So antigram has a posting attacking a previous posting by k-punk that was about class power and “class confidence” (the sense of entitlement which is instilled in members of the ruling, or upper, class, while members of the “lower” classes tend to experience, instead, “a sense of inferiority, a constant worry about whether one should occupy certain spaces, the quietly panicky conviction that ‘surely they can see that I don’t belong here’.”).
Antigram doesn’t so much dispute the content of k-punk’s post, as reject its basic premises. Indeed, I’m inclined to say that no human being with any observational powers whatsoever could possibly disagree with k-punk’s basic observations (unless he or she were utterly blinded by ideology, which is an entirely different discussion). Consider, for instance, when k-punk notes that “in my experience, so many members of the ruling class resemble Daleks: their smooth, hard exterior contains a slimy invertebrate, seething with inchoate, infantile emotions.” Despite the differences between American class sensibilities and the British ones that k-punk is describing, this is precisely what I encounter whenever I visit The Somerset Collection, or any similarly upscale suburban shopping mall. This is the case, even though — in contrast, probably, to Great Britain — in the US the people who fit this description, and whose household income is probably at least two or three times mine, are just as likely as I am, or for that matter as people whose combined household income is one half or one third of mine, to describe themselves, if asked, as “middle class.” For class cannot be circumscribed by old-fashioned notions of “class consciousness”; it is something deeply embodied, and powefully affective , even when (or all the more if) we are not directly conscious of it.
It’s because antigram cannot really dispute any of this, that he puts the argument on a different footing. The part of k-punk’s argument that he rejects is contained in the first three words of the quotation I cited in the paragraph above: “in my experience…” Antigram argues (as does Jodi in her own comment on this exchange) that one cannot validly argue “from experience” at all. This is because, in the first place, “every argument from experience is really an argument from fantasy, and more specifically from the fantasies that a particular subject has for some reason produced in order to comprehend a traumatic experience.” The very fact that an argument is grounded in experience would therefore mean that it is skewed, partial, non-objective, and self-delusional. And secondly, “because arguments from experience are really disavowed arguments from fantasies, their categories often tend to become substantial and racialized.” The argument from experience always ends up being (horror of horrors!) an essentialistic and reified one. Therefore, according to antigram’s argument, k-punk is guilty of transforming “the Marxist conception of class” from “an economic and political category” into “a therapeutic and affective one.”
Now, it is evident that in a certain sense antigram’s criticism is correct. We don’t need the Lacanian theory of fantasy to know that merely anecdotal evidence is rarely accurate and complete. Indeed, it’s easy enough to find examples of bigotry (against black people, or not-quite-white Muslims, or darker-skinned people more generally; or against Jews; or against women; or against gays and lesbians) which justify themselves precisely on the grounds of anecdotal experience (“they” behave this way; I’ve seen “them”). Indeed, the justified distrust of the merely anecdotal is one of the major reasons for what has come to be known, in the past several hundred years, as the scientific method. The most reductionist quantitative social scientists are as likely as rigorous Lacanians, and other enemies of positivism, to distrust “experience” in this anecdotal sense.
The trouble with antigram’s argument, however, is that, for all its limits and distortions, “experience” is something you cannot get away from. There is nothing besides, nothing outside of, experience. All arguments are ultimately “arguments from experience.” We can argue, of course, about different sorts of experience, different ways of invoking experiential evidence, and so on; but that is a very different sort of argument. Scientific evidence (using “science” in the sense of physical, experimental science) has rules about validating evidence, which things to accept, and which not, as evidence, and so forth; but it still remains entirely within the realm of what is given to us by experience. Antigram invokes Lacan against k-punk’s appeal to (his own) experience, by citing the Lacanian critique of fantasy. But doesn’t Lacan also say that there is no metalanguage, and that psychoanalysis is, quite emphatically, not a matter of the analyst knowing what the analysand does not? As far as I understand Lacan (which admittedly is not very far), there’s nothing in his thought that would authorize us to separate ourselves from experience in the way antigram thinks we can, and ought to.
In one of the comments on antigram’s post, kenoma says that antigram’s argument brings back to mind “the dreary Theory-fetish shared by many British Althusserians such as Catherine Belsey in the early eighties.” I think that Althusser is somewhat to the point here (though I know almost nothing of Belsey or of 80s British Althusserianism). Althusser famously insists on the difference between “ideology” and “science.” He scandalized humanist Marxists with his valorization of science, but also scandalized hard-core Leninists, Stalinists, etc., with his insistence that even a communist society would still be in the grips of ideology, which was humanly uneliminable. But the whole argument has usually been misunderstood. “Ideology,” for Althusser, means any sort of subjective position, any sort of reliance on “experience,” altogether. “Science” means something that is radically asubjective, and that therefore cannot be called a “position” or a “perspective” at all. By science, Althusser basically meant Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge, or knowledge sub specie aeternitatis. Part of Althusser’s point is that this sort of knowledge, although it exists and is articulated in certain texts, or in certain portions of certain texts, is strictly speaking impossible, in that it absolutely cannot be assumed or adopted subjectively, by a subject; it cannot be a matter of experience. This is why Althusser said that ideology would never be surpassed or eliminated, even in a communist society.
Now, the very idea of “science” led Althusser, as is well known, into all sorts of difficulties. These days, even Althusser’s admirers (if there are any left) probably don’t accept it. My own sense of the matter is that Althusserian science, like the Spinozian knowledge to which it is equivalent, is best regarded as an Ideal in the Kantian sense: an imperative that thought can neither fulfill nor disavow, and that has a regulative or “problematic” use, even as it is constitutively impossible. Althusser himself never accepted this as a resolution; though I’d like to think that his late work on “aleatory materialism” is not incompatible with it (this is more of a hunch on my part than something I can articulate in a convincing manner). In any case, I think that an understanding of “experience” in this crypto-Kantian-Althusserian way, as something that is never entirely adequate, but also that we can never presume to rid ourselves of, shows why antigram’s critique of k-punk is unacceptable. Antigram says that k-punk grounds his discussion in “an argument from a specifically childhood experience.” But k-punk is not offering this experience as the proof of his argument; he is rather using it in order to foreground his own subjective stake in the argument, which is an entirely different matter. It is antigram who is being disingenuous by writing as if he didn’t also have such a stake: as if his own argument could be scientific rather than ideological, or as if the position of the analyst could somehow be free of counter-transference.
(I don’t mean by this to demand that antigram reveal his own stake. Such a demand is never justified.There are all sorts of good reasons for privacy and disengagement; and writing and arguing often function, quite rightly, as ways of escaping from one’s personality or subjectivity rather than affirming it. I certainly regard my own writing, on this blog and elsewhere, as such an endeavor towards escape. But no argument, and no writing, has the sort of transcendence of all stakes and subjectivities, the freedom from any “argument from experience,” that antigram implicitly claims for his criticism of k-punk).
Another way to put this is to note what is problematic about antigram’s charge that k-punk transmutes class from “an economic and political category” into “a therapeutic and affective one.” Now, I’m a great advocate of retaining Marx’s understanding of the logic of capital as the basis for understanding class and many other things. Most essentially, class is a function of one’s relation to the processes of extracting, expropriating, and distributing surplus value. But I don’t think that k-punk is ignoring this, even though he is not focusing on it. And to say that class is ultimately determined (“in the last instance”, as Althusser liked to say) by one’s position vis-a-vis the expropriation of surplus value, is not to say that class is devoid of other sorts of components. And particularly of affective components. As far as I am concerned, the most important thing Deleuze and/or Guattari ever said is that there is a crucially affective dimension of all social and psychological processes; that affectivity is intrinsic to, or immanent to, among other things, the very logic of Capital. K-punk is trying to describe, in his post, one aspect (an important one) of the affectivity of class, i.e. the affectivity of the very movement of capital as it works in the world today. Antigram is wrong to exclude the affective, or to oppose the affective to the “economic and political.” For there is no economcs, and no politics, that is not at the same time affective.
Indeed, one major reason for the theoretical deadlock in which the Left finds itself today is precisely its failure to adequately consider the affective dimension of economics and politics. Neoliberalism is able to work as a form of class warfare (of the rich, or the capitalist class, against everyone else), and as a form of redistribution (away from everyone else and to the already ultra-rich and their corporations), only because it has been so effective, so triumphant, on the affective level. (This is something that Deleuze and Guattari, and the post-operaismo Italians, among others, touch on in various ways, but our understanding of it remains seriously underdeveloped).
Antigram’s separation of the affective from the economic and political is thus where the real problem lies. As for the “therapeutic,” well, it seems curious for somebody using Lacanian arguments to disavow therapy. (But perhaps that is a low blow; Lacan certainly had acute, accurate criticisms of American-style therapeutic “cures”). In any case, I take the point (expressed more by Jodi than by antigram) about the problem with appeals to one’s own “experience” of “victimization” in American identity politics. But again, the way to get around this is not to stop considering affect, or experience, but to understand affect and experience in less “propertarian” terms. Affect and experience are necessarily “subjective”; but they can still, for all that, be collective and transpersonal rather than the “property” of an aggrieved individual. They do not “belong” to a specially privileged subject; they are rather that which transforms, shapes, and misshapes any such subject. Which I think was what k-punk was pointing to. The aggressive personal claims to the validity of one’s own experience that Jodi disparages are another thing altogether. (In fairness, Jodi — unlike antigram — never asserts that this is the case with k-punk’s post itself).
Antigram ends his post by asserting “the basic Lacanian maxim that, not Daleks, and not the class system, but rather oneself ‘is always responsible for one’s position as subject’.” I do not know whether or not Lacan really says this. But I find this maxim to be utterly appalling, “bad and reactionary.” It is a classic example of “blaming the victim.” It is the basic neoliberal mantra that the poor are “responsible” for their own poverty, that the failure of the so-called “underclass” to thrive is a consequence of its own deficiency in “values” or “entrepreneurial drive.” To hold this maxim is to endorse a Hobbesian and Malthusian view of the social world, to accept cutthroat capitalism as an ultimate ontological horizon, to smugly view whatever happens as the justified “survival of the fittest.”
The only politically and ethically acceptable maxim, to the contrary, is to say that nobody is ever responsible for his/her own position as subject.