Musil and Beck on Pseudo-Politics

Posted in Cultural Theory, U.S. Politics with tags , , on September 6, 2010 by traxus4420

“Every investiture of the ideal feels itself as a false ‘we.’ It is a ‘we’ that does not correspond to reality. ‘We Germans’ is the fiction of a commonality among manual laborers and professors, gangsters and idealists, poets and film directors, a commonality that does not exist. The true ‘we’ is: We are nothing to each other. We are capitalists, proletarians, intellectuals, Catholics…and in truth far more — and beyond all measure — caught up in our own special interests than we are concerned with each other. The German peasant stands closer to the French peasant than to the German city dweller, when it comes down to what really moves their souls. We — each nation for itself alone — understand one another very little, and fight or betray one another when we can. We can, to be sure, all be brought together under one hat when we plan to squash it on the head of another nation; then we are enraptured and have a shared mystical experience, but one may assume that the mystical in this experience resides in its being so rarely a reality for us. Once again: this is just as true for the others as it is for us Germans. But in our crises we Germans have the inestimable advantage that we can recognize the real connections more clearly than they, and we should construct our feeling for the fatherland on this truth, and not on the conceit that we are the people of Goethe and Schiller, or of Voltaire and Napoleon.

There is always and in all ages a feeling of insufficient congruence between public life and real life. But can anything at all in public events be the true expression of real life? Am I then, as an individual, that which I do, or am I a compromise between unarticulated energies in me and transforming external forms ready to be realized? In relationship to the whole, this little difference gains a thousandfold in significance. Aside from passive persistence, an unnatural alliance of interests can be held together only through a common interest in using force against others; it does not necessarily need to be the force of war. But if one says that mass hypnosis is at work in times when wars break out, this is only to be understood as an ordered system exploding because of its inadvertently neglected tensions. This explosive stimulus, with which the human being liberated himself and, flying through the air, found himself together with his own kind, was the renunciation of middle-class life, the will for disorder rather than the old order, the leap into adventure, no matter what moral names it might be given. War is the flight from peace.”

— Robert Musil, “‘Nation’ as Ideal and as Reality” (1921)

If anyone epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of what Marxists (almost always hypocritically) call ‘bourgeois consciousness,’ it’s Robert Musil. Brilliant in every conceivable sense, disrespectful of any special distinction (or lack) attributed to the humanities or the sciences, arrogant, and committed to nothing but observation. His class’s highest ideal, the intellectual synthesis of social contradiction, is well enough torn to shreds in the first volume of Mann Ohne Eigenschaften, but it remained the horizon of his thought. And this impossible holding out is what is so attractive about him, for me anyway: his relentless negativity, his unwillingness to propagandize for anything or anyone, even when contributing some measure of practical support. A sympathetic stance but an intolerable one for any writer who intends for their ‘passion’ to serve worldly ends.

A political writer does battle on the field of propaganda. Perhaps all writers are political; English professors today are fond of saying that all culture is political, suggesting (as no one else but David Horowitz does) that even their own writing is potentially significant. So what is a successful propagandist today? Let’s take Glenn Beck. The apparent contradiction between his visibility and lack of political importance is suppressed by pointing to his ‘cultural influence,’ which democratic ideology implies is more important than political or economic power. Beck’s ‘we’ is the same as ours: it tries to communicate the feeling of political engagement to a mass of spectators who have been steadily dispossessed of any active role in the democratic process, but who have unprecedented access to ‘culture.’

Now Musil seems to argue that while the “special interests” we are concerned with are “beyond all measure,” if one must give an estimate, material interests are where one should start. And this is the basis for community that nationalism denies. To awkwardly import a critique of commodity culture: its atomizing effects take place not solely through creating feelings of loneliness and alienation, but through simulating community. According to Musil, this is the necessary function of all political rhetoric. He assumes the traditional liberal tie between politics and the state, but his simultaneous and sympathetic awareness of socialism creates some interesting ambiguities. That he characterizes nationalism and war as dangerous forms of escapism is not new, nor the idea that heroic ideologies such as these reject as inauthentic some version of “middle-class life”; more perplexing is his suggestion that the “leap into adventure” and the promise of conflict is necessary to motivate any large-scale collective project. Are all so-called common interests experienced by default as “unnatural,” even in the midst of conflicts that — given proper materialist analysis — could have been predicted as the “natural” product of “neglected tensions” in a social system? If this is true, then organization based on imaginary interests is indistinguishable from organization based on material ones. All politics become pseudo-politics.

The phenomenon of the Tea Party, like other episodes of partisan hysteria, highlights a possible practical difference between America’s liberals and its vestigial left. Realizing that Beck is a tool of the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch is necessary for any effective response, but informing Tea Baggers of their real material interests doesn’t take place within a vacuum. For the liberal democrats, who are prohibited from acting on any knowledge gleaned from examining things more closely than their opposition, the key strategic controversy is whether to attack the Tea Party or ignore them (at the moment, the progressives do battle while the Democratic establishment concentrates on selling them out). For the left, the ideal thing to do would be to try to hijack their organization — not the die-hard ideologues or financial backers themselves, but the popular base. This would undoubtedly require difficult ideological compromise, but unlike liberals, leftists are not structurally incapable of it, though they may be incapable of actually accomplishing the task (probably impossible if left to underfunded petty bourgeois media workers).

Admitting that Tea Baggers have ‘real grievances’ is an honorable gesture, but without some attempt to establish solidarity the point is academic. What liberals find terrifying and the right finds exhilarating is not so much the content of the ideas (warmed-over libertarianism spiced up with a few paranoid fantasies and tolerance for bigotry), though these are easy for both sides to pontificate about, but the manner in which they are posed: anti-intellectual, contradictory, belligerent, self-pitying, enthusiastic, shameless. As a complete performance, it’s the antithesis of every dubious perk that goes along with liberal or progressive self-identification. What if democracy’s ‘worst excesses,’ and not enlightened reason or a good protestant work ethic, were the true revolutionary values, for ‘them’ as well as ‘us’? Revolution is not a dinner party, nor is it a lecture hall, and politics is not limited to designing entrance exams for imaginary utopias.

Read This Instead

Posted in blogging, Cultural Theory on August 18, 2010 by traxus4420

If anyone still checks this thing, you should read my acquaintance Christian Thorne’s blog instead — he’s doing what was doing a while ago (and may once again), except better.

Brief Note on Consensus

Posted in Activism, Political Theory with tags , , on June 7, 2010 by traxus4420

For those who don’t know, formal and quasi-formal consensus are approaches to decision-making in which every participant has to agree before a decision can be made. Like majority voting, there are a number of mechanics designed to facilitate the process, and others to make it work with larger and larger groups. It’s standard for U.S. anarchists, and widely adopted in some form by other activists, community organizers, etc. Advocates tend to argue that, while mechanics may differ, consensus is the only fully non-coercive principle to guide decision-making, and that anything else (i.e. majority voting, vanguardism, technocratic bureaucracy) has to rely at some point on the threat of force.

I want to respond to a common criticism of consensus, that it simply legitimates coercion by not institutionalizing the power of certain individuals (leaders, representatives, etc.) or subgroups (the majority, elites) to have final say. Instead, these factions continue to influence things while hiding — even from themselves — behind the screen of total legitimacy. Note that this is the exact opposite of the Marxist criticism that anarchist consensus is individualistic, libertarian, and undisciplined. My own (limited) experience as a participant makes the latter hard to take seriously. The facilitators were constantly talking about consensus’s usefulness as a way to “get people out of their own heads” by forcing everyone to speak. The ‘free rider’ problem was reduced, as was the possibility of disclaiming a decision that had already been made — after all, ‘you’ were equally responsible for it.

So the idea that any of this is individualistic is a pretty unimaginative position, and an insult to the commitment of group members, without which the entire endeavor is sort of pointless. Far from being idealist, consensus organizing is deeply pessimistic — as with ‘appropriate technologies’ (another popular idea with activists) the point is to design structures that are resistant to abuse by the ambitious/insensitive/imbecilic. Anything that presupposes competent oversight, resistance to corruption, and a modest degree of human decency in order to function (monarchy, nuclear power plants, oil rigs, oligarchy, etc.) only justifies an elite who will inevitably ruin everything by taking responsibility from those more directly involved (the labor force, the citizenry, etc.).

Anyway, as someone who spends most of my time inside my own head, it quickly became clear that I was not fit for membership. But the accusation that consensus is hypocritical because it’s still ‘coercive’ seems in bad faith. Consensus decision-making is not utopian. It has features common to any form of deliberation: it’s boring, tedious, uncomfortable for introverts, and a lot of hard work. It’s only as effective as the ability of the people it empowers to work together, and their sensitivity to those who might be affected by their decisions. The definition of ‘coercive’ that tends to be assumed in this sort of disillusioned, skeptical critique I’m talking about only allows pure autonomous freedom to count as ‘non-coercive,’ and in that sense discounts itself. A bit like assuming (as lazier readers of Derrida and Bourdieu sometimes do) that vigorous disagreement is a kind of ‘violence’ comparable to punching someone in the face, or blowing up a bank. It is, of course, but this is just a banal truism unless the whole notion of violence is rethought. And that would necessitate rethinking ‘consensus’ apart from assumptions grounded in the idealist justifications (and everyday experience) of representative democracy.

Hacking the Academy

Posted in The University with tags on May 30, 2010 by traxus4420

Great Tumblr series by fucktheory inspired by the ‘hacking the academy‘ project (itself hacked here).

Hack/The Academy: A Dialogue in Seven Segments – part one here

I’ll steal my favorites and put them here:


First of all, then, the question of critique itself – of the possibility of critique.

We who “hack” the academy – and in participating, even to critique, I can hardly exclude myself – where do we think we stand?

I’m not trying to point to any hard or fast rule, since rules always have exceptions.  I’m just asking – how many of us do not have at least a BA from ‘the academy’?  How many of us have never taken something that might be called a ‘theory’ course?  And is there anyone more invested in “hacking the academy” than graduate students, the very cogs whose underpaid labor turns the wheels of the machine and whose bodies provide its fodder?  And even those who have never formally been a part of the machine, who have never participated in the institution – how many of you have never been influenced by a book written by a tenured professor or published through a university press?

In other words, we can’t afford to resist or even begin thinking without first remembering that we are hacking (away at) the very flesh that birthed us, in one way or another.  That doesn’t make this project any less important or useful.  But this basic question of origin cannot be disavowed, and surely we must allow it to limit our expectations.

Have you ever tried to fundamentally change the behavior of one of your parents?

Exactly.  As Ziggy Stardust once said, “It ain’t easy.”



At the end of the day, in other words, it is not a question of inside and outside:  nothing could be more odious than a radical challenge whose “radicality” would be quantified in terms of distance from the institution or the practices of “the academy.”  It is, simply put, a question of production:  what does this “hack” – or any “hack” – allow us to do?  What does it create that did not exist before?  What does it allow us to think that we couldn’t think before?

Derrida’s legitimate distrust of the notion of “interdisciplinarity” is a perfect example of how a nominally or originally radical “hack” can be co-opted into a largely meaningless feel-good concept about which the academy can pat itself on the back.  And if you need another example, what better to serve as one than the very fact that, within this imaginary dialogue, I can mobilize the words of Jacques Derrida, one of the most radical and irreducible thinkers of the 20th century, to serve as the voice of “the academy”?

There is no radical challenge that the institution can’t assimilate.  Change emerges from productions we generate while their forces are regrouping.

Us.  V them.  Over and over again.

Aesthetics of Apocalypse

Posted in Apocalypse, Cultural Theory, Environmentalism, structuralism, Zizek with tags on May 28, 2010 by traxus4420

In the eons since my last post, Haiti suffered a few more secondary quakes, then Chile had an earthquake, Iceland erupted, covering the skies with volcanic ash, Greece’s ongoing crisis spiked again and got bailed out, Thailand tried to have another revolution, American liberals continued to fantasize about right-wing revolt, then British Petroleum vomited death all over the Gulf Coast. And Tennessee got flooded. Of course it hasn’t been anything close to eons, just a couple of months. Though unstylish, Bill McKibben has the right idea: the bad old days of ‘alienation’ from Nature are over. We don’t even live on Earth anymore.

So let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we’re living in the end times. Even for someone as preoccupied with the unimportant as I am, the loop linking apocalypse culture product — CGI spectacles of urban destruction, zombie movies, post-apocalyptic video games, David Simon’s new show, Treme — to its critics — academics, magazine critics, bloggers, anyone with a Facebook account — didn’t occur to me as something worth considering until Roger mentioned it in the comments below and elsewhere.

So then I did consider it, and my conclusions are just as depressing as everything else. First, it seems clearer to me now than ever before that that which the authorities designate as ‘popular culture,’ rife for most of its existence (but especially now) with apocalyptic fantasies, is about as helpful for thinking about shifts in public consciousness, utopian desire, and affects, as a BP press release, or one of Obama’s speeches. Films like 2012 or even marginally more intelligent ones like 28 Days Later exist to provide an imaginary audience with the experience of what it’s supposed to think and feel. Reductionist, yes, but to militate too much against reductionism on the consumption end gives a free pass to reductionism on the production end. If the zombie film should be the most self-aware manifestation of long-term cultural regression, its sense of irony has already grown stale and decadent; the basic premise of the genre, the horror of limitless need in a limited world, is a limit on thought and feeling that stopped being productive a long time ago.

We live in the high point of a moment when previously discredited genres like science fiction, fantasy, horror, and superhero bildungsromane have cache among critics, when high and lowbrow just as often refer to different perspectives on the same object as they do different objects. I suspect the vogue for these texts is grounded in an aesthetic sympathetic with modernist architecture’s dictum that form should express function. In the great non-psychological literary tradition of Voltaire or Kafka or Borges, ‘genre’ texts do not assume any relationship between individual psychological experiences and universal significance; they merely announce a set of rules and perform a series of variations, allusions, and allegorizations geared toward maximum readability. The interesting ambiguities lie in just how the pieces fit together: is Deckard an android? Or in the fine points of allegorical reading: does Tolkien’s universe embody a paganized Christianity or a Christianized paganism? Or in how to parse an ethical dilemma: is it ok for Batman to surveil all of Gotham? Does Jack Bauer really need to torture all those Muslims? Whose revenge is justifiable in Hostel (try Martyrs for a more interesting version of this question)? The world is grasped as a theoretical structure that can only be interpreted, known, and/or changed by structural means: the physical actions of a character, the revelation of a secret, the destruction of the world.

Here is Benjamin Kunkel profoundly not getting it in the pages of Dissent from a while back:

“Our literary sci-fi novels are bereft of strongly individual characters—the apocalyptic ones even more depopulated than they know, the clone narratives at least bespeaking the anxiety that their characters are redundant—and the ongoing merger of genre fiction (where the reader is accustomed to finding no complex characters) with literature (which no one would think to accuse of being indifferent to individuality) has allowed the liquidation of character to pass virtually unnoticed. And this, it seems, is likely to be among the most accurately futuristic features of the “literary” genre novels: they will have been the harbingers of a literary sea change in which complex characters are rejected by critics and ordinary readers alike as morally unattractive (compared to generic heros), hopelessly self-involved (because capable of introspection), and annoyingly irresolute (because subject to deliberation). These prejudices are already articulate and operative whenever fiction is discussed, thanks in large part to the incomplete literature-genre fiction merger, and the prestige such prejudices acquire through that merger allows them to be expressed without the taint of philistinism.”

The thoughtful reader of anyone outside the trajectory of Jane Austen, Henry James, and the 20th century American short story will no doubt scoff at Kunkel’s naivete, though it is post-Lacanian, Post-Jamesonian critics whose tastes are being caricatured here. But do his retrograde views on the centrality of psychologically complex characters to fiction imply anything different in practice to this more ‘modern’ taste for structurally transparent riffs on popular genre? Don’t both use their tastes to justify giving special attention to a limited set of individual, ‘properly cultural’ texts? There are clear echoes of the Richardson-Fielding debate over interior account vs. mock epic, or character vs. author, a productive dissensus essential to the ‘rise of the novel.’ As a bored Alec Guinness intoned at the end of Star Wars, death only makes certain individuals stronger. The author-function is now an empty signifier through which any number of historical forces, zeitgeists, and collective fantasies can be read.

As a corollary, a masterpiece today is not necessarily the work of a heroic, individual master, but an individual text that metonymically summons the world on stage. Even better, really, if no one is responsible — a neo-romantic aesthetic, not of nature or natural genius, but of public opinion. Surely the problematic merger between fine art and mass culture Kunkel sees operating in literature is both a) not restricted to literature and b) somehow linked to the perception of ideological transparency of popular genre products, considered more popular the more rigorously processed for the market they are.

The contemporary-apocalyptic impoverishment of the word ‘culture’ to refer to the sterile contradiction ‘lifestyle’ vs. ‘fiction,’ culture’s near-total commodification, is, I think, precisely what creates the expectation that it should ‘tell us something’ about human experience that no other source can. That something includes an associated pantheon: Society, Values, The Unconscious, Desire, The Will to Utopia, Ideology. But what can a discourse so increasingly cut off from everything that might give it content ‘tell us’ beyond itself? Despite its recent topicality, no major blockbuster is likely to reconnect the zombie to Haiti, its place of origin, or Africa for that matter — that would be ‘racist,’ or, rather, would acknowledge in too clear a light the racism that underpins the entire genre (though Japanese video game designers have no such compunctions). There are many other examples. If we grant that the apocalyptic is a dominant discourse in need of parsing, shouldn’t it be more useful to see how it works in the context of actual events than to restrict ourselves to the universe of fantasy conjured by the spectacle (and its supplementary critique)? The same questions can be asked in the context of real-time ideological warfare. On BP’s oil spill for example, the points of entry are too numerous to list more than a few: the company’s cosmetic concern for keeping the oil concealed, underwater, where it can do even more damage; the technocratic fantasies of elite teams of scientists solving our problems a la Armageddon.

By no means am I trying to dismiss the traditional objects and methods of aesthetic criticism once and for all, whether for ideology critique or for anything else. But I do want to make a point about professionalism and myopia.

Take today’s politics of apocalypse. Obscene levels of corruption are publicly announced every day. Everyone is “fiddling while Rome burns.” BP executives wining and dining government officials, the general prostration of public interest to oil conglomerates common to both Obama and Bush Jr.’s administrations, JP Morgan executives inventing credit-default swaps while drinking heavily at a post-fraternity bacchanal. The scandal, that which is in excess of the justice/injustice of the results of the deals, is that they are made unofficially. Any charge of corruption comes after the making-public of a community existing behind the explicit democratic structure of official discourse, in (dialectical) contradiction to it. As has been all too evident lately, the public revelation of what everyone already assumes, even if it is a critique of illegitimate power, can only strengthen it if nothing is done as a result. The critic who speaks from the imaginary position of either the ‘letter’ or the ‘spirit’ of the law thus always risks extending the power of a ruling elite at the expense of democratic legitimacy as a whole. It is in just this sense that the social critic is in league with her target (despite the necessity of her function), a kind of court jester, producing the aura of authority in the very act of ‘speaking truth to power.’

Is it really much of a stretch to say that when we media critics — today we are all media critics (we are all ‘intellectuals’) — discuss a Hollywood film or a bestselling novel, we are in the same situation? Just as the professional ethics of journalistic ‘objectivity’ insist that reporters stick to official public facts and statements, professional aesthetic criticism focuses primarily on ‘culture,’ which (just as in the ‘rational public sphere’ of press releases and stump speeches) is dominated by the official statements of entrenched powers. They will forever be scandalized by the entirely pedestrian difference between a given discourse and everything else. That old insult, ‘idealist,’ should then be updated to refer to anyone who is ‘just doing their job.’ A reporter should never deal only in official facts; a film critic should never only write reviews; a philosopher should never write ‘pure philosophy.’ Impartiality is irrelevance.

This also entails that we suspend the notion of ideology as a unitary discourse, such that no field, type, genre, or medium can contain ‘the key’ to its structure. If searching for and retrieving that key is the only value Arts & Entertainment are thought to have, then they are by definition worthless. The Zizekian argument about ideology (which I borrowed above in modified form) holds that distance from ideology just is ideology — the claim that one ‘really is’ in excess of the law (whether as authentic human being, social critic, or scheming corrupt politician) even while continuing to perform one’s ideological function flawlessly. In typical Zizekian fashion, to be ‘really subversive’ is not to point out the difference between illusion and reality, but to follow the public law in spite of the unwritten law (the law’s ‘obscene supplement,’ aka the ‘way of the world,’ aka the ‘antithesis’ stage of the dialectic), thus embracing, as he puts it, the “‘crazy’ totality in which a position reverts to its Other in the very moment of its excessive exaggeration.” Don’t just do something, sit there! Conformity is dissent! For Zizek everything refers back to ideology, especially its ‘outside.’ He uses the term ‘ideology’ to indicate the transcendental structure of whatever happens to be the ‘dominant social practice,’ with other social practices just orbiting planets unless they perform the impossible feat of usurping the center. This apparent failure to distinguish between the CNN news ticker and its consequences is really a feature; his ‘innovation’ after all is to avoid the complexities of mediating between (say) Hollywood, the Pentagon, and Wall Street by taking screen reality at face value, reading Red Dawn and Afghanistan in exactly the same way.  As tea leaves.

Which is to point out a dead end, an exhausted discourse, and redirect attention to its ‘context,’ for lack of a better, less bureaucratic term — that which the Borg-like pretensions of so many theories of ideology disguise, no less effectively than utilitarian theories of personhood and efficient markets. Ideology is not, for example, prior to class, or gender, or petroleum. It is not a singular ur-text; ‘in itself’ no more than an empty term that brings strangers into contact. The truism ‘everything is ideology’ suggests instead that there is nothing left to discuss once that contact is established. A speculative, aesthetic definition of Apocalypse Culture might then be: a tendency of otherwise unrelated discourses to collapse around their nonexistent center, to hypnotize each other into talking about nothing. My friends and I, I feel (I can’t think it), have lost an ability possessed by earlier generations to speak without paying tribute to a ghostly imperative to negate ourselves, whether through a meticulously defined but meaningless jargon, or stutters, lapses, and interruptions between vague sentence fragments wrapped in protective irony. Since (according to us) we can only speak about ‘the world’ in terms of commodities, doing so always seems like a ridiculous prospect, even if necessary at times. The only grand statement about the zeitgeist I feel capable of making is that when I watch C-SPAN on YouTube, or read press releases and news websites, I see what looks like the same thing. So we are deaf and dumb. But which is ‘dominant?’ The structural void of ideology that supposedly ‘explains’ our ‘failure to communicate,’ or the 39 million gallons of oil devouring the Gulf Coast?

The Politics 2.0 of Health Reform

Posted in Activism, Capitalism, Politics 2.0, U.S. Politics with tags , , on March 24, 2010 by traxus4420

Now that the bill has been signed, the long debate between liberals and leftists (or between pragmatism and radicalism if you prefer), has solidified into a provisional conclusion about their relationship status. Of course the dynamics haven’t changed a bit, and would have resolved in exactly the same way regardless of the outcome. Winners and losers both love a scapegoat. I limit myself here to responding to the standard liberal critique of the left, which we’ve seen escalate to a fever pitch over the last couple months — that its arguments and proposals regarding health reform were (and are) unrealistic, hysterical, and unethical, three critical grace notes that crescendo from polite warning to all-out vilification.

The fundamental point about any more ideologically than materially interested opponent of the bill (the ‘far left’ and the ‘teabaggers’) is that their antagonism irresponsibly risks the lives of millions of uninsured (the other big one is the economic argument that the bill will save money — but since they’re formally identical I’m going to focus on the more provocative of the two) for basically psychological reasons: vanity, willed ignorance, naivete, sheer irrationality.

The left’s predictable response to this vulgar psychologization of their opposition is to call it an excuse not to deal with their substantive arguments. This is for the most part true, but the exceptions are of more practical importance — Ezra Klein and Jane Hamsher’s back-and-forth was one of the few scuffles where both parties actually helped clear things up (here’s Klein’s response to her critiques from December and her recent list of the bill’s shortcomings if you haven’t read them).

All that said, the basic objections of the left to the health bill are pretty straightforward:

a) Shores up the power and profit of the health insurance industry and big pharma

b) Unsustainable in the long run as a result of a)

c) Ignores technically implementable solutions (single payer, public option, Medicare buy-in) to b) as a result of a)

d) will make it harder to actually fix the health care system because of a) through c)

e) Unethically excludes some possible beneficiaries (mostly undocumented immigrants) as a result of a) through d)

f) sells out women’s abortion rights

g) The bill is just a federalist upgrade of Mitt Romney’s health care reform in Massachusetts, which is currently running down the state’s budget

h) By capitulating on every major point, the left sabotaged any chance it might have had to increase its power as an independently consequential force in politics.

The first of these is a given. Everyone whose opinion counts agrees with it. The question is not ‘is the bill a corporate giveaway’ but ‘do the ‘theoretical’ implications of this fact matter.’ The worst thing about the dysfunctional U.S. health care system — its immediate dependency on and empowerment of profit-seeking corporations with horrific track records — is built into the bill’s structure.  This is of course why regulation of that industry and its enforcement remains minimal. Touted as a legal ‘right’ to health care, it’s actually a state-supervised sale of American citizens to the health insurance industry, paid for by provisions and subsidies whose future solvency is tied as strongly as ever to the fortunes of finance capital. This is what Obama’s administration has always been about: government and industry openly and unproblematically working together to ‘manage resources,’ their preferred definition of politics. Much of what we see happening in public debate over Obama’s policies is the steady repression of older ideological positions that would pit the free market and the state against one another, in favor of a new pragmatism (read: more efficient capitalist class solidarity). And we will surely continue to see this dynamic when we come to finance reform. Altering the newly revised relationship between the state and the health industry in any substantial way would require a second overhaul far greater than the current one, which is not going to occur during Obama’s presidency.

The next three are more debatable. Though the bill will probably be tweaked and improved upon in a ‘progressive’ ‘direction,’ the ‘real reform’ the left keeps bringing up — health care divorced from the corporate-dominated ‘free’ market — is far less likely. Given the current power asymmetry between Obama’s centrism and the progressive movement, a ‘public option’ or ‘single payer’ system will probably only be instated if it doesn’t accomplish what the left wants it to.

The fourth (e) is secondary overall and easily refuted when stated on its own (the new bill will cover more people than before, obviously better than the status quo), so I’m going to skip it.

The wrongness of f) is obscene enough that I’m not going to get into it either.

I’m also going to skip (g), basically agreeing (though details matter, etc. etc.), and noting in passing that it’s a handy retort to anyone who would still lazily/opportunistically equate the far right with the far left, forcing a definition of what ‘progressive’ actually means in practice.

The last point, (h), gets at the core of the left’s internal division. Without any pressing votes, everyone seems to agree on strategy. Now is the time for everyone to wax rhetorical about how ‘this isn’t the end of reform,’ ‘the fight goes on,’ ‘there’s still work to be done,’ etc. But when used as an argument in favor of capitulation, ‘we can fix it later’ obscures the riskiness of the liberals’ own position and projects it entirely onto their ‘obstructionist’ opposition. No one in the progressive movement has any power to write checks for what they will be able to accomplish in the future. Only at the very end of the process, when only one or two votes separated defeat and long-term impotence from victory, when we really were ‘all on the same team,’ did capitulation become necessity, even courage.

The spectacle of Dennis Kucinich’s 11th-hour turnaround is instructive, not for the triumph of ideas it was sold as by the MSM and his supposed progressive allies like Kos and others, but for how it highlighted where decisive political pressure comes from:

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: The pressure doesn’t really come so much from the outside. I mean, I had people who are for this and against it with equal intensity. What the pressure comes from, being told that you might be singularly responsible for the passage or failure of an initiative and having to live with the implications of that.

And, Amy, I’ll tell you that one of the things that surprised me the most is that even though they said everything’s on the line and even though they said it could come down to one vote and pointed at me and said, “That could be your vote,” they still wouldn’t budge on it. So then, I’m—and I mean, I tested and probed and talked to everybody, all the way down the chain of leadership, to see if there’s any way, and frankly, it’s mystifying, except to say that they’re keeping a for-profit system intact. There’s no air in here to try to find a way to get to a not-for-profit system.

As Glenn Greenwald has pointed out again and again throughout this legislative process, pragmatic defenses of the bill’s passage against its critics typically ignore the issue of power (Greenwald also distinguishes a kind of unthinking allegiance to the bill from rational argument in its favor — but in the midst of battle I don’t think they can be kept apart for very long). Health reform was and is a collective project in the same way any capitalism 2.0 institution is a collective project — workers are involved, with an unprecedented degree of intimacy, in labor toward ends they didn’t choose and which are usually counter to their explicit wishes. With every effort they become more dependent on their ‘employers,’ who pay them by, in essence, taking care of them.

Most of what this requires in today’s politics is fostering a sense of involvement, better affective than effective. Party politicians recognize a practical need for reform, and attempt to create consensus among the population of actual and potential activists by encouraging us to feel as if ‘we’ are engaged in a ‘progressive moment.’ So the Obama adminstration’s pragmatic response to crisis: redistribute, recenter, and re-legitimize ruling class power, is depicted as ‘progressive’ (not just ‘preferable’) in relation to the no longer appropriate ideologies and power relationships it seeks to displace. Since the progressive left does all the work of organizing and disciplining itself, all political elites like Obama have to do is repeatedly affirm the collective nature of the endeavor while maintaining its divided, hierarchical structure, and ensuring that a self-conscious activist left remains marginalized. Ignoring or undermining all the left’s demands enforces obedience; for its ideas to be recognized in the political landscape at all it is obligated to negate its own short and long-term goals in actual practice, sublimating them (in utopian, fantastic form) into the ‘movement.’

In this precarious situation, the left gets an opportunity to fight for a more than just symbolic existence in exchange for spending most of its time working for the Democratic establishment. It’s a devil’s bargain, and one that requires constant vigilance in order to work out in the left’s favor. Right now that means accepting that even though health reform was certainly ‘progressive’ for the Democratic party, and will probably be ‘progressive’ in terms of minimal improvements to the efficiency, oversight, and overall cost of the health care system (which should lead to further improvements in the short-to-medium term), it was a defeat of progressivism as a political movement. It’s really not possible to argue otherwise — we won nothing we wanted, only things we didn’t know we were willing to settle for.

This is the heavily compromised position from which ethical arguments by liberals against left critics are made. Critique (h) infuriates liberal pragmatists because it suggests to them that the left is willing to sacrifice human lives for its own power. The fact that power is necessary to any political project is affirmed in theory but ignored in practice, conveniently reduced to a private ‘unhealthy obsession.’ The liberal imperative to “pass the damn bill” became more true as the struggle progressed, reinforced almost without a hitch by the progressive movement’s own actions, even though this contentless pragmatism first appeared on the other side, what the left early on called Obama’s political cynicism. This is the “party discipline” currently being praised, stemming not from any ideological center but from the situation as presented to us, the perpetually crisis-ridden status quo. In the final months, one could conceivably make the case that rejecting the bill really did put you on the same team as the Republicans. Thankfully that useful if counter-intuitive argument had already been well worn in, since almost every stage was (wrongly) considered the battle’s ‘final months.’

Lawrence Lessig recently called Republicans the “sock-puppets” of industry lobbyists: “a campaign waged against these sock-puppets will be a useless campaign waged against ½ of America.” This is more obviously the case now, but was still the case then. I would only amend to this that they were equal opportunity sock puppets — Obama  used them and liberal pundits used them to quash opposition from the left and to try to win support from moderate Republicans (which we thought didn’t exist but now see were just in the closet). Rationalized as a compromise victory, the spectacular ‘defeat’ of teabaggers was political theatre that benefitted everyone except progressives.

Again, improvements will probably be made, but they will be decided on by political elites primarily subject to pressure by inadequacies in the bill they just passed (which may manifest through public opinion polls and phone calls), not because a progressive movement has become more influential. Betting on the horse race, strategic planning for the movement, and argument about the content of the present bill have a tendency to blur together in progressive discourse, which obscures things further. The location of progressive agency is uncertain, so when someone conceivably identifiable as ‘you’ appears to be winning, it’s best not to think too much about it.

People like to feel good about what they’re doing, and probably have to in order to do it at all for very long (making me skeptical about my own future as one of the petition-signing, check-writing, senator-phoning activists I’ve just described). I don’t want to stand in the way of anyone’s celebration. There is reason to cheer for the fact that substantial reforms of any kind actually made it through our ‘historically’ dysfunctional Congress. I even see some short-term value in publicly claiming victory for the cheap political capital. The resurgence of Obama leader-worship and his rhetorical talent for converting collective action into nationalism is obnoxious, though I guess I have to get used to that as a permanent feature of this presidency. But can we just interrogate for a moment the slogan on everyone’s lips: ‘keep fighting!’ For what? For who? Or more to the point, how? If ‘real reform’ is going to happen anytime soon, the outcome of the health reform movement needs to be understood as the failure of progressive strategy, not a validation.

Notes on Structuralism

Posted in structuralism, The French with tags , on February 13, 2010 by traxus4420

An underread (or maybe just underassimilated) genre of intellectual history is the critical history of structuralism, fixing on the linguistic theories of Saussure, Hjelmslev, and Jakobson and their reception by the greater Parisian intellectual scene of the 1960s via Levi-Strauss’s analysis of myth. The ‘debunking’ thesis of Thomas Pavel’s The Feud of Language (given the sexier and less threatening title The Spell of Language in a later edition) is that the dramatic intellectual moment of Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Derrida, et al. — the moment going under the name Theory in North America — is based on illegitimate extrapolations from linguistic models that had already been discredited within their home discipline. Some variant of this critique is probably common knowledge among enthusiasts of the staggering variety of work faithful to the structuralist moment. But it’s unclear what practical consequences critiques like Pavel’s, both foundationalist and methodological, should have on writing that follows a structuralist lineage. Pavel himself preemptively warns against carrying the arguments of his book too far:

“To attempt to exorcise the philosophical singularity of a Derrida or of a Foucault with the help of references to structural linguistics, to Heidegger, or to Nietzsche, or to say that Greimas derived his notions from Hjelmslev, or Levi-Strauss from Jakobson amounts to no more than acknowledging a debt. The most singular part of the enterprise undoubtedly lies in the nature of the decisions taken.”

Rather than a ‘philosophical’ formal critique of the contemporary, he is interested in telling the story of why and how such a towering philosophical edifice was constructed on such shaky grounds, entirely ignoring mainstream (Anglo-American, Austrian, German, and even much French) philosophy of science in the process. I happen to think that a critique of that kind is both possible and called for (I’ll be embarking on Lee Braver’s A Thing of This World in a few days in the hopes of finding it), but will content myself here with mentioning a few of Pavel’s more serious claims.

A big focus is on precisely what problems Saussure’s most influential theses – the arbitrariness of the sign and the subsequent bracketing of the linguistic/semiotic system from its ‘natural’ (causal/functional) context – were intended to solve. Saussure asserted the autonomy of linguistics as a discipline in response to failed attempts to reduce it to evolution, geography, history, or physics. Methodological autonomy of the kind usually invoked was originally based in phonological analysis. Pavel criticizes Levi-Strauss’s generalization of this phonological theory to analysis of morphemes, and his reduction of loosely defined cultural objects like Oedipus to morphemes. In contrast, Chomskian generative grammar (which he is mildly critical of but basically accepts) includes a set of constraints to limit arbitrariness that Levi-Strauss ignored. This allowed him and his followers a “hermeneutical freedom” that makes it impossible to retrace emic (abstract, ‘synchronic’) conclusions – like the symbolic structure of the Oedipus myth – back to their etic (‘diachronic’) constituents – the parts of the different narratives. In this way, Pavel argues, Levi-Strauss repeats precritical, premodern forms of exegesis (scholasticism, cabalism, astrology, etc.). Interestingly, Pavel defines ‘modern’ here as the break initiated by Spinoza’s critique of Biblical hermeneutics in the Tractatus. But this vagueness is what made ‘structuralism’ so attractive to so many different fields, and also what makes it impossible to reduce the later uses of the theory to their common ancestor.

He goes on to point out that further linguistic research has only found differential phonological networks in extremely limited phonetic systems, such as in languages with only thirty or so sounds. And at the semantic level, the differential thesis crumbles: “there is no need for an economy of means in vocabulary, since words can be invented or forgotten on a daily basis,” no verbal structure indeed capable of placing a priori limits on semantic meaning.

Pavel groups the development of structuralist influence on literature and philosophy into a sequence of three partially overlapping moments: “moderate” or “heuristic structuralism,” including literary critics like Todorov and Genette more interested in literary objects than methodological issues (he identifies Jameson as a later member of this group); “scientistic structuralism,” or Levi-Strauss, the early Barthes, and Greimas, who sought complete structuralist models for their respective fields (and I wonder to what extent Franco Moretti should be included here); and finally the “speculative structuralism” of Althusser, Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, late Barthes, who took eccentric or simply loose interpretations of structuralist linguistics well after the discipline had moved on and extrapolated them into reformulations of metaphysical categories.

Pavel identifies their common factor — and common error — similarly to the ‘speculative realist’ critique (I keep the scare quotes because half the group seems not to want the label anymore): that they took language to be the transcendental condition of knowledge. But we can see in retrospect that when we shift to a new transcendental field we inherit all the determinations of the prior discredited one. Positivisitc analytic philosophy encountered the same problem, but the choice of Saussurian linguistics over formal logic has different consequences. Pavel argues that Derrida (for example) has to assume a preexisting harmony between his theory of temporality and objectivity (deferral and writing), and the immanent, arbitrary algebra-governed language posited by Saussure and Hjelmslev. In his attempt to use linguistics to solve a phenomenological problem (the Heideggerian one of the difference between being as presence and being as existence), Derrida has to treat Saussurian/Hjelmslevian linguistics as if their object is metaphysical instead of material — objectivity itself, and not just empirical linguistic phenomena. It’s a translation that tends to be asserted and not argued.

Pavel classifies this key maneuver under linguist C.E. Bazell’s ‘correspondence fallacy’: “the structuralist belief that applying two or more sets of criteria to the same phenomena of language would [necessarily and independently] make the results of the analyses isomorphic, indeed, identical.” One could generalize this: the fallacy of assuming that a given object fundamentally conforms to its initial form of appearance, such that the application of any two or more forms of analysis will produce isomorphic results. This fallacy grounds the transcendental move, whereby we assume both that analysis of the given must start with the way it first appears and that it is not adequately justified ‘in itself,’ concluding that the proper method of critique is to derive the real (transcendental) conditions of its appearance.

There’s more to the book, but I’ll end by emphasizing a few things today’s speculative realists seem to have in common with their speculative structuralist predecessors. The structuralists too were driven by a modernizing impulse, to close a perceived methodological gap between humanist scholarship and natural science. Their anti-humanism was more central to their approach than anti-realism, which they took to require, for reasons that had nothing to do with the provisional autonomy of structuralist linguistics, minimizing or at least ‘bracketing’ intentionality, meaning, and reference (whether physical or functional) from the pure objects of their analysis: signs. Though different in most other respects, the stated justifications for why the speculative realists do, and the form, broadly speaking, of what they’re doing, what moves they want to make within philosophical and cultural (and institutional) discourse, seem unchanged from those of their immediate adversaries. Which is why I suspect the real target here is not the ‘linguistic turn’ per se, but — again same as with the structuralists —historical materialism.