Archive for June, 2008

Paul Di Filippo, “Phylogenesis” (1988)

Monday, June 30th, 2008

“Life is tenacious, life is ingenious, life is mutable, life is fecund.” To consider what it means for us to live on — to survive, and to reproduce our social existence — as parasites on the monstrous body of Capital, we must turn from Lovecraft to Paul Di Filippo, a more recent writer of the fantastic, who also hails (as Lovecraft did) from Providence, Rhode Island. Di Filippo’s story “Phylogenesis” might be thought of as an account of what happens after Cthulhu arrives and devastates the Earth. The story does not explicitly refer to Lovecraft’s mythos; but it follows Lovecraft in giving its horror a biological-materialist basis, rather than a supernatural one. And if Di Filippo’s prose is as dry and understated as Lovecraft’s is florid and inflated, this follows from the way that our very understanding of life changed over the course of the twentieth century. Lovecraft’s early-twentieth-century teratological wonderment is a sort of inverse vitalism: it posits the monstrous proliferation of slithering tentacles, oozing, viscous fluids, and misshapen membranes as the underside, and the deliberate undoing, of the common assumptions of organic unity and integrity. In contrast, Di Filippo’s late-twentieth-century cool, efficient prose reflects the contemporary situation in which “a feeling for the organism” (Evelyn Fox Keller) has been entirely abandoned, and replaced by a view of life in terms of “biotic components,” about which “one must not think in terms of essential properties, but in terms of design, boundary constraints, rates of flows, systems logics, costs of lowering constraints” (Donna Haraway).

The premise of “Phylogenesis” is that an alien species of enormous “invaders came to Earth from space without warning… In blind fulfillment of their life cycle, they sought biomass for conversion to more of their kind.” As a result, “the ecosphere had been fundamentally disrupted, damaged beyond repair.” The invaders’ massive predation leaves the earth a barren, ruined mass: “the planet, once green and blue, now resembled a white featureless ball, exactly the texture and composition of the [invaders].” Human beings are reluctant to accept the hard truth that they cannot repel the invasion: “only in the final days of the plague, when the remnants of mankind huddled in a few last redoubts, did anyone admit that extermination of the invaders and reclamation of the planet was impossible.” The human agenda is reset at the last possible moment: with victory unattainable, survival — bare life — becomes the only remaining goal. There is no longer any environment capable of sustaining humanity; it is necessary, instead, “to adapt a new man to the alien conditions.”

And so the “chromosartors” get to work, genetically refashioning Homo sapiens into a new species. We are reborn as viral parasites, within the bodies of the spacefaring invaders. Most of the text of “Phylogenesis” lovingly recounts the physiology, psychology, and overall life cycle of this new parasitic humanity. The bioengineering is precise and efficient. Everything is optimized in accordance with the physiology and metabolism of the host, and in the interest of flexibility. Anything deemed superfluous to survival is unsentimentally jettisoned. The “neohumans”mate quickly, reproduce in great numbers (in “litters” of five or more), and mature rapidly. They exhibit both swarm behavior — ganging up together when necessary to overwhelm the host’s defenses — and nomadic distribution — “scattering themselves throughout the interior of the gargantuan alien” to reduce the chances of being all wiped out at once by the host’s counterattacks. Once they have killed their host, they go into hibernation within “protective vesicles,” in order to survive the vacuum of deep space until they can encounter another host. In this way, they are able to perpetuate both their genes and their cultural heritage. Since they unavoidably “possess a basically nonmaterial culture,” they only use light-weight technologies that have been interiorized within their bodies. They are especially gifted with “mathematical skill,” including a genetically-instilled “predisposition toward solving… abstruse functions in their heads.” Aesthetically, they are all masters and lovers of song, “the only art form left to the artifact-free neohumans.” Mathematics and music are the sole “legacy of six thousand years of civilization” that has been bequeathed to them. The lives of the neohumans are short and intermittent; they are “mayflies, fast-fading blooms, the little creatures of a short hour. Yet to themselves, their lives still tasted sweet as of old.”

China Miéville insists upon the radical novelty of Lovecraft’s “Weird fiction”: its “unprecedented forms, and its insistence upon a chaotic, amoral, anthropoperipheral universe, stresses the implacable alterity of its aesthetic and concerns.” In Lovecraft’s own time, this alterity was (among other things) a response to the dislocations of World War I. Today, Lovecraft’s Weird vision remains relevant because, as Miéville says, “with the advent of the neoliberal There Is No Alternative, the universe [i]s an ineluctable, inhuman, implacable, Weird place.” Di Filippo’s story, with its decidedly non-Weird rhetoric, figures a further step in the same process. It narrates the naturalization of Lovecraft’s inhuman implacability. It does this precisely by devising a brilliant strategy for adapting to catastrophic monstrosity. When There Is No Alternative — when it no longer seems possible for us to defeat the monstrous invasion, or even to imagine things otherwise — Di Filippo’s parasitic inversion is the best that we can do. The neohumans of “Phylogenesis” evade extinction at the hands of the monstrous aliens, by devising a situation in which their own survival absolutely depends upon the continuing survival of the monstrosities as well. The parasitic neohumans end up killing whatever host they have invaded; but their continuing proliferation is always contingent upon encountering another host. The extinction of the invaders would mean their own definitive extinction as well.

As far as I can determine, Di Filippo never intended “Phylogenesis” to be read as an allegory of Capital. Yet the traces are there, in every aspect of the story. The downsizing of the neohumans (adults are “four feet tall, with limbs rather gracile than muscular”), the rationalization of their design in the interest of mobility and flexibility, their uncanny coordination and ability to “monitor the passage of time with unerring precision, thanks to long-ago modifications in the suprachiasmatic nuclei of their brains, which provided them with accurate biological clocks,” the “inbuilt determinism” by means of which their sexual drives are canalized “for a particular purpose,” their severely streamlined cultural heritage, and the ways that even their nonproductive activities (singing and nonprocreative sex) serve a purpose as “supreme weapons in the neohumans’ armory of spirit”: all these are recognizable variations of familiar management techniques in the contemporary post-Fordist regime of flexible accumulation. The neohumans make use of the only tools that they find at hand. They parasitize and mimic the very mechanisms that have dispossessed them. And their emotional lives are effectively streamlined in a post-Fordist manner as well. Feeling an overwhelming sense of loss, and aware of all the ways that their potential has been constrained, they nonetheless conclude that “we just have to make the most of the life we have.” Both socially and affectively, Di Filippo’s neohumans are the very image of the multitude invoked by Hardt and Negri, and by Paolo Virno. They exercise a genuine creativity under extremely straightened circumstances, and produce, and themselves enjoy, an experience of the common. But Di Filippo recognizes, more clearly than Hardt and Negri and Virno do, the limitations of any “mobilization of the common” in a situation of “actually existing” capitalism.

Twitter tweaks

Friday, June 27th, 2008

I have eliminated my Twitter feed from the sidebar, because it was causing annoying delays in loading the blog whenever Twitter itself was down (as seems to be happening with increasing frequency). Anyone who is interested can still follow my Twitter feed at http://twitter.com/shaviro.

Transcendental Monsters

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008

In a brilliant article that draws surprising parallels between Husserl’s phenomenology and the “weird fiction” of H. P. Lovecraft, Graham Harman (2008) argues that Lovecraft’s tales of unrepresentable monsters cannot be read in a Kantian register. Although at first sight “Kant’s inaccessible noumenal world seems a perfect match for the cryptic stealth of Lovecraft’s creatures” (337), in fact these monsters, “however bizarre. . . still belong to the causal and spatio-temporal conditions that, for Kant, belong solely to the structure of human experience. . . The terror of Lovecraft is not a noumenal horror, then, but a horror of phenomenology” (340-342). Lovecraft is a materialist, and there is nothing transcendent or supernatural about his monsters. Indeed, the true source of horror for Lovecraft is that, however much the monstrosities whose presence he evokes exceed all powers of human apprehension, so that they are literally indescribable and unvisualizable, they still belong to the same world as we do. Like us, they are empirical, contingent entities; they do not “float into the world from nowhere” (Whitehead 1978, 244). To think of them as “mystic beings,” noumenal, supernatural, or otherworldly, would in fact be a way of palliating their horror. For such a perspective would turn the sheer arbitrariness of their appearance into something ineluctable and fated, and therefore in some sense justified or “rational.”

Now, what Harman says about Lovecraft’s Old Ones is in fact true of Capital as well. For all its excess and monstrosity, Capital – like Cthulhu – is a body, and thereby an entirely empirical phenomenon. It “appears as [our society’s] natural or divine presupposition” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 10), and “the energy that sweeps through it is divine” (13); yet capitalism is still a contingent, historical process, one that could have been otherwise. It has not existed forever, and it need not last forever. As Ellen Meiksins Wood cogently demonstrates, capitalism is not the “natural realization of ever-present tendencies” (2002, 3), such as the alleged innate human impulse to “truck, barter and exchange” posited by Adam Smith (11). For it is not an inevitability, but rather – much like the advent of Cthulhu – the fortuitous result of a contingent encounter. Capitalism was born out of the “extrinsic conjunction of these two flows: flows of producers and flows of money. . . On one side, the deterritorialized worker who has become free and naked, having to sell his labor capacity; and on the other, decoded money that has become capital and is capable of buying it” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 225). Both of these “flows” arose out of the decomposition of feudalism; but many other flows did as well, and there is no special reason, or structural necessity, why these two particular flows should have become more prominent than all the others, nor why they should have become conjoined with one another. The encounter that gave birth to capitalism need never have happened; and in any case, it happened only once (224).

Wood, more historically precise than Deleuze and Guattari, shows how it was only in post-feudal agrarian England that recourse to the market became, not just an opportunity (as it was for late medieval merchants in Italy, and early modern financial speculators in Holland) but an absolute imperative for both landowners and workers. “Markets of various kinds have existed throughout recorded history and no doubt before, as people have exchanged and sold their surpluses in many different ways and for many different purposes. But the market in capitalism has a distinctive, unprecedented function. Virtually everything in capitalist society is a commodity produced for the market. And even more fundamentally, both capital and labour are utterly dependent on the market for the most basic conditions of their own reproduction. . . This market dependence gives the market an unprecedented role in capitalist societies, as not only a simple mechanism of exchange or distribution but the principal determinant and regulator of social reproduction” (2002, 96-97).

In other words, there are markets without capitalism, but there is no capitalism without the absolute reign of the market. As Wood puts it, “this unique system of market-dependence means that the dictates of the capitalist market – its imperatives of competition, accumulation, profit-maximization, and increasing labour-productivity – regulate not only all economic transactions but social relations in general” (2002, 7). And this is the key to what I have been calling the monstrosity of capital. It is utterly contingent in its origins; and yet, once it has arrived, it imposes itself universally. Capitalism might never have emerged out of the chaos of feudal, commercial, religious, and State institutions that preceded it, just as Cthulhu might never have stumbled upon our planet. But in both cases, the unfortunate encounter did, in fact, take place. And it is only afterwards, in its subsequent effects, once it has in fact arrived on the scene and subjugated all its rivals, that capitalism is able – again, much like Cthulhu – to present itself retro spectively as an irresistible and all-embracing force. Capitalism arose “in a very specific place, and very late in human history” (2002, 95). But once it arose, it made market relations compulsory: as Wood says, the so-called “free market” became an imperative, a coerced activity, instead of an opportunity (6-7).

This puts an altogether different light upon the philosophical question of how to categorize monstrosity. Harman convincingly shows that Lovecraft’s horrors cannot be regarded as noumenal. But this is really just arguing against a straw man. For a proper Kantian reading of Lovecraft’s stories – as well as of Marx’s Capital, and of capitalism – must claim, not that the monstrosity in question is noumenal, but rather that it is transcendental, which is an entirely different matter. Kant always carefully distinguishes the transcendental from the transcendent. A transcendental condition is one that is universal and a priori, but that applies only to experience, and does not transcend or go beyond experience. That is to say, it emphatically does not refer to noumena, or “things in themselves.” The transcendental is not quite empirical, since it is not found within experience. But it is also, at the same time, nothing but empirical, since it can only be referred to experience. The transcendental is thus a strange borderline concept, neither containable within contingent, empirical existence, nor extending anywhere beyond it. At this border or limit there is indeed, as Nina Power puts it, an “eerie proximity of Kant and Lovecraft,” due to Lovecraft’s “internalisation of Kantian categories in the name of transcendental horror” (2007).

Kant says that a transcendental condition, such as time, “cannot be annulled” (1996, 86), but also cannot be represented directly. It can only be referred to indirectly, “by means of analogies” (88). We might well say, therefore, that the transcendental resists any sort of empirical description. When we try to describe it nevertheless – when we seek to evoke what Proust called “a little bit of time in its pure state” – we run into the same sorts of difficulties as Lovecraft’s narrators do when they try to describe the monsters they have encountered: “the very point of the descriptions is that they fail, hinting only obliquely at some unspeakable substratum of reality” (Harman 2008, 339). Yet this “unspeakable substratum” is not itself (as Harman amply demonstrates) transcendent, absolute, or otherworldly. It is a feature of our world, and only of our world. Such is the aporia of the transcendental: we encounter something about which we do not know how to speak, but which we also cannot pass over in silence.

This can best be grasped by contrast to Kant’s account of morality. Kant says that the moral laws that we must obey are in fact laws that we ourselves have imposed upon ourselves: they have been decreed by our rational, noumemal selves. But in the case of the understanding, there is no such rational agency, and no such noumenal authorization. The understanding is not autonomous, because it is confined to an empirical world that it cannot master. The constraints that it encounters are not ones that it has legislated, but ones that are already presupposed by the very fact of its existence. As Deleuze puts it, commenting on both Kant and Bergson, it is not that time is inside us, but rather that we are inside time: “it is we who are internal to time, not the other way round. . . Time is not the interior in us, but just the opposite” (1989, 82).

This sense that we ourselves are the effects of forces that are not ours, forces that surpass us and remain indifferent to us, could well be a formula for horror. Of course, neither Kant, nor Bergson, nor Deleuze presents it this way. But Benjamin Noys convincingly argues that “the vortex of seething time” is the ultimate form of horror for Lovecraft, exceeding any particular instance of one monstrous race of beings or another (2008, 282). What appalls us is less the inhumanity of Cthulhu, and the anteriority of the Old Ones with regard to us, than the larger truth of which these are merely symptoms: the utter “detachment of time from any relation to humanity” (281). More generally, we may say that monstrosity is transcendental because the very idea of the transcendental – as a condition to which we are subjected, but which we cannot locate, describe, or circumscribe in any way – is itself horrific and monstrous.

For Kant, of course, time itself does not have a genesis or a history, since all histories and all becomings must necessarily unfold within it. From a Kantian point of view – or, for that matter, from a Heideggerian one – our subjection to time is a general existential condition, one that must apply to all beings conscious of their own finitude. However, does such a formulation do justice to the uncanniness of the transcendental, the way that it ambiguously both belongs and does not belong to the empirical realm? Deleuze notes that post-Kantian thought criticized Kant’s “transcendental deduction” for being incomplete. The post-Kantians “demanded a principle which was not merely conditioning in relation to objects but which was also truly genetic and productive” (1983, 51-52). That is to say, they sought to define the transcendental as an ongoing process of construction, rather than as a fixed structure that is always already in place. The transcendental is actively “genetic and productive,” because it is a “synthesis,” a conjoining or putting-together, and not just a fixed result that has already been synthesized. Time as a transcendental condition is not just produced once and for all. It must be synthesized continually; and this ongoing action of synthesis, or production, is itself the experience of temporality to which we find ourselves subjected.

When Deleuze redefines the transcendental as an ongoing, genetic and productive synthesis, he moves from Kant’s transcendental idealism to what he instead calls transcendental empiricism. A synthesis defines the conditions of empirical existence; but it is itself an empirical process, immanent to the phenomena that it governs. For every synthesis is a contingent encounter of forces. It is a rearrangement or rearticulation of the empirical field – but one that arises from within that very field. Synthesis therefore paradoxically defines an a priori that nonetheless could have been otherwise. And this is precisely the way in which the monstrous body of Cthulhu, or the monstrous body of capital, is a transcendental horror. In both cases, we move from a contingent, empirical encounter, to the imposition of a transcendental conditon. Cthulhu might have missed our planet entirely, and the market might have remained an adjunct to other forms of economic activity, and f political and social life. But once Cthulhu has arrived, or once the market has imposed its relentless pressures at the very heart of the socius, there is no turning back from the full measure of monstrosity.

The Body of Capital

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Let us say, then, that Capital itself is the monstrous flesh within which we, the multitude, find ourselves compelled to live. When “the specifically capitalist mode of production” has been well enough developed, Marx says, “capital. . . becomes a very mystical being, since all the productive forces of social labour appear attributable to it, and not to labour as such, as a power springing forth from its own womb” (1993, 966; cited in Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 11). It is by appropriating all the fruits of production, and attributing all this production to itself, that capital becomes the mystical being that Deleuze and Guattari call the socius, the full Body without Organs. This monstrous flesh is the womb, the belly, and the skin of our society. The body of capital is the site of all our encounters, the space within which all our desires are registered and distributed. It is the “fluid and slippery” surface (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 15) across which money flows as a universal equivalent, enabling all conceivable metamorphoses from one form to another, or one substance to another. And the depths of this flesh also encompass the time that is our horizon. This includes the time of our “lived experience”: clock time, work time, leisure time. But it also includes forms of time that are alien to any subjective experience: the speed-of-light, nearly instantaneous time of electronic networks, the time-scale of what Marx calls the “turnover” of capital, and the future time that is counted and discounted, and made commensurable with the present, in the form of interest rates.

Of course, this monstrous flesh is “really” ours, ultimately ours. The body of capital can only function to the extent that it appropriates to itself, and attributes to its own creativity, what is actually the productive labor of the multitude. Capital’s claim to production “as a power springing forth from its own womb” is therefore a fiction, or an illusion. But it is an “objective” illusion, a necessary fiction. That is to say, this illusory appearance, this fiction, is itself an actual feature of the world we live in. The body of capital is not really the cause of whatever happens; but it really is what Deleuze and Guattari call the “quasi-cause,” or apparent cause. Money really works as a universal equivalent, to the extent that everyone accepts it as such; and capital really does succeed in becoming the motor of all production, insofar as it enforces its property claims by means of a whole arsenal of weapons: laws, institutions, customs, beliefs, disciplinary procedures, threats of violence, and other forms of coercion and persuasion.

A “mystical being” whose embodiment is secured by procedures that, for their part, are all too materially effective, Capital can only be represented and experienced “in the formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form of monstrosity” (Derrida 1980, 293). For it cannot be grasped within everyday experience. The socius, or “full body of capital,” is entirely composed of material processes in the phenomenal world; and yet, as the limit and the summation of all these processes, it has a quasi-transcendental status. That is to say, the body of capital is not a particular phenomenon that we encounter at a specific time and place; it is rather the already-given presupposition of whatever phenomenon we do encounter. We cannot experience this capital-body directly, and for itself; yet all our experiences are lodged within it, and can properly be regarded as its effects. The monstrous flesh of capital is the horizon, or the matrix, or the underlying location and container of our experience, as producers or as consumers. In this sense, it can indeed be regarded as something like what Kant would call a transcendental condition of experience. Or better – since it is a process, rather than a structure or an entity – it can be understood as what Deleuze and Guattari call a basic “synthesis” that generates and organizes our experience.

The “full body” or flesh of capital, therefore, is at the same time palpable and intangible – however much of an oxymoron this formulation might seem to be. We are always in contact with this ghastly flesh, but we are never actually able to “grasp” it. We do not have enough distance to apprehend it accurately; we can no more “see” it than a flea can see the dog within whose fur it is embedded. In our pragmatic, day-to-day experience, this capital-body is an alien enormity, that we cannot ever tear ourselves free from, but that we also do not own or control in any way. The experience of the capital-body is common to everyone; but this is only a suffering in common, rather than the production in common that Hardt and Negri would like it to be. Either as producers or consumers, our subjective activity is relentlessly atomized and scattered; the only unity is that of the socius itself. We scurry about in the folds and convolutions of this capital-flesh like lice or bedbugs. At best, we may manage to divert some of the flows of the body of capital, pervert them, and detourn them. We may even be able to reprogram the body’s “axiomatics” or “genetic code” here and there, just a little bit, the way that viruses do. But that is all. This capital-flesh oppresses us, but we are stuck within it. We hate it, but we are also compelled to love it, because we depend upon it for sustenance, and we cannot live without it. Understood according to the order of first causes, sub specie aeternitatis as Spinoza would have it, capital is parasitic upon the labor of the multitude. But existentially and experientially, the situation is rather the reverse: we are parasites on the monstrous body of Capital.

Monstrous Flesh

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Hardt and Negri tell us that, in postmodern society, “characterized by the dissolution of traditional social bodies,” what we experience instead is “a kind of social flesh, a flesh that is not a body, a flesh that is common, living substance” (2004,190, 192). Traditional social bodies were organic ones; the supposedly hierarchical organization of biological organisms was taken as a model for the proper hierarchical organization of society and State. Think of Hobbes’ Leviathan, or of Menenius Agrippa’s parable of the body in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. In these traditional social bodies, there is always a clear chain of command, and a clear division of labor among the society’s organs and members. Agrippa tells the plebians that they must always defer to the Senate, just as the other portions of the body must always defer to the belly, allowing it to appropriate the food that is the product of all their labors. In contrast to this classical image of the well-ordered body, the postmodern image of “this living social flesh that is not a body can easily appear monstrous” (192). For the living flesh is “unruly” and “insatiable”(193); it “always exceeds the measure of any traditional social bodies” (196). In the postmodern world, “the old standards of measure no longer hold. . . old social bodies decompose and their remains fertilize the new production of social flesh”(196). This new flesh breaks free of organic limits; instead, it is “expansive” and endlessly “productive” (197).

Hardt and Negri see this monstrous flesh as a figure of the multitude: that is to say, of a humanity that produces things in common, and that in fact produces the common altogether (xv). The multitude is irreducibly diverse: it cannot be identified according to any criterion of identity politics, or even of social class. At the same time, the multitude cannot be divided into factions or fractions, because its very existence is a matter of “communication, collaboration, and cooperation on an ever-expanding scale” (xv), across all boundaries, and through the mobilization of what Marx called “general intellect.” Thus the monstrous flesh “is common. It is elemental like air, fire, earth, and water” (193). At the same time, monstrosity is never just one. There are always a variety of monsters, which “testify to the fact that we are all singular, and our differences cannot be reduced to any unitary social body” (193-194). The multitude, with its ceaseless creativity and “constant innovation” (193), produces the social world that we live in today. And Capital,or Empire, only preys upon, and parasitically lives off of, this productivity of the multitude. Under capitalism, “the mutations of artificial life [are] transformed into commodities,” and the “metamorphoses of nature” performed by the multitude are “put up for sale” (196). Hardt and Negri urge us always to remember that the monstrous multitude is the true productive force; and that Capital, with its normalizing appropriations of this boundless productivity, is only secondary,reactive, and parasitic.

Hardt and Negri’s logic is in full accord with Marx’s analysis of surplus value.Marx describes the way that “capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (1992, 342).Alternatively, in the Spinozian terms the Hardt and Negri share with Deleuze, capitalism operates by separating the living flesh from what it can do, and by accumulating and reinvesting the fruits of this separation. This process corresponds to the workings of what Deleuze and Guattari call the Body without Organs: “an enchanted recording or inscribing surface that arrogates to itself all the productive forces and all the organs of production (1983, 11-12). The Body without Organs is “a full body that functions as a socius. . . It falls back on (il se rabat sur) all production, constituting a surface over which the forces and agents of production are distributed, thereby appropriating for itself all surplus production and arrogating to itself both the whole and the parts of the process, which now seem to emanate from it as a quasi cause” (10). The socius is the monstrous body of capital, an entirely reactive force of “antiproduction” and repulsion (8), that nonetheless appropriates all production to itself by organizing and distributing it, according to a logic of “points of disjunction, between which an entire network of new syntheses is now woven, marking the surface off into co-ordinates, like a grid” (12). Thus the appropriation of surplus value is also its circulation and distribution, leading to the organization of what we know today as the “network society.”

In terms of how they describe social production, Hardt and Negri – like Deleuze and Guattari – are entirely in accord with Marxist capital logic. Against the mythology of mainstream economics, with its self-congratulatory tales of risky investments and heroic entrepreneurs, they recognize that capital is not in itself creative, and in fact originates nothing. Rather, capital privatizes the results of what is actually a common, and public, process. Through its ownership of the “means of production” (that is, of the fruits of past production that it has already appropriated), it is able to control and appropriate all new production, and to appear as if it were the source of that new production. But every patent, every copyright, every act of creativity, is only possible because we already stand on the shoulders of giants. And every private investment, every organized venture of art or science or technology, is rooted in the prior products of common labor and general intellect.

However, even as Hardt and Negri follow Marx’s logic, they invert his metaphors. Where Marx describes capitalist appropriation as monstrous and vampiric, Hardt and Negri reclaim the image of the vampire (2004, 193), and the term of monstrosity, for the primary producers themselves, the multitude. And where Deleuze and Guattari present the Body without Organs as a monstrous body of appropriation,which “produces surplus value” even as it “reproduces itself, puts forth shoots, and branches out to the farthest corners of the universe” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983,10), Hardt and Negri regard the multitude itself as a monstrous flesh that metastasizes indefinitely. They celebrate the multitude’s tireless productivity, “producing in excess of every traditional political-economic theory of value” (192), and its drive to push beyond all limits and violate all norms. “The concept of the multitude forces us to enter a new world in which we can only understand ourselves as monsters. . . Today we need new giants and new monsters to put together nature and history, labor and politics, art and invention in order to demonstrate the new power that is being born in the multitude” (194).

To a certain extent, Hardt and Negri’s motivation for this metaphorical reversal is a good one. They seek to undo the traditional hatred of democracy, and disdain for the “mob,” that is endemic to so much Western political theory, from Plato through Hobbes and on into the twentieth century. They hope to reverse capitalism’s reduction of everything to the status of private property by affirming the radical impropriety, and therefore the monstrosity, of the common within a capitalist framework. And they wish to demonstrate that the “productive flesh,”with its carnivalesque frenzies and excesses, “does not create chaos and disorder,”but rather produces new forms of communication and connection (196-197). That is why they insist upon celebrating, rather than execrating, what has long been described as monstrous and dangerous. They urge us to greet the unpredictable transformations of life that are going on all around us today with wonder instead of dread (195-196). Above all, they cultivate hope for a future filled with potential,instead of resigning themselves to the grim prospects of accelerating exploitation and ecological collapse. In all these ways, monstrosity is a figure of hope.

Nonetheless, Hardt and Negri’s reversal is not entirely convincing. It seems too much of a forcible imposition. The vision of a monstrous multitude, with its joyous excess of uncontrollable flesh, is an inspiring fiction; but it is one that we can only bring ourselves to believe through a sheer act of will. For this vision fails to give sufficient weight to the harsh conditions of actually-existing capitalism. You wouldn’t know, from reading Hardt and Negri’s paeans to the creativity of the multitude, about the extreme degree to which our “habits and performances”(197ff.), and our “ability to adapt constantly to new contexts,” and to “solve problems, create relationships, generate ideas, and so forth” (201), are continually being incited, channeled, micromanaged, and packaged into saleable products – not just during the working day, but increasingly 24/7. Hardt and Negri write as if the creativity of the multitude came first, as if it were only at the last moment that capital stepped in, to appropriate this creativity and sell it in commodified form. But in fact, capital is always already there, always already monitoring and regulating everything that we do, even before the creative process begins.

It is true that the old Taylorist, hierarchical style of business management has largely been abandoned – at least in the developed world. But the new management style that has replaced it, with its emphasis on local autonomy and responsibility, and on horizontal networks rather than vertical, hierarchical chains of command, is not in any sense more open and liberating. What the creativity of the multitude comes down to, in postmodern globalized capitalism, is this. Today capitalism demands of its workers not just physical exertion, but mental exertion as well. In order to survive, we are forced to sell, not just our “labor power” (as Marx called it), but also our affective and cognitive powers, our abilities to think and feel and create, our aesthetic sensibility and our capacity for enjoyment. Capitalism does not just steal the fruits of these powers from us. It also organizes our very expression of these powers in the first place.

This is why we must finally regard capital – rather than the multitude – as monstrous. Indeed, the monstrous qualities that Hardt and Negri attribute to the multitude – its impropriety, its ceaseless productivity, and its continual breaking of taboos and transgression of all limits – are themselves really qualities of capitalism itself, which Marx and Engels long ago described as having “burst asunder” all that stood in its way (1968, 40), and as possessing a “voracious appetite” not for any particular “useful products,” but for “the production of surplus value itself” (Marx 1992, 344-345). Only capitalism values productivity for its own sake,without regard to the nature of what is produced. And only capitalism exhibits a radical impropriety, because this is simply the other side of its own property fetish.By reclaiming monstrosity for the multitude, Hardt and Negri inadvertently erase the monstrosity of capital itself.

What is to be done?

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Now that I have handed in the final manuscript of my Whitehead book, I am trying to return to The Age of Aesthetics, the manuscript that I left unfinished two years ago, when various other and more pressing things (including the opportunity to write the Whitehead book) came up.

What follows is a quick and dirty, and overly compressed, attempt to clarify the larger stakes of this project:

Of course, there is a good reason why recent Marxist theory is so concerned with the problem of the subject. It is a way of raising the question of agency. What is to be done? How might capitalism be altered or abolished? It’s hard to give credence any longer to the old-fashioned Marxist narrative, according to which the “negation of the negation,” or the “expropriation of the expropriators,” would inevitably take place, sooner or later. Neither the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s, nor the uprisings and radical confrontations of the 1960s, led to anything like the “final conflict” of which generations of revolutionaries dreamed. Today we are no longer able to believe that the capitalist order is fated to collapse from its own contradictions. It is true that these contradictions lead to turmoil, and to misery for many. Yet the overall process of capital accumulation is not necessarily harmed by these convulsions. If Capital could speak, it might well say, in the manner of Nietzsche’s Overman, that “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” The genius of capitalism lies in its ability to turn to its own account whatever destabilizes it, and whatever is raised against it. In the absence of that old militant optimism, we are left with the sinking feeling that nothing works, that nothing we can do will make any difference. This sense of paralysis is precisely the flip side of our “empowerment” as consumers. The more brutal the neoliberal “reforms” of the last thirty years have been, and the more they have taken away from us, the more they have forced upon us the conviction that there is No Alternative.

This crushing demoralization is itself a testimony to Marx’s prescience. How else but with a sense of utter helplessness could we respond to a world in which Marx’s insights into the tendencies and structures of capitalism have been so powerfully verified? From primitive accumulation to capital accumulation, from globalization to technological innovation, from exploitation in sweatshops to the delirium of ungrounded financial circulation: all the processes that Marx analyzed and theorized in the three volumes of Capital are far more prevalent today, and operate on a far more massive scale, than was ever the case in Marx’s own time. By the late 1990s, all this had become so evident that Marx’s analytical acumen was admired, and even celebrated, on Wall Street. As the business journalist John Cassidy wrote in a widely-noticed and frequently-cited article in The New Yorker (1997): Marx “wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence – issues that economists are now confronting anew. . . Marx predicted most of [globalization’s] ramifications a hundred and fifty years ago. . . [Marx’s] books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures.”

From this point of view, the problem with Marx’s analysis is that it is just too successful. His account of the inner logic of capitalism is so insightful, so powerful, and so all-embracing, that it seems to offer no point of escape. The more we see the world in the grim terms of capital logic, the less we are able to imagine things ever being different. Marx dissected the inner workings of capitalism for the purpose of finding a way to overthrow it; but the very success of his analysis makes capitalism seem like a fatality. For the power of capital pervades all aspects of human life, and subsumes all impulses and all actions. Its contingent origins notwithstanding, capitalism consumes everything, digests whatever it encounters, transforms the most alien customs and ways of life into more of itself. “Markets will seep like gas through any boundary that gives them the slightest opening” (Dibbell 2006, 43). Adorno’s gloomy vision of a totally administered and thoroughly commodified society is merely a rational assessment of what it means to live in a world of ubiquitous, unregulated financial flows. For that matter, what is Althusser’s Spinozism, his view of history as a “process without a subject,” but a contemplation of the social world sub specie aeternitatis, and thereby a kind of fatalism, presenting capitalism as an ineluctable structure of interlinked overdeterminations whose necessity we must learn to dispassionately accept?

All this explains why cultural Marxism turns away from Marx’s own “economism,” and back to the subject. It seeks after some voluntary principle: some instance that is not just passively determined, that is capable of willing and effecting change, and that escapes being caught up in the redundancy of capitalist circulation. By rehabilitating agency, and by foregrounding particular practices of resistance, cultural Marxism hopes to find some sort of potential for overcoming capitalism. This reinvention of the subjective element takes many forms. At one extreme, there is Zizek’s hyper-voluntarism, his fantasy of enforcing a rupture with capitalism, and imposing communism, by dint of a sheer, willful imposition of “ruthless terror.” At the other extreme, Adorno’s ultra-pessimism, his hopelessness about all possibilities for action, is really an alibi for a retreat into the remnants of a shattered interiority: a subjectivity that remains pure and uncontaminated by capitalism precisely to the extent that it is impotent, and defined entirely by the extremity of its negations. Despite their differences, both of these positions can be defined by their invocation of the spirit of the negative. Adorno’s and Zizek’s negations alike work to clear out a space for the cultivation of a subjectivity that supposedly would not be entirely determined by, and would not entirely subordinated to, capital. For my part, I cannot see anything creative, or pragmatically productive, in such proposals. Neither Zizek’s manic voluntarism nor Adorno’s melancholia is anything more than a dramatic, and self-dramatizing, gesture. That is to say, in spite of themselves they both restore subjectivity in the form of a spectacle that is, precisely, a negotiable commodity. In the world of aesthetic capitalism, critical negativity is little more than a consoling and compensatory fiction.

On the other hand, it is hard to say that those variants of cultural Marxism that present agency and subjectivity affirmatively, and without recourse to negation, do much better. J. K. Gibson-Graham tell us that the Marxist image of capitalism as a closed, voracious, and totalizing system is an error. They offer us the cheerful sense that a plethora of inventive, non-capitalist economic and social practices already exist in the world today. This means that we have already, without quite realizing it, reached “the end of capitalism (as we know it).” Indeed, Gibson-Graham come perilously close to saying that the only thing keeping capitalism alive today is the inveterate prejudice on the part of Marxists that it really exists. Apparently, if we were just a bit more optimistic, we could simply think all the oppression away.

For their part, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are by no means so obstinately cheerful. Nonetheless, I am a bit taken aback by their insistence that globalized, affective capitalism has already established, not only the “objective conditions” for communism, but also the “subjective conditions” as well. The latter come in the form of the multitude as a universal, creative, and spontaneously collective class, ready to step in and take control of a world that has already been prepared for them. This is really a twenty-first century update of the messianic side of Marx’s vision: “The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” Thus we have come full circle, back to the position that we initially rejected: one according to which the restoration of agency is not needed, for the internal dynamics of capitalism themselves lead inexorably to its ultimate abolition.

Doktor Sleepless

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

The text of the talk I gave about Warren Ellis‘s in-progress comic book series Doktor Sleepless at last month’s New Narrative conference in Toronto has now been published in the backmatter of the latest issue (#7) of the comic. I’m thrilled, as this is my first ever publication in comics.

Reinventing the Sacred (Stuart Kauffman)

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

Stuart A. Kauffman’s Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion recapitulates many of the ideas about the role of emergence in biology that were worked out in Kauffman’s earlier books (At Home in the Universe and Investigations), but also tries to place these ideas within a broader philosophical focus. Ultimately, Kauffman hopes to repair the breach between reason and emotion, or between science and culture, or between a naturalistic worldview and one that emphasizes spirituality.

It’s really a question of how we get there from here. Kauffman, who has long been associated with the Santa Fe institute, draws upon complexity theory in order to elucidate the role of emergence in biological processes. Working with computer simulations rather than with actual organisms, he has sought to show how, given the right conditions, autocatalytic loops might have emerged out of a primary soup of organic chemicals, and how such a process might have contributed to the origin of life. He has pioneered the idea that living organisms, and the environments they interact with, might exist in a zone of “criticality” in between excessive stability, on the one hand, and excessive chaotic tendencies, on the other. And he argues that the emergence of spontaneous, self-generated order — “order for free” — plays a major role in evolution, alongside natural selection. All these themes from Kauffman’s earlier books are recapitulated in the course of Reinventing the Sacred.

Kauffman is thus one of the few scientists who challenges the neodarwinist consensus that is endorsed by the overwhelming majority of contemporary biologists. Alongside Kauffman, one could also list Lynn Margulis (theories about the role of symbiosis in evolution), Stephen Jay Gould (both for punctual evolution, and for his insistence, together with Richard Lewontin, on the importance of exaptation), Susan Oyama and her colleagues (Developmental Systems Theory), Humberto Maturana and Francesco Varela (autopoiesis), James Lovelock (the Gaia hypothesis), Jean-Jacques Kupiec and Pierre Sonigo (who deploy Darwinian selectionism against genetic determinism). One might also mention recent attempts, from within the neodarwinist framework, to rehabilitate the idea of group selection (e.g. David Sloan Wilson), to insist upon the continuing importance of embryology and development, rather than seeing these as a mere matter of implementing what is already coded in the DNA (e.g., the work of Mary Jane West-Eberhard on developmental plasticity, and other work in so-called “Evo-Devo”), and to show the importance of non-adaptive “genetic drift” (e.g. Michael Lynch). These numerous strands of recent biological theory differ greatly among themselves; and they also differ in terms of the degrees to which they are conciliable with, or in opposition to, mainstream neodarwinism. Also, these strands are not themselves all mutually compatible; and it is too early to judge the extent to which any of them stand or fall. But together they point to the fact that the neodarwinian synthesis has not altogether disposed of philosophical questions about “life.” It is possible to take issue with neodarwinist reductionism without thereby slipping into vitalism or creationism. Darwin’s legacy remains richer and stranger than is accounted for in current mainstream discourses of genetic determinism and evolutionary psychology.

Kauffman is one of those scientists who strongly insists that the neodarwinian synthesis leaves far too much out of account. Reinventing the Sacred moves from biological speculations to a broader attack on the very notion of scientific reductionism. Kauffman insistd that biological emergence (and other forms of emergence in the natural and social/cultural worlds, for that matter) leads to the existence of phenomena that cannot be accounted for or predicted on the basis of physical laws alone. Nothing in biology contradicts the laws of physics; but the biological world does not follow from the laws of physics in themselves, and cannot entirely be described or understood in terms of those laws. Even in principle, a perfect knowledge of the positions and velocities of all the particles in the universe (Laplace’s demon) would not suffice to determine the future. For the future is open and unpredictable. The universe is characterized by a “persistent creativity,” operating on all scales and in all contexts, but especially where there is life. This creativity cannot be accounted for in terms of natural laws, and elementary particles and forces. It will not be comprehended within whatever supposed “theory of everything” the physicists manage to come up with (if they ever do). Kauffman is arguing very much in the tradition of Bergson and Whitehead (though, unfortunately, he never mentions these thinkers, and doesn’t seem to know anything about them), and Ilya Prigogine.

Reinventing the Sacred is mostly concerned with “breaking the Galilean spell” that has held us in its thrall for something like four hundred years. Even complexity theory, with its understanding of “deterministic chaos,” involving abrupt, nonlinear changes from one phase state or basin of attraction to another, does not break with the logic of linear causality and mechanistic determinism. It is still “fully lawful” (in the sense of scientific laws — 141). Kauffman claims, however, that what he calls “Darwinian preadaptation” — by which he means pretty much the same thing as Gould and Lewontin do by exaptation, a word that Kauffman oddly does not use — does indeed break with such a logic. In taking already-existing phenotypic features and detourning them to new uses, organisms explore what Kauffman calls the “adjacent possible,” and thereby expand the range of actuality in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways. For “Darwinian preadaptations appear to preclude even sensible probability statements” (139). This is because judging probabilities requires knowing at least the “sample space” within which all possible outcomes are contained. But biological innovation (and cultural innovation as well) changes the very shape of this space itself. It doesn’t just choose among already-existing possibilities, but changes or expands what is possible.

I think that a lot of this resonates with Whitehead’s speculations on creativity and innovation, and with Deleuze’s notion of the virtual or potential (and how it differs from the merely possible). But this in turn brings up the entire question of how to relate science and philosophy. Whitehead and Deleuze are opposed, as Kauffman is, to scientific reductionism: that is to say, they are opposed to the claim that the reduction of mental experiences to neural firings, and of physical phenomena to elementary particles and forces is all there is. As I say in my Whitehead book:

Against all reductionism, Whitehead insists that “we may not pick and choose. For us the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electrical waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon” (1920/2004, 29). The phenomenologist only considers the red glow of the sunset; the physicist only considers the mechanics of electromagnetic radiation. But Whitehead insists upon a metaphysics that embraces both. For “philosophy can exclude nothing” (1938/1968, 2).

The problem is not with scientific explanations in themselves, whose truth we can and should accept. The problem is only with thinking that these lower-level scientific explanations are ultimate and exhaustive, so that “higher-level” sorts of explanation can be entirely reduced to them — as E. O. Wilson claims with his notion of consilence, or as Paul and Patricia Churchland do with their notion of eliminative materialism. In other words, the problem comes when the low-level scientific explanation is accepted as what really is the case, and everything else is regarded as illusion or mere appearance. (This ironically reinstates the old reality/appearance distinction that scientific empiricism was supposed to get rid of once and for all). Now, it is unclear to me that this really makes much of a difference to the way that working scientists actually do their research. It only comes up when those scientists sit back and reflect upon their research in a non-experimental context — or when philosophers like the Churchlands, or armchair cultural speculators like myself, ask meta-questions about such research. But such speculations are themselves inevitable and unavoidable — it is impossible to separate “pure science” from them. The result is, we are left in a kind of circle. And Kauffman’s generous speculations are certainly welcome in contrast to Wilson’s “scientific imperialism,” his reductionist attempt to subordinate all other forms of understanding and inquiry to his particular kind of science.

At the same time, of course, we need to beware of the trap of taking Deleuze or Whitehead as an absolute starting point, and judging scientific theories on the basis of how well they conform to an already-existing philosophical argument. Both Whitehead and Deleuze were keenly interested in the science of their times, and both of them sought to create a metaphysics that was in tune with that science. This was (is) a two-way process. Both Whitehead and Deleuze insist that there is no such thing as positivistic, value-free science; all empirical research presupposes a background of theories, assumptions, and already-accepted facts. There is no physics free of metaphysics. Whithead and Deleuze therefore both strive to provide a metaphysics that will be adequate to the needs of modern science; but this does not mean that they claim, in the Kantian manner, to stipulate in advance the necessary and sufficient conditions for all knowledge (scientific or otherwise). This is part of what it means to say that they are (as Deleuze put it) “transcendental empiricists” rather than Kantian transcendental idealists. As the metaphysical process of what Whitehead calls generalization or speculation proceeds, it must continually test itself and modify itself in accordance with the developments of scientific knowledge (and other sorts of knowledge), even as it resists the exclusivist or imperialist claims that arise from, or are made on behalf of, these developments of knowledge.

To get back to Kauffman: given his interest in the role of creativity in the universe, and particularly in life processes, it’s really too bad that he seems entirely unaware of Whitehead. It is all too easy for me to translate Kauffman’s formulations into Whiteheadian terms; but I’d like to get more of a sense of how Kauffman’s speculations might allow us to modify or ‘update’ Whitehead. The weakest aspect of Kauffman’s book is his attempt to move from science to philosophy: there is a sense in which his philosophical musings are just too simplistic, or “naive.” When he gets beyond the technical details of his computer simulations, Kauffman is way too eager just to make a “leap of faith” into an embrace of teleological and spiritual concerns. There’s a lot of blather in the book about the wisdom of past civilizations, and the need to construct a “global ethic,” and far too little a sense of what it means to engage in speculation.

Now, when I say that Kauffman’s claims are largely speculative, this is not a criticism, because I do not share the positivist sense that speculation is unacceptable and that we must confine ourselves to hard empirical evidence and legitimate induction from such evidence. As Whitehead says, “the Baconian method of induction… if consistently pursued, would have left science where it found it.” A certain amount of speculation is necessary, if we are to discover or invent anything at all. Kauffman is indeed unique among contemporary scientists because of the degree to which his research has been almost entirely speculative — his work has largely consisted, as I have already noted, in running computer simulations of biological processes, rather than looking at any actual organisms. This is precisely why his claims about emergent order have been ignored, rejected, or dismissed as incomprehensible by the vast majority of biological researchers. But it’s also why his suggestions are important, for any effort actually to think the biological in terms that go beyond genetic determinism and strict adaptationism.

However, some of Kauffman’s speculations in Reinventing the Sacred are just too tenuous, too lame. This is especially the case when he spends a chapter proposing a quantum model of the brain — one that differs from Roger Penrose’s better-known proposal, but that shares with it an argument that quantum indeterminacy could account for brain processes that are non-deterministic, and (especially) non-algorithmic. This is a case where Kauffman protests way too much — every step in his tortuous line of reasoning is qualified by statements like, “the hypothesis… is not at all ruled out” (211), certain factors “may remain available” according to his particular scenario (212), “perhaps something similar” is happening in a completely different realm from the one in which a particular kind of pattern has been noted (214), “it may always be the case” that such and such a process can take place (219), and so on at embarrassing length. In effect, Kauffman is constructing a Rube Goldberg machine to account for a process — let’s call it “decision” or “choice” — that classic determinism cannot explain, but only explain away. This seems utterly misguided to me — it makes far more sense just to accept, as a primary datum, recent observations about, for instance, fruit flies making unconstrained, undetermined decisions, than to go through Kauffman’s barely plausible chain of inferences and pleadings in order to allow for such a possibility.

The trouble, in a case like this, is that Kauffman’s speculations are simply not speculative enough. There needs to be some middle way between Kauffman’s appeal to a tortuous chain of reasoning on the one hand, and delirious invocations of cosmic forces on the other. It is especially noteworthy, and symptomatic, that Kauffman pulls off his explanation by appealing to quantum mechanics. It strikes me that the appeal to quantum indeterminacy, to give a scientific explanation of some otherwise unaccountable phenomenon, is a sort of get-out-of-jail-free-card to be used on all occasions when one cannot come up with anything else, or anything better. The same thing happens, for instance, in Greg Egan’s novel Teranesia — except Egan pulls out his quantum trump card in defense of neodarwinist reductionism, while Kauffman does so in defence of anti-reductionism.

In any case, for all that Kauffman is a speculative biologist (and, again, I am using this in a laudatory rather than dismissive sense), he fails to realize how his own mode of speculation is itself an example of the creative process that he sees at work throughout the biosphere, and perhaps the entire physical universe. Even though he has in effect abandoned the “scientific method,” he remains overly attached to “hard” factual claims, rather than understanding the continual play between what Whitehead calls “stubborn fact” and the way that, as Whitehead also says, “there is not a sentence, or a word, with a meaning which is independent of the circumstances under which it is uttered”, so that “every proposition proposing a fact must, in its complete analysis, propose the general character of the universe required for that fact.” This is why science must always be accompanied by robust speculation, whether in the form of metaphysics or in that of science fiction.