Friday, January 21, 2011

COMMUNISM & THE CRITICAL THEORY OF THE IMAGE

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-√†-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 m√©diologie 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?’