Archive for September, 2006

Kingdom Come

Friday, September 29th, 2006

J. G. Ballard‘s new novel, Kingdom Come, is something of a pendant to his preceding novel Millennium People (which I wrote about here). That book was about an abortive “revolution” of the upper middle class; while Kingdom Come tracks a similar process in a somewhat lower social stratum: the inhabitants of “motorway towns,” anonymous suburbs ringing London, but at too great a distance to be really integrated into the life of the city. (Ballard himself, I believe, has long lived in such a suburb). A suburb of this sort, strung out along a motorway, is “a place where it was impossible to borrow a book, attend a concert, say a prayer, consult a parish record or give to charity. In short, the town was an end state of consumerism” (8). The only human need well provided for is parking, which is “well on the way to becoming the British population’s greatest spiritual need” (7).

There is nothing to do in the suburbs except root for the local sports teams, and go shopping at the Metro-Centre, a vast indoor mall whose enormous dome dominates the landscape, and whose central atrium is dominated by three enormous bears who inspire veneration from the shoppers. Everyone’s life is dominated by the twin vicarious activities of consumerism and sports fandom; and there’s a strong synergy between the two, since the Metro-Centre sponsors special sports nights, and organizes its promotions around the matches.

Ballard presents consumerism as an ever-accelerating, positive-feedback cycle. Shopping is immediately satisfying; but once you bring the products home, you feel empty and disappointed. Consumerism thus gives rise to disaffection and boredom. But the only cure for such dissatisfaction is still more shopping. And so the cycle replicates itself, on an ever-expanding scale.

Sports fandom, meanwhile, works as an intensifier. “People don’t know it, but they’re bored out of their minds. Sport is the big giveaway. Wherever sport plays a big part in people’s lives you can be sure they’re bored witless and just waiting to break up the furniture” (67). Destruction and violence are just the flip side of accumulation. Where Bataille and Baudrillard seem to imply that excess, expenditure, and violence mark a line of escape from the sterility of bourgeois accumulation, Ballard is far more pessimistic. Expenditure, or potlatch, is really just another part of the same logic.

What, then, do the white, lower-middle-class British suburbanites do, after getting pumped up by an afternoon of shopping, and an evening of rooting for their team? Why, they go out and engage in a racist mob rampage — targeting South Asians and Eastern Europeans — under the cover of that old British standby, football [i.e. soccer] hooliganism. The police basically stand by during these riots, and do nothing. For they, and the politicians who command them, know that such outbursts are, ultimately, useful to the social order. “Secretly, they [the police and the town council] want the Asians and immigrants out… Fewer corner shops, more retail parks, a higher tax yield. Money rules, more housing, more infrastructure contracts. They like the bands playing and the stamping feet — they hide the sound of the cash tills” (169).

In the 1930s, Bataille held out the hope that the violent, convulsive, extravagant expenditure — which he presciently saw as the motor driving fascism — could be turned against itself, detourned for revolutionary ends. From the perspective of the early 21st century, however, such a hope seems naive. Sports and shopping might seem like domesticated (castrated?) versions of violent expenditure, but for that very reason they absorb all possibility and all hope, and therefore cannot be mobilized as tools of liberation.

In short, Ballard tells us, “consumerism creates an appetite that can only be satisfied by fascism” (168). But this is a ‘soft’ fascism, a “new politics” with “no slogans, no messages… no manifestoes, no commitments.” Instead, it is all about “people’s dreams and needs, their hopes and fears,” as these are manifested in the purchase of more commodities (146). A politics of affective modulation — such as Brian Massumi describes — rather than one of (classically fascist) mass hysteria. The crowd of fans and shoppers gives way to its own moods, its own feelings, like “a herd of wildebeest on the African plain” (146), with no predetermined direction, and no need for a Duce or Fuhrer to stir them up.

Actually, there is a figure who works as a catalyst or enabler; he helps to provoke the crowds into motion, by urging them to shop. But instead of being a ranting, charismatic figure with an apocalyptic message, this enabler is a washed-up TV actor turned low-affect cable talk-show host, “a ‘virtual’ man without a real thought in his head” (168), who adds a vague sense of disquiet to his otherwise bland and affable persona.

The narrative, as is often the case in Ballard’s novels, builds to a point of destructive, degenerative implosion. Eventually, fanatical shoppers and boosters take over the Metro Centre, holding hostages to fend off an attack by the police. From that point, everything decays: entropy takes over, rather than any sort of energizing explosion. The revolution, when it comes, is disappointing, and ends up reinforcing the very order against which it was directed. The old gentry of the suburban town despise the lower-middle-class crassness and vulgarity of the mall; but they end up revealed as the instigators, and the beneficiaries (except for those of them who get killed in the blowback), of the very processes they so much deplored.

The entropic ending thoroughly demystifies destruction and excess as (supposed) forms of transcendence. There’s no such thing as transgression in late-capitalist society: “we’re the most advanced society our planet has ever seen, but real decadence is far out of our reach”; instead, “we worship our barcodes” and rely on advertising to supply us with “cosy little fantasies of alienation and guilt” (263).

Kingdom Come has so far only been published in the UK, not the US. And it has gotten mostly negative reviews — even from speculative writers like Ursula LeGuin and M. John Harrison, who ought to know better. The book has been criticized for the fact that its plot and characters aren’t slick, catchy, and ‘well-constructed’ enough. But of course these are the wrong standards by which to judge Ballard. He writes genre fiction as social theory — and he remains, at age 76, one of the most acute social theorists that we have. His insights could not be communicated in the form of the artfully structured literary novel. His seeming repetitiveness, his clumsy prosaicness, and his insistence on a kind of pop-culture (so-called) ‘kitsch’ are necessary tools of insight. In a thoroughly Modernist way, his form coincides with his themes; though, as an anatomist of our “postmodern” condition, his forms/themes are such as the classic Modernists could never have imagined.

Elizabeth Grosz

Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

The first DeRoy Lecture of the 2006-2007 academic year is by noted feminist theorist and scholar Elizabeth Grosz. The talk’s title is “Vibrations,” and it is about Deleuze and music.

The talk takes place Friday, September 29, in the English Department Seminar Room, room 10302, 5057 Woodward, Wayne State University, Detroit.

The talk is co-sponsored by the Students’ Association of Graduates in English.

Politics and/or Political Economy

Wednesday, September 20th, 2006

Sorry for not posting for so long. Things have been just too busy recently. Hopefully, more substantial, and more frequent, posting will resume soon.

For the moment, some rough comments about politics and economics — or what used to be called (and probably should be called again) political economy. Zizek notes, rightly and usefully, that Marxist theory is characterized by a parallax — an unresolvable alternative, where both terms are necessary, yet each one disqualifies the other — “between economy and politics — between the ‘critique of political economy,’ with its logic of commodities, and the political struggle, with its logic of antagonism.” (As I have noted previously — here and here — Zizek gets the term “parallax” from Karatani, though he endeavors — wrongly in my opinion — to replace Karatani’s rigorous Kantianism with his own Hegelianism). The political focus of thinkers like Badiou and Ranciere — and Zizek himself? — means that they tend to elide Marx’s emphasis on economy; while Marx himself, in Capital, so emphasizes economics that he fails ever to link up his complex analysis of exploitation under capitalism with the political praxis that is the ostensible goal of his analysis.

I’d like to give a somewhat different twist to Zizek’s observation, by looking, from a different angle, at the parallax between politics and political economy in recent theoretical discussions. I am inclined to agree with Fredric Jameson (though I cannot find the exact citation) that the specific difference of a Marxist approach is precisely that it focuses on economy rather than on politics. You don’t need Marxist theory to do a political reading of contemporary culture — such a political approach is precisely what characterizes Cultural Studies in the US and the UK. But Cultural Studies generally elides political economy: it may mention “class” in a sociological sense (as in: how people define their own class status, and how they regard groups whose status is higher or lower than themselves); but it almost never looks at the systematics of exploitation and capital accumulation. It may well denounce “neoliberalism” in general terms, but it almost never thinks about how the Market has become the horizon of thought today, the a priori that is so deeply embedded in the background of everything we think and do, so taken for granted, that we scarcely even remember that it is there.

But I am not just talking about Cultural Studies — I am thinking about a lot of (other) recent theoretical work as well. It seems to me that economy is being elided (in favor of politics) whenever there is talk about power and domination, without linking these to processes of exploitation and capital accumulation. It seems to me that this elision is taking place in all the arguments about Agamben’s “bare life” and the notions of sovereignty and the exception. Much as I love Foucault, it seems to me that this elision is taking place whenever people invoke Foucault’s theories of governmentality (not to mention biopower and the control of populations — I do not think biopower can be understood apart from the investments and accumulation of capital). And it seems to me that this elision is taking place when Zizek writes of “surplus enjoyment” (instead of surplus value), of the obscene superego supplement, and of the alleged “decline of Symbolic efficacy” (this latter notion I especially dislike, because it seems to me to be just a sophisticated veneer overlaying the old conservative complaint that without Absolute Values and Authority to guide us, we slip into nihilism and/or anarchy. Isn’t Zizek really just a neoconservative of the left? — understanding neoconservatism, in the manner of Wendy Brown, as an unavoidable supplement of neoliberalism, shoring it up, insofar as the latter is always threatening to collapse).

Political economy is what’s missing from all these analyses. And I think that political economy needs to be brought back into the picture. In the 1960s and 1970s a lot of energy was spent arguing (rightly, I think) against essentialism, and against the old base/superstructure model of a certain old-fashioned variety of Marxism (and of a certain strain in Marx himself, admittedly) which asserted that the economy was the fundamental cause and center of everything, and that all other levels — politics, culture, and so on — were mere epiphenomena. But the result has been an elision of political economy altogether. I agree with Deleuze, Foucault, Latour, et al. that systems are complex and can never be given a monocausal explanation; and that local practices and processes cannot be subsumed under a single Big Picture. But this doesn’t mean that we cannot make any sort of directional or general statements about “capitalism.” We can recognize, with Nigel Thrift, that “capitalism” and “the market” are “made up of institutions which are manifold, multiform, and multiple,” so that “there is no one capitalism or market but only a series of different capitalisms and markets”, or that “capitalism is ‘instantiated’ in particular practices” — yet this is not a license to simply abandon all talk of capitalist mechanisms like exploitation, expropriation, and capital accumulation. (What’s wrong with Latour, and his Actor Network Theory, in particular, is that they do indeed take locality and bottom-up description as an alibi for evading the movements and processes of Capital altogether).

In other words, it is possible to argue that political economy is necessary, that it needs to be put back in the picture, without having to argue that it is the “base” or the ultimate determinant or any other such metaphysical thesis. Ultimately, I am a Whiteheadian in metaphysics; which means that I think any abstraction, the one that reduces things to political economy as much as the others, is necessarily incomplete, and leads to confusion if it is given a “misplaced concreteness,” pushed beyond the limits within which it makes a certain sense. But the flip side of this position is the recognition that abstraction is necessary, that thought cannot do anything without it, that we won’t get anywhere without the partiality of abstraction. Political economy is not the base or the ultimate explanation and cause of everything in society; but it is the abstraction, or perspective, that we need right now, in this world of neoliberal globalization.

One of a number of reasons why I still find Deleuze and Guattari so worthwhile, is that — almost alone among “post-structuralist” thinkers — they do not elide political economy. Their formulations — especially in Part 3, sections 9 and 10 of Anti-Oedipus — remain crucial for any attempt to comprehend how Marx’s account of capital remains relevant for today’s “network society.” I have great difficulty in following many of the ways that contemporary Deleuzians make use of notions of the “virtual,” and especially of the “body without organs.” But these key Deleuzian concepts do make sense to me in terms of the body of capital, and of the way that capitalism, and especially “postmodern” or “post-Fordist” capitalism, is all about capitalizing and capturing potential, commodifying the abstract and the impalpable, and harnessing “innovation” and “creativity” for capital accumulation.

Of course, going back to the “parallax” with which I started, affirming political economy runs the counter-risk of eliding the practice of politics proper, of not addressing questions of antagonism, and of “what is to be done?” The more one comprehends the reach of Capital and the Market today, the harder it becomes to believe that any of the recent political proposals on the left — from Cultural Studies’ quaint faith that watching soap operas can be “oppositional,” to Hardt and Negri’s faith in the uprising of the Multitude, to Zizek’s romantic fantasies of Party discipline and an absolute Leninist rupture — can actually come to anything. I find myself led, in spite of my own better instincts, to a kind of Adornoesque despair, and to a pessimism both of the intellect and of the will. Nonetheless, I remain unapologetic about such negativistic gloom. For I continue to believe that the only way out is the way through, and that, if the point is not to interpret the world, in various ways, but actually to change it, that such change will never come about without a Spinozian understanding of the Necessity that constrains us — or (better) without a Whiteheadian understanding of the inseparability of the permanent and the transient, of the necessary and the contingent. And such an understanding today needs to pass by the way of political economy.

Maastricht – Thinking Through Affect

Friday, September 1st, 2006

I’ll be in the Netherlands next week, giving a talk at Jan van Eyck Academy in Maastricht as part of this conference.