites, Gramscians, Althusserians… (Note how the list starts with heads of state and grades almost seamlessly into French professors.) Pierre Bourdieu once noted that, if the academic field is a game in which scholars strive for dominance, then you know you have won when other scholars start wondering how to make an adjective out of your name…

…Now consider the different schools of anarchism. There are Anarcho-Syndicalists, Anarcho- Communists, Insurrectionists, Cooperativists, Individualists, Platformists… None are named after some Great Thinker; instead, they are invariably named either after some kind of practice, or most often, organizational principle. (Significantly, those Marxist tendencies which are not named after individuals, like Autonomism or Council Communism, are also the ones closest to anarchism.) Anarchists like to distinguish themselves by what they do, and how they organize themselves to go about doing it (4)

This tradition of naming, the emphasis on authors and therefore text once pointed out becomes jarring. I love these texts actually, because I am a writer, but one also has to take the content of these texts, their reported aims and ethical footing seriously, and ask oneself, who or what is one writing for? What processes and structures are actually being supported in this text-terminology production, and to what ends? It is interesting that Carl at Dead Voles comes to his rumination from a post of his tracing the 25 most influential authors on his life, not to mention that most readers of this kind of blog are necessarily logophiles, as I am. 

To divert into an important and repeated trope, must not every text connect to the textile of the body? Is that not philosophy’s greatest question, text vs. textile? Who makes it and what does it signify? And what are we weaving now? These are the threads, that is the loom…a powerful and lasting analogy.

It is not that we need to get away from books, but perhaps get into them. Into the strands of their fabrics. Into what they are made of. Into the pulp, ink and hand, and trace them out, beyond, into their materiality.


Instrumentality and Perception in the Seventeeth Century


Just to jot down a few thoughts and co-incidences that are coming together in regards to my article. These are born from a discussion I had with my wife this afternoon as I sought to renew my focus, and to differentiate between her synthesis of ideas and mine is not easy, nor even necessary. There is something of interest, from the grandest of historical perspectives, in correlating several aspects of the rise of instumentalized thought during the Golden Age. For instance there is the instrumentalization represented by Descartes’ substantial divorce of the Mind and Body, and the attendant mechanized view of phenomena which showed the way for a love of the complex, automated device. On the other hand, there is the mechanized view of produced efficiency that inspired the slave trade just at this time, driving the shift from indentured and sharecropped plans of sugar production (as harsh as they were) toward an imparitiave “progress”: the wholesale import of enslaved African human labor. To put it a bit more precisely, there is something to the kind of vision that was well-appraised in the Cartesian, hyperbolic model, which allows the narrowness of focus on local causal relations, abstracted to calculable laws, which through its valuation alone redeems any particular efficiency, solely due to its distinctness and clarity, a model that bespeaks the horrors of enslaved human beings.

There is something to the rise of the lens and the desire to see more and more clearly, in a blinkered sense, that grants priority to narrow focus. And I believe that it was in this that Spinoza found his greatest objection to automated, instrumentalized productions. Perhaps like our discovered or invented esteem for HDTV, the clearer the better, Spinoza seemed to lack an enthrallment to the “device” as a mere medium of truth. Despite the fact, or even because of it, that he was a grinder of real lenses and a philosopher of the “clear and distinct”, he was much more sensitive to the joining points between human beings and their actions, in particular to the kinds of ideas that were held by persons. One does not simply see better because one sees further, or more minutely. If we take Descartes’ much esteemed and persued mono-axial hyperbolic lens, and turn in analogy to, for instance, the discovered efficiency of West Indies sugar trade through slavery, yes one could say with clarity, “We are producing sugar better”, in the tunnel-vision of clarity for clarity’s sake, but still not see the consequences, the poly-axial realities of the kinds of production we are truly enforcing. There is something to Spinoza’s resistence to the polished mechanism (letter 32) – an uncraftsmanlike transfer of mathematics to form through measure and mechanism, which works with a kind of transcendental force, the device becoming invisible and unconscious – which Spinoza would collapse. He draws our attention both to the flesh-hand that rests on the mechanism itself, but also to the Ideas held by users, ideas which he argues determine the degree of power and perfection of the human actors and their assemblage with their instruments. There is something about Spinoza’s metaphysical reconsilation of the split between Mind and Body – that Descartes had only a few decades before cleaved in the name of a doctrine of a transcendent God, and a Freedom of Will – and Spinoza’s material concern with lenses, light, lathes and glass, which points forth an alternate path or conception, a turn from the sheer instrumentality of either gears or humans. At the very least, a calculation, for Spinoza, must be seen as an act, the mathematical point, as a relation and expression, and an instantiation, a persistence. The criticism Spinoza would have is epistemic. That is, one is always seeing-with, and seeing-with is a communication of parts. If this study of lenses teaches a lesson to me, it would be that the radii of causes, comprehensively taken, are the finer part of seeing, and one only takes the hand off the process, knowingly. There is a certain ecology of perception that Spinoza’s observations on the eve of the Instrument define.


Some related posts: Some Observations on Spinoza’s Sight, A Diversity of Sight: Descartes vs. Spinoza, Spinoza the Merchant: The Canary Islands, Sugar and Diamonds and Leprosy