Archive for March, 2006

Samuel R. Delany

Saturday, March 25th, 2006


I’ve spent the last two days in Buffalo, N.Y., attending a conference honoring, and discussing, the works of Samuel R. Delany. It was exhilarating and intense (as well as a big exhausting) to spend so much time concertedly thinking and talking about the writing of one of our greatest living novelists and essayists. Delany’s work in what he has called the “paraliterary” genres of science fiction and pornography, together with his essays and interviews, constitute a body of work that has reflected on the deepest aspects of personal and social life, on the singularity and discomfort of desire, on the importance of pleasure and civility, on the codes and constraints of race, gender, and sexual orientation, not to mention class and Capital; and that has (seemingly) effortlessly covered an entire span between the most intimate autobiographical revelations and the most far-reaching and abstract theoretical speculations on subjectivization and identity and the forms of social and political (dis)order.

I fear my own attempts to describe the importance and impact of Delany’s writings have descended into vague and pompous generalities. In Western culture we have tended for centuries to put our writers and artists on Great Man (usually man rather than woman) pedestals, at the price of obscuring the minute particulars of their work. But I don’t know how to “mediate” between the particulars of Delany’s sinuous prose and the dazzling breadth of his vision. One minute he is writing in exquisite detail about the erotic appeal of a hand with dirty, bitten-down-to-the-nub fingernails; the next he is powerfully speculating on the way that relationships of power and subordination both incite and regulate desire, and how sexuality both permeates and fuels, and yet steps away from, or subtracts itself from, the predominant economy of exchange in capitalist (and, contrastingly, in pre- and post-capitalist) societies. The thing about Delany is that he doesn’t, himself, mediate between the singular and the universal, or (not quite the same dichotomy) the concretely, immediately personal and the wide-ranging abstraction; rather, his fictions draw us into a world (which is our own, only seen now from a different, and shockingly acute, angle of observation) in which making such broad and clumsy distinctions, let alone trying thereby to mediate between them and re-connect them, seems hopelessly naive.

(I suppose I should mention that I wrote, with more particularity than I am capable of here, about Delany’s recent novel Phallos in an earlier blog entry.)

Anyway, in the last two days I heard smart and passionate talks on subjects ranging from Delany’s writerliness and self-referentiality, to the proclivity many of his characters share for consuming and wasting bodily products (sperm, shit, snot, piss), to the way that visual artists have appropriated and been inspired by his words, and to the ways that his novels invent, imagine, and explore a queer space and a queer time, distinct from those of the dominant heteronormativity.

There’s no way to incorporate all the things that everyone said into some single, central thesis. But thinking about Delany’s work through the various angles the various speakers presented to us, I was able more clearly to see how Delany is a writer with a vision of excess, abjection, and waste that puts Bataille to shame (or reveals Bataille, by contrast, as the timid Catholic schoolboy he in some sense was) while at the same time — and this is perhaps the most radical thing about Delany’s fiction — this “vision of excess” has little or nothing to do with the thematization of capital-D Desire and/as transgression that was not only Bataille’s major concern, but that of so much 20th century modernism. For Delany, even excess to the point of exhaustion, and the most outrageous and “transgressive” (in the commonplace sense of this word) sexual acts (from eating shit to incest) have little to do with any dialectic of law and its transgression, but are rather articulated in terms of range or series of bodily pleasures and potentials that both connect people to one another and to the world, and help define the nature of a “self” that doesn’t pre-exist them. Delany, like Bataille, is concerned with expressing, articulating, and enacting a range of desires and deeds that escape the “economy” of capitalist exchange; but Delany’s vision of expenditure beyond exchange-value does not have any of the Bataillean connotations of sin, unnaturalness, “perversion,” and guilt. Bataille was both the most lucid, and yet the most helplessly ensnared, witness to and visionary of the hopes and horrors of the twentieth century. Delany, for the last thirty-five years or more, has already been looking forward to a possible new articulation of desire — and civility and compassion, and excess and extremity — for the twenty-first (though we are unlikely to realize anything close to the hopes and cravings he gives voice to, without a radical change for the better in our social, political, economic, and environmental conditions).

I am still defining the position of Delany’s fiction more in terms of what it is not, than of what it is. There are no utopian blueprints in Delany’s fiction or essays, and his vision always has a sense of limits and boundaries somewhere: we don’t ever abolish dissatisfaction, we don’t ever have everything; we always still face the unexpected, inevitable surprise and contingency and change. (Indeed, his novel Trouble on Triton is subtitled “an ambiguous heterotopia”; it depicts a world in many respects far better and more open to diversity and desire and mutability than our own, but still one in which there is war and resentment and class friction and willful stupidity — this last embodied in the rather obnoxious protagonist). But in the loops and digressions of Delany’s fiction, in its dazzling intellectual range, in its startling concreteness at so many points, and in its seemingly inexhaustible fecundity (even when it is thematizing, as several speakers at the conference pointed out) exhaustion and waste), there is something of a sense of what SF critics like Jameson and Freedman have called the utopian. It’s a call to think otherwise, more richly and broadly, but also a demonstration of how this richness and breadth is potentially graspable in the here and now, in the body, in human and social relationships.

Delany himself was present for the conference. This was a bit intimidating, as we were all talking about his work; but his comments and interventions, and his generous responses to all our presentations, played no small part in making the conference so satisfying an experience. The final evening, Delany gave a reading from some of his new work: he read the Coda to his current novel-in-progress, called Shoat Rumblin, His Sensations and Ideas. These pages just blew me away: they were luminous and deeply moving, a sort-of meditation (by one of the characters in the novel, the father of the eponymous character) on sexuality (of course) and compassion and fatherhood (this last, which I cannot help being concerned with as the father of two young girls, was approached with beauty and entirely without the sappiness that so often vitiates discussions and evocations of the subject for me).

Davide Grassi

Thursday, March 16th, 2006


The next event in the DeRoy Lecture series is an appearance by the Slovenian artist Davide Grassi, presenting his “anti-entertainment interactive movie,” DEMO-KINO: VIRTUAL BIOPOLITICAL AGORA. (More information available here).

DemoKino is a virtual parliament that through topical film parables provides the voters (participants) with the opportunity to decide on issues that are, paradoxically, becoming the essence of modern politics: the questions of life. The project questions not only the utopia of contemporary virtual forum that is supposed to open ways for a more direct and influential participation but also points out a much deeper problem of modern democracy (virtual as well). With its reduced narrativeness – the story is built on the ‘pro and contra’ inner dialogues of the protagonist who is led around his home in a parliamentary kind of way by the ‘voters,’ based on their decisions – Demokino shows how these ethical dilemmas of modern life suddenly become the core of our political participation. When the issue of life enters the political arena and modern politics becomes biopolitics the democratic decision reaches an impasse: in the political arena laws are being debated on issues that can actually tolerate no decisions and any kind of majority rule is problematic in itself, any political regulation a publicly legitimated act of violence. Demokino is a virtual parliament that clearly displays how politics comes before law. Law is just a utopic and redundant technical procedure to cover the political essence.

Partrich Auditorium
Wayne State Law School
471 W. Palmer St.
Detroit, Michigan
Tuesday, March 21, 2006 at 3:00 pm.

Grundrisse notes

Tuesday, March 7th, 2006

I’ve been reading through Marx’s Grundrisse, which unaccountably I had never read before. It’s clear that this huge manuscript consists of rough notes, in various degrees of development. Marx never could have intended publication in this form. Parts of the manuscript are dazzlingly brilliant, and other parts are rather tedious (like the places where Marx, who was a philosophical giant, but evidently not a math wiz, takes twenty or thirty pages of tedious arithmetic calculations to establish, for instance, the fact that fractions which have the same numerator but different denominators are not, in fact, equal to one another). But against that, there’s the excitement of seeing Marx actually work through and work out philosophical and historical arguments (like that about what he later came to call “primitive accumulation”) which are only presented in finished form in Capital.

Here, too, Marx first works out the argument about “surplus value”: which is where we get a lot of the tedious and painfully elementary mathematics, but also where we get a full statement of the argument — not quite articulated in this way in Capital, or anywhere else in Marx’s writing, as far as I can remember — about how the whole notion of surplus needs to be thought in the sense of a radical incommensurability.

What I mean is this. (A lot of this is very elementary, but I need to write it all down here as part of the process if working it out for myself). The so-called labor theory of value, together with the quantitative calculation of surplus value, have long been the most contentious points in Marxist theory. This is largely for mathematical reasons which Marx clearly had a lot of trouble with (and which I myself can only partly understand). Basically, Marx (following Smith and Ricardo) defines the “value” of commodities and products in terms of the human labor that has been required to make them (even things like raw materials can be defined in these terms, since their value = the amount of human labor that was required to extract and appropriate them in the first place). Overall, this is an argument about how resources and productive forces are allocated by society as a whole, in terms of both production and distribution.

The trouble is that such a global concept of “value” does not actually correspond to the way that individual commodities are actually bought and sold. There is no direct equivalence between a commodity’s value as Marx defines it, and its empirical price in the marketplace. These are two separate dimensions; Marxian values have to do with the overall social organization of the economy, while prices have to do with the fluctuations of supply and demand (and especially marginal supply and demand). Marx endeavored at great length to figure out the mathematics of how value could be converted into price (or more precisely, how value — as a reality at the level of economic production — is in fact transformed into price, and surplus value correspondingly turned into profit, in the actual movements of the marketplace). But he failed; his mathematics was flawed, and apparently no general mathematical solution is even possible, aside from very special circumstances. (This is the so-called transformation problem. Marxists have offered various ways around the problem, usually based on questioning the premises under which the mathematical calculations are carried out in the first place: for instance, all the models imply a situation of equilibrium in the economy as a whole; but Marx is always suggesting that this equilibrium cannot be pre-assumed, since capitalism really moves in terms of disequilibrium and crisis).

If value cannot be calculated in empirical terms, then neither can surplus value (or the quantitative amount that capitalists are appropriating from workers). Marx knows that there is no simple one-to–one correspondence between the rate of exploitation in a given firm or industry, and its profit; rather, the entire social surplus (the excess of what is produced over what is paid for in production costs) gets distributed among capitalist enterprises through the market. But again, Marx never succeeded in linking the macro-level to the micro-level mathematically. This has led the majority of economists to conclude that questions of value and surplus value are simply irrelevant, and that Marx’s claim that workers are being exploited is without justification. “Value” is considered by these economists to be merely a metaphysical notion; for them, the positive quantities of price are all that matters, since they are all that can be calculated empirically.

Throwing out the whole dimension of value, however, is like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. You need some concept like value if you are ever to try to look at the economy (of the world, or of a given nation or society) systematically rather than just atomistically. The “price” paid by neoclassical marginalist economics, which looks only at prices, is precisely that all sorts of politico-economic questions are ruled out of bounds, and only “purely” economic issues are addressed. You can talk about the effect of an interest rate increase on the rate of inflation, but not about its effect on class relations. (I called this a “price” paid by neoclassical economics, but actually it is not a bug, but a feature: the whole purpose of neoclassical economics is to rule out the sort of question that would put the naturalness and inevitability of capitalist relations into doubt).

But how do we make sense of Marx’s whole theory of value, if we stand apart from the questions of calculation that he tried but failed to put into practice? All sorts of answers have been given in the course of the last century. I am inclined to accept Karatani’s suggestion that the theory of value needs to be regarded, not as an empirical phenomenon, but as the “transcendental condition,” in a Kantian sense, for the functioning of a capitalist-commodity mode of production and distribution. Marx acutely notes at one point in Grundrisse that “language as the product of an individual is an impossibility. But the same holds for property” (490). It is much more familiar today than it was in Marx’s time to note that, although I express myself through language, the language in which I make this expression is not properly mine, and does not belong to me, because it is social and communicative, and even precedes me. Marx says that the same is the case with “private property”: it is only in a given social framework, only when there are others, and myself and those others stand in various forms of relation, that I can even make the claim that something is mine, that it represents me, that it belongs to me. Property relations, like language, already have to be given before the issues of personal expression and personal presence and personal belonging even arise in the first place.

Grundrisse actually helps with fleshing out this claim about the pre-existing, transcendental supposition of property relations and of what Karatani calls the “value-form.” For here, in first working out the theory of surplus value, Marx emphasizes the incommensurability between workers’ wages on the one hand, and the productivity of their labor power, on the other. There is no common measure between the way, as a worker who sells my labor power, I replenish on a daily basis my own conditions of existence (I may get more money rather than less, and have a higher living standard than other workers, but I am still always a paycheck away from default, bankruptcy or ruin, since my wages basically only allow me to reproduce my own standard of life), and the way that the production process as a whole creates values that expand the material wealth of society as a whole, leading to the expansion and accumulation of capital. I sell my labor-power as a commodity in order to get the money to pay for the commodities that I need in order to make it to another day of selling my labor power all over again (Marx calls this the circuit of C-M-C). Whereas a corporation invests money in the production of commodities, in order thereby to sell the commodities and end up with an expanding quantity of money (Marx calls this the circuit M-C-M’). A social surplus is always being produced (except in conditions of grave economic dislocation, or when there are disasters like famine, tsunami, earthquake, and plague), and this surplus is always credited to the account of capital (which grows and accumulates directly; the ultimate result may be something of an increase in my standard of living as a worker, but this only happens secondarily, as part of a “trickle-down” process).

Or to put it in another, more pragmatic way: when I go into credit card debt I am making trouble for myself; I will be increasingly unable to pay off the debt. But when a corporation goes into debt, it is generally enabled thereby to expand. Even in cases of bankruptcy: the Congress has recently passed laws making the conditions of recovery much more difficult and punitive for individuals than it was before; while corporations increasingly declare bankruptcy as a way to “reorganize” by breaking their labor contacts, decreasing wages and benefits, etc. (This is happening right now with Northwest Airlines and with the auto parts manufacturer Delphi, both major presences in the Detroit area.

As Deleuze and Guattari say, “it is not the same money that goes into the pocket of the wage earner and is entered on the balance sheet of a commercial enterprise.” For the wage earner, there is “a flow of means of payment relative to consumer goods and use values, and a one-to-one relation between money and an imposed range of products” (Marx’s C-M-C); while for the enterprise, monetary quantities are “signs of the power of capital, flows of financing,” and hence forces of multiplication, of the accumulation of capital itself (Marx’s M-C-M’) (Anti-Oedipus 228).

The qualitiative difference between the two circuits of exchange, that of the wage earner and that of the corporation, remains structurally or transcendentally significant — it determines everything — even if it cannot be specified quantitatively in ways that empirical economics is able to calculate. Though Marx makes repeated efforts to calculate the rate of surplus value throughout Grundrisse, he also foregrounds this basic incommensurability (in a more explicit way than he does later in Capital). For instance, Marx says that surplus labor isn’t just added on top of necessary labor, in such a way that reducing the working day in length would be enough to eliminate exploitation. For “in production resting on capital, the existence of necessary labour time is conditional on the creation of superfluous labour time” (398). The expropriated surplus, in a very real sense, comes first; it is only this surplus that motivates productive investment in the first place. For the capitalist, wages are just a deduction from total profit, an input cost like any other. Without the lure of the surplus, the whole process would come to a halt.

In this way, Marx’s notion of surplus value shows its affinity to the Derridean supplement and to the Lacanian notion of “surplus enjoyment” (which Zizek is always writing about); and beyond these, to Georges Bataille’s “notion of expenditure” (which powerfully influenced both Derrida and Lacan). Bataille is often taken to be anti-Marxist, because of his emphasis on expenditure rather than, and as opposed to, “the principles of classical utility” (Visions of Excess 116). But Marx is no defender of such principles of utility; his whole point about the separation of exchange value from use value points to the way in which capitalist reproduction isn’t really about utility at all. (When Marx writes of use value as serving “needs,” he means this latter word in the broadest sense — not economically basic needs as opposed to superfluous desires, but “need” as anything anybody wants, or is willing to pay for). It seems to me entirely coherent to say that surplus value is the form that Bataille’s excess takes in a capitalist society, and that the problem of expenditure is itself a more generalized form of the problem of overaccumulation or overproduction, which Marx sees as one of the problematic points of capitalism as a whole.

Surplus value is only one of a number of areas in which Marx’s formulations in Grundrisse significantly add to what he presents later, in its polished and publishable form, in Capital. On the other hand, in Grundrisse there is little discussion of the “fetishism of commodities,” such as it is highlighted in the notorious opening chapters of Capital. (Notorious because these opening chapters have discomfited so many readers, including notably Althusser, who urged readers of Capital to skip those chapter altogether). To my mind, and contra Althusser, the discussion of commodity fetishism is crucial and invaluable; Marx had good reasons for opening Capital with it. Commodity fetishism is, as it were, the manner in which we live the world of Capital (what Zizek calls “ideology,” though for various reasons I am not happy with naming it in this way); and as that which constructs our “lived experience,” it is as real as are the “underlying” processes (exploitation, capital accumulation) that it masks.

This brings up the whole issue of subjectivity, and how we can understand it in Marxist terms. In the past, I’ve mentioned my discomfort with psychoanalytic/Lacanian/Zizekian approaches, which seem to me to depart too much from social and economic conditions, in their pursuit of a logic of the unconscious that is ultimately entirely separate from the economic logic of capitalist society. Zizek even says that, while Marxism defines “ideology” as “false eternalization and/or universalization,” the attribution of universality to something that has a specifically social and historical basis, psychoanalysis, to the contrary, denounces “ideology” as consisting in “an over-rapid historicization,” seeing something as merely contingent and historical, when in fact it is absolutely universal, “the Real of the Law, the rock of castration… which returns as the same through diverse historicizations/symbolizations” (The Sublime Object of Ideology 49-50).

Zizek here makes the “Hegelian” move of extending Marx’s logic (in this case, the logic of ideology and fetishism) to the point where he altogether abolishes it. When “ideology” is redefined as the ultimate impossibility at the heart of any subject whatsoever, it’s all of Marx’s analysis of the historical specificity of capitalism — its radical difference from other social formations and relations of production — that disappears. Althusser scandalously argued that some sort of “ideology” would continue to exist even in a communist society. And this seems right to me. But Althusser didn’t take the additional step that Zizek does: the step that dissolves the particularity of one particular regime of ideology. Though it is perhaps unfortunate that Althusser designated “science” as the asubjective alternative to ideology (meaning by “science” something like Spinoza’s understanding sub specie aeternitatis), I find Zizek’s claim to Hegelian/psychoanalytic analysis much more disturbing. Here is a point where a Kantian understanding of limits (or a Whiteheadian understanding of the irreduciblity, and yet the inevitable partiality, of all abstractions) would be helpful.

In Grundrisse, Marx takes a rather different tack, when he proposes that “the production of capitalists and wage labourers is thus a chief product of capital’s realization process. Ordinary economics, which looks only at the things produced, forgets this completely” (512). We need to think more about how subjectivity is itself produced in the capitalist process of production/circulation/realization/appropriation of the surplus. Needless to say, this has little to do with the old-fashioned Marxist distinction according to which consciousness or subjectivity would merely be a “superstructural” effect, determined by an economic “base.” It does have to do, to the contrary, with something like Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the unity-in-division of libidinal and economic flows. Though I think that Toni Negri goes too far, in the opposite direction from Zizek, when he privileges Grundrisse over Capital, on the grounds that only the former work provides an account of class antagonism, and revolutionary subjectivity, Negri laments the absence of such a perspective from the more objective account of capitalist process in Capital itself. It seems to me, however, that Negri is too facile in the way he reads Marx’s demonstrations of the antagonism between workers and capital — class hatred, in short — as itself somehow the motor of a new subjectivity, one that already and immediately embodies Marx’s rather vague statements about how the capitalist mode of production itself already establishes the conditions for a communism that would transcend and abolish it. (All this is the source of the almost embarrassing optimism about the potentialities of the multitude that one finds in Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Multitude — but that is the subject for another post, in which I want to talk about monstrosity: the body of the multitude in relation to the body of capital).

I am even less sure than usual whether this long and rambling post makes any sense — and especially whether it gets the value/price question right — so in order to stop myself from rambling to infinity, I will publish it now.