Archive for the ‘Revolution’ Category
Thesis 8 from Marx’s “Theses on Feuerbach”
All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice. (Marx’s emphasis)
Do that whenever you are sitting on a bike or bus, at a restaurant or movie theater—on a zafu or even with your breath.
This appeared in the Guardian about a week ago. Hat-tip to Larval Subjects and kpunk.
And most difficult of all is that persistent bugbear of the left: who is the subject for change? In Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the term proletariat was used precisely to indicate a class with nothing to lose, who are capable of taking the high risks required in any radical political transformation. Is there any such group today? Vast sections of the working class have been fully pulled into dependency on the liberal state. Immigrants are often atomised and lacking solidarity.
I think what we lack is theoretical work that explains plausible scenarios in which autonomous worker co-operatives could be politicised and achieve universal scope.
Coombs is talking about how the proletariat become dictators of capitalist society. Where is the universality is the right question to ask. Listening to Oregon Public Broadcasting today, which is running its fundraiser, reminded me that competitiveness is a false form of association that fails to be universal. That point of failure is where we might find a universal aspiration, to a form of cooperation that does not do away with the desire to create, innovate, improve and discover.
I, too, want to know is what is to prevent these occupied territories from competing with each other, what universal civilization is to unite these collectives that does not pit them against each other? When we speak of Capitalism, we evoke the absurd notion of a universal social substance supported by competition. So long as our communes are ran like companies, we will fail to flourish, whatever that really means. Then again, maybe that’s the trick: ethical competition, “Homer’s contest.” A universal aspiration lived as eternal contestation, but not a moral compensation for our being free.
If Stalin said, “from each according to their ability; to each according to their work,” Obama formulates the flip-side of the State Capitalist ideological creed as “from each according to their ability; to those according to what they can afford.”
One of Hegel’s complaints in the Phenomenology is against what he calls “picture-thinking.” If it’s not a complaint against it as such, it’s definitely a complaint about a way of thinking about the world people have used it for. A great example of this latter sort of ambiguity is in paragraph 346, where after finishing his discussion of phrenology and otherwise physiognomy, Hegel turns to a rather potent analogy (pun most definitely intended). Since his discussion of phrenology was more or less a discussion of the difference and relationship between the objective world (i.e. explicit appearances) and Spirit, and specifically in the context of phrenology the relationship between the physical skull and the Spirit, he makes a nifty point: the genitals, but more obviously the phallus, are at once the organs of perhaps the highest ecstasy natural to human physiology (Hegel actually refers to its specialness in it being “the organ of regeneration,” which is to say procreation) as well as the organs that handle some of the most nasty stuff we regularly deal with, like urination (cf. Woody Allen in Sleeper: My brain, it’s my second favorite organ!”). While not necessarily making an interpretive point about human physiology (like Freud does with the Oral, Anal and Genital stages of development, which are all sites of otherwise nasty physiological function and pleasure, which we can easily think of as organs of (re)generation if we think of the painful pleasure (jouissance) neurotics seek out of repetition compulsion), Hegel uses this duplicity to say something about how Reason can take this fact.
Brain fibres and the like, when regarded as the being of Spirit, are no more than a merely hypothetical reality existing only in one’s head, not hte true reality which has an outer existence, and which can be felt and seen; when they exist out there, when they are seen, they are dead objects, and then no longer pass for the being of Spirit. But objectivity proper must be an immediate, sensuous objectivity, so that in this dead objectivity—for the bone [of the skull] is a dead thing, so far as what is dead is present in the living being itself—Spirit is explicitly present as actual. The Notion underlying this idea is that Reason takes itself to be all thinghood, even purely objective thinghood itself; but it is only in the Notion, or, only the Notion is the truth of this idead; and the purer the Notion itself is, the sillier an idea it becomes when its content is in the form, not of the Notion, but of picture-thinking, i.e. if the self-suspending judgement is not taken with the consciousness of this its infinitude, but as a fixed proposition the subject and predicate of which are valid each on its own account, the self fixed as self, the thing fixed as thing, and yet each is supposed to be the other. Reason, essentially the Notion, is directly sundered into itself and its opposite, an antithesis which for that very reason is equally immediately resolved. But when Reason is presented as its own self and its opposite, and is helf fast in the entirely separate moment of this asunderness, it is apprehended irrationally; and the purer the moments of this asunderness, the cruder is the appearance of this content which is either only for consciousness, or only ingenuously expressed by it. The depth which Spirit brings forth from within—but only as far as its picture-thinking consciousness where it lets it remain—and the ignorance of this consciousness about what it really is saying, are the same conjunction of the high and the low which, in the living being, Nature naively expresses when it combines the organ of its highest fulfilment [sic], the organ of generation, with the organ of urination. The infinite judgement, qua infinite, would be the fulfilment [sic] of life that comprehends itself; the consciousness of the infinite judgement that remains [i.e. gets stuck] at the level of picture-thinking behaves as urination.
What Hegel is anticipating is his eventual turn back towards Christianity (now that he has just made a certain turn away from it in his ostensible critique of the Unhappy Consciousness), when by the end of the book he ends up arguing how his metaphysics is the literal truth of what is only the metaphorical truth of Christian theology. What is amazing about this move is how it restores the place of the rhetorical, or at least rhetoricality, in contrast to hundreds of years of literalistic picture-thinking qua knowledge as representation. It goes back even further if you consider Hegel’s subtle alignment with medieval Christian mysticism. What Hegel shakes loose, decades before Nietzsche was even born, is the ascetic ideal. Nietzsche is still necessary later on though, because Hegel does not really take himself seriously enough: even in Hegelianism we idealize the transitory world, which is implicitly an attempt to escape from it that Hegel never makes explicit.
The literal truth Hegel wants to suppose for his metaphysics as opposed the metaphorical truth of otherwise symbolic Christianity, which for the most part looks ludicrous when taken literally (a fairly popular approach), is a sort of lala-land that pragmatists, starting with James want to reject. I know I skip over Emerson, who in his own way rejects the foundationalist lala-land of literal meaning or abstract truth, but not only is he not exactly writing polemics like James kind of is (a good thing, on Emerson’s part, by my read), I’m in no position to distill anything interesting about that right now. What Rorty inherits from the pragmatists and Nietzsche is a love for language and its inescapability in how we talk about truth. One thing to which this leads him, much as with Nietzsche and to a lesser extent with Freud and Lacan, is a romantic view of language that argues for a return to, if not a full on valorization of poetry. For other anti-foundational thinkers, like Bloom, this linguistic turn has meant more modestly returning to texts themselves.
This was Hegel’s creative and not logical response to the philosophers of his time and before, though his thinking otherwise would prove to limit his system in the end. When he simply says (mind you, not argues) in Paragraph 82, “…call to mind the abstract determinations of thought and knowledge as they occur in the consciousness,” he is acting more like a poet than a philosopher typical of his time. In a certain sense, he takes experience in general to be a text, to which he returns us when he just starts interpreting it. The logical necessity, the truth of his project is, as Rorty says of truth in general, a compliment he pays to how well thinking this way, saying these things works for him. That it has and hasn’t worked for others since him has nothing to do with the text he produced, but with whether it has worked for them. I like this return to the text, but it the book, the speech of the analysand, or to what is there in all its stupid ambiguity and debatability.
It’s thinking of the text like this that I was pissed off by Benny Shannon. Professor Shannon, as he’s referred to in the article published in the Daily Mail about the burning-bush story of Exodus being a case of drug-use, is laughable and potentially dangerous as the religious zealot who claims Moses is really (no, seriously, really) talking to God in the burning bush. The story has the air of another Bible-story debunked, and I’m all for giving historical depth to otherwise literary documents, but there is no depth to be had by Professor Shannon’s interpretation. The Exodus, certainly the portion recounted in the burning-bush story, is on fairly shaky historical ground, in terms of outside, contemporary sources talking about it on terms outside of the deeply ambiguous and sometimes fantastic terms of the text itself. Professor Shannon wants to, like religious zealots, take this text as for serious about something that really happened, but wants to say what happened was something else. If we were dealing with a historical document, then I’d have less of a problem with this, but what Shannon is doing is interpreting the meaning (his meaning, his 21st century experimental drug-taking and academic meaning) “of the text” as what for serious is meant in the text itself.
On its face, we can take this as just another interpretation, but in its appeal to a real historical happening about which there are clear meanings, it asks to be nothing less than the word of God. I’m not a Christian or a Jew, but I find something fiendish in this, just as I find something fiendish in interpreting anything absolute in user-supplied meaning of the text. I am with Lacan in this respect, whose big beef with Ego Psychology was its insistence on interpreting the transference (i.e. the imaginary relations) rather than the analysand’s Symbolic context, which is to say the text that is the analysand’s situation. There is nothing particularly dangerous about Shannon’s interpretation, which is why my complaint may seem a bit over-blown, but neither is there anything particularly harmful about interpreting the text the way religious zealot does. What’s at stake for me is the very orientation to the text these interpretations take, or rather don’t take. Neither of them really have anything to do with the text itself, and that in itself is what is dangerous about this kind of thinking. Not having anything to do with the text, but ostensibly grounding themselves “in” it, this sort of thinking is effectively made up, but on dangerously unchecked grounds.
I think the more radically middle path would be give up both the concern for what the text really means, and to return to the text itself. When you hear people start talking about what this or that means, you can be sure as sunday that they’re in lala-land, because it is obvious that if we’re talking about this or that that it means something. It’s when they foreground their description with a statement of what we already know that we should be suspicious, like Zizek is of the Bush Administration’s to up-front talk of torture, and wonder deeply why are you saying this; what do you mean by your foregrounding of what this or that means?
[x-posted at Progressive Buddhism]
Whitney Joiner wrote an interesting appraisal of the Dharma Punx phenomenon, which she playfully titled “Dive-bar Dharma.” Specifically she considers how this new phenomenon within American Buddhism relates to the more original phenomenon of American Buddhism itself (i.e. Buddhism that rushed into America after WWII and proliferated with the then counter-culture). In the end she comes out with what, I think, is the typical utilitarian/skillful-means defense of the movement. Rather than strive for appeal through the quasi-authority of Eastern exoticism—which may or may not fairly describe the original appeal for ’50s and ’60s counter-culture-warriors like Allen Ginsberg, who like many other disaffected youth of his time was already enamored with quasi-mystic figures of the Romantic movement like William Blake and the less mystical but no less romantic Walt Whitman, not to mention being steeped in the Jewish and Christian mystic traditions—Joiner thinks Levine and a fellow dharma punk, Ethan Nichtern, are on the right track with their edgy new approach to spreading/practicing the dharma. What I think is missing from this sort of account is the flip-side of even this movement. I’ll digress for a moment in an excerpt from the lengthy comment I left, which I think says my point about as well as I care to right now.
The key to understanding how active Buddhist practice is already (before getting hipsterfied or whatever) is in understanding how active our minds are already.
We are typically dominated by a more or less mild froth of mental activity, both in the moment but largely also out of it. That is to say, when we pull out the drawer to get a spoon for eating our freshly poured bowl of cereal, our minds are probably engaged in that activity, but more likely than not a bunch of other stuff too—whatever we were doing before we made our bowl of cereal, whatever we anticipate doing afterwards and associations and thoughts of other sorts. What happens is we are constantly pulled out of the moment and to the extent that we are in the moment, the weight of the rest of our mental activity can make things that are not in this moment feel very present. Isn’t it common to be in a bad-mood and to take what someone said or did, or some otherwise inadvertent circumstance, as we put it “the wrong way,” only to realize later that “I was just in a bad-mood” and feel crumby about it?
Tarrying with this mental activity, which takes us out of the moment when we don’t even normally realize it until after the fact, is the core of Buddhist practice. Stilling the mind is not simply turning our inessential mental activity off, because we can’t turn our thoughts off like that. Luckily for us, what comes goes, and the same is true for our thoughts. So, the trick of Buddhist practice, at least when we’re talking about meditation, is staying with these thoughts long enough to notice that they are there, but not so that we become unaware of everything else that is going on around us. This is, on the one hand, profoundly difficult, more difficult than anything else someone can try and do, because it is asking that we stay in full contact with every nook and cranny of our mental activity so we don’t lose track of it. On the other hand, it turns out to be profoundly simple too, since after establishing our mindfulness, the mental activity goes away by itself. We’re just there to watch, engaged enough to know what’s going on, but not so much that we’re really worried about what’s going to come of it, since we already know: when this arises, that arises; when this ceases, that ceases.
In this way, Buddhism is already profoundly active from the get go. I’m very much on board with what one of the commenters said about the ease of this practice perhaps unskillfully being put before its simultaneous [depth and] difficulty. As much [as] overly esoteric practices and teachings are unskillful (not in themselves, but because they are brought [up in] an inappropriate context), I think that overly exoteric practices and teachings are probably just as unskillful. The idea that “you aren’t doing anything” isn’t wrong, as I already pointed out, but it’s incomplete, and it is incompleteness of a view or a practice that makes it unskillful. What we do on the meditation cushion, or however you meditate is, first of all, tremendous work, but it isn’t to be just something we do on the meditation cushion. The goal is bring this practice we have in meditation into every moment of our lives. If that doesn’t sound like positively the most difficult thing anyone has ever suggested to you, then I don’t know what will. Nonetheless, somewhat in defense of the article, it doesn’t matter what’s going on the outside so long as the same practice is happening on the inside, whether you say “Peace, man” or “Oi!”
That’s pretty much all I have to say, but I should still add a bit more. What is at stake for Buddhists brought up in Generation X and now Generation Y is still very much what was at stake for the first mentionable generation of American Buddhists in the last century: suffering and its cessation. I probably gloss over a lot when I say this, but I’m not giving a rigorous historical account, just a perspective. The way I see it, people have come to the dhamma because they are ready to begin taking up the path to the cessation of (their) suffering and dissatisfaction with life. If they aren’t, then allure of the exotic (whether its from China, the hippie commune, or the tattoo-parlor) wears off, as everything does, and they get on with their lives—still unsatisfied.
The point I fear is missed by many in the Dharma Punx movement and those surrounding it is that we practice the dharma for its own sake—not because it’s cool or fun or whacky or edgy or however you want to describe the vehicle. I think this marks one of the difficulties for the development of a truly Western (or American) Buddhism, because we have a deep cultural penchant for commodities (i.e. things whose first and practically only purpose is to be consumable by as many people as possible, which is to say, things that are all exterior), which translates into approaching something like the dhamma asking “so what is it good for?” The only meaningful answer I can think of is: everything, and nothing less.
This reminds me of a story I’ve heard from somewhere about the Buddha and a farmer. The farmer comes to the Buddha, who he heard has this great teaching, and asks him if it can help him with this or that mundane problem of his life (nagging wife, unruly kids, failing crops, etc.). The Buddha says his teaching cannot help with any of those problems. He tells him that life is full of all kinds of problems, 83 to be exact, and the Buddha’s teaching will help him with none of them. The farmer, kind of ticked off, asks the Buddha just what good his teachings are then, if they in no way answer to any of these issues in his (or anyone else’s) life. The Buddha points out that his teachings are good and only good for one still yet unmentioned problem, an 84th problem enveloping all the other 83 problems: the farmer wants to have no more problems.
In a similar way, the American Buddhist community’s task is not to be popular (i.e. prolific in a social context insofar as that context stays the same), like when the farmer asks if it can fix this or that problem (i.e. a fix for a problem only when it’s a problem), but to remain effective. By effective I don’t mean in the sense that there is any particular, conventional issue it addresses, but because it remains true to its only purpose: the cessation of suffering.
I’ve noticed an interesting trend in libertarian circles to adopt a rhetoric of choice (mostly in economic terms, and then largely as an issue of taxation) deliberately paralleling, and in many cases competing, with choice as an issue of women’s reproductive rights. It has the potential to digress into blue-in-the-face identity politics shouting matches, but I also think it might be a useful strategy for over-coming just this obstacle to solidarity and dialogue. If so, it’s probably not a conscious effort, in the sense that anyone’s thought of it quite this way and acted accordingly. At any rate, it’s a trend that I hope gains some traction, though not for the libertarians’ sake, but for the sake of Leftists who have yet to formulate any good ways of addressing oppression as a function of identity and vice versa without the divisiveness of identity.
I caught myself this morning, when discussing women’s oppression in the sex-industry with a friend who I already expected was unconvinced, wanting to slip in little phrases that sort of de-neutralize the conversation, that make it safe. The phrase that I think fell the most under my back-space was “for me,” as if to say that this wasn’t really something anyone else should risk but me. Oddly enough, I think that phrase actually shows as much if not more solidarity in their not having to take it seriously as much as I make it safe for them. In effect, I make it safe for me to say, because I don’t really mean it, because it’s “just me” saying it.
I don’t know how many educators employ this kind of reasoning when guiding their students’ writing styles, but I’d like to know. I have had one professor who was a real hard-ass about that kind of stuff, and he would give his explanations somewhat along the same lines of confusing what you mean or if you mean anything at all. It only just recently struck me as having some more important implications for the way we approach matters of philosophy and politics.
In a way this ties back into the blog post I am meaning to write re-visiting Zizek, Lenin, and the Political Act (in response, somewhat, to Foucault is Dead’s conversation at Thinking Girl I mention in the previous entry). This is precisely the subtle, unnnoticable daily act, a Foucauldian micro-practice if you will, that engenders the kind of social conditions that I think Zizek is very paranoid about– and for good reason. For example, Zizek has made the off-hand critique of post-structuralist theorists, like Judith Butler, who make avid use of quotation marks.
So, try this at home, or on the bus, or anywhere you engage people in issues that make you lurch a little inside: when in a disucssion, omit from your rhetoric–”for me,” “as I see it,” etc– anything that diffuses what you’re saying. In other words, say it like you mean it!
I had a fruitful though short exchange with N Pepperell over at Rough Theory late yesterday about some issues raised at Larval Subjects. Distilled like a fine Whiskey, Pepperell concentrates on some questions about change, raised as elaborations of a kind of return to Marx’s “aim of philosophy,” put forth by Sinthome. They are:
1. What is to be changed?
2. How is it to be changed?
3. Why does the world take the form it takes at this particular point in history?
In my comments on Pepperell, I jump at what I saw. These are three questions that seem quite old actually, almost worn out and deceptively practical. I would like to suggest that these questions and their ilk are worth raising only if they point us back– and I think they can– to a more core issue for the cause of revolution and freedom: if the aim of philosophy for Marx is not merely to explain the world, but to change it, than our pre-occupation should not be with the world as much as with change itself. In other words, the appropriate question is:what is change?.
This is what I feel Zizek is up to in his jesterly Leninist moments. As I explained somewhat in my entry last week on Repeating Lenin, and re-iterated in my comments with Pepperell, the concern with change must be dead-serious at its core. This means avoiding the cynical gesture that, as soon as we begin to engage the question of what change is really about, change is impossible and necessarily to be avoided. We should adopt an ironic gesture of confronting this apparent impossibility for change, which confronts us with an almost humorous absurdity, with the intent of taking it as seriously as can be. The point is, of course, that change conceived as a co-ordinate in the present hegemonic-ideological field is by definition an impossibility, as it is (at this point anyway, after the great revolutionary attempts of the 19th and 20th Centuries) the repressed kernel effectively making the reproduction of the ideological field possible. This is what Zizek is getting at when he tells us that “[to repeat Lenin] stands for the compelling FREEDOM to suspend the stale existing (post)ideological coordinates, the debilitating Denkverbot in which we live — it simply means that we are allowed to think again” (Repeating Lenin)
The point is that there is a certain something not going on when all we feel compelled to ask are questions like those I quote from Sinthome above. Masked in such seriousness, this is an activity “of doing things not to achieve something, but to PREVENT from something really happening, really changing” (ibid). The most radical question we should be asking, if we are to return to Marx’s aim of philosophy, is that which confronts change head-on and takes it seriously and not its impossibility. That is why I think there is something important to this repetition of Lenin. It takes us back to “the Lenin-in-becoming, the Lenin whose fundamental experience was that of being thrown into a catastrophic new constellation in which old coordinates proved useless, and who was thus compelled to REINVENT Marxism” (ibid)– the Lenin who had the depth and courage to ask in all seriousness: what is change?
I got to get neck-deep in Zizek this last month in a last-minute paper for a class that should have been written long before the end of the quarter. While trying to hash-out some sort of thesis, I became interested in Zizek’s call to “repeat Lenin,” which is made most comprehensively in the essay-book by the same name (here, in its shorter, strictly essay-format, available through Zizek’s EGS-profile).
The gist of it is this: what Lenin did for Marx was to take his revolutionary theory and turn it into a theory for the Revolution, though the revolution Lenin enacted (the October or Bolshevik Revolution) was necessarily failed because it could only really be accomplished as a second attempt in light of that initial failure. Repeating Lenin is thus not the naively-stupid suggestion that we re-create the Soviet Union, though Zizek does not make great efforts to dissuade us of that possibility, and at one point suggests that our inability to understand the revolutionary logic of Lenin and his government may have more to do with ideological failures of our own time rather than actual failures of the Revolution, but rather the willingness to do the impossible.
In this sense, political revolution for Zizek is the Lacanian act: in either case what we must do (very much in the sense that Zizek argues “doing” is as important if not more important than “knowing” when it comes to ideological critique) is that which implies our stepping through the ideological fantasy we otherwise imagine guarantees our actions to have certain meaning. In other words, Zizek is carving another path to understanding “what it means” to “traverse the fantasy.”In recognizing Lenin’s revolution as failed, we are immediately able to grasp the reason for its failure, a reason that comes to us from the future as the symptom, or rather as our present repression of the revolution. The revolutionary gesture would then be to identify with the symptom, such that we the failed revolution in the past can attain a full ontological status as has-been-already-failed rather than the unconscious pre-ontological status as repressed.
What I took note of when reading this and other essays– and they all seem to be built out of the same stock 5000-7000 words– is the proximity between them and two of Zizek’s more overtly theological books, The Fragile Absolute and The Puppet and the Dwarf. In these books, and the essays orbiting them, Zizek seems also to be suggesting a repetition of something in the Christian tradition that he identifies as coming from Paul more than Jesus. We come to see “Christian intolerant, violent Love” as “Leninist intolerance” and ”fundamentalist intolerance” as basic expressions of the same kind of action Zizek sees as possessing a perverse, subversive even, core for social, perhaps spiritual revolution.
What I am wondering is what this adds to a discussion about faith, especially when the fundamentalist invokes it. Does psychoanalysis not subvert the transparency of scientific positivist knowledge, and suggest, via Lacan’s dictum that reality is structured like a fiction, that to take any symbolic fiction so seriously as the scientist does his science and the fundamentalist does his religion is an equal matter of faith, and that only one who sees through both fictions equally is in a position to choose without dangerously making the imaginary identification with whatever fiction it may be? This is just like an old Ch’an Buddhist parable told by a master. He says that before he studied the buddha-dhamma, he would say that mountains are mountains and that rivers are rivers; that once he had studied some of the buddha-dhamma he would say that mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers; but now that he had attained the most high Enlightenment he says that mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers.
The point I’d like to make is that if, as Zizek has said, only the atheist can truly believe, in that only the true atheist sees through the symbolic fiction such that he can really decide without imagining that any of it is Real, what are we to make of the so-called New Atheists (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris) and their renewed rhetoric of faith and reason. I would like to suggest that they take a cue from theologian, Karen Armstrong, in assessing not the idea of God as infantile, but the very gesture towards God (the divine) being anything like or compatible with an idea as the infantile and dangerous belief of our times– paralleled, obviously, by the scientific (positivist) gesture that “reality” has a form like that of the scientific idea.
The ideological gesture– if the phrase couldn’t have a more accurate example– is the same in the church, as it is in the lab, as it is on FOXNews, as it is at every White-House press conference: our idea is the guarantee of that which the idea represents. The truly radical stance is not a variation on this form, where we replace God with reality or History or whatever, but where we refuse the very (phallic) form as a guarantor.