And Now For Something Completely Different

If I was a book in a library, then I'd finally be free

Archive for May 2007

Why Time is Utterly “Out of Joint”

with 3 comments

In her essay published in The South Atlantic Quarterly, “Why Time Is Out of Joint: Marx’s Political Economy without the Subject,” Teresa Brennan argues that Marx did not apply his analysis of Capital and the labour that constitutes it closely enough. In particular, Marx only sees human labour-power as capable of producing surplus value. She invokes Marx’s own contrast of variable capital and constant capital. Only living labour-power falls into the former category by Marx’s original analysis, while natural resources and technology fall into the latter category: “We can even say that variable capital is the source of surplus-value while constant capital is not” (on page 268, for those of you fortunate enough to have access to the article). Human labour-power is the only source of energy in Marx’s view, while everything else is merely a conduit for it.

Brennan does not agree with this, and argues that “all natural sources of energy [i.e. substances that can be converted into energy] entering production should be treated as variable capital and sources of surplus-value” (268). She gets this by extending Marx’s explanation of labour power as energy transfered to a person by means of nourishment. It relies on a basic law of thermodynamics called the law of conservation of energy. Energy is coming from not just humans, but the non-living means of production themselves, in the form of various kinds of fuel– be it bread or oil.

Later she argues that by extending the ability to materialize energy, in the sense that Marx formerly only saw human labour-power as capable of, to agricultural production Capitalism comes up against an old barrier. There is no special name for that barrier, but it is scaled by the development of technology. What formerly required lots of human labour-power to accomplish could now be done with less energy and maintenance costs, as a piece of machinery only costs what is needed to do its specific task. In other words, to use the contrast between living and dead labour Brennan also employs on the same page, Capitalism maximizes its short-term profits by converting living energy (natural resources) into dead(er) commodities, which last longer for the sake of finding a buyer. This bodes well for short-term profits, but leaves less energy to be sown back into the system necessary for sustaining the living energy of humans, plants and animals– and ultimately Capital. Herein lies the “out of joint”-ness of time, because the reproduction of living energy is thrown out of whack as the pace of producing itself outstrips that reproduction.

Brennan admits that with agricultural production this was a more difficult barrier to scale, as plant and animal life is wont to stick to its inherited patterns and natures–unless one considers selective breeding, and invasion of life by genetic technologies. A more common, though I think quintessential, example of this murderous process is diary products, though particularly milk, in the United States. Arguably, that could be extended to food in general too.

Milk, before it is pasteurized, is in a certain sense alive; or at least it is biologically rich. It has enzymes and bacteria that are essential to the nutritive function it serves for those who drink it. In this way milk is potentially dangerous, though not unacceptably so, evidenced by the millenia of world-wide dairy consumption that obviously hasn’t wiped us out yet. Despite that we have pasteurization, effectively a process of killing the milk by boiling it.

Ordinarily, milk will last a day or two before it starts to go bad. This is not so good for the business man who may not have the regular business to consume the milk quick enough. So, on top of serving an ostensible technomedical imperative, pasteurizing milk makes it more portable—it will last longer. The process has become so effective at killing the milk that through a process of ultra-pasteurization, which involves intensely pressure-boiling the milk at temperatures exceeding the normal boiling point, refrigeration is on the verge of being practically unnecessary.

This is a serious boon to the milk-industry, because it allows them to centralize and maximize their production while not running the same (economic) risk of the milk spoiling because of the added time to distribute it. What is lost, however, is what is most essential to the milk: its nutritive value. It is no surprise that the sale of raw milk in the United States has been made illegal: more than constituting a public health-threat, raw-milk in all of its perfectly healthy character as a living source of human energy points directly to the violent economic interest involved. By violent, I mean the at once physical killing of the milk and the direct link this process has to the abstraction of its use-value as it becomes more exchangeable, or rather, by becoming more portable. This has a way of constituting a form of social violence against humans too, in that what is being killed for reasons that go beyond the medical is a staple part of our diet—and you know what they say, “you are what you eat.”

Written by Joe

May 18, 2007 at 4:21 pm

Zizek’s Western Buddhism

with one comment

This is the first of what will probably be many entries on Zizek’s on-and-off-again critique of (Western) Buddhism. Something I have noticed where I have encountered Zizek saying anything about Buddhism (Interrogating the Real, The Parallax View, On Belief, The Puppet and the Dwarf, and at the old Different Maps-blog (should be at the bottom of this page, on June 8th), most of those encounters being represented in Revenge of Global Finance, is Zizek’s quick conflation between what he sometimes calls Western Buddhism and otherwise Buddhism–perhaps what he is talking about when he refers to the Eastern Buddhism of the Japanese in The Puppet and the Dwarf.

It concerns me that what Zizek is after is his own, which is to say our own, distortion of the Buddha’s teachings (buddhadhamma). I say this for two simple reasons, which with much more extensive research than I have done might be resolved. On the one hand, Zizek is never concerned with anything even vaguely attributable to the Buddha; in his standard Hegelian fashion, he is sacrificing the “real experience” for the idea, just as he goes to Paul rather than Jesus for the dirt on Christianity. On the other hand, Zizek uses a slippery terminology when it comes to what he is talking about, when at least we think he is talking about Buddhism. This is evidenced by the parentheses used in the phrase “Western Buddhism.” Many times Zizek outright uses “Western Buddhism” or just plain “Buddhism.” The article I cite above has a couple examples.

The problem here is that he does not make the crucial distinction between the two terms. When he uses the phrase Western Buddhism, this is already to say that this is some strain of Buddhism different from at least one other. He doesn’t exactly explain what is different about it, and from what is it different. Of course, the Leftist and Rightist explaining their opposing party shtick seems applicable, and depending on what you’re trying to get from an explanation of what Zizek means by “Western Buddhism” it might be. What prevents this from fully becoming that kind of issue, and what is my particular issue with Zizek, is that he will use “Western Buddhism” and “Buddhism” while examining and critiquing Western practices, and his condemnation rests on both.

We can borrow a passage from The Sublime Object of Ideology to help illustrate my point.

The proper answer to [Zizek’s critique of (Western) Buddhism] is therefore not ‘[the Buddha’s teachings] are really not like this’ but ‘[Zizek’s idea of Buddhism/Western Buddhism] has nothing to do with [what the Buddha taught]…” (48).

So, in other words, I am skeptical that Zizek’s criticism is against what he thinks it is. More to the point, I think that what Zizek does is compels us to respond in the ideological manner he critiques above (in that case, originally dealing with anti-Semitism and Jews), defending the Buddha’s teachings while in that same gesture showing how they’re really a sham. Why he does this, I’m not entirely sure, but I’ll develop a couple ideas below.

Another example could be the figure of Woman. To the extent that she exists, she is another name-of-the-Father. To the extent that we do not distort her with our desire though, she does not exist. Similiarly, I think that Zizek is not able to confront the buddhadhamma, at least in his theoretical treatment of it, because to him as a theoritician it cannot exist. In otherwords, Zizek can only see the buddhadhamma as its (symbolic) Western distortion, because perhaps, secretly recognizing the mystical emptiness that lay in the resolution of that distortion, it scares him.

So, I’ll end by suggesting that the Buddha’s teachings confronts Zizek, and in that scares him, with a mystical feminine jouissance. To deal with this, he radically conflates Western Buddhism (that I would critique more or less as Zizek does, if that were his only target) and Buddhism otherwise conceived, creating for himself a vision of Buddhism that allows him to actually see it, and in that condemn it. What he condemns is his own misperception, though he would like us to think he goes farther. He would like us to think he is talking about Buddhism where ever and however it is be practiced, and in doing so engages in an ideological critique of something that doesn’t exist.

Written by Joe

May 13, 2007 at 3:30 pm

The Mystification of Dissent

leave a comment »

In the first half of the 20th Century, particularly after the Russian revolution, dissent in the United States was a relatively formal affair for those who wanted to silence it. Simply put, the silencing of dissent was, when it was a concern at all, really mostly a State concern. In particular, the rise of the Cold War involved a massively government coordinated campaign to gut American labour of its (usually very effective) Communist union leadership.

By the mid-1950s organized labour and anything remotely constituting popular dissent was in shambles. In the 1960s something really interesting happened though, unfortunately in either of their favour. All kinds of “revolutions” developed and the public discourse of seditious and controversial matters became arguably acceptable – not to mention all the drugs. The ’60s quickly became a caricature of itself though, even with the world riots of 1968. Without denying earnest and critically considered revolutionaries, the social movements ’60s became co-opted into Capitalist production. This was opposite of what happened to the proto-hipster (hip-cat, if you will) culture of the 1940s, which was effectively forced underground, giving us The Beat Generation.

What is interesting about this transformation is how it so strikingly smacks of Marx’s mystification of commodities. In this case, dissent itself, or at least the so-called revolutionary attitude, is commodified, turned into a veritable fashion (hence our pathetic and politically charged notion of a “fashion statement”). While Adorno prefigured this transformation in his essays on the Culture Industry, the unique commodifcation (and consequent mystification) of dissent seems to escape his analysis of otherwise innocuous cultural phenomena. I mean, political dissent is supposed to be important, at least in a way different from how Benny Goodman was perceived as important in the day to day lives of middle-class “somebodies.” Anymore dissent, by virtue of its popular form, is structured like any other aspect of our free-time. Today, in Portland, many people have taken notice that our protests regularly end just in time to go home, make dinner and go to bed, because you have to go to work the next morning – or worse yet so you don’t miss your favorite television program.

So it comes down to this question, which Marx asks of commodities: whence came the enigmatic character of American dissent and so-called revolution? How did dissent obtain its commodity-form, such that we are quite aware of its pre-determined, repetitive character, yet we act as if it were (as if we were) truly radical?

Written by Joe

May 2, 2007 at 5:19 pm