Archive for May, 2006

Pluralism and Antagonism

Monday, May 22nd, 2006

I have been preoccupied a lot recently with the differend between dialectics, with its notes of crisis, contradiction, and antagonism, and pluralism of the Deleuzian variety, with its rejection of any thought of the negative and its insistence on the metastability of the virtual as the source of change.

This has long been the issue on which I break with more traditional Marxists; and it is still the issue on which I tend to differ with Jodi and many of the other folks I read most avidly today in the blogosphere, as well as more generally with both Frankfurt School and psychoanalytic (e.g. Zizek) approaches. But I note that very often, these days, when I read more traditionally “dialectical” Marxist stuff (whether Frankfurt School, or Lacanian School, or just work emphasizing political economy) I tend to just mentally translate the language of negativity, contradiction, etc., into the language of virtuality that I get from Deleuze (and that Deleuze gets from sources, like Bergson and William James, that have been considered disreputable, because too blandly and unconflictually pluralist, by most 20th century Western Marxists). The fact that I can make this sort of translation so easily suggests to me that the two languages are not as far apart as partisans on either side have often made them out to be. (And I should add that I am equally irritated by dismissals of Delueze, like Zizek’s, that make him out to be some muddle-headed liberal pluralist or New Age prophet or Jungian archetypalist, and by the ritualistic denunciations of the old-fashioned dialectics of Marx and Marxism by thinkers, like Lazzarato, who are in fact analyzing capitalism entirely within the horizon of Marxian concepts).

There are definite commonalities. Both the Hegelian/dialectical language of negativity, and the James/Bergson/Deleuze language of virtuality, insist that all those things that are omitted by the positivist cataloguing of atomistic facts are altogether real. Both locate this reality by asserting that the “relations” between things are as real as the things themselves, and that “things” don’t exist first, but only come to be through their multiple relations. Both construct materialist (rather than idealist) accounts of these relations, of how they constitute the real, and of how they continually change (over time) the nature of what is real. Both offer similar critiques of the tradition of bourgeois thought that leads from Descartes through the British empiricists and on to 20th century scientism and post-positivism.

The advantage of Deleuze, to me, is that he offers a wider, and more complex and nuanced, notion of “relations” than the Hegelian tradition does. Now, of course the Hegelian argument is precisely that the William James and Bergson pluralist approaches substitute a blandly observed multiplicity of indifferent connections for the sharpness of antagonism and radical change (and of course the valorization of “more complex and nuanced” is itself a part of the strategy of thus neutralizing antagonism). But the Deleuzian argument — radicalizing Bergson and James and giving them an edge that perhaps they don’t possess on their own — aims to both give a fuller picture of what the system of things-as-they-are excludes, and to provide for the possibility that practice can invent methods and situations that are theoretically unforseen.

Take, for instance, Marx’s (dialectical) opposition between the forces of production and the relations of production. Marx says that the very development of capitalist relations unleashes forces — for instance, possibilities of widespread material abundance, as well as collective modes of organization — that those same relations need to repress in order to perpetuate themselves. So, as capitalism develops, it is literally bursting at the seams: it needs to control and push back the very things that it makes possible. It needs to reimpose scarcity, and privatize what is inherently common and public. This stress is a dialectical contradiction, and its result is crisis: and ideally, for Marx, crisis is the point of leverage at which revolutionary change can occur, destroying capitalist property relations and replacing them with a common, or communist, system that is much more in accordance with the abundance that capitalist relations themselves inadvertently produced.

Now, there is something overly mechanical here about how the Hegelian dialectic neatly inverts itself, so that a contradiction directly leads to its own solution on a higher level. And in fact, of course, things haven’t happened this way. Capitalism today is not threatened by crisis; indeed, crisis is the tool it uses to renew itself. The “dialectic” by which a contradiction is resolved on a higher level is entirely absorbed within capitalism itself. When the “contradictions” of what I like to call FKW (the Fordist/Keynesian/welfare-stateist system) caused trouble in the 1960s and 1970s, the result was not to trouble the capitalist system, but precisely to allow capital to regenerate itself on high-tech, neoliberal lines. (This was the case whether we refer to social movements and to stagflation in the “advanced” western countries, to stagnation in the “socialist” bloc, or to anti-colonialist struggles and subsequent nation-building in the Third World).

In this situation, contradiction and negativity have become rather sterile resources for change, I think. Deleuze’s notion of the virtual allows for a wider range of resources. Instead of a dialectic, Deleuze (and Guattari) propose a vision of how capitalism simultaneously unleashes and regulates fluxes of energy and matter, of desires and subjects and objects. Both the relations of production and the forces of production are here seen as involving multiplicity, i.e. more dimensions than would be the case in an orthodox Hegelian account. Instead of a teleological dialectic, we get what Althusser would call “overderminations.” Capitalism is both a multiplying force and a homogenizing force; it cannot repress and exploit without expropriating actually-existing creativity; it assumes an “outside” that it constantly seeks to repress, but cannot do without. There is no dialectic here to guarantee antagonism; but that is because antagonism is precisely what needs to be produced. And this is where practice can be renewed, experimented with, and invented; precisely because it has been unshackled from the narrow constraints of the dialectic.

Now, I will admit that my example (forces of production/relations of production) was chosen somewhat maliciously. I have been saying that loosening the dialectic, and opening it to more multiplicity, actually increases the potential for antagonism and radical change. But for a dialectician like Zizek, this example of the dialectic is not nearly dialectical enough. In his critique of Hardt and Negri, Zizek says that their problem is that:

they are TOO MUCH Marxists, taking over the underlying Marxist scheme of historical progress… what Marx overlooked is that, to put it in the standard Derridean terms, this inherent obstacle/antagonism as the ‘condition of impossibility’ of the full deployment of the productive forces is simultaneously its ‘condition of possibility’: if we abolish the obstacle, the inherent contradiction of capitalism, we do not get the fully unleashed drive to productivity finally delivered of its impediment, but we lose precisely this productivity that seemed to be generated and simultaneously thwarted by capitalism – if we take away the obstacle, the very potential thwarted by this obstacle dissipates.

In other words, for Zizek, not only Hardt/Negri, but Marx himself, is not dialectical enough, because Marx hopes to displace or overcome the very traumatic (dialectical) contradiction that for Zizek is the bedrock human condition. Zizek is responding, of course, to the fact that Hardt/Negri are very much on the Deleuzian side of the fence in the terms I have been outlining here. He is specifically reacting against what I started out this posting with: the sense that it is possible to translate Marxist dialectical terms into Deleuzian non-dialectical ones, and that in doing so one actually sharpens the possibility for change. Zizek is a rejectionist, and probably this is why he sticks so firmly to the fantasy of a “Leninist” radical rupture, and in fact dismisses any of the potentials for change envisioned by Deleuze, or by Hardt/Negri, as (what the Leninists have long called) merely reformist ones. There is no potential, no sense of the virtual, in Zizek, but only pure antagonism. I fear this leads mostly to a self-dramatizing radical refusal that changes nothing, but leaves the theorist congratulating him- or herself for not giving in, not compromising, not acceding to capitalism, not giving way on his/her desire (or should I say drive?).

None of this is to deny that Hardt/Negri do often seem to me to be too willfully optimistic, nor that Deleuze’s version of pluralism can often issue in a politics that is itself too complacent in its appreciation of sheer differences, and that thereby fails to break with the cozily pluralist logic of postmodern capitalism, or to push things to an antagonistic point. But it is to say that there is more to Deleuze/Guattari than that. The logic of relations, of plurality, and of the virtual does in fact enable an entirely Marxian analytics of capital and its flows in key sections of Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. And, in the Preface to Difference and Repetition, Deleuze himself warns against the “danger… of lapsing into the representations of a beautiful soul,” for whom “there are only reconcilable and federative differences, far removed from bloody struggles. The beautiful soul says, we are different but not opposed…” Deleuze seeks, rather, to reach a point where difference “release[s] a power of aggression and selection which destroys the beautiful soul by depriving it of its very identity and breaking its good will.” Such is the effect of Deleuze’s transcendental (in the Kantian sense) pluralism, as opposed both to the sterility of dialectics and the complacent liberal pluralism that has become the official ideology of worldwide capital today.

Distributed Whitehead Network

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

Whitehead
(This post is weeks overdue; let me try to finish it quickly. More and better on Whitehead later, I promise).

Thanks to the Distributed Whitehead Network, I was able to access, live, the streaming webcasts of three recent symposia on the theme of “Whitehead Today” (and simultaneously contribute to discussion via a chat room). For lack of time, I will only comment on the first symposium here.

I’ve written many times on this blog about my enthusiasm for Whitehead (especially here, here, and here). I also have an article about Whitehead in relation to Kant(warning: fairly academic in manner) (forthcoming in some anthology or other) which is available for download here. But enough self-citation; I was grateful to the Whitehead Today symposia for the way they brought me back to some of the perplexities, or unresolved issues, I have both with understanding Whitehead’s thought, and with figuring out just how he might be relevant today, both generally and (here’s the self-citation again, sorry) in my own work.

The first symposium, at Stanford, featured Isabelle Stengers, whose great book on Whitehead (published in France in 2002 and alas, still untranslated into English) was my own introduction to his thought. Stengers’ talk was less a summary of the book — which (at 550 pages or so) is too varied and capacious to be summarized briefly — than a discussion of why and how Whitehead might matter to us, now; what his fine metaphysical distinctions and abstruse vocabulary (ripe for scholasticization, I fear) contribute to contemporary arguments and discussions.

In addition, there were two “respondents,” neither of whose talks were particularly useful in actually coming to grips with either Whitehead or Stengers. Donna Haraway talked about dogs, and in particular about her relationship with her own dog: this was all quite wonderful in itself — refreshingly nutty, and at the same time surprisingly cogent and incisive just when you thought it was going to drift off into the aether. Haraway was particularly good on the way that the human-dog relationship cannot just be one of domination and instrumentality, but was a true partnership; while at the same time (in rejection of animal-rights activism) did necessarily have to involve a hierarchy, and ultimately a human power of life and death, over the dog. But, although Haraway proclaimed her love of Whitehead, linked the human-dog relationship to Whitehead’s notion of “societies” (of which more below), none of this had all that much to do with Whitehead’s thought, or Stengers’ articulation of it.

The second respondent, Richard Rorty, basically said (in fatuous tones) that Whitehead was worthless, because (leaving aside Whitehead’s metaphysics, which is what Rorty does, and which is pretty much equivalent to, say, taking account of Einstein while leaving aside his physics, or taking account of Marx while leaving aside his economics and politics), all he could get out of Whitehead was that Whitehead’s ruminations might make somebody who was depressed (by the death of a loved one, in particular: since Rorty biographically attributed Whitehead’s turn from mathematical logic to metaphysics to grief over the death of his son in the First World War) feel a bit better. Rorty added that this was merely a replication of what Wordsworth and Shelley had already done a century before Whitehead. Presumably what Rorty was referring to was Whitehead’s idea of “objective immortality.” What this comes down to, ignoring its metaphysical content (which is a highly original way of thinking about relations — about how things connect to one another — and about how these connections perpetuate themselves over time), is the common idea that as long as living people still think about a dead loved one, still hold him or her in their memory, the deceased person is not truly, or not entirely, dead). This latter commonplace is apparently the only content that Rorty is able to discern in Whitehead, Wordsworth, or Shelley. Such an inanely reductive “reading,” if one can even call it that, is woefully inadequate to understanding either poetic texts or metaphysical ones. I fail to understand why anybody takes Rorty seriously as a thinker at this point.

Stengers’ talk focused on what it meant for Whitehead to “understand” something; and how this might be relevant for theoretical debates we are embroiled in today. Whitehead, coming from a mathematical background, emphasizes the difference between “necessary conditions” and “necessary and sufficient conditions.” The crucial point is that the former does not entail the latter. There are many preconditions necessary for any phenomenon in the world, but the phenomenon generally exceeds what is given in these preconditions — something new happens in the coming-together of the necessary conditions, none of which (nor even them all together) is sufficienct for the phenomenon that arises from them.

For instance. Certain genes are necessary conditions for human behavior, including those behaviors that involve language and society. But this does not mean that these particular genes are sufficient conditions for that behavior as well. This is the problem that always comes up in genetic explanations of all sorts of human behavior; even if scientists have indeed found the genes “for” some sort of behavior (and many claims of doing so are dubious, because the research methodology is shoddy), the working of these genes does not account for the behavior (speech, altruism, homosexuality, whatever) — in itself it simply isn’t sufficient. Scientists may have explained one aspect of “human nature”; but this explanation is not enough for us to understand the behavior, which is what Whitehead says that we, as speaking and reasoning beings, “require.” For “knowing is about closed facts,” Stengers says, “facts we are able to define.” But “understanding entails for Whitehead an experience of transformative disclosure,” that goes beyond mere definition, or mere identification of necessary preconditions.

Now, this may seem to be a rather obvious critique. Where it gets interesting is where Stengers extends the argument beyond positivist science. The definition of ourselves as linguistic beings — which we find in Heidegger, Lacan, and most of the philosopies and “human sciences” of the 20th century — is subject to the same Whiteheadian criticism as genetic reductionism. “When we make language our creator,” Stengers says, “we explain away” our need for a broader understanding, our capacity to explore and realize alternatives, our non-reduction to any sort of total programming, and instead “stick again to the usual business of finding an explanation for human experience.” Finding an explanation is itself a form of blockage, a way of policing behavior, a way of shutting down alternatives — even if the explanation is (in its own terms) correct. Against this, Whitehead gives us a way to avoid letting any one explanation become exhaustive and impose its sufficiency against all the other possibilities that are out there.

Software and Hardware

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

Now that Apple has completed migrating its laptops to Intel chips, I really want to get a new one; I really want to replace my aging (in computer-age terms, i.e. it is 2 1/2 years old) 12″ PowerBook with a new 13″ MacBook… Except for one thing. My PowerBook weighs 4.3 lbs, which is way too heavy. The new MacBook — the lightest and most compact Mac laptop model, just announced — weighs 5.2 lbs, it is almost a full pound heavier. If I got one, and took it around with me, it would break my back! I really want Apple to introduce a new, lightweight subnotebook, 3 lbs or less, something that I could carry about with me everywhere.

The laptop — like the Treo (phone/PDA), the iPod, and the digital camera; or for that matter, like my eyeglasses — is really part of my body.These are all prostheses that augment my ability to act in and with the world, to affect and be affected, as Spinoza would say, they are parts of my distributed cognitive (and affective) network, as Andy Clark would say. So these ergonomic considerations are really important; they are equally as important as, and should indeed be considered a part of, the design aesthetics that Steve Jobs so (justifiably, in other respects) vaunts himself on being concerned with. Why can’t Apple come out with something comparable to the 1.9 lb Sony Vaio, which is a beautiful and reasonably high-powered machine (even if not quite as beautiful as Apple’s laptops), whose only major defect is that it runs Windows instead of the Mac OS?

Since I am harping on my techno commodity fetish obsessions — all I want to do is buy! buy! buy!, but the product has to be just right, and that just-rightness includes a brand or corporate identification — let me ask an open question about software. I am looking for some sort of Mac OS program that I could use as a sort of database of writing fragments. That is to say, a program that just connects short notes I write, snippets of questions or half-formed paragraphs, i.e. text fragments from a few lines to a few paragraphs in length, together with a bunch of web and article citations on various subjects — all this to collect material that I could use as raw material for later or more concerted writing.

I already have a fine program, Yojimbo, that I use to collect miscellaneous web snippets, texts, images, links, and so on (sometimes I just keep the urls for pages I have found interesting; other times I keep the entire contents of the web page). But here I am looking for something different, something that I would use mostly for text fragments I write myself. So being able to handle formats other than plain text wouldn’t be that important. (As long as I can hyperlink to bibliography sources, to images, etc., I wouldn’t need them in the database itself). I need something that is not too hierarchically organized (I cannot group these fragments into categories and subcategories, which is why certain programs I’ve tried, like Circus Ponies Notebook, aren’t quite right for me), but that allows for powerful searching. I’d like to be able to associate each fragment or entry with an unlimited number of metadata tags, and be able to search both by those and by full text content. It would be even better if the program could interpret LaTeX and BibTeX, since most of my entries would be in this format

Has anyone reading this tried either DevonThink or TAO, and are either of these along the lines of what I am looking for? Or can anyone recommend another program, that would be more suitable for my needs? Thanks…

Bad Science

Monday, May 8th, 2006

It’s been too long since I last unpacked an example of bad science (or of bad reporting of science, it is sometimes difficult to say which). Jacalyn sent me the url for an article on a new study: “Lesbians’ brains respond like straight men.” Now, what does this mean, exactly? In what way do lesbians’ brains respond like the brains of straight men? First of all, we are given no indication of how the survey defined “lesbians” and “straight men”; if they used peoples’ own self-definition, that is well and good from a sociological standpoint, but it is way too vague to stand as a biological category. Do they mean to imply that, if somebody’s self-definition changes, say if I stop defining myself as a straight man (which I am very often tempted to do, because of all the baggage that comes with the phrase “straight man,” baggage which goes very far beyond the accurate but fairly vague observation that most of the time I am more likely to be turned on sexually by women than by men), then their hormones suddenly change? But that is getting ahead of myself. We also have to ask, when lesbians’ brains “respond” like those of straight men, to what are they responding? Well, the article says, “lesbians’ brains react differently to sex hormones than those of heterosexual women… Lesbians’ brains reacted somewhat, though not completely, like those of heterosexual men.” Now, isn’t there something circular going on here? “Sex hormones” are defined later in the article as “pheromones” — but this is itself a category that far too little is known about, and that is so dubious, especially in human beings, that making generalizations on their basis is unacceptable to begin with; the article itself notes in passing that “whether humans respond to pheromones has been debated.” But even if we accept the pheromones, all the research is saying, really, is that lesbians and “straight men” are both more sexually attracted to women than to men; which is of course the tautology that the survey presupposed in the first place. Oh, I should add that the physiological correlate of this arousal is that the scent which someone finds sexually arousing is processed in a different part of the brain (the hypothalmus) from the normal scent-processing areas. So again all we have is a tautology, the repetition of what was presupposed at the beginning. Of course the arousal is taking place on a subconscious level, by the scents of pheromones themselves, without the test subjects knowing which gender’s scent they are smelling. But this was also presupposed in the initial plan of the study; it’s just another tautology. (I should also note that the idea that biological males and females have completely separate pheromonal scents, which supposedly do not overlap, or show enough variation to undo the rigid binary, is also being unwarrantedly presupposed). However, even this is not quite accurate as a basis for the alleged “similarity” between “lesbians” and “straight men.” The report notes that “ordinary odors were processed in the brain circuits associated with smell in all the volunteers.” However, “in heterosexual males the male hormone was processed in the scent area but the female hormone was processed in the hypothalamus, which is related to sexual stimulation.” Whereas in lesbians, “both male and female hormones were processed the same, in the basic odor processing circuits.” But wait: if this is the case, then they entire claim of the study, that lesbian brains respond somewhat like straight male brains, collapses. Lesbian brains (I have given up putting up scare quotes just out of laziness; of course they should be present each time any of these pseudo-categories is mentioned) are similar to straight male brains in terms of what both categories of brains share with straight female brains — they all process scents of the gender they aren’t aroused by in the ordinary “odor processing circuits.” But lesbian brains, unlike straight male brains, do not process the odors of the gender they are attracted to in the hypothalmus. Therefore, by the study’s own terms, and even accepting their dubious categories, the entire parallel between “lesbians” and “straight men”collapses.

I could go on, but this is probably enough. The largest claims the study makes, according to the article, are that “there are biological factors that contribute to sexual orientation,” and that “homosexuality has a physical basis and is not learned behavior.” The first of these is something that nobody of any sense would ever doubt; since to doubt it you would have to think that the mind is entirely disconnected from the body, to a degree that even Descartes never maintained. And the second statement is utterly nonsensical, since any behavior whatsoever has a “physical basis” by definition (if it had no physical basis, in what sense would it even exist? what would it mean to observe it?), regardless of whether it is “learned” or innate, or something else (I am not convinced that learned vs. innate is a meaningful duality to begin with, since there is so much overlap between the two terms, and since you have to define them way too broadly in order to eliminate other possibilities, and include every observation on either one side of the duality or the other).

The thing is, a “scientific” report or study this idiotic, this devoid of any meaningful terms, or real scientific basis, can be found in the press every week. All it shows, basically, is that people (both scientists and news reporters and, probably, the general public) “want to believe” that everything in human life has a “genetic” basis (something else that is way too ill-defined to pass muster), and that the “common sense” prejudicies of our culture are true. At the start of Western science, empiricist mocked the old philosophy’s explanation of opium’s power to put people to sleep by its being alleged to have a “dormative virtue.” But today human genetics seems itself to be entirely based upon the positing and proclaiming of such imaginary virtues and essences.

The next time I post, this blog will return to its usual programming.

Marx’s 188th

Saturday, May 6th, 2006

Marx

Karl Marx was born on May 5, 1818. I didn’t quite make it to post this on his birthday, as Angela urged people to do, but hopefully it is not too egregiously late. (It sometimes seems to me that everything relating to Marx is too late…).

The real question, post-1989, post-television, post-Internet, post-everything, is this: What in Marx’s thought is alive, what in his thought is vital, urgent even, for us today? And concurrently, what in Marx’s thought is no longer alive, what is outdated, what is an impediment? I don’t think the answers to these questions are by any means obvious.

For one thing, many people would disagree with my very emphasis on Marx’s “thought.” For many Marxists, philosophical thought (which implies textual interpretation, among other things) is precisely the wrong thing to emphasize, since (in the all-too-often quoted 11th Thesis on Feuerbach), “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” And for many anti-Marxists, thought is also the wrong thing to emphasize, since they refuse to consider Marx worthy of being taken seriously as a thinker altogether, reductively equating his ideas with the practices of Stalin and Pol Pot. (Which, of course, makes about as much sense as equating Darwin’s ideas with the practices of Nazi and Ku Klux Klan eugenics, or equating Einstein’s ideas with the practices of the American nuclear weapons program). Against both of these objections, I will insist here upon Marx as a philosophical thinker, or a social theorist: somebody who indeed actively interpreted the world. Marx is very much, still, a post-Enlightenment rationalist and humanist; he wants to change the world, but he has nothing but scorn for “spontaneism” and a-rational “direct action” (for which he reproached the anarchists of his own day). In the Theses, Marx certainly objects that Feuerbach’s critiques of religion don’t go far enough. Feuerbach’s arguments merely expose religion as a fiction; they fail to go on, as Marx does, and examine why such a fiction ever got projected in the first place, what social purpose the fiction plays, and what interests and powers it serves. But exposing all this, for Marx, is still a work of interpretation and critique; though hopefully a work that will serve the interests of change and liberation, instead of one that continues to serve the interests of exploitation and domination.

In any case, getting back to the questions with which I started: the key, for me, is 1989. That year marks the end of “actually existing socialism,” the fall of most of those regimes that at least paid lip service to Marx and Marxism. (And the conversion of the remaining ones, most notably China and Vietnam, to full-fledged savage capitalism, while continuing to be ruled by authoritarian parties that call themselves “Communist.” Such a combination of capitalism and totalitarian control strikes me as being much closer to fascism than to anything Marx envisioned or wrote about). The collapse of “actually existing socialism” led to a lot of self-congratulation in the West, epitomized in the proclamations of Francis Fukuyama, which relegated Marx and Marxism to the dustbin of history, and proclaimed unbridled capitalism as the very universal Hegelian End of History to which dogmatic socialism had always laid claim.

What this really meant, of course, was that — with the “communist” threat disposed of — Western societies felt secure enough to get rid of Keynesianism, Fordism, and Welfare-State-ism, the three reforms that had palliated the inherent miseries of capitalism, and allowed working people (by which I am inclined to include anybody who is a paycheck or two away from absolute dispossession — which, in America today, extends far enough upward to even include people with incomes in the “low six digits”) to experience a certain measure of security and prosperity. You might say that the collapse of “socialism with a human face” (i.e. of the attempt to reform the “actually existing” socialist system, so that the only remaining alternative was to altogether junk it) was accompanied by, and indeed strictly coordinated with, the rejection of Keynesian/Fordist/Welfarist “capitalism with a human face,” and its deliberate replacement by an utterly savage neoliberalism, that trashed all guarantees of human well-being.

In this context, as I have argued before, the economic and social analyses that are the heart of Marx’s philosophical and sociological writing are more valid, more necessary, than ever. From primitive accumulation to capital accumulation, from exploitation in sweatshops to the delirium of ungrounded financial circulation, all the processes that Marx wrote about in the three volumes of Capital are being accomplished today with unbridled thoroughness, with all the consequences, in terms of social and political organization, that Marx also described. In its economic, social, and political core, the largest revision Marx’s theory needs is one of elaboration and extrapolation — he never got around to writing as much about credit, for instance, as he originally planned. But the proliferation of credit is itself one of the major consequences, and in turn continuing causes, of capital’s movement from capital’s “formal” to its “real” subsumption of all other labor processes and social forms across the globe.

(A note on “primitive accumulation”: this doesn’t happen only at the beginning of capitalism, but continues as a process within it and throughout it — today, the formerly common goods that are being accumulated as private property are not just land, as was the case in the 14th-16th centuries in England, but also of the order of knowledges and impalpable relationships; thus it is not just the Amazon rain forest that is being expropriated and privatized, but also whatever the indigenous peoples of the Amazon know about, for instance, the medicinal properties of various plants).

As for what is no longer so valid, or so vital, in Marx’s thought: here I am likely to get in trouble again, at least with most Marxists who would agree with my previous several paragraphs. Because what seems to me no longer to be valid is precisely all that stuff in Marx (and even more in the later Marxist tradition) about ideology, about class consciousness, about the proletariat as the universal revolutionary class, and so on. Here the transition from the disciplinary society to the control society, from the society of mass production to the society of networked, computer-and-communications-regulated production, from Fordism to Walmartism, does seem to me to make a huge difference. These transitions (which I am not necessarily equating with one another; each refers to a different set of problems and structures, and occurs over different time periods) have the consequence that any traditional Marxist notions of the proletariat and of its self-consciousness as an exploited class have pretty much ceased to function.

To be more specific: these notions have been effectively squelched by such phenomena as the “postmodern” effacement of distinctions between work time and leisure time; the “post-industrial” atomization and global dispersal of production, putting new obstacles in the way of unionization struggles; the multiplication of micro-distinctions among the oppressed, making identification on the basis of shared experiences of exploitation or impoverishment or oppression more and more difficult (this is something Mike Davis details in his excellent, powerful new book Planet of Slums); the very movement of exploitation beyond the factory to also cover the “affective” plane of “immaterial production”; the hypercommodification of everything, not just durable goods, but the most impalpable and most ubiquitous experiences and “lifestyles”; the systematic blockage of any form of collectivity not mediated through the market; the closure of possibilities of thinking and acting otherwise (the sense that there is No Alternative), leading to a rise of the most virulent nationalisms and fundamentalisms as the only forms of resistance that are able to function (albeit, this functioning is only fantasmatic, and does not really oppose the forces of capital at all). For all these reasons, and doubtless many more that I have forgotten to add to the list, there simply is no place in the world today where anything like a “proletariat” (as a self-conscious and organized class) could arise at all. The part of Marx which dealt with such a revolutionary proletariat is hopelessly outdated, as is any notion that the “contradiction” between forces of production and relations of production might leading to a radical “negation of the negation,” an explosive change. Such ideas were indeed pragmatic in Marx’s own time, although they evidently did not succeed in changing the world in more than minor and limited ways. But today they are entirely fantasmatic, as dubiously self-deceptive as the nationalisms and fundamentalisms that have supplanted them in the popular imaginations of most of the world.

This is not to say that Resistance is Futile; only that resistance and change have not been theorized with any success. While Marx gets us very far indeed in understanding the world we find ourselves living in, he doesn’t get us anywhere when it comes to figuring out how to use that understanding in order to change it. So I am not saying — at least I am trying not to say — that, since everything is totally shitty and hopeles, there really is No Alternative, which would just be to confirm backhandedly what Clinton and Bush, and Thatcher and Blair, and their ilk, have all along been so smugly telling us. But I am saying that Marx, for all his greatness as a philosophical and sociological thinker, will not be the one to get us to the alternative we need. This isn’t necessary even a criticism, if you consider that a good part of Marx’s own point is that merely understanding the situation, although necessary to changing it, is not ever sufficient (which is why — in contrast to his “utopian” predecessors) he always refused to describe what a communist society would actually be like). Practice has to be ahead of theory, etc., etc.; and I do not wish to minimize or deny the sheer creativity of, for instance, the Zapatistas or the Italian autonomists; or for that matter of schemes like Michael Linton’s Local Exchange Trading System (LETS) advocated so forcefully by Karatani. But I fear that inventing these alternatives in practice, let alone theorizing them after the fact, is not something that Marx, or the whole Marxist tradition from his days until now, will give us much help with.

So I am left with the somewhat ironic position that Marx is absolutely indispensable when it comes to interpreting and understanding the world, but not of much use in the task of changing it. And I certainly find myself in the cynical (and inadvertently, but unavoidably, nihilistic) position of being only an interpreter, someone who lacks any faith that a good change will come. (This relates to my aestheticism, which I have mentioned before on this blog, and which I certainly do mean affirmatively, not just ironically/defensively). (I mean “faith,” not in the religious sense which has a long history of use by positivists who loved to attack Marxism as being a “religious” or “metaphysical” belief system rather than a rational or scientific one; I am more thinking in terms of Deleuze’s frequent statement that “belief in the world” is the most urgent task faced by philosophy today). (I will leave aside for later consideration my quite conscious slippage between Marx’s “interpreted the world, in various ways” and my own reformulation of this — which will set deconstructionists on edge — as a matter of understanding the world, rather than of interpreting it).

One brief corollary. Much as I find the revolutionary optimism of Hardt/Negri, and of the Italian autonomist tradition in general, to be entirely unwarranted, I think that their theories of the Multitude (in Virno as well as in Hardt/Negri) and of immaterial or affective labor (referring here to Lazzarato as much as to Hardt/Negri) indicate that they are at least trying (even if not successfully) to address the issues I am raising here re the failure of traditional Marxist notions of class consciousness, or of the proletariat as a class “for itself.” On the other hand, explanations of this failure by appealing to alleged phenomena like “the decline of Symbolic efficacy” and the problem of the “obscene superego supplement” (Zizek) strike me as obscurantist mystifications, little better than Heideggerian invocations of the problematics of techne, technological “enframing,” etc etc. I think that Zizek’s political ideas really were creative and efficacious in the peculiar circumstances — those of Yugoslav “actually existing socialism” — in which they were first developed; but that Zizek’s endeavors to make them more generally applicable for the conditions of postmodern capitalism simply don’t work.

So, to conclude this (slightly belated) birthday appreciation, I will say that Marx does not have all the answers; but he points us in the right direction, and asks many of the most essential questions, which is no mean accomplishment for a thinker whose second centenary is approaching. I do think that, in the long view (at least as long a view as I am capable of; I am aware that two centuries is not two millenia), Marx’s importance, his urgency for the present, and his capacity to shake up the very roots of our self-understanding, is ultimately far greater than that of the other great iconoclasts of the threshold of modernity, Nietzsche and Freud, with whom he is so often grouped. And to return to the realm of “pure thought” (where I am always more comfortable, alas, than I am when confronted with “practice”): in the coming years of the 21st century, we may well increasingly find all the passions and disputes of 20th century modernism and avant-gardism to be trivial, quaint, and of very little interest or importance; but we will not, for all that, escape the shadow of the dilemmas and blockages which the 19th century bequeathed to us. And in exploring, and trying to overcome, those dilemmas and blockages, Marx (together with Darwin) is our indispensable precursor. Which is a great enough birthday legacy for anyone.