Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Here is the first in a series of entries on the concept of 'identification,' which, to my mind, should be foundational of any understanding of the imagination that can grasp its ontological significance. 

I want to begin my interrogation of the concept of 'identification' by looking at Freudian theory, to which it is so central, and in particular at Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego

            Freud explains the formation of group as resulting from a process of identification.  There are two things that are interesting about this account.  First, it blurs the traditional psychoanalytic distinction between object cathexis and identification (the two ways in which libido is supposed to form emotional bonds between the ego and others [p. 37]).  The second point of interest is that Freud’s little book really clarifies how psychoanalysis thinks about imitation and hypnosis—quite strictly through the concept of identification.  Furthermore, identification—while it is, quite correctly characterized by Freud as a more penetrating concept than Tarde’s notion of imitation (p.20)—shows its limits as a metaphor in this discussion, and thus calls for being reconfigured.
              Let’s start with the first point: what breaks down the individual’s critical faculties when he or she becomes part of a group is that becoming a member of a group is like falling in love.  But instead of falling in love with another person, one falls in love with the leader of the group.  Whereas in a normal romantic bond the instinctual aim is sexual gratification, here the libidinal bond (i.e. the cathexis) manifests itself minus this aim.  But it also turns out that being in love is also a form of identification, i.e. of introjection of the loved object into one’s superego.  To love someone is to relinquish to them one’s critical faculty.  In this respect, love and hypnosis are identical.  “There is the same humble subjection, the same compliance, the same absence of criticism toward the hypnotist as towards the loved object” Freud remarks (p. 46).  He adds shortly afterwards: “No wonder that the ego takes a perception for real if its reality is vouchsafed by the mental agency which ordinarily discharges the duty of testing the reality of things. The only difference between hypnosis and group formation is the scale: the former happens between two individuals while the latter happens between a leader and a multiplicity of subordinate individuals.  To sum up: what falling in love, hypnosis, and group formation all have in common is what Freud calls a little earlier, in his discussion of love, “idealization” (p. 44).  In other words, the hierarchical social relationship within the group is reproduced via identification in the psychical structure of the individual. 
            One of the many things that are quite interesting about all this is that the second explanation for the formation of the social bond (introjection of the image of the leader into one’s superego) seems to override and submerge the first, namely the object cathexis with the leader that was supposed to be at the origin of the analogy between romantic love and group formation.  More generally, how can falling in love be both an object cathexis and an identification at one and the same time since object cathexis presupposes precisely the thing which identification cannot survive, namely the maintaining of a difference between the subject and the beloved?  This, obviously, also applies to the social relation to the leader: one cannot at once love the leader and be the leader—otherwise, the leader is no longer leader.  Another way of saying this is to grant the identity of cathexis and identification which Freud seems to posit here, and then point out that if that is the case the psychoanalytic distinction between the two is purely formal, i.e. that every cathexis is always already an identification.  But in that case, what truly differentiates Freud’s notion of identification from Tarde’s ideas about imitation?  If all libidinal relations are at their core identifications there is very little room left in Freud’s concept of the ego for the kind of asocial monad upon which is premised his whole theory of civilization, for instance.
            There is also something else that happens in group formation according to Freud that is quite important.  The subject does not simply identify with the leader; it also identifies with the other led subjects.  But whereas it introjects the leader into its superego, it identifies with the other followers at the level of the ego (pp. 47-48).  What is interesting about this final observation is that it suggests that identification does not have to happen vertically or hierarchically.  One could also conceive of a transversal form of identification, an equalitarian or communist identification, since the two (introjection of the leader into the ego ideal and introjection of the other members of the group into the ego) are analytically distinct psychic processes.
            Of course, the question of what transversal identification looks like—the nature of its psychical topography and its processual mechanism—is not answered by Freud, understandably since he has attached himself to the problem of analyzing groups organized around stable leaders (p. 25).  Nonetheless, on the basis of what he says here we can extrapolate a bit more, both on the topic of identification and on the question of disidentification, which he does not tackle at all in this book.
            Clearly, this can be said on the basis of Freud’s comments: while every vertical identification also requires the setting in motion of a transversal identificatory mechanism, any primarily transversal identification requires no vertical counterpart.  Vertical identification—the identification of the superego with a putative leader—necessitates, simply for there to be group formation at all, the identification of the group’s members with each other, as followers of the leader, as brothers, etc…  On the other hand, if we conceive of a strictly transversal identificatory process there does not seem to be a necessity for a vertical correlation.  Members of the Nazi party must incorporate the fuehrer into their superego and, consequently, must identify with each other at the egoic level as party members.  Otherwise there would be no possibility for delegation of authority, chain of command, and so on, all of which are necessary for such an organization to have an esprit de corps.    On the other hand, a movement like OWS or the Direct Action Network of the late 90s and early 2000s requires only an identification of the members of the group with each other, though what that something is probably requires some elucidation.  Certainly, there is an identification at the egoic level: what happens to you (the other members of the group) affects me, and vice versa.  But that is not enough: there must be a parallel type of identification happening that subtends the first, that gives it its substance, that answers the question: why should I identify with you, people to whom I am in a fundamentally anonymous relation.  For, this is what is exciting, what is magical about transversal movements: they come together under the aegis of an instant comaradship.  Everyone knows everyone else equally, even though they may have never met each other before.  What is it, then, that we all know about each other in this sort of setting?  Clearly, there is no superegoic identification here since there is no duty involved, no obedience at stake, no chain of command created (at least not by the identificatory process that produces the group as such).  That there is a libidinal communion is beyond a doubt.  Otherwise, how could one account for the easygoing camaraderie, the immediate intimacy, and the general erotic fluidity that permeates such groups.  From the heretical communistic movements of Medieval Europe to the social movements of the late 1960s and 1970s to present-day equalitarian movements for social justice this sort of generalized libidinal communication has been one of the most appealing characteristics of equalitarian movements.
            Freud does come up with an explanation for movements aiming at social justice, but it assumes precisely the thing which is excluded by their identificatory structure, namely the craving for a leader:
Social Justice means that we deny ourselves many things so that others may have to do without them as well, or what is the same thing, may not be able to ask for them.  This demand for equality is the root of social conscience and the sense of duty. [p. 53]
Once again, we are returned to the thesis of superegoic introjection here, which is so clearly inadequate to the phenomenon itself.  Another hypothesis is necessary then, though what it is remains unclear at the moment.
            There is something rather remarkable about the concept of ‘identification’ in the context of psychoanalytic theory that I have not yet discussed but that may give us a clue about the nature and origin of transversal identification, or at the very least about the obscurity that still shrouds it.  What is striking about the concept of identification is that if one takes it seriously it undermines one of the cornerstones of the Freudian conception of the subject as an impenetrable narcissistic monad, a self-centered, egoistic pleasure-maximizer who is only distinguished from the subject of classical liberalism by being irrational, i.e. largely driven by unconscious forces.  After all, if Freud is right about identification—namely, that it is a sort of absorption into various parts of oneself of others—then the subject cannot be nearly as impermeable or narcissistic as Freud makes it out to be.
            Evidence from contemporary Neuroscience, among other disciplines, suggests, in fact, that humans are not nearly as self-contained as either classical liberalism or orthodox Freudian theory suggest.  In particular, the discovery of so-called ‘mirror-neurons’ over the past two decades, which seem to be the lynchpin of the relationship between perception, and action are quite important in this context.  According to neuroscientists, mirror neurons function by initiating many of the same synaptic patters during perception than occur when the action observed is actually being performed (Iacobini, 2008: 14, 36).  Crucially, this parity between perception and action seems to be a condition of the development of language.  In other words, the existence of mirror neurons suggests that communication can be accounted for by a sort of internal imitation by the listener of the speaker’s discourse, a sort of preliminary internalization of another’s subjectivity.  From here to identification, of course, there is only a very short step.  What contemporary neuroscientific evidence seems to suggest is that the subject of psychoanalysis should be conceived as much more porous than it was by Freud.  In particular where Freud saw primary identifications (with father or mother) as traumatic irruptions into the infant’s narcissistic subjectivity, another account can be suggested on the basis of this evidence: primary identifications can be said to be ‘primary’ only in the chronological sense of being first.  They are also more or less important depending on their duration and exclusivity (or lack thereof), of course, increasing or decreasing thereby the intensity with which they are imprinted on the child’s psychic network, thereby preparing the ground, so to speak, for all future identifications.  But they are not determining in the sense of inescapably prefiguring all future identifications.  The human unconscious might be regarded as a palimpsest of partial psychic imprints.  ‘I’ is many.
            An explanation of how these identifications take place, whether they function transversally or vertically at any given moment, remains out of our reach for now.  But what is clarified by these considerations is that if identification is so difficult to pin down with the concepts of Freudian theory, it is because it suggests a very different picture of psychoanalytic subject than at least one of the strands in that theory suggests. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011


  Imagination and memory are inseparable from each other.  There is no imagination without memory, but also, vice versa, there is no memory without imagination.  Contemporary cognitive science and neuroscience (see for instance Philosophy in the Flesh by Lakoff & Johnson) tend to obfuscate this relationship because they insist on an information-processing model of memory: the brain is like a computer that stores various images and scenes according to complex classification schemes.  Recovering memories depends on figuring which part of the scheme (or which scheme) they are filed under.  In this framework memory—or rather recollection, as I should like to call the phenomenon that is ostensibly the subject of these discussions—is the most straightforward stuff in the world, namely that one can remember what happened last week or last year using certain rather easily quantifiable neuronal mechanisms.
  My own thinking about this takes me in another direction.  There is, I think, a difference between memory and recollection.  The latter is a sort of passive coding of information that happens when we try to remember something according to norms not of our own making—like remembering you atm code or your phone number.  Under this category I would also place traumatic recollections, which is to say recollections of moments in which we were acted rather than acting, as well as “souvenirs”, i.e. moments in which our becoming (de-venir) was ruled under (sous) a principle not our own.  So for instance, when you see an old friend you remember the last time you saw him or you see in a flash an image of the dispute that led to your breaking off contact.  Whether happy or sad the image and its attendant emotions are dictated by the situation itself, that is to say by a dynamism that penetrates the mind from elsewhere.
  Memories, on the other hand, are archeological forays into the present itself.  And this is what, it seems to me, Proust is talking about.  The present has the depth of eternity.  It cannot be a moment that can be separated from the past (when would it begin—now?  Now?).  In fact all of the past is present right now, in this instant, which is eternal.  From this it follows, as Bergson argued a long time ago, that there is no such thing as remembering, only forgetting.  We must forget in order to act, otherwise all of our perceptions, all of our incipient intentions would be drowned in the tsunami of the impossible depth of the present which we habitually call the past.  If I am right about this then memory can be nothing else than a nearly impossible effort at piercing through the floodgates of forgetfulness in order to grasp the eternal in the now—to act, but to act on the conditions of possibility of action themselves.  What Marcel experiences when he dips the madeleine in his tea is the sudden surge of the presence of his childhood in adulthood.  This is memory in the Proustian sense: to re-live what is both irreversibly gone and yet miraculously still here.  It’s that moment when eternity loops in upon itself to repeat the unrepeatable.  And it can do so precisely because the repetition itself is simply a figure of consciousness, a figment.  There is in fact no repetition since the moment remembered has always been right here, on the other bank of the Lethe that mercifully protects our minds from the ruthless storm of time.  This kind of memory, unlike recollection—materialist anamnesis rather than mere mnemonics—is an amazing feast of spontaneity that is uncoded by any instance external to it: it is the experience of time itself rather than submission to the conventions which we spend most of our days bowing to and that are really nothing but idols in need of hammers.  That’s why I think Marcel goes into the most minute observations of the world around him, each element in it revealing an infinite depth that cannot be quenched even by those beautiful endless sentences and paragraphs of his—he is trying to live the present in the present, that is to say to have a free, uncoded, relationship to the real.
  What is a free relationship to the real?  What is freedom?  Ultimately, I think that is the question that motivates the long philosophical meditation that is Á la recherche du temps perdu.  Proust’s answer, so far as I can discern it, is involved in the ongoing phenomenology of the imagination which he unfolds throughout the entirety of the work.  At one point, at the beginning of Guermantes’ Way he writes of “the parcels of reality which my imagination glimpsed” (Pleiade, 1954 ed., II: 36).  The expression reminds me of the Kabbalistic conception of the sparks of God exiled into the material world by the act of creation (check out Scholem’s discussion of Isaac Luria’s Kabbalistic theology  in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism).  The role of the mystic is to redeem the sparks of God through mitzvahs.  Perhaps a useful way to think about Proust’s concept of imagination is as a mitzvah after the death of God.  The imagination redeems parcels of reality.  The creative act, the act of the poet is to invent uncoded ways to express the real.  In doing so, he or she redeems it from its fallenness into the banality of dead metaphors, cultural codes that have become so rote as to hide rather than reveal the astonishing creativity of the real.  Proust’s poet, then, participates in the godhead (or, in kabbalistic terms, clings to it) by inventing it.  Poetry or literature as the source of religion, but in a rather different sense than the one Spinoza had intended in his Theologico-political Treatise: whereas for Spinoza, the imagination is the source of what is most obtuse and superstitious in religion (scripture, prophecy, visions of God, miracles, etc…), the Proust I am inventing here for our mutual enjoyment understands poetic action as the power to express the real (i.e. God) and to add to it (in the mode of linguistic form).  The two are of course not mutually exclusive.  Scripture is in fact a collection of poems whose authors cannot be held responsible if what they wrote was later interpreted as theology or metaphysics.  They were, after all, only doing what poets do: inventing images and symbols that expand the range of our modes of expression, and therefore of our being (since being is expression).  Blake makes the same point quite well in a passage of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
  The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged and numerous senses could perceive.  And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity.  Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslaved the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects.  Thus began priesthood.
  Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales, And at length they pronounced that the Gods had ordered such things.

Poetry as the gateway to freedom, then, is also—necessarily so—the path to slavery.  It cannot bear the one possibility without also, immediately being responsible to the other. 
Sartre argued in a short book he wrote on The Imagination in the mid-30s that what distinguishes imagination from actual perception is the poverty of the former’s images compared with the almost infinite plethora of details contained in the percept.  What Proust shows, however, is that the relationship between image and percept cannot be thought on a quantitative continuum: it’s not so much that the image is poorer (if freer) than its counterparts in perception or memory.  Rather, the choice has to be made at the level of perception and memory themselves:  to perceive and remember according to the normative codes that rule the existing regime of signification or to act on the perceptual and mnemonic apparatuses so as to break free of those codes and, in turn, to become capable of acting and imagining in new ways, themselves undetermined by the dominant codes (though obviously in dialogue with them, i.e. intent on the interruption or détournement of those codes).
  This is a good way to think about the relationship between imagination and science on the one hand and imagination and history on the other—and more generally, I suppose, to think about the epistemological status of the imagination.  The work of the imagination in history for instance, is not to introduce fictions into the representation of facts as positivist historians like to argue.  Rather, it is to break free of the dominant canons that rule the interpretation of historical facts.  This revisionist history can be done in two ways, as Holocaust revisionism and American revisionist history respectively illustrate.  On the one hand, as in the case of Holocaust revisionism one can simply replace the dominant code with another code, i.e. another way of systematizing blindness: rather than sustaining the blindnesses implicit in the dominant narrative of the Holocaust as paradigmatic evil (cf. Badiou’s critique of this view in his Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil) it simply superimposes on historical memory its own blindnesses (primarily through a systematic erasure of the victims—Jewish and other—of the Holocaust).  On the other, as American revisionist history (or the New Labor History of the 1960s) demonstrates, the imagination can punch a hole through the canonical blindnesses of the dominant mnemonic codes, exceed their limits so as to reveal previously invisible subjects of history.  In this latter case the issue is to interrupt the statist narratives of diplomats and bureaucrats, politicians and high-flying businessmen with an examination of the constituent social forces whose work is largely subterranean but shapes the conditions of elite rule.  I say that this kind of history punches a hole through the dominant canons of American historiography because it introduces a universal conception of action (through thinking agency as collective), it opens up historical narrative rather than closing it down.
  It is in the historian’s work, after all, that memory and imagination share the greatest intimacy.  History is memorial work which at once preconditions the possibilities of the imagination and which, at least in some cases, can be redeemed by an act of imagination.  But the same thing applies for any field of knowledge: what Thomas Kuhn had described as “scientific revolutions” in the early 60s are nothing if not the interruption of the status quo of scientists’ common sense by a creative mathematical or observational act that refuses to abide by the dominant canons of conceptual or perceptual logic: think here of Einstein refusing to begin from Newtonian premises in his examination of gravitational force or of Darwin’s break with Lamarckian biological voluntarism in his observation of the faunal diversity on the Gallapagos islands.  In both cases it is the act of inventing a new frame through which to look at the world that makes scientific discovery possible.   
  In future entries for this blog I plan on coming back to the problem of the relationship between history/memory as well as science and imagination by discussing, on the one hand, the line of inquiry opened by Domenico Losurdo, Alain Badiou, and Alberto Toscano on the history of 20th century Communism and militantism more generally, and on the other by taking a closer look at theories of memory such as those of Bergson, Hawlbachs and how they might contribute toward transforming contemporary cognitivist accounts of imagination.  This is a long-term project, however, since I am still parsing through the sources, but I think it should yield some interesting results.  Losurdo, for instance, has been involved in a decades-long project of revising the history of the Communist left (including, of all things, the figure of Stalin) so as to counter Cold War interpretations, much of which has not yet been translated into English.  Can his revision help us to re-imagine the project of Communism in a different light than as a simple rejection of Party politics (which is what it has meant for me and, I think, for a lot of other American leftists up till now)?  We shall see.

Thursday, March 3, 2011


 I have lately been talking with friends about our common condition: unemployment.  All of us have graduate diplomas in our respective fields (Architecture, Philosophy, Women's Studies and Creative Writing) and none of us can find jobs to save our lives.  Universities are getting rid of entire departments or of all of their adjuncts; the housing market being what it is there's not much in the way of jobs designing buildings; City, State, and Federal agencies are either actively laying people off, or they are just freezing all new hiring (eg. the Post Office).  There are still jobs out there, of course, but they fall into two categories that are as unappealing one as the other: either sales (but since the economy is more or less stagnant and most sales jobs are paid by commission, this is more like volunteering than actual work), or very low-paying jobs that used to be justified as temporary work for young people while they were still in school and which we have all begun accepting as just another job over the past 20 years.
  Things are bad, very bad.  What's worse is that the budget proposals currently under discussion at the state and federal levels are clearly going to make things worse instead of better: everywhere the only discussions there are have to do with how much to cut, how many people to lay off, how to reduce salaries and benefits for those who are still employed, all of which will only make things worse for those of us who don't presently have work by increasing the competition for the few jobs that do open up while lowering further what employers can get away with offering as remuneration.
  Have I mentioned that things are really bad yet?  As all these developments are unfolding a single fact is becoming increasingly clear to me: this is not a temporary situation.  In spite of what Obama, his advisers and all the monkey suits on TV are saying, things are not going to get better anytime soon.  In fact, the Republicans are not even bothering to lie about that anymore.  A few days ago Boehner just blurted out that if budget cuts resulted in further job loss that was just too bad.  The likelihood seems to be that unemployment is going to grow instead of shrink over the next few years, that salaries for the bottom 90% of the population are going to shrink (currently at a median of about $30 Gs), and therefore that inequality is going to increase even more than its current levels (right now the top .01% of US pop make $27 mills/year on average, the top .1% make $3 mills/year, the top 1% make 1 mill/year--on average).  This, in turn, will mean that the already ridiculous amount of influence this segment of the population has in Washington will only increase.  And since they are the ones largely responsible for the current fiscal crisis and recession (anyone who believes that it's the fault of unions or government employees should sign up to be on the Koch brothers' payroll) it's unlikely that any of them will make propositions that will actually improve anything for the overwhelming majority of Americans.  Certainly, Obama who identifies with this set (the rich) even if he is not quite a part of it has proven beyond the shadow of a doubt what that segment of the elite that has "good" intentions is willing to do: pragmatism dictates incremental gestures the effect of which is actually to break off one segment of a certain constituency (for instance, the precariously insured and the uninsured--i.e. once again, the bottom 90%) in order to make opposition to the existing system (which, in his view, is unchangeable, of course) less intense.  This will essentially be the effect of his health insurance bill.
  As I started thinking about this situation and talking about it with my unemployed friends it began appearing to me that those of us who are unemployed have two choices ahead of us, neither of which, realistically, has to do with finding sustainable jobs: either wallow in our respective corners, overcome by feelings of self-pity and inadequacy, or come to terms with the political and systemic nature of our predicament and do something about it.  The fact is that people are not unemployed because they are incompetent but because there are no jobs to be had. 
 That's when I came up with what seemed to me like a really bright idea: an unemployed union.  All of us 15 or 20 million unemployed people should come together in a union of the unemployed, an unemployed union that organizes politically on the basis of the systemic, large-scale nature of unemployment today by making demands for policies that reflect the actual causes of this phenomenon (gross inequalities, maldistribution of work--i.e. some people work 80/90 hour weeks while others don't work at all or not enough to make a living) and that reflect the dire and immediate needs of our condition (for instance the need for an unconditional living wage, the need to raise the minimum wage).  Just in case something like that was already going on I made a cursory internet search, and low and behold! there it already was: the unemployed union, with its own website and everything.
  But it turns out that "our" union is organized by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), member in good standing of the AFL-CIO.  As such, it's about as exciting as the labor movement currently is--which is to say, in spite of Wisconsin, not exciting at all.  The unemployed union can help you live less with what you've got (free financial advice software!); it can put you in touch with your DC rep so you can ask for an extension of unemployment benefits (really up to date...), and it can help you... get a job.  Its motto?  "Hire US, America."  With that kind of firepower we might as well all lie down in our coffins and shut the lid...
 What this means is that we, the unemployed still need a union, preferably not an AFL affiliate front group.  Outfits like that, like the Unemployed Union, clearly just push for business unionism as usual, cooperation with employers so that everyone can get "what they need," organizing/fundraising for elections, etc...  The problem with this model for us unemployed is that there is no room for us in it: we can never get "what we need" from employers (because we have nothing they need--or rather, because what they need us to be, we already are) and neither political party can do anything for us in the medium or long run (as they are both quite expertly demonstrating) since the only way they understand the economy is in terms of the international competitiveness of US business, which only benefits from fairly high levels of unemployment in the form of lower wages.
  Our only advantage as a group is that we are a source of great potential instability, precisely because we don't count, because there is no accounting for us in the institutions that manage US workers--i.e. unions and employers.  Really, from the standpoint of the US State-Business complex, in this situation the best solution to unemployment would be a deadly virus that only affected the unemployed.  Not counting for the system means that it wishes you were dead.  When nearly 1/5 of the US working age population can look forward to long-term unemployment it means that structural changes have to be made, precisely because people aren't going to just lay on their  backs and die.
  So.  I don't want to die, and I suspect a significant portion of  those 20-230 million unemployed and underemployed people out there aren't planning on it either.  Looks like it's time to start a real unemployed union, one preferably that deals with existing realities and proposes realistic alternatives (realistic for the unemployed that is, not for the millionaires in congress or the billionaires for whom they work).
 My unemployed union needs everyone: unemployed, underemployed, employed and sick of it, underpaid and unpaid workers (for instance: undocumented immigrants, adjuncts, commercial airplane pilots, and all interns).  And also, it needs desperately not to be mine.  It needs unemployed construction workers and unemployed economists, underemployed poets and unemployed architects, unemployed health workers, unemployed politicians and unemployed salesmen and women.
  Its task will be first to articulate what unemployment signifies today, what kinds of changes it necessitates, what kinds of changes it makes possible.  Let's not forget that being unemployed or underemployed could be good if it didn't mean poverty: it could mean more time for participating in democratic discourse (assuming there were such a thing, of course); it could mean time to write poetry or make art--i.e. to enjoy life, to enrich one's own life and the lives of others, to be creative (and therefore to augment social wealth).  In other words, my unemployed union wouldn't be about finding jobs for everyone: it would be about redistributing the work and the wealth that are already there.
  That's the unemployed union I want.  Anyone else?

Saturday, February 5, 2011


     In the last entry of this blog I had promised an elaboration of what I am calling a critical theory of the imagination, that is to say a theory of how to evaluate the proliferation of images that constitutes humanity’s contemporary historical condition, given the fact that they can neither be dismissed as ‘spectacle’ nor differentiated on the basis of their truth or falsity. This is what I intend to begin doing here by looking at Gilles Deleuze’s interpretation of the work of Friedrick Nietzsche in his 1962 book, Nietzsche and Philosophy. I begin with this book because I see at its core an amazingly powerful theory of the relation between power and imagination, one that is not systematized in it, but which I mean to make quite explicit here. And as the title of this entry indicates my commentary eventually takes me directly to the question of the communist decision, that is to say the decision to become a communist.
     Let us therefore begin directly with the question that concerns us: what is the relationship between image and force in Nietzsche according to Deleuze’s interpretation? At first sight it looks as thought the image were what Deleuze calls a fiction or a projection of reactive forces, the purpose of which is to separate active forces from their power:
Forces are not separable from the differential element from which their quality derives. But reactive forces give an inverted image of that element: the difference between forces becomes the opposition of reactive forces to active ones. It would then suffice for the reactive forces to have the occasion to develop or to project that image for the relation of forces and the values which correspond to this relation to become itself inverted. But this occasion the reactive forces find it at the same time that they find a way to escape from activity. Ceasing to be acted, the reactive forces project the reactive image. It is this reactive projection that Nietzsche calls a fiction: fiction of a super-sensible world that is opposed to this world, fiction of a God in contradiction with life. (p. 143)
A few reminders are in order here. When Deleuze says in the first sentence of this passage that a force cannot be separated from the differential element that qualifies it he is referring to one of the foundational points of his interpretation of Nietzsche. A force exists always in relation to another force. That relation—immanent to the concept of force—is always one of domination or subordination. This is the “differential element” inherent to any manifestation of force to which Deleuze is referring: “Every force is… involved in an essential relation with another force.” (p. 7) There is thus no such thing as “naked force” (and, therefore, since all life is force, no such thing as “naked life”). Furthermore, in every relation of force the differential element is not, or at least not primarily, a quantitative relation: the issue is not so much that there is more of one force on one side of the equation and less of the other force on the other side. Rather the difference seems always to be between active and reactive forces. The question then is whether the differential element that brings the two kinds of force together is a will to “power” or a “will to nothingness.” In other words, are the forces at hand in the service of “affirmation” or in the service of negation (pp. 60-61)?     But how is it even possible for a will to nothingness to ever gain the upper hand over a will to power, since the will to nothingness actively desires nothing but its own disappearance whereas the will to power cannot but affirm life itself? Another way to pose this question, one which brings us back to the vocabulary of force is to point out that by definition the active forces are the ones that dominate, while the reactive forces are subordinate since to react is always to obey (p. 45). And yet, who can deny that reactive forces seem to be in charge everywhere we look? Every philosophical “freedom” is an inevitable path to servitude: obedience to the philosopher king in Plato, to God in Augustine, to reason in Kant, to the State in Hegel. Today, even more so, if that is possible, to obey is the order of the day: all of the values put forward by popular culture as worthy of being embraced—“flexibility,” the pursuit of wealth, satisfaction—are values of obedience (pp. 67, 135). This is perhaps the central problem that Deleuze’s book wrestles with: how is it possible for that which is essentially obedient to trump that which essentially commands?
     And this is where, it seems, the concept of ‘image’ finally comes into the picture. The reactive forces cannot win over the active forces since they are subordinate to the latter; they cannot overpower the active forces since they are, once again by definition, inferior to them. What they can do is give “an inverted image” of the “differential element” that articulates the two—i.e. of the will to power itself. What does this mean? Deleuze writes that the only way for the reactive forces to triumph is for them to “separate” the active ones:
…he [Nietzsche] will show that in each case reactive forces do not triumph by composing a superior force, but by ‘separating’ the active force. And in each case this separation rests on a fiction, a mystification or a falsification. It is the will to nothingness that develops the negative, inverted image, it is this will to nothingness that subtracts. But in this operation of subtraction there is always something imaginary that the negative use of numbers testifies to. (p. 65)
     The reactive forces project an inverted image of the differential element (between active and reactive forces) and thereby transform the will to power into will to nothingness. But what is it that is separated in the active force? What is subtracted from it? And finally, what exactly is that powerful image, that fiction which is powerful enough to transform the will to power into a will to nothing?
According to Deleuze, under some circumstances reactive forces are capable of separating an active force from what it can do. Deleuze gives a particularly compelling example of this phenomenon in his discussion of the Nietzschean concept of ressentiment. Ressenetiment according to Deleuze’s Nietzsche is the first emotion of the slave (the figure representing reactive forces in Nietzsche’s thought, not to be confused with the actual historical instances of the institution of slavery), a defensive reflex of the “bleating lamb,” who declares in a stunning syllogism: “Birds of prey are mean…I am, however, the contrary of a bird of prey. Therefore I am good.”(p. 140) Ressentiment is the primary emotion of reaction because it is structured as a reaction; it gains its momentum from saying “no”. It assigns blame to others, not so much because they are not like it, but because it is not like them. It assigns them guilt for what they are, and it praises itself for what it is not.
     How does ressentiment achieve this feat? By projecting “an abstract and neutralized image of force: such a force, separated from its effects will be guilty if it acts and meritorious, on the contrary, if it does not.”(p. 141) This, of course, is the old myth of free will. The Nietzschean critique of it, which Deleuze carefully reconstitutes, should be fairly straightforward to gather: since every force is always already qualified—as active or reactive (p. 49)—it can never be separated from its consequences: the active force acts, just as the bird of prey preys, while the reactive force reacts, in the same exact way the bleating lamb flees. The lamb’s complaint in the syllogism above is thus absurd since it, in essence, accuses the bird of prey of being what it is.
     Let us come back for a moment, however, on the concept of image that is being presented here: the image that is projected by the reactive forces is that of the “differential element,” the will that organizes the relations between different kinds of force in a given object (or individual, or ensemble). Somehow reactive forces are capable of projecting an inverted image of the will to power onto it in such a way as to transform it into its opposite, the will to nothingness. But how does an image transform anything? How, in other words, do images act? And finally, are images fundamentally reactive, or are there some active images?
     Perhaps taking a step back for a moment will enable us to go forward. The imaginary projection of reactive forces does not transform anything in general, but a very particular kind of thing: a will. Discovering how Deleuze understands the concept of will may help move the investigation forward. He does discuss the question in a rather dense passage that will require some unpacking: “To interpret is to determine the force that gives its meaning to a thing. To evaluate is to determine the will to power that gives the thing its value… The will to power as genealogical element is that from which derives the signification of meaning and the value of values.” (p. 61) Whereas interpretation is what enables us to say whether it is the active or the passive forces that dominate in a given thing, the “will to power”—which here seems to refer to the will in general rather than to one of the elements in the opposition between will-to-power and will-to-nothingness Deleuze draws elsewhere—is what determines the value of values. As such it must always take a stand by either affirming action—what Nietzsche sometimes calls “life”, or creation, or falsehood—or by negating it in favor of something outside it—a supra-sensible world beyond life, ‘better than’ life, or Truth understood as a sort of objective representational exactitude.
     As evaluation the will is a purely subjective gesture, a decision without any objective ground. For it to claim such an objective ground as a justification for the stand it takes is for it to already reveal itself as will-to-nothingness. The will to power properly so-called, then, is both intangible and without any shadow or trace that would connect its existence to the objective world of truth and of things-in-themselves. To place a mirror in front of it, to present it with an image of itself would be immediately to destroy it. And the more ‘accurate’ or ‘truthful’ that image might be the more certain and complete would be its destruction since the image would implicitly impose upon it the values of the opposite type of evaluation. Nietzsche’s concept of image here could profitably be likened to Descartes’ notion of representation. It is precisely the truth content of the representation of the will to power that inescapably inverts its evaluative stand, just as the mirror image inverts the object it reflects (the right being reflected as the left and vice versa). By claiming its epistemological superiority the image of the will to power projected by reactive forces reveals its own slavishness, its idolatrous worship of “Truth” as a supreme value, a value which is in fact nothing but the secularized translation of God. This worship of truth is a denial of life’s supreme attempt to “‘lead astray, to dupe, to dissimulate, to dazzle, to blind.’” (p. 109, originally quoted from The Gay Science) As such it stands in an otherworldly opposition to the world.
     This resolution of the problem of the relation between force and image is only partial, however. For if reactive forces can project a viciously annihilating image onto the will to power, the latter also has an image up its sleeve. The “power of the false,” or art is not to be underestimated: “[A]rt is the highest power of the false, it magnifies ‘the world as error,’ it sanctifies the lie, it makes of the will to mislead into a superior ideal.”(p.117) The political significance of art is that it always disrupts the status quo; it ruptures the normative continuity of the given. Truth, on the other hand, is always on the side of the establishment: “The fact is that the established order and the values of the day always find in it [truth] their most committed supporter.”(p.119) The order of representation always corresponds to the social and political order. To break the former is the task of the work of art. To break the latter is the role of a certain image of philosophical critique. Deleuze writes:
The image of the philosopher is obscured by all its necessary disguises, but also by all the treasons that make of him (sic) the philosopher of religion, the philosopher of the state, the collector of existing values, the functionary of history. The authentic image of the philosopher does not survive the one who knew how to incarnate it for a time, in his time. It must be recaptured, reanimated; it must find a new field of activity in the next epoch. If the critical task of philosophy is not actively recaptured in each epoch, philosophy dies, and with it the image of the philosopher, the image of the free man (sic). (p. 122)
The philosopher is not a figure of eternity, but on the contrary, a figure of his or her times. There are no ‘perennial’ philosophical questions for Deleuze, but only the questions or problems that are singular to a particular epoch, and which it is the role of the philosopher to take up. So historically defined is the role of the philosopher that there can only be an “authentic image” of philosophy, which changes from one epoch to another, no philosophy as such. In other words, philosophy must reinvent itself from scratch from one epoch to the next. Philosophy as will-to-power, or philosophy from the perspective of an affirmative will that elevates active forces to their rightful place must be invented anew in every new historical situation. The specific invention of philosophy is a philosophical critique of the status quo: “To denounce all the fictions without which reactive forces would lose. To denounce in mystification this mixture of baseness and stupidity, which forms just as much the astounding complicity of victims and authors. To make of thought finally something aggressive, active, affirmative. To make free men (sic), that is to say men (sic) who do not confuse the ends of culture with the profit of the State, morality, religion.”(p. 121) These can be the only aims of an authentic philosophical critique: to overthrow reactionary forces and the slavish passions behind which they hide, to bring into question the institutional pillars of this order. Philosophical critique must not be understood in its modern, ultimately Kantian sense, as an operation aiming at reinforcing the limits of ‘all possible thought’, but quite to the contrary, it must be reinterpreted as an attempt to break down the limits of existing thought in order to invent something else:
Instead of a knowledge that is opposed to life, a thought which would affirm life. Life would be the active force of thought, but thought would be the affirmative power of life. Both would work in the same direction, would drive each other and would break limits, one step for one, one step for the other, in an effort of extraordinary creation. To think would signify: to discover, to invent new possibilities of life. (p.115)
The kind of philosophical critique Deleuze has in mind here (or at least Deleuze’s Nietzsche) is affirmative rather than negative: it opens up possibilities for being, rather than closing down possibilities for thinking. The image of philosophy ruptures the status quo by inventing a new way of being, a kind of life that cannot be grasped by existing structures and norms.
     Coming back for a moment to the original question that inaugurated this discussion of Deleuze’s interpretation of Nietzscsche, we can say that there are two concepts of image, and therefore two conceptions of imagination, in Deleuze’s understanding of Nietzsche: on the one hand there is the reactive imagination—we might call it the imagined imagination. This is the kind of imagination described by cultural theorists like Edward Said, Enrique Dussel, or Stuart Hall: the imagination understood as an undynamic repository or archive of stereotypical images that present themselves both as scientific representations of the other and as normative models for how others and ourselves should behave. But while these thinkers tend to grope for an epistemologically or structurally grounded critique of the imagined imagination, the Deleuzo-Nietzschean conception opens the path to a genealogical and directly ethical critique: the problem of the imagined imagination is not that it fails to meet scientific, metaphysical, or theological criteria of truth, but that it appeals to them in the first place. The imagined imagination is driven by passive affects, by an awful ressentiment, an overwhelming will-to-nothingness. Whether one turns to the imaginary of Conquest analyzed by Hall in his brilliant essay “The West and the Rest” or to the 19th century colonial imaginary critiqued by Said in his classic Orientalism this insane nihilism is clear, and the ambivalence of the imaginary representations it produced is but proof of its resentful affect: the Noble Savage can only be completed by the Cannibal as the two sides of European representations of native Americans because both aspects reflect the slavishness of the European conquistadors, on the one hand in the form of envy for the freedom of the savage, and on other in the form of fear of his or her power (what greater power could one attribute to another than the capacity of eating one’s own flesh?). If Native Americans had to be murdered by Europeans in an orgiastic holocaust, it is not because the latter were more advanced—technologically or otherwise—than the former, but because they were imagined as other or less than human by their conquerors (whether they were so or not is irrelevant here, of course).
     On the other hand the imagination in what Nietzsche might call a “healthy soul” functions as the virtual invention of new forms of life, and even more fundamentally new forms of evaluation. But more than being novel in the sense of unusual or even unprecedented, the creations of the active or imagining imagination are structured on the basis of different affects and disclose an unprecedented “power of being affected” (p. 69). If ressentiment and bad conscience are the emotional pillars of the imagined imagination, joy and desire are those of the active imagination. And while the former two obey the syllogism of the “bleating lamb” according to Deleuze (you are bad, therefore I am good), the latter follow a rather different logic, one in accordance with the force field that characterizes the will-to-power, one that asserts first and foremost its own goodness. The imagining imagination produces first and foremost the image of the good or the good under the form of image. Its syllogism is “I am good; but you are mediocre.” The active imagination valorizes this life rather than a life outside of life. It is thus a utopian imagination, and this dimension of it has been explored in great depth by Ernst Bloch. But the utopian imagination should not be taken as dictating the “right” way to live, the path to truth. It is but literature, after all, and makes no such claims. The only souls who can find art enslaving are already slaves! Rather, it is utopian in the sense of proposing or inventing images as fantasies without referent, non-representational images, so to speak, works of art that articulate freedom as a permanent alternative to the status quo.
     I will end this entry with a series of conclusions that follow directly on the lines of thought I’ve developed above. On the side of the imagining or utopian imagination there stands the power of decision. The only decision that can be made is the decision to be free, the decision to become a master--and even an absolute master, in the sense of one who does not need a slave in order to be what he or she is. Slavery, on the contrary, always appears as a necessity, as the only thing one can do, in fact precisely not as a ‘doing’ but as obedience to forces outside oneself. If there is one law to which all are called forth to obey in the contemporary world, it is the law of the market, the law of profit and greed. Institutionally, this law manifests itself as parliamentary liberalism in some places, theocracy in others, or secular dictatorship in yet others. In all of those different settings, the principle of obedience remains the same. What, then, can the philosopher do in the contemporary world? Or perhaps, I should rephrase my question: what else can the philosopher do today than make a communist decision, that is to say, to make the decision of being a communist? Today, the power of philosophical critique can only be that of opening up the possibility of an alternative to the liberal parliamentary status quo. To be free today means to dream, to imagine worlds in which the ‘impossible’ named by the forces of serfdom is the norm: social equality, direct participation and expression in the political process by all. The universality of capitalist inequality and subordination requisition the communist idea and give it its universal significance as the properly philosophical critique of the status quo.
     Today, only communists can be properly called philosophers. The name adequate for those who claim to be philosophers but are not communists is very old indeed. It is: sophist.

Friday, January 21, 2011


I was in a printing house in Hell, and saw the method in which knowledge is transmitted from generation to generation.
–Wm Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

An image is an idea that has become intersubjectively accessible. As soon as it escapes the solitude of interiority—in phonetic or graphic form, either as a printed or as digital object—the formal status of the intellectual object loses all relevance. Deep in the recesses of his mind, the lone subject can believe he distinguishes between a sense-perception emanating from the “outside world” on the one hand and a logical inference of universal validity on the other—let’s say the existence of the ego as Descartes has it. But as soon as the philosopher ceases to meditate on universal truth and begins to write that truth down, in a room lit by the flames of the chimney or by a few candles; as soon as his silk dressing gown begins to rustle in harmony with the sound of his quill scratching away ink marks on the still virgin sheet of paper laying flat on his mythic table, this seemingly all-important distinction evaporates into thin air. All that is left is an image. Knowledge, art, information—all of these can be understood as images. Undoubtedly these images are coded differently to signal their realm of relevance, and this will in turn influence their treatment by communicational networks and their reception by audiences or publics, but in terms of their substantial existence they are homogeneous.
There are two fundamental characteristics of the image that bear noting for the purposes of this discussion:
1. First the image is always a repetition; it always reproduces something else. As such, the image is not only multiple, i.e. never reducible to a one, but it always tends, more or less successfully toward the universal. The logic of the image is summed up in one verb: to copy. From this standpoint it is easy to see why transformations in recording technologies and in technologies of communication are always salient to philosophical anthropology. The more intensive and extensive the range of these technologies becomes the more humans become capable of acting, but also, paradoxically, of being acted.
2. Simultaneously, however, the image is always deviation, variation, difference. As Borges demonstrates in ''Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,'' the perfect image abolishes the identity of its original by repeating it perfectly. But while the image swallows up the concept of identity in the very moment of its faithfulness, it is, empirically speaking, far more heresy than fidelity. In the very moment of its difference the image is invention. From this it follows that the imagination is not so much a faculty of the mind as modern philosophers have tended to argue, but the power of life itself insofar as life is an astounding multiplication of the power of matter. In its essence life is the ability to act, which is to say to differ from itself. Bergson used to say that from the standpoint of reason action is always a mistake. Indeed: if action is anything it is an interruption of the norm, an adaptation in the language of evolutionary theory. The very rational plan I make in my mind in order to achieve a given goal is itself, at its root, imagination, the invention of an alternative to my existential status quo. Thus, even the appearance of distinction between imagination and reason we began with above resolves itself ultimately into the power of the image. As Spinoza observes in his Ethics (P. II, prop. XL, n. 2) the imagination is the foundation of all the different kinds of human knowledge.

The image as repetition. The image as invention. These two analytically distinguishable characteristics of the image are not antagonistic. If they were the image would always be splitting into two different entities in the phenomenal world itself: image-repetition and image-invention. Propaganda and art could never mix, so heterogeneous to each other would they be. On the contrary, the fact that they and so many other supposedly opposed categories merge into each other under most empirical conditions is as strong an argument as any for thinking that, at the ontological level, they cohere. To believe that repetition and variation are mutually exclusive or even in some kind of logical tension vis-à-vis each other, it is required believe some version of the (very Platonic) principle that being is identity (sameness) whereas difference is nothing. Only on the basis of such a claim would repetition and invention appear to be incompatible. If, on the other hand, one were to start from the assumption that being is the differences that articulate all the beings there are—i.e. that the ontologically salient differences are the ones separating (and articulating) all beings to each other, and not the one that separates being from non-being—then the very essence of what is must be comprehended as a repetition of infinitesimal differences. The two characteristics of the image would then be squarely placed at the heart of the Real, and the image itself understood as the categorial foundation of ontology. Adjudicating between these two different understandings of metaphysics is not my aim here. Suffice it to say that I assume the second view to be the case. If I am right in doing so then not only is the concept of image absolutely vital to a critical theory of social and political reality, but a critical theory of the image will substantially be a critical theory of reality as such.

One of the recurring problems this blog will have to confront I suspect is the question of the universal repetition: what, exactly, distinguishes a dynamic, active universal repetition from a static or passive one? By ‘universal repetition’ I mean a repetition that, in its diversity, tends toward growth in an open-ended way, like, for instance, the idea (or image—same thing) of communism. What is it that distinguishes such a repetition from, say, a racist ideology, or from the Christian doctrine? One cannot simply say that the first is true while the other two are false—at least not on the basis of formal criteria like the logical soundness of the one since such criteria are posterior to the imaginary nature of all three (as I observed in point #2, above). Of course, one can say that while one universal proceeds from an imagining imagination the other two are results of an imagined imagination such a formulation would need to be worked out (and I will try to do so in a future entry) in such a way that the image itself could not simply be split down the middle.
Not to engage that question, however, leads to a kind of flat materialism in which nothing matters, in which all ideas are equal in their worthlessness, a kind of nihilistic axiomatics. In a way this is the problem with an otherwise brilliant article by Regis Debray published a few years ago in the New Left Review. Debray is one of the few authors I’ve found who explores the question of the materiality of the communist specter in the 19th century. In the article, “Socialism: A Life-cycle,” Debray argues that there have been three great eras in the universal history of ideas: first, the logosphere, the age of the manuscript, extending from the invention of writing to the end of the manuscript ushered in by the invention of the printing press in the mid-15th century. Predictably, the second era for Debray, is the one dominated by print technologies, which he argues runs from Guttenberg to 1968. Why 1968? Debray says that this is the moment that televisual forms of communication become dominant. He calls this third moment in his chronology the videosphere. It’s worth noting that he does not gives not any evidence for this last date. Nonetheless, Debray spends the remainder of the article arguing on the basis of this chronology that the passage to the videosphere marks the end of socialism, which as a mode of politics relied on the media and institutions characteristic of the graphosphere: the book, the newspaper, the intellectual, the party.
No doubt a historian of the book would have a lot of problems with Debray’s chronology, both in terms of exact dates and of general scheme, and it’s true that his breakdown of world history into three epochs is rather old-fashioned. But this is not what interests me so much, and though I think he probably doesn’t quite have it right, it does seem to me that some sort of periodization of the history of communications in very general terms is probably not a bad idea. If there is truth to the claims I make at the beginning of this post about the importance of the dissemination of images for human subjectivity, then any understanding of history is going to require some understanding of the way systems of communications have altered the possibilities of sociality and of politics. Nor am I terribly concerned in this context by Debray’s rather curmudgeonly evaluation of the political potentials of the videosphere (basically, there are none: all the great revolutionaries were readers of books and newspapers and we now live in a world debased by tv images…). Though this text was published in NLR two years ago, it was originally delivered as a public lecture in the early 90s, and published in 1991 in his Cours de médiologie generale. So if it makes no mention of the internet or even the zine, the alternative newspaper, etc… it’s understandable. Not only was this the moment just before the beginning of the internet explosion, but anyone familiar with the cultural and political desert that was France in the 80s and during the first half of the 90s is bound to feel some sympathy for the limitations of Debray’s analysis in these respects: he wrote in what might be called a historical blindspot, a moment and a place in which neither the future nor the present (broadly understood) are accessible to an individual.
That said, there are several problems which are not so easily overlooked in Debray’s analysis. For one thing he appears to push a hard-line technological determinism in his account of the demise of socialism: socialism functioned politically in an age of parties; parties could work only in a world in which newspapers were the primary “conveyor belts” of ideas and shapers of publics; now that newspapers have lost their dominance, the party is in decline, and socialism is therefore rapidly becoming a ghost. In essence Debray is pushing a really simplified version of Debord’s theses: we have left the age of critical literary intellectuals and are now entering the age of the spectacle. His pessimism is predetermined by the broadness of his categories of analysis. Debray is practicing critique as a form of nostalgia. There are many grounds on the basis of which one should be skeptical of this approach, but one particularly interests me here: revolutionary, broadly socialist forces came in many shapes and forms aside from the party during the hundred and twenty years from 1848 to 1968 that span the period that Debray identifies as the golden age of socialism. Certainly he makes a good argument for why the party form of socialism became the dominant one: the way in which publics could be formed in the graphosphere seems to have farvored those whose unity could be guaranteed by a system of expression that privileged a one-way communication between literati and masses. But Debray himself, too quick for his own good, identifies the roots of socialism’s straying toward totalitarianism in the very critical literary intellectuals which the graphological mode of communications favored:
A germ of Stalinism lay in the frankness of encyclopaedism, stupidity inside intelligence. A fatal distinction prevailed between the leader and the led. Intellectual authority became the grounds for political domination. Knowledge became nationalized, because doctrines, like temples or countries, need frontiers, and armed clerics to guard them. The most philistine despot found himself wreathed in the laurels of knowledge. Academism, museomania and the general smell of mothballs impregnating Soviet societies became endemic when the ‘tradition’-form was held up as the norm of the future: the archive’s posthumous revenge on invention. (p. 15)
No doubt all this is written in a seductively smooth dialectical style, but it somehow seems to miss the obvious point that if a “germ of Stalinism” in the old socialist party model was bound to flourish into a petrified statism that was the antithesis of socialist hope, then there is not much to be nostalgic for. In addition the presence of other forms of thinking about socialist politics and organization that were evident in the various utopian groups of the mid and late 19th century and in the anarchist, anarcho-communist, anarcho-syndicalist, and council communist movements of the early 20th century which had quite lively public spheres of their own suggests that the insistence on a one-to-one correspondence between mode of communication and form of public sphere may be far too rigid a thesis to account for the diversity of historical forms of socialist politics that were possible in the age of the newspaper.
All this leads me to a second, and in a way opposite problem in Debray’s theorization: on the one hand, he postulates the all-importance of a specific system of mediatization in the production of a proletarian public sphere. But on the other, he says next to nothing about the values produced by this system of transmission, or indeed about the relation between value-production and socialism. Socialism thus appears precisely like an empty historical form among others, one random product of the history of human communications. I suppose this only underlines the real unsatisfactoriness of the historicist remainder in Debray’s though: he is counting on a Hegelian-type universal history to produce socialism as its end, but what he provides of such a narrative certainly does no such thing. So it turns out that while his mediological chronology of universal history should be all-important to it, it signifies nothing. Clearly, if one is serious about the importance of mechanisms of transmission of images in the social and political formation of subjectivity, then such a theory of the communication of images must have an axiomatic dimension that is explicit—it must be a critical theory of the image. That such a theory should be intimately connected to the history of communism (in the sense in which I understand the word in this blog) goes without saying. That Debray cannot provide it is just as clear.
Nonetheless, in spite of these problems, Debray hits, perhaps inadvertently, on an insight that seems quite important to me, namely that the graphosphere produced certain kinds of political identifications—socialist, communist, anarchist, fascist, etc…--which no longer make a great deal of sense. It’s not so much that people no longer identify themselves politically nowadays—I am certainly not endorsing the end of ideology or the end of politics theses. But it’s hard not to notice that these days people tend no longer to make sense of themselves according to these sorts of political identifications. If you think of, say, the anarchist movement a hundred years ago and compare it to what it looks like now, it is a rather different beast—at least in terms of newspaper audiences, unions, propaganda organizations, outright political or revolutionary organizations or even utopian communes. It’s not so much that its membership is significantly weakened (one can always argue that questions of numbers are the result of momentary conjuncture more than anything else). More to the point, however, anarchism today is riven by a variety of very new political identifications: there are eco-anarchists, vegan anarchists, anarcha-feminists—even, rather amazingly, anarcho-capitalists, who all happily mix the anarchist critique of hierarchy with a series of concerns that from the standpoint of a classical anarchists perspective would have appeared as highly particularistic. My point is certainly not to poopoo these new developments in the name of tradition—far be it from me! But I find the transformation itself significant, and suggestive of the possibility that publics today are generated quite differently than they were in the heyday of the graphosphere.
This transformation also affects socialism, as Debray notes in his own way, but it is also true of nearly every other form of classical political identification (something which, at least in “Socialism: A Life-cycle”, he fails to point out). That doesn’t mean that politics is disappearing but that people tend to identify themselves politically in different ways: where yesterday there were nationalists and internationalists, fascists and communists, Christian democrats and monarchists, today there are environmentalists and animal liberation activists, feminists and gender activists, black nationalists and human rights activists, or again social justice activists and community activists, etc... People still speak about liberals and conservatives, but it is in terms that are becoming so broad as to be meaningless. Conservative these days can mean anything from Christian theocrat to market libertarian, when as for liberal, the range of meanings of that label may be even broader. What’s even more confusing is that in some important respects liberalism and conservatism are identical, at least in the US: there are no significant differences of principles between liberals and conservatives on economic issues for instance. In fact, in terms of the definition of classical liberalism (viz: a defense of the unfettered market), there is no outside to liberalism; while it is true that the conservative justification for this classical liberal position (namely, that it is the only game in town) is more convincing—if not more compelling—today than the liberal justification (that free markets lead to social progress).

While the phenomenon of the changing form of political subjectivity undoubtedly has many complex causes (the end of the Cold War, the increasing integration of party apparatuses into the state—all over the world, not only in the US—the decay of parliamentary democracy, changing forms of sovereignty on the global level, the corporatization of the public sphere, etc…) it seems hard to deny that one of them is the changing shape of publics. But to make sense of that in a more penetrating way than Debray can one has to be willing to return to the kinds of philosophical and metaphysical questions with which I opened this entry. Debray’s flat materialism will simply not cut it: it only enables him to see that something has happened, but not having any kind of conceptual framework to grasp it with, he ends up interpreting that transformation as the end: the end of socialism, the end of revolution, the end of change. Perhaps this is how the shadow of Hegel still falls across his thought: in a world in which the Hegelian dialectic is coming to an end, the Hegelian believes that the world comes to an end. But the world is still here, life is still differing, the desire for justice, equality, freedom still strong. The question is not ‘what happened to socialism?’ but ‘what name has that which manifested itself as socialism before taken up now?’

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


When Marx and Engels announced in 1848, at the beginning of the Communist Manifesto, that “A specter is haunting old Europe” they were referring to a growing movement of workers who were linked to each other by increasingly militant demands for social equality and political freedom through labor and political organizations, various publishing outlets, as well as informal networks of activists, writers, and intellectuals made possible by the standardization of postal communications and increasing penetration and accessibility of railway transportation. 
            Much ink has been shed over the past few decades on the question of what the status of this concept of ‘specter’ might be in Marxist theory.  Not much, so far as I know, has been said about the specter itself.  I actually don’t want to cast disparagement on the former, and I will certainly use them in my own reflection.  But it does seem to me like the interrogation of the specter of communism needs to be radicalized in a much more materially concrete direction!  In other words, few have been those who have tried to theorize the specter in its own right rather than in relation to the paradoxes and parrallogisms of Marxist theory.  The premise of this web log will be that such an effort is mandated by the current historical conjuncture.
            In fact, the question that will thematically unite the entries I will post in this space could be formulated as follow: Has a new specter been haunting global capitalism since 1989?  For if the ghost Marx and Engels had invoked in 1848 was finally materialized in 1917 by the October revolution, it died from a serious case of sclerotic overmaterialization in the countries of the former Soviet block.  Everywhere else it took hold (China, Cuba, Vietnam, etc…) it is simply dissolving into the ether of the capitalist market.
            But beginning in the mid-80s of the last century, and perhaps with roots in the New Left of the mid-60s, something else has been brewing, a new specter that is beginning to haunt the global order.  In some places like Venezuela it has attempted to take institutional form—so far inconclusively—while in others it is still gathering intellectual and political momentum.  In France the eco-sabotage of activists linked to Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee have put the forces of order on notice.  In Great Britain some of the student protesters against tuition hikes and university privatization explicitly linked their struggles to the work of some of the leading intellectuals in that movement, while in the United States the resurgence of communist-oriented anarchism over the last several decades seems to me to be a sign of the same yearning. 
            What is the relationship of this neo-communist specter to the feminist and queer movements?  What significance does it have for Africa, the Middle East, and Asia?  In other words can it become globally significant?  What are its distinctive theoretical forms and its social and material roots?  How can it or should it constitute itself subjectively?  What forms can its agency(ies) take? These are some of the questions I hope to think about in this web log.  Some of them I have some idea about, while for others I am still at a loss and will try to formulate hypotheses on the basis of current events.  For all of them I hoping that vigorous debate by readers in response to the entries I post here will enlarge the richness and depth of both questions and possible answers.
            At this stage I am planning on posting an entry every other week or so.  The entries should be about 1000-2000 words long, and, while there will be detours by way of current actuality (political and social events, but also analyses of recently published books and articles), they will be largely focused on developing the concept of a “neo-communism” and responding to some proposals that have been made about how to conceive it.