Archive for August, 2009

Fair Use

Thursday, August 13th, 2009

An author of my acquaintance, who has published a number of well-regarded works of both fiction and non-fiction, has a new book coming out next year. It’s a sort of “nonfiction novel” or extended essay, giving his very personal take on what it means to live in our current high-tech-mediated, pop-culture-dominated world. Since the book is about the here and now, the author weaves in quotations from multiple sources, all recognizable parts of the mediascape we live in.

The author has fought with his publishers for months about “sourcing” these quotations. He regards them as being covered under “fair use,” but the publisher demands that he get explicit permission to use them. The publisher will not budge. And so, the other day I received a form to sign. It requested explicit permission to quote some 90 words of mine, and also required me to certify that I did indeed “own” the copyright on these 90 words. I agreed to sign the document, just to make things easily for the author who wants to quote me; but I added an addendum, stating that his use of my words is covered by fair use, and therefore does not require my explicit permission.

An additional irony of the whole situation is that, of the 90-word passage of mine that the author is quoting, 50 of these words are not “mine” at all, but rather the words of somebody else, who I happen to be quoting (with full attribution). I regarded, and still regard, my own quotation as being an instance of fair use, and so I never asked the author of those 50 words for explicit permission to quote them. I got away with this, I suppose, because I published the text in question online, so I didn’t have a professional publisher to hassle me.

All this is idiotic in the extreme (not to mention that it must be a real pain for the author to collect all the permissions his publisher has required him to get). But we shouldn’t dismiss it as just idiocy; for it shows the real dangers of the current draconian interpretations of copyright and “intellectual property.” Lawsuits, threats of lawsuits, and overzealous self-censorship by publishers in order to cover themselves against the mere possibility of lawsuits: all this adds up to a much greater danger to freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of thought, than anything the government could come up with. All thought is inspired by, and comes out of, previous thought; all writing is inspired by, and based upon, earlier writing. Without the freedom to quote, to cite, to remix and recompile, etc., there is simply no freedom of speech, expression, or thought at all.

(Note: in fairness to the author, in order to respect his privacy and to spare him unnecessary hassles, I have omitted his name, and that of his publisher, from the above).

Whitehead/Levinas

Tuesday, August 11th, 2009

(Excerpt from a work in progress)

Levinas’ Totality and Infinity contains an extended analysis of enjoyment, or of what Levinas calls “living from…” Levinas equates enjoyment with a primordial sensibility, and with an openness to the world. He describes it as a process of nourishment: “the transmutation of the other into the same… an energy that is other… becomes, in enjoyment, my own energy, my strength, me.” Despite the vast differences in vocabulary and rhetoric, this analysis has much in common with Whitehead’s description of self-enjoyment arising out of a process of appropriation, which transforms “the many data” encountered in the world “into a unity of existence.” Both thinkers insist that our experience is in the first instance physical, corporeal, and embodied. They both emphasize the satisfaction that comes with the sheer fact of being alive. “Life loved is the very enjoyment of life, contentment… The primordial positivity of enjoyment, perfectly innocent, is opposed to nothing, and in this sense suffices to itself from the first.” And Levinas and Whitehead both find, in this experience of sufficiency and satisfaction, a pre-cognitive, pre-reflexive mode of subjectivity: an “I” that does not take the form of the Cartesian cogito.

But everything changes once Levinas moves on to the encounter with radical exteriority, with the Other, or with the Face. The appearance of the Other “introduces a dimension of transcendence, and leads us to a relation totally different from experience in the sensible sense of the term.” The face of the Other, confronting me, “puts the I in question”; for it absolutely “resists possession, resists my grasp.” It is an otherness that I cannot transmute into more of myself, more of the same. It “speaks to me and thereby invites me to a relation incommensurate with a power exercised, be it enjoyment or knowledge.” In this way, the encounter with the Other makes an ethical demand upon me, one that marks me even if I refuse it. This encounter is a kind of primordial trauma; it suspends and overwhelms the innocence of “living from…”, the economy of sensibility, enjoyment, and satisfaction. The naive self-presence of primordial sensibility is dissolved, and replaced with a new sort of subjectivity: one that is always already obligated to the Other, to an “idea of infinity”‘ that necessarily “exceeds my powers.”

The call of the Other in Levinas’ philosophy is its own authority; once I have heard this call, I cannot escape it or ignore it. Even to reject it is still to acknowledge it, in a backhanded sort of way. This is why, for Levinas, ethics precedes ontology, and absolutely overrides aesthetics. I am always already responsible to, and guilty before, the Other — even when I deny, or have no cognizance of, being in such state. There is no counterpart or equivalent in Whitehead’s thought for such an overwhelming, unidirectional transcendence. For Levinas, something like What Whitehead calls “concern in the Quaker sense” — the situation in which something weighs upon my spirit, so that I cannot ignore it or walk away from it — is irreducible. It unequivocally trumps self-enjoyment. The imperious demands of ethical transcendence interrupt, exceed, and cancel the simple pleasures of aesthetic immanence. The passage from enjoyment to concern and responsibility is an irreversible one; and for this reason, it cannot be described, or aestheticized, as Whitehead would urge us to do, in the form of a patterned contrast.

Is it possible to resist such a movement of transcendence? What’s at stake here is not refutation and argument, but a basic orientation of thought. Everything in Whitehead cries out against the unilateral thrust of Levinas’ vision. Levinas conceives a single grand transition: something that does not happen in time, so much as it determines and instantiates a new sort of time. The apotheosis of the Other ruptures linear, homogeneous clockwork time, and installs instead an “infinite” or “messianic” time: a “discontinuous” time of “death and resurrection.” For Levinas, in striking contrast to Bergson, “there is no continuity in being.” Continuity is false, because it has been ruptured once and for all. The epiphany of the face points to a radical anteriority: an instance that precedes, and that can never be contained within, the extended present time of lived duration.

Now, Whitehead also rejects Bergsonian continuity; but he does so in a very different way: “there is a becoming of continuity, but no continuity of becoming.” That is to say, continuity (or Bergsonian duration) is never given in advance; but it is nevertheless something to be constructed. “In the present cosmic epoch, there is a creation of continuity,” approximated through a series of discrete, punctual “becomings” and “transitions.” This means that transformation is not unique, but common; it is not an epiphany, but an everyday occurrence, something that happens again and again. “There is no nature apart from transition,” because transition is everywhere and everywhen. For Whitehead, death and resurrection are banal occurrences; and concern is not an epochal encounter, but an everyday experience. Everything is subject to the rule of “perpetual perishing”: “no thinker thinks twice; and, to put the matter more generally, no subject experiences twice.” If this is so, then there can be no single, specially privileged moment of transition, no radical alterity such as Levinas demands. Time is irreversible, and irreparable; but there is no traumatic moment in which my sensibility is breached, and my primordial enjoyment definitively interrupted.

Whitehead therefore rejects any grand narrative of a passage from self-enjoyment to concern, or from the aesthetic to the ethical. Just as every actual occasion has both a physical pole and a mental (or conceptual) pole, so too every actual occasion evinces both self-enjoyment and concern. Indeed, this is precisely why these terms form a patterned aesthetic contrast, and not an irremediable ethical opposition. Whitehead refuses to choose between concern and self-enjoyment, just as he refuses to “pick and choose”‘ between “the red glow of the sunset” and “the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.” If Whitehead is on the side of aesthetics as opposed to ethics, and on the side of immanence as opposed to transcendence, this is not because he would reject either ethics or transcendence. Rather, he finds an immanent place for transcendence, and an aesthetic place for ethics. He insists that every occasion is already, by its very nature, a “conjunction of transcendence and immanence.” Indeed, “every actual entity, in virtue of its novelty, transcends its universe, God included.” But this transcendence is itself an immanent, actual fact. Similarly, Whitehead never mounts a Nietzschean attack on conventional morals. Instead, he insists that “everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.” Ethics is therefore affirmed, but not granted primacy. Ethics is not the ground or basis of value, but its consequence. It is only out of the actual process of valuation, as performed by every actual occasion, that “the conception of morals arises” in the first place.

From a Whiteheadian point of view, then, Levinas’ subordination of immanence to transcendence, and of self-enjoyment to concern, is one-sided and reductive — just as a philosophy of pure immanence and positivity would also be one-sided and reductive. (We might see Whitehead’s criticism of Spinoza as tending in this direction; and imagine, along similar lines, a Whiteheadian criticism of Deleuze). Levinas’ claim for the priority of ethics is one more example of the “overstatement” that Whitehead sees as the “chief error”‘ of so much Western philosophy: “the aim at generalization is sound, but the estimate of success is exaggerated.” Concern is important, but it cannot be separated from self-enjoyment, much less elevated above it. For it is only insofar as “each occasion”‘ is “engaged in its own immediate self-realization,” that it can thereby also be “concerned with the universe.”

“Totalizing” Marxism?

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

Some weeks ago, Nick at Speculative Heresy raised some interesting questions about the possible relations (or not) between Marxism and Actor Network Theory: “Across speculative realism, Marxism, non-philosophy and actor-network theory, one of the constant tensions is between a totalizing theory and what we might call an assemblage theory.” Now, this is something I have been trying to grapple with for quite some time.

Thirty years ago, in graduate school, I engaged, as a Deleuzian/Blanchotian, in endless arguments with my Adorno- and Jameson-influenced friends about the possibility and necessity of “totalization” — which they saw as a crucial imperative for Marxist thought, and which I denounced as a pernicious cognitive imperialism. They insisted that any attempt to historicize, or to mobilize critical negativity, necessarily implied an endeavor to totalize — even if this goal of totalization could never actually be reached. I supported assemblages and open systems, and saw the drive to totalize as an attempt to foreclose alternatives; I thought that the affirmation of difference would get us further than critical negativity.

Today, in my grim middle age, it seems to me that the whole debate was irrelevant and beside the point. But it is obviously a debate that is far from dead, since it keeps on coming back, and seems central to contemporary disputes between Zizek/Badiou and Hardt/Negri, as well as between theorists who retain a Marxist orientation and those who adopt the anti-Marxism of Latour and DeLanda.

When I say the debate is pointless, what I really mean is that I have come to occupy both of the supposedly opposing extremes, without seeing any contradiction between them. (I hope this means that I have performed the Whiteheadian operation of producing “a shift of meaning which converts the opposition into a contrast”). On the one hand, I have become more cheerfully pluralist than ever; I no longer worry about the danger of totalization because I know that it is impossible, that there are always multiple perspectives, multiple links among things, potentialities that cannot possible be exhausted and encompassed by any sort of dialectic. Likewise, critical negativity can never be effective — there are too many things and relations that evade its grasp — so it is not even worth fighting against it. On the other hand, and at the same time, I think that the events of the last several decades have justified and validated Marx’s insights concerning the nature and tendencies of capitalism, to a degree that I couldn’t have imagined thirty years ago, no matter how “Marxist” I considered myself at the time. The accumulation of capital, the extraction of surplus value, the plundering that is equivalent to an ever-expanding “primitive accumulation”, the relentless commodification of all aspects of human life: all these processes are everywhere you look, working systematically — to the extent that I am perpetually dumbfounded, both by discourses that deny the systematicity or problematicness of capitalism, and to those that analyze power and domination and “the State” without taking them into consideration.

I am claiming, therefore, both that capitalism (or, if you prefer, the relentless process of capital accumulation) is indeed systematic, and that this has nothing to do with any arguments about totalization, or base and superstructure, or determination in the last instance, or any of those old categories of “dialectical materialism” and of a “thought of the negative.” Or, to put it in a slightly different way, I am sympathetic to Latour’s insistence that networked social processes cannot be explained in terms of global categories like “capital,” or “the social” – because these categories themselves are what most urgently need to be explained. And the only way to explain these categories is precisely by working through the network, and mapping the many ways in which these categories function, the processes through which they get constructed, and the encounters in the course of which they transform, and are in turn transformed by, the other forces that they come into contact with. But — and this is an extremely crucial “but” — explaining how categories like “capital” and “society” are constructed (and in many cases, auto-constructed) is not the same thing as denying the very validity of these categories – as Latour and his disciples are often wont to do. It is simply disingenuous when (as Nick describes it) ” Latour and the main ANT economist, Michel Callon, argue that capitalism does not exist.” I would add the same for Manuel DeLanda’s anti-Marxism, and for Gibson-Graham’s argument — much discussed in the responses to Nick’s post — that lots of inventive practices already exist, so that we have already somehow reached “the end of capitalism as we know it” (to re-quote my own comments from here). All of these denials that we have to do with anything that could be called “capitalism” seem to me to do violence to the evidences of daily experience

Of course,”capitalism” is a process, or a collection of processes, rather than a thing or an entity. We might substitute for “capitalism” the wordier formulations of capital accumulation, exploitation, “primitive accumulation,” and commodification — since all these are nouns that more clearly indicate process than “capitalism” on its own does. But in any case, the systematicity of these processes is itself something that is largely empirical, rather than somehow a priori. Capitalism is a grouping of mutually-reinforcing processes and relations that insinuate themselves into more and more areas of human existence — and not just “human” existence, if we are thinking, for instance, of ecological effects. A “radical empiricism,” like that of William James, insists upon the experiential actuality — which is to say the reality — of all sorts of relations and processes (in contrast to the way that classical empiricism restricts itself to static entities or isolated sense-impressions). Alternatively, we might think of the way that the line between what is empirically given, and what is necessary a priori, is itself rather blurry and changeable (this is an anti-Kantian argument that nonetheless acknowledges the significance of Kant — it has been made most explicitly in recent years by Paolo Virno via Wittgenstein; but it is also implicitly behind Foucault’s claim for historically variable epistemes or a prioris; it is also consistend with Kojin Karatani’s Kantian Marxism).

Therefore, I agree with Nick’s double claim that “there are some sort of systemic tendencies, but there can be no totalizing system”; but I don’t find it as insuperably difficult as he does “to square the circle and incorporate Marxism, non-philosophy and ANT together.” (I leave aside “non-philosophy” here, because I simply do not have an adequate grasp of Laruelle’s thought). When ANT-oriented people deny the existence of systematic categories, or historically produced and historically variable (relative) a prioris, this is simply because they aren’t empiricist enough — they fail to extend themselves to the point of James’ “radical empiricism,” or of Deleuze’s “transcendental empiricism.”

I will let this stand for now, although I regard it as unfinished — there is a lot more to say. In particular, I would like to work out how all this relates to “speculative realism” (and especially to Harman’s brilliant reading of Latour). I think that Harman’s greatest weakness (I am less sure about Latour) has to do with his exclusive focus on entities (objects) rather than on processes, and, in consequence of this, of his underestimation or excessive rigidity in how to understand relations. [I cannot justify this comment at present; it is part of what I am currently trying to work out. Whitehead sees the world as being composed of processes rather than substances; on this basis, he gives an account of "enduring objects" that is irreducible either to Bergsonian total flux, or to Harmanian substance ontology. I think that Whitehead's understanding of processes and relations is compatible with a sense of the long-term systematicity of something like "capitalism," in a way that Harman's and Latour's formulations are not. But this is all something To Be Continued].

tumblr workblog

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

If anyone’s interested I have started a tumblr workblog: a place to put quotes from blogs and books that I find relevant, as well as ideas to work through that are much too rough and unfinished to publish here. The address is: http://steveshaviro.tumblr.com/.