“Every artist, everyone who considers themselves an artist, has the right to create freely according to his ideal, independently of everything. However, we are Communists and we must not stand with folded hands and let chaos develop as it pleases.” -Lenin
In a recent TED lecture Sheena Iyengar discussed some preconceptions people have in making choices. One of the principle questions is whether more choices are necessarily better, which she believes to be be a common idea for Americans. It is interesting that Americans identified several choices when shown several varieties of soda, whereas Russians nearly across the board said there was only one choice: soda. There is a problem in terms of the framing of the question of choice, which once shifted significantly questions some seemingly common sense based ideas.
I think when we talk in general about what “freedom” means in the United States, there are some tacit assumptions about what we are referring to. Freedom is aligned with “agency”, or ones ability to decide on their actions based on their own volition without external coercion. This definition of freedom which I align with liberalism begins to fall apart nearly immediately when we scratch the surface. The choices we make are always influenced by our historical experience, our relationship to law, and what we desire or aim toward in our actions is influenced in the extreme by our cultural circumstances. There is a coded language of universal and abstract “will” behind the discourse of freedom which ignores history, circumstance, conditioning, and especially the way the discourse of freedom itself is framed. I have argued else-where about the absurdity of the “pure realm” of art— it is imperative that we see the same to be true of freedom.
In Marcuse’s essay on liberal tolerance, he does an excellent job of explaining why “free speech” in a general sense can actually be detrimental to freedom considered socially. We are living in circumstances of hierarchical power structures to such an extent that an equal playing field would actually entail the necessity of silencing and coercing some people who have power in a given situation. The argument that racist voices should be given equal rights as voices advocating for the dismantling of racist systems must necessarily ignore the structural racism at play. The problem of framing is involved, as the two sides are seen as isolated entities rather then two forces being swept along by an already existing tide of public opinion, international domination of people of colour, a prison-industrial complex that is disproportionately filled with poc people, and brutal anti-immigration tactics. Any idea of “freedom” that doesn’t factor in the general direction on a wider social level is going to be a severely impoverished account.
Lenin’s quote with which I opened this discussion seems to be a sort of “have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too-ism”, where the artist is able to produce with complete impunity, but also needs to consider their role and position in the class struggle. I think rather that these two sides are congruent in a way that is difficult to grasp for people (like myself) fostered in a society that is structured monadically. “Social responsibility” is an increasingly unpopular topic, and most people would defend themselves in the interest of freedom against their social responsibility, whether it be as an artist, or chemist. If we re-frame the way we look at morality on terms of issues like class, I think we get a more holistic image of social well-being that actually renders the conditions for the possibility of a meaningful freedom.
Hegel offers an interesting and provocative definition of freedom that I think it would be wise for us to consider socially. Freedom is a relationship to un-freedom, in other words, freedom itself only exists as left does to right, rather than as an abstract category of individual volition. This definition by necessity points us toward taking a wider scope in our definition of morality, and also locates it in concrete instances of oppression. What I think needs to be added to this understanding to make it complete, is an approach which seeks to account for systemic instances of non-freedom, rather than simply saying “that’s the way it is”, ascribing it to some trans-historical definition of human nature. One of Marxism’s great intellectual achievements was the realization that freedom means something extremely more complicated than “doing what one wants”, and positing that true freedom is a dialectic interplay between the desire and responsibility to the society in which it plays out. I am interested in the radical non-subject oriented perspective this brings up, which non-the-less understands that there is no objective standpoint to critique from, nor a properly speaking “social whole” that can act as an object of critique. The dialectic process is a method of illuminating social relationships and adjusting based on the interplay of various perspectives.
This idea is especially important when we talk more specifically about what the stakes are for achieving freedom, and what the role of the Communist in trying to develop them is. In Benjamin’s essay on The Role of the Artist as Producer we are given one of the best descriptions of communisms role in the arts. Rather than the focus on the individual genius, issues like class antagonism actually bar the possibilities for the creative outlet of proletarian people. When Steve Jobs died there was a strong outpour of voices defending his genius, and ability to understand and program devices people wanted. No one asked the question: How many brilliant people were never given the chance to develop their ability because they were working in a sweatshop producing these devices? The fantasy of the genius who through sheer talent and ability is able to become rich seems almost absurd when we consider the conditions of the proletarian forces who are coerced into signing statements that they won’t commit suicide or their family will face financial consequences.
Reframing freedom as a task for communists would more accurately be described as “refracting” freedom, a balancing that considers the point where it interacts, and alters its course through this interaction.
There are a few axis points I think are important for the discussion on subjectivity, one being inter-subjectivity in the embodied Hegelian sense, against a Habermasian conception of communicative inter-subjectivity that focuses on the deeper stratum of rationality and (soft) linguistic teleology. The second is Liebnizian/Spinozian/Deleuzian subject monism versus a comparative structure. Of course there is an unavoidable ground for some degree of comparison, but the monistic account can suffer that on the instance of the subject being validated on its own standards.
It is difficult to plot the axis for this distinction before parsing out whether a Spinozian subject monism meets the anti-humanist claims which are made for it. Before really going through with a critique of this it would perhaps be important to reread some of Delueze’s work on Spinoza. However, I think there are substantial grounds in the Ethica for dismissing a radical anti-humanist interpretation. Especially looking into the affects there is an almost liberal account of subjectivity, combining Liebniz’ monad with some proto-version of the will to power, or more accurately an Epicurean relationship to activity and passivity which seeks to rationally plot life in such a way as to become most happy/active. Spinoza believes there is some space for being affected in a positive way (in “love”, and “nobility”) but generally relies on the core argument that utter self-sufficiency and control are the stabilizing factors in maintaining a happy life. This is at the heart of the Ethics, and plugs deeply into the metaphysical structure of the book, as the active subject becomes more and more godly the less it relies on others, or merely receives affects as “passions”. There is something profoundly humanistic in the account, and perhaps even hubristic despite Spinoza’s warnings against pride. Most notably perhaps in Spinoza’s disdain for humility, which he describes as degrading to the individual.
Of course this is all to be taken in terms of a more general structure which certainly dethrones the human in a way, especially when we’re given the anti-Cartesian A2 in EII, which mockingly states: “Man thinks”, and the definition of a body itself (EIId1): “By body I understand a mode that in a certain and determinate way expresses God’s essence insofar as he is considered as an extended thing.” This brings up another intresting axis of the Ethica generally, which is that the focus on “The mind” in the chapter on the affects, and its ability to overcome the passions, seems to almost reintroduce a mind/body duality, despite such radical definitions of mind as just the idea of the body (this of course opens up a whole discourse regarding parallelism which I will skip for now). There is a way in which these more general structures that seem exciting are undermined in the chapter on the affects, by rendering them almost void in the way the structural elements actually play out.
So the question of “anti-humanism” in Spinoza seems far more complicated than the charts I am constructing will allow, though the Hegelian in me wants to just stuff him the subject-based monad corner. This corner is extremely problematic in its own right, as it certainly plays a huge role in liberal idealogy/individualism (perhaps I should look at Spinoza and the Rise of Liberalism), but also seems to be making a re-emergence as a radical idea. This is the question of “pluralism”, which I am excited about, but my gut reaction is to qualify it as inter-subjective pluralism, rather than monadic, perhaps falling somewhere between my provisional designation for Spinoza and the Habermasian completely structure-based account (maybe a slightly less consciousness oriented Hegelianism). If anyone has some clarifying passages or books on this topic please send them over!
My final concern, having just finished Kompridis’ book on Habermas, is his brand of what I will call “hard inter-subjectivity”, which reacts to Habermas’ structural account to such an extent that there is the romantic stink of humanism. There is a good reason to take the other to reason perhaps, especially if were going to have an account that considers factors like environment and non-human animals (though I am generally critical of many accounts which focus too hard on these issues, and miss some of the deeper problems occurring). The useful bit that I got from Critique and Disclosure, is that idea of “receptivity” as method of being active in receiving, which beautifully disrupts the rigidity of the Spinozian active/passive grid.
I am also interested in thinking about this in terms of Marx’ Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and the Hegelian account of “Substance as Subject”, which construct a really solid account of the dialectic interplay which undermines the traditional narrative of “consciousness versus nature”, but in the end are perhaps a bit too far on the consciousness side of it. Marcuse will probably be helpful in such a consideration.
The main thing I hope to work out from this discussion would be getting at the wiring behind class-consciousness, and how to think about a collective phenomenology of class struggle. I want to work around sites of common oppression in such a way that harmonizes between the collective totality and the particular, so that dialogue and structures can be built without the necessity of folding in difference. Mainly I want to explore how we can consider difference not to be a problem, but as strategic towards achieving an intersectional, broad-based, and militant party structure.
Midatlantic Editon, Spring 2011: “Think of yourself as a “product.” Just like a certain brand of toothpaste of automobile offers attractive features to various consumers, you offer particular attributes that would be beneficial to certain companies or corporations. The key is to make sure that hiring managers know that you’re out there.”
Marx’s unveiling of labour power itself as a commodity is perhaps one of the most important things to grasp from a study of his thought. At the heart of profit is labour, at the heart of labour is self. A self is is primarily defined by action, rather than in an abstract distinction from movement and will. When the majority of action takes place under the coercive construction of the wage system, a large portion of actions are done for another, a large part of action becomes insignificant to the development of the self. What happens when one is hired, is that person’s labour power is purchased, meaning it no longer belongs to the labourer. There is a philosophical problem in this kind of exploitation, which grows more complex and dangerous as capitalism advances.
“Look into sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn that allow you to connect with individuals and to join “groups” that can help you get in touch with like-minded people who all bring their own set of contacts to the table. Best of all, they don’t cost you a thing to join.”
By a thing, they of course mean financially, but the real costs of such self-inflicted degradation are far more severe. Beyond ones labour power becoming a commodity, this article argues for a subject-totality as an abstract commodity, where self-hood is more properly defined by not simply what one does, but by its relativity to its virtual abstraction. Magritte’s trope has truth beyond representation in art, your photo is not you, nor is your abstract internet profile; it is decidedly something other. But what occurs when one surrenders themselves to an image of themselves is a portioning, both with the time one spends maintaining online being, and within the way one understands and interacts socially at all.
“Remember that looking for employment should be treated like a full-time job.”
This sentence should be treated as a warning, especially following sentences like “As many as 80-85% of all jobs at any given time are never advertised”, the feeling you are meant to be left with is the failure to assign yourself a virtual representative can very possibly lead to poverty and even death. Attachment of your virtual person to the commodity circuit is the logical extension of the already inherent market logic of Facebook, one that reduces the depth and beauty of subjectivity to a 2D abstraction, a virtual doppelgänger. The absolute blending of the subject and the market was never possible until this extraction, until the concrete and finite self could be wholly dispensed with save for its labour power. This is the most complete version of alienation to have threatened subjectivity. The magazines wording is choice “The key is to make sure hiring-managers know you’re out there”, the implication being that without Facebook, you are not out there, you don’t even exist in a significant way: not enough to obtain a way to eat and house yourself. Beyond replacing the way we socialize, Facebook now threatens the way we keep our concrete bodies from pre-mature decay.
We have fed the doubles until they have grown bigger than us, now we need them to feed us.
“The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux…
“The production is at -first- directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men…” “efflux” here is used here to describe the mental realm as something like steam, the mental being a product of a set of material conditions. The “real active men” and their existential thoughts are “conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms.”
This is not the existential position, this is a response to it. Marx is calling for recognizing the historical/political conditions of the possibility of thought, and complicating the existential line that consciousness is primary. Consciousness rather exists in dialectic relation to law, history, extension, etc.
Marx’ thought is not existentialist, unless you really stretch the definition. Substance-as-subject is an immanent non-ontological idea of materialism (which we can source from Spinoza, though less crudely in Hegel). The nature of experience and substance-subject being the center (as it is an anthropological status) should not be confused for the solipsistic center of the individual consciousness championed by existentialism. There is a real danger in such a misinterpretation, a great example is when Simone De Beauvoir argued against Simone Weil that the most important question was of existence, whereas Weil felt it was more important to feed hungry people. Substance-subject comes from notion that develops as we close the gap between an observing consciousness and a thing-in-itself, where this substance becomes conscious of itself: for Marx in the proletarian revolutionary consciousness.
The ding an sich isn’t separate, nor is it identical to a conscious receiver, but rather as either “side” shifts, both will; this is a labour process (both revolutionary and general production). The relationship of material existence and consciousness complete one another in a constantly shifting dialectic oscillation. One might say that consciousness extends beyond the individual, as the material world, but more accurately put: individual consciousness is the extension of substance-consciousnesses: The material world.
[Rough draft, I am sorry I used two men to critique two women, it was an accident. Need to flesh out relationship between existentialism and objectivism more specifically.]
One specifically infamous concept that comes from misreading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit is that it concludes with the end of all history, where the dialectic consciousness’ movement through time halts in the positive circular infinity of absolute knowing. Fukayama concretely likens this to the Japanese tea ceremony, an endless movement divorced from change and contingency. This sort of deterministic reading is central to many critics of both Marx and Hegel, and thusly the source of much great error and comedy. Marx’s shift from his young and Humanist conceptions to economic matters wasn’t also a shift toward economic determinacy, as Hegel’s meta-structure of consciousness developing as the general Notion doesn’t likewise demand a determinate adherence or coercion. Part of the genius of Gramsci’s understanding of Marxism is that he was able to grasp this aspect of Marxist thought, despite not having access to the materials where Marx and Engel’s lay this out explicitly. Some have interpreted this as a reinvention, or modernizing of Marx’s theory, but I will argue that it was not Marx’s intention to display any sort of historical determinacy, but rather a shifting, and contingent structure at both the base and super-structure of historic blocks, a position that avoids both vulgar humanism and determinacy.
Engel’s letters on Dialectic Materialism detail explicitly his contempt of those whose reading of Marx are akin to when “…Descartes declares animals to be machines…” and that he is “…sorry for the man who can write such a thing.” He notes after this the origin of the famously abused quote from Marx that he himself is not a Marxist. Marx said this in response to the French “Marxists” of the seventies who relied heavily on explaining everything by the material conditions and economic structure. Perhaps however the height of folly from the deterministic reading of Marxism comes later in Simone De Beauvoir’s introduction to her book “The Ethics of Ambiguity”, which draws the worst mistakes of Marx’s reading of Hegel together with history’s worst reading of Marx.
[She notes: “For in Hegel the surpassed terms are preserved only as abstract moments, whereas we consider that existence still remains a negativity in the positive affirmation of itself”; one must have skimmed Hegel’s chapters on Antigone to miss that he makes that exact point regarding existence. De Beauvoir does however seem to understand Hegel’s assertion that both individual and collective must be equally important, but goes on to establish the existentialist party-line: that this isn’t good enough, and primacy must be wholly located in the self. The existentialist position eliminates the possibility of anything outside itself, becoming inbred in the twisted maze of perpetual self-reflection. “All positions are positions of negation”, the terms set for existentialist knowledge can only be self-set terms, and therefor can only acknowledge a type of relativism. “In Marxism,” she proclaims, “if it is true that the goal and the meaning of action are defined by human wills, these wills do not appear free. They are the reflection of the objective conditions by which the situation of the class or the people under consideration is defined”. Her assertion is that despite the emphasis in Marxism on revolutionary potential, and its contingent possibility (which she also mistakenly asserts as an “individual act”), the fact that this action is rooted in a historical and economic framework reduces it to determinacy. Assuming that being grounded in a circumstance is equivalent to a mere reflection of them asserted onto a “passive” subject is nowhere to be found in Marx (or reality). The oscillating and contingent position of the proletarian revolutionary subject is not completely ground-able any more than is its base or super-structure. The proletariat isn’t a mere “idea” divorced from its flesh and blood; it is the real people who are exploited, and notably exploited by abstractions. The simple dismissal of the idea by calling it an abstraction (besides being far from the case) is actual a rather uncreative dodge to avoid analysing the content of whats being argued against by ontologizing its form with a projection.
Marx understood the ideological position of capitalism as one that reifies abstractions as demands on the working class. The idea of surplus value itself (at the heart of Marx’s critique of capitalism) is ideological and abstract; it only becomes concrete in the practice of the exploitation of real labor. The dual point of this argument is firstly that far from being a vulgar materialist, Marx understood how important ideological abstractions can be, and secondly that despite this they must come to act upon actual individual lives. When we look at those who experience this particular kind of exploitation, we have the proletariat; this is a definition and can’t be critiqued in the De Beauvoir offers any more than can the definition of “daughter”, or “fire-fighter”. If someone else makes profit based on the labour they produce, they are the proletariat. The idea that this entire class must be immediately conscious of their situation is a bourgeoisie absurdity. A part of understanding a class, without leveling it into a homogenous organism, is to recognize that within it there are individuals with different goals and orientations. Some of these goals might actually be personally gratifying at the expense of others in a similar position. Far from reducing the proletariat to an idea as De Beauvoir claims, this understanding recognizes the part to whole is a dynamic, while emphasizing that as dynamic totality the working class has the potential for contingency and power. Only an ideology festering with individual supremacy could assume that a collective has to be completely homogenous to work toward a goal together.
Like Hegel’s “Beautiful soul”, De Beauvoir thinks that any content “contains the blemish of determinateness from which pure knowing can disdainfully reject, or equally can accept. Every content, because it is determinate, stands on the same level as any other, even if it does seem to be characterized by the elimination in it of the element of particularity”. [Emphasis Hegel’s!] If we are speaking against these totalizing determinisms De Beauvoir is worried about, we might very well discuss ideologies like her’s that say all content necessarily eliminates all particularity. Without factoring in history or social positions, the particular cases simply don’t exist. This, however, doesn’t condemn them to being mere examples of those factors: those factors condition and provide content for a real, contingent, and free willed individual. How De Beauvoir got through this chapter in Hegel on morality without noticing the moments that explicitly address the flaw in her logic is staggering. Instead of responding to the arguments located there, or actually in Marx, she simply attacks both Marx and Hegel in terms of general abstractions she constructs from her personal opinions, without even quoting them or specifying which Marxists she is talking about.
De Beauvoir’s critique begins by noting: “Like all radical humanism, Marxism rejects the idea of an inhuman objectivity and locates itself in the tradition of Kant and Hegel…only the will of men decides…” The conflations here are so dense they are difficult to parse through, but to begin with “radical humanism” is a label I think few Marxists would agree well characterizes them. Also putting Kant and Hegel in the same camp carries almost as much problems as placing Marxism in their trajectory in such a wholesale manner. Where Marx took from Hegel, he was incredibly critical of him. Marxist’s like Althusser even assert that the Hegelian portions of Marx could be completely dispensed with without hurting the idea (though I will note I disagree with this assertion). Finally to make this abrupt severance between human objectivity and an external objectivity is a gross reduction. The Marxist project is centrally concerned with human’s relation to the material: what someone who couldn’t get around the distinction would call “objects”. The proletariat only develops as a subject because it works with and through material. This idea comes from Hegel’s master and slave dialectic, and is the grounds from which Marxism interpreted that we understand subjectivity as always related to the real, external, and physical world, which shapes and is shaped by the human subject (thus the materialism part of dialectic materialism). The moving dialectic isn’t a simplistic collective agent rolling above reality: the main point of Marx’s critique of Hegel was (unjustly) that Hegel made exactly this mistake. The part is necessary to a whole, the subject necessary to the object: without both there can be neither.
De Beauvoir continues: “In the present moment of the development of capitalism, the proletariat can not help wanting its elimination as a class. Subjectivity is re-absorbed into the objectivity of the given world”; now, it seems this is a direct contradiction of her version of Marxism she critiqued earlier as one that “rejects the idea of an inhuman objectivity”… De Beauvoir cannot grasp that perhaps the division between those two elements in the first place has some issues, or that it needn’t always be one extreme or the other (If I, as a downright fanatic, am saying this there really must be an issue). Most of her argument hinges on having set Marxism up as nearly equivalent to determinism, and then of course she can enjoy kicking over this crude castle of sand she’s built and written “Marxism!” on.
In the next paragraph De Beauvoir continues to make a straw man absurdity of the Marxist position by claiming that to the Marxist “…this movement [the revolution] appears so essential […] that if an intellectual or a bourgeois also claims to want revolution, they distrust him.” I am unsure where you could reasonably (or possibly) source the idea that Marxists don’t trust intellectuals (my critique would actually be the exact opposite…). Besides, a great number of bourgeois became class traitors, not to mention the fact that that before Marxism there is a long history of bourgeoisie figures who recognized class oppression (Owen, Rousseau, Comte…). Few Marxists would say the bourgeoisie are determined by their class to be totally beyond sympathizing and aiding the struggle of the proletariat, though I think there was a certain wisdom in the Russian muzhik’s distrust of the sympathetic members of the bourgeois. It is not a determination but a propensity for those in power to serve their own interest; if there is some evidence in Marxist thought to the contrary of this it is certainly not actually presented by De Beauvoir.
The extreme but logical conclusion of the existentialist position is the Objectivist position (in the Randian sense). Hegel describes the Beautiful Soul: “Conscience is free from any content whatever; it absolves itself from any specific duty which is supposed to have the validity of law. In the strength of its own self-assurance it possesses the majesty of absolute autarky, to bind and to loose”. The division in this chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit is on Morality in Spirit, which subdivides into the Beautiful Soul, and then once again into “The Moral Genius”, a character that leaves the world it sees as evil or lazy to form a kind of cult. Ironically, this is where we can locate more specifically where Miss Rand falls into Hegel’s scheme. Rand would be alarmed and furious to know that Hegel deals with her ideas in the same exact attack that could be directed toward the full-time members of the rainbow family (or any modern hippy separatists). Rand’s idea that all the successful and hard working people should separate from the evils of collective society and form their own community is a very curious proposition for a militant individualist. We can use here the reverse of one of De Beauvoir’s arguments: “It appears evident to us that in order to adhere to Marxism, to enroll in a party, and in one rather than another, to be actively attached to it, even a Marxist needs a decision whose source is only in himself.”[emphasis mine]. I am very curious how Miss De Beauvoir would suppose someone could join such a group if the group didn’t exist to join, and if there were no social pressure or value derived from joining one. The fact is that people often gravitate to and choose Marxism for themselves because it corresponds to their interest as part of a class: both part and whole are necessary. Here she falls into the trap that a number of the characters in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit fall into: not recognizing that exact opposites have a deep connection, and can often be approached with the same string of logic (continuing with her straw man approach she seems to characterize Marxists here as arguing blatantly against “freedom”: a pathetic trick akin to when conservative news brilliantly deduces that “terrorists” attack us because they “Hate our freedom”).
This all connects again to Miss Rand who doesn’t see that her community of radical individuals is just what she says it is: a community. It is hardly a stretch to see how Rand’s ideas are similar to those described by Hegel’s Moral Genius, who “knows the inner voice of what it immediately knows to be a divine voice; and since, in knowing this, it has an equally immediate knowledge of existence, it is the divine creative power which in its Notion possesses the spontaneity of life. Equally, it is in its own self divine worship, for its action is the contemplation of its own divinity.” Let’s compare this with a line from Rand’s Anthem: “And now I see the face of god, and I raise this god over the earth, this god whom men have sought since men came into being, this god who will grant them joy and peace and pride. This god, this one word: I”. “I” of course does and doesn’t refer to Rand herself; it is the universal “I”, the leveling reduction of the wealth of humyn life into an abstract category. Hegel explains: “This solitary divine worship is at the same time essentially the divine worship of a community, and the pure inner knowing and perceiving of itself advances to the moment of consciousness. The contemplation of itself is its objective existence and this objective element is the declaration of its knowing and willing as something universal.”[believe it or not the emphasis is Hegel’s again]. The objective-subjective split is erased in this “moral” form of consciousness; the self-validation is immediately the content of morality itself. Far from saying it must act a certain way though it is wrong to do so, or that it acts from cowardice, this form of consciousness thinks selfishness is virtue (See Rand’s book The Virtue of Selfishness). I think people are mistaken in approaching Rand’s philosophy as simply espousing the Hobbesian dog-eat-dog capitalist world: it is an explicitly moral format, even dogmatically so. Calling the “content” of individual thought “Objective” is to say that it immediately takes its own position to be the truth, closing the gap between part and whole, subject and object. As we will see, however, this immediacy and dogmatic self-orientation quickly falls apart.
Referring to the attempted isolation of the Moral Genius, Hegel explains: “It lives in dread of besmirching the splendor of its inner being by action and an existence; and in order to preserve the purity of its heart, it flees from contact with the actual world, and persists in its self-willed impotence to renounce its self which is reduced to the extreme of ultimate abstraction, and to give itself a substantial existence, or to transform its thought into being and put its trust in the absolute difference [between thought and being]. The hollow object which it has produced for itself now fills it, therefore, with a sense of emptiness”. Hegel even describes it further, saying, “its light dies away within it”, which is a cute coincidence if we consider that the individualist hero of Rand’s Anthem asserts his power in re-inventing the light bulb. Like De Beauvoir, the abstract and empty Universalist conception of subjectivity will be forced into recognition of the bored, contentless position it occupies: whether at an individual level, such as when this happens to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, or collectively in the isolated community of those who think they have the right idea compared to society with all its evils (it might be a bit of a stretch but I want to at least bring up Trotsky’s critique of one state socialism as a social mode doomed to failure). The individual is a necessary moment of the collective, and the fall into championing either side is not only dangerous, but in many ways nearly the same position: the two sides are dialectically related. On a less complex level, it is not a stretch to say the individualist rhetoric and the people that espouse it bear a remarkable similarity (usually white, and male…), leading them to act like what I call “Randroids”.
Marx and Engel’s project was to recognize the intensive pull of and conditioning by material conditions, without assuming they are totalizing: a point Gramsci does more justice to in his more in depth analysis of the relationship between base (material) and super-structure (ideology). If the ideological forces can contingently shift in positive directions, oppressive power can condition these possibilities, but not totally defeat them with simple brutality. We can see many situations like this throughout history, and power has certainly learned from these situations. If the United States felt like it could simple bash its subjects into submission it would do so, as it does in the third world countries where it can get away with it. But here, and increasingly in other places in the world, it relies on a notion of power which is less force-oriented, and more directed ideologically. This is a dangerous turn for the people, but also for theory as many post-modernist thinkers misread this as a complete erasure of central power. Marxism is valuable for me because it can offer an incredible critique of either side without falling into the binary logic. It can consider the relationship between ideology and economics, and should (as Marx himself did) recognize that our economic situation is ideological, and vice versa. Arguments that reduce all understanding of history and society to a type of coercive imposition on a subject are equally as short sighted as those which say any type of collective project is authoritarian; and both are equally unintelligible. The issues of the Moral Genius in Hegel do eventually develop into a new form: the “ acting consciousness”, an updated version of Hegel’s Antigone. The possibility of the rest of the Phenomenology comes from acting-consciousness confessing to judging-consciousness—a new version of Creone’s collective social expectations and laws. I personally see little hope for the Objectivist reaching the point of the confession, and have trouble with Hegel’s limiting of legislative transgression to the individual act. Instead I would offer the solution of a collective that acts in transgression for the sake of creating a new social universal. The perpetual transgressive mode Hegel details must be true for the collective revolutionary subject as well, even after we consider that a collective has an internal part to whole logic. This continual dialectic reconstitution of social norms and economic structures is the real aim of the proletariat, a party that seeks fluidity, and contradicts the misreading of Marxism as deterministic. I suppose for myself, the last section of the chapter of Spirit would have been more rightfully titled “Class War”, though I guess that was Marx’s thought as well.
-Hegel, G.W.F Phenomenology of Spirit, New York, NY Oxford University Press,1977
-De Beauvoir, Simon The Ethics of Ambiguity New York, NY Citadel Press, 1948
-Engels, Friedrich ”Letters on Dialectic Materialism” Marx & Engels Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy Ed. Lewis Feuer, New York, NY Doubleday Publishing, 1959
-Rand, Ayn. Anthem. London: Cassell, 1946
[I apologize for the convoluted sentences and grammar in this post. I tend to gravitate toward vague or confusing sentences, but unlike this evening I usually have the help of a good editor. If you happen to have a penchant for editing feel free to contact me!]
Constructing a method of morality is an ideological affair. When we consider the history of attempts at such a constitution, we end up with something that roughly outlines the history of philosophy. Unavoidably attached is a religious history, particularly when we consider moral attitudes that predate the French revolution. Looking at spheres of morality within their historical block works beyond itself as a simple historical measure, it outlines the possibilities of morality, and constitutes retrospectively the methods that would transcend them. A methodology tied into a historical mode constituted by the imminent functional role of religion was suppressed violently in the ideology of the French revolution, as the bourgeoisie drew a line in the sand between its dispersed atomistic individual singularity constructed as a category, and faith, which despite having a content, lacked the insight necessary to defend itself. Hegel illuminates all this in the chapter on self-alienated spirit and culture in the Phenomenology of Spirit. What really stands at the heart of the inevitably of the terror is abstraction: the coercive categorical notion of what constitutes adherence to this singularity. There is a simplistic political dimension here if you view the problem as forced ideological adherence, but the real center is the recognition of the structural emptiness of the individualist moral system. The unilateralist singularity is a development of atomistic moralism, a profoundly dialectic example of how such an extreme point rolls over into its opposite (opposites in Hegel always have direct relationships). I want to develop some of the moments that I feel are integral to understanding the terror and its modern heritage: the mechanistic nature of capital, where death has become a non-event. The French revolution is the moment of the death of death, where the guillotine not only beheads but also erases humyn subjectivities.
The immediate distinction sought by the moral law in Kant quickly reveals its reliance on contingency, but this moment is one that, though fundamentally unsatisfying (as Hegel’s argument shows), is not one that forces the subject beyond it in every case. Isak Borg in Ingmar Bergman’s Smultronstallet (Wild Strawberries) is a case example of applying categorical morality over the span of ones life can look like. It calls power from the rigid transcendent god, but itself can act with a seamless sense of care, gain power and validity, and even carry an old world charm that appeals to ones sense of sympathy. The subject doesn’t even consider the tangible effect of its actions, assuming the real element of morality exists solely in adherence to the category. Thus his son Evald’s promise to pay back borrowed money becomes more about the promise of payment than the imminent element of his wealth against Evald’s poverty. Isak defers the issue to the alienated moral law, and binds Evald’s debt despite the circumstances. “A promise is a promise”, and trying to apply the logical element of a what a promise is at all becomes an impossibility for it in the self legislating act of breaking one.
The film opens with Isak having a nightmare wherein he is left isolated in starkly shadowed city. A sense of fear and isolation cause him to approach the first living body he sees, but as it turns around to meet his address, Isak comes face to face with something unrecognizable as humyn to him: the utter abjectness of the other. The body collapses into a bleeding heap on the sidewalk. For Isak, seeking refuge in another at all had to come from a moment of fear: a moment his comfortable lifestyle had mostly eliminated as a possibility. The dream brings out something that he must know at some level: that his moral system is in reality completely empty, and has led him to isolation and boredom. After being confronted with the abject other, a funeral carriage crashes dropping a coffin. When Isak approaches the coffin he sees himself, a moment easily written off as a clichéd confronting of his own coming demise (he is after all in his 70’s), but the element to really draw out of this is not a fear of his own death, but what death means in relation to his experience of the other. Not to die then, but to die alone. The abject other is the one created by the categorical morality, the kind of inter-subjective relationship developed when one approaches morality from individualism. Earlier I mentioned the possibility of “power and validity”, but how is this possible assuming my assertion that this approach is completely empty at its core? The answer relates to the constructed abjection. The source of validity only comes from the active negation of others, from the moment of punishing those that don’t meet the perception of adherence to the abstract singularity. The moment of the terror is imbedded in the category, imbedded in the idea of moral individualism by its fundamental lack of real moral content. We see a miniature version of this in the argument of the middle-aged couple Isak gives a ride to after they have a car accident. The husband continuously tries to play off their arguments by constructing the roles the two are playing: such as that his wife’s tears are simply due to her being an actress. He narrates her feelings and motivations as if she isn’t even present. She is left with no recourse but physical violence against impenetrable patriarchal logic. The narrator/god position is constructed in his tormenting her; there is an undeniable sense of sadism in his words.
In the moral law the self has become the “universal self”, the self is the source of the attempt at adhering content to the universal concept (the transcendental unity of apperception). In Hegel’s language the category is “in-itself; or implicit, as the universal of pure consciousness”(P.o.S. par. 419), or more simply the subject sees the moral law as universal only in that he has reasoned it to be so. Where the universal and individual were essentially divided moments, they are now unified as both constituting, and constituted by the individuals Reason. These are considered immediately, a-priori to experience, based purely on testing them internally as maxims. Hegel’s method draws out that real experiences illuminate the reality of applying the moral laws, and here they quickly meet their own emptiness. A Maxim like “love thy neighbor” is always morally dependent on imminent factors (How much? Which neighbors? Love them at my own expense?) In other words there is no universality possible without generality, the moments of generality are the only places wherein there is a possibility of morality. The people involved in moral decision making are already part of an inherited schema, historically developed, that will effect what one even considers moral. The failure of this method of considering morality comes to a head socially in the French revolution, but I would like also to consider what happens when these standards are applied at simple interpersonal levels. Isak Borg actually embodies two moments of the Phenomenology, the emptiness of the categorical moralities, and of the scientific observer, as he is both a religious man (in the transcendent universalist sense), and an esteemed academic. In the second dream sequence of the film, a dream version of his childhood cousin Sara says after explaining that she is going to marry Isak’s brother: “ As a professor emeritus you ought to know why it hurts. But you don’t know. You know so much, and you don’t know anything”. The words partially mirror Hegel’s criticism of scientific reasoning, that laws and forms explaining how something happens don’t explain why something happens, nor do they bear constructively on how to organize our lives in satisfactory ways (the argument is not that science is useless, but that alone it is unsatisfactory for grounding ourselves in the world). Sara shortly leaves him to look after a child, leaving Isak staring into its empty cradle, a space opposite but related to the casket of his earlier dream. In the Kafkaesque trial of the third dream sequence Isak finds himself confronted with the unintelligibility of his knowledge and moral methods, in the test of the classroom, and in the real moral situation of witnessing Sara’s rape. He overhears (or recalls if we assume the authenticity of the memory in the dream) Sara saying that she knows exactly how Isak will react when she tells him, that he will forgive her “just as if he were god”, the unity of the universal projection to self is an integral element of individualism: the reason-category is identical to the reasoner. His forgiveness won’t be meant, as she knows that Isak is actually “cold as ice”. This “coldness” is akin to the moment of pure negativity in the Phenomenology, where murdering those who don’t meet the standards of the category is described as “…the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water.” (P.oS. par. 590) This moment is located in the genealogy of the individualist mode, as well as its dialectic opposite.
What will become of Isak is left intentionally ambiguous, but it certainly does not look good. His attempt to make up the damage inflicted by 70-some-odd years of neglect proves a more difficult task than a simple change of attitude can correct, a more grim and realistic version of the change of heart experienced by Ebenezer Scrooge. Considering morality is impossible and contentless without inter-subjectivity, and constructing structures to foster recognative relationships is only possible when we consider morality situationally, including the constitutive elements of particular subjectivities.However, for this very reason we must consider factors like race, gender, and class when we are acting, for the empty shell of the universal humyn as a receptacle for ideas like “fundamental rights” reveals its emptiness in a version of the master slave dialectic, attempting to garner content from the ruthlessness it enacts. The individualist universality turns out to be a structurally patriarchal conception, it serves to reinforce the male position of dominance it derives from those it subjugates. Terror is what happens when these universalist abstractions take a physical form, the mechanistic logic of capital that must persuade its subjects that the suffering it inflicts is a necessary and natural part of existence. I wanted to put the individual example next to the social to draw out the connection between them, and point out how this structure of individualism is implicit in Hegel’s pure negativity, the erasure of life as a non-event. Even mourning the dead is impossible when we consider suffering and death as a part of the natural cycle of business. Smultronstallet, like Hegel’s Phenomenology, constructs a profoundly feminist moral method, beyond simply the strength of nearly every female character in the film. The idea of imminent morality is one that puts power constructs and history on the table, but carefully avoids falling into relativism or pure emotionality. Capitalism is a system wholly incompatible to this notion of morality, genealogically and structurally. If we are to destroy capitalism and avoid the mistakes of Stalinism (two sides of a coin), we must base the structures we develop on inter-subjectivity, imminent morality, and recognition.
-Hegel, G.W.F Phenomenology of Spirit, New York, NY Oxford University Press,1977
-Bernstein, J.M. Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit Berkeley, CA, 1994
-Smultronstallet. Dir. Ingmar Bergman. Svensk Filmindusti, 1957
if you ever want to know why some communists get along with republicans better than democrats just watch king of the hill
The righteousness and divine sanctity demanded by the Gospel (freedom from sin) should not be...
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i really liked mercenaries for xbox but you couldn’t play as dprk and were always trying to kill dprks so what was the point