A Cup of Tea, Bad Infinity, and the Process of Production

I am working through some tensions that I've sensed in the field of political economy; even the field of the critique of political economy. One such tension pertains to how it is that we define the quality of social value. That is, how do we understand what we value, why we value what we value, and how these determinations are formed and how they affect social relations. 

For example, I value a good cup of tea. Each cup of tea has a price attached to it. But it also has a complex web of meanings attached to it. These meanings are themselves complex bundles of meanings that open us up to the history of tea production, shipping, acquisition, sharing over biscuits with friends, colonial exploits, commercial and advertising sentiment, etc. But price is only one very tiny expression of value. It is purported to be an accurate determinant of value. But how can we quantify the value of the Queen of England drinking a cuppa, that is exported as a commercial image to the US, to drives sales of Tetley whenever there's a royal wedding, in simple money terms? 

This banal example introduces a much more complex set of concerns that has dominated my thought of late. That is, what are the limits of thinking of value in the terms dictated by a market logic? How can we understand the complex webs of meaning that make up social history (both long-term and in our daily interactions) in ways that aren't reducible to those determinations established by the logic of value per se (either exchange value or even use-value)? How can we attune ourselves to the 'value' (if we should even be content with this term) of a cup of tea that is sensitive to the multitude of meanings contained within? And, what is more difficult, what would a socio-economic system look like that valued the values beyond simply the value of values?

Recently, a group of us in Sydney have been reading through Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space. It is a sprawling text that seeks to illuminate and validate the logic of spatial production itself (for philosophy nerds: he does not mean outer space, the scientific understanding of objective spatiality, nor the Kantian transcendental aesthetic). In super short CliffsNotes, what he is exploring is how it is that spatiality is constructed (i.e. produced) under the logic of capitalism as determined by the abstract law of value. So, think of an urban environment filled with skyscrapers. This site of spatiality has been constructed not just on a blank canvas, but the canvas itself has been created in the creation of the skyscrapers according to the larger logic of the system that sought the creation of said skyscrapers: capitalists secured finance, plans were drawn up, contractors were hired, permits were acquired (perhaps by entirely legal means and perhaps by some finagling of the law), workers were employed, lunch trucks served food on site, mice were killed, bees stung workers, dust was kicked into the air, etc etc etc. All of these activities took place in the construction of the space itself. They didn't merely take place in a pre-constituted space. In fact, the "pre-constituted" space in which this complex process of spatial production took place was constituted, partly at least, in conjunction with the production of the more common and concrete process that we tend to attribute to skyscraper construction. But we must not presume that this pre-constituted space was an autonomous or meaning-free site. For it too is the product of previous complex processes of spatial production. And all of this according to the dictates of the logic of capitalism – which necessarily implies class struggle. 

With me?

This is the logic that he wants to work through in this text. And I'm finding it very fascinating for many reasons, one of which is that it is helping me think through the tension I noted above pertaining to value, meaning, and the production process. Bear with me here.

What I've been considering is precisely how it is that the logic of production is an insufficient and restrictive social logic of value. That is, in what ways is even the Marxian project not radical enough to break from the stranglehold of the logic of the capitalist mode of production? And perhaps what is more condemning: in what ways does the Marxian critique of political economy reproduce the very logic of capitalism that it seeks to overcome? This is a much larger, long-term project than can't be covered in a thousand blog posts, let alone one. But what Lefebvre is helping me think through (along with Sartre, Baudrillard, Huey Newton, etc) is my foray into such a project. Call it a prolegomena to the "Prolegomena." 

Today's reading through chapter 2 of the text provided me with some concepts to express this sensed tension that I'm working through. In it, Lefebvre suggests that Humanity is killing both God and Nature (and perhaps committing suicide in the process). It is doing so through the exponential production of spatiality according to the logic of capitalism. Abstract space, constructed according to the law of value, is increasing rapidly as spatiality is being produced under the demands of capitalism. In theoretical terms, there is a tendential colonization or enclosure of being (little 'b'). The plane of material reality (what Prozorov as we saw in our book club would refer to as the "phenomenological," "intra-worldly" order) is perpetually being coded, enframed, delineated, mapped, territorialized, etc. The production process "imposes a temporal and spatial order" (p. 71) upon any given intra-worldly order. And this process of production is infinite. 

However, it is not a true infinite. The production process can only operate according to the logic of phenomenological existence, which is quantifiably infinite. This is the linear, bad infinite that Hegel wrote about. It is the sequential and spatial notion of an increase without end but that can never reach the Absolute. It is always ever expanding, receding, increasing, etc. It is a phenomenological infinite.

So, there is a sense in which the production process as a process of bad infinity can only ever enclose (through production and reproduction) resources into its web of symbolization. This is how Humanity is killing God and Nature. The latter are being further and further enclosed into the process of production itself. Or, if we don't want to speak of God and Nature, we can simply refer to it as "being" (small 'b'). Regardless, the point remains: the production process can only operate according to the bad infinite. 

And perhaps this is where the fundamental contradiction appears: between the production process of bad infinity and the looming spectre of true infinity that beckons but that is always excessive. Perhaps it is precisely in that contradiction between the two infinities that the crisis of humanity emerges. Which then could imply that the crisis of political economy fundamentally is its failure, its intrinsic inability, to value the beyond of true infinity that is in our midst. Insofar as political economy and the critique of political economy rely on production, they can only ever inscribe those elements of life that are incorporable at the level of phenomenological, intra-worldly experience. And even then they can only do so partly – according to the limits of the bad infinite.

This is why killing God and Nature (or being) is suicidal: the more we become invested into this logic of bad infinity, the more we become embedded into the logic of production. The logic of the superego is apt here to explain this spiraling embrace that smothers: the more innocent you are, the guiltier you are. That is, the more libidinal investment infused into the logic of the production process, the greater its potency becomes and so too its demands and the limits it imposes. Like a plume of smoke accumulating over a perpetually burning fire, its pollution increases and the shadow it casts becomes more ominous over the territory it hovers. 

So, what would a "true infinite" conception of social value look like? It would have to be explicitly metaphysical. It could not rest in the logic of production. Perhaps it would have to be something non-human (as we have come to define humanity thus far anyway). Or perhaps, this speculative musing shows an impasse that humanity simply cannot transcend. Maybe this is really just the human condition – the consequence of The Fall. 

 

Dear Christian: There is No Such Thing as the Perfect Church

Dear Christian,

I have been told that the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen is a corruption of the Christian message. 

It has been made clear that Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church are not bearers of the true Gospel. 

Jehovah's Witnesses, with all their zeal and genuine concern for the coming apocalypse, have misunderstood the central importance of the deity of Jesus for salvation.

The KKK are not really Christians. Southern slaveholders misused the Bible to justify their own fallible, human desires. The Crusades were a mistake. John Calvin was a great theologian who made profound errors of judgement when running Geneva. Zwingli will have to give an account to God for his murder of Anabaptists. Sovereign Grace Ministries were corrupted by sinful, bureaucratic tendencies when they covered up sexual abuse in their church community. Ted Haggard was a hypocrite. Mark Driscoll was uncouth, authoritarian, and unChristianly. 

The common theme in this litany is that Christianity is not reducible to its manifold expressions. At least, this is what I've been told over the years. I have been reassured by pastors, parents, professors, and peers – in sermons, family dinners, theology classes, and Bible studies – that just because someone – or some community – waves the banner of Christianity, that does not mean that they are genuine members of the Church. Or, if they are true members, that they are just backsliding or in a state of temporary sinful behavior because – our sin nature abides.

There is no such thing as the perfect church.

As long as sin remains in the world, so too will sin corrupt our lives, even (or maybe especially) our church lives. Which means that churches will be infected with pride, scandal, inequality, domestic abuse, lust, greed, etc etc etc etc... Right?

Ok.

So, can we extend this same measure of grace, this same measure of patience and understanding, to discourses surrounding socialism? That is, just as there is no perfect church, does it not become a necessity to also admit that there is no perfect social system? 

The USSR made mistakes. Horrible mistakes. Venezuela is a mess. The Sandinista Revolution has had coarse ups and downs. Cuba educated their people and provided healthcare, but alas – sin nature. China [insert criticism]. Albania [go ahead]. Etc etc etc etc...

There is no such thing as the perfect church. 

However, analogous to how you will be so quick to defend the truth of Christianity, to how you will come to the aid of a Christian scandal with an apology, how you will pray for the betterment of the Church around the world as it struggles to navigate the complex terrains of history and culture and shifting economics modalities – will you do the same for the spirit of radical freedom, equality, and community? That is, will you defend, will you provide apology, will you pray for the better implementation of true socialist principles, recognizing that even when these principles aren't fully actualized, that there are reasons why they aren't fully actualized that may not be attributable to the central logic of socialism per se? Just like the faults of the flag-bearers of Christianity aren't reducible to the central logic of Christianity per se?

If not, why? 

I understand that you may not find this comparison apropos at first. Immediately you may be scribbling a response that points out that the Church is different because it is supposed to be a mirror to heavenly perfection – an instantiation of God's common grace on Earth. You might not be able to restrain that need to remind me that the glue that binds the Church is the objective hand of God's providence. Ok. I'm following. But let's pause for a second and consider that these aren't necessary to my point. I'm not suggesting that socialism is a replacement for the Church. Neither am I trying to convince you to *become* a socialist per se. Rather, I just want us to be able to scrape beneath the biases that prevent fruitful communication. In a way, I'm hoping to translate a set of concerns from an adjacent community by building out from a point of commonality. 

I do love you, Christian. This is not written in anger. This is an appeal. You may not recognize me as much as you used to. But I am still part of the family. Somehow. I may have gone in other directions in many ways, but that is only because I have been seeking to implement a vision of the Messianic Kingdom in ways other than those that I found at-hand in the American Church. This doesn't mean I think you are an idiot or evil; or that I'm smarter or better. It means that I've tasted the fruits of other expressions of labor that are rooted in a radical commitment to freedom, equality, and community. I have not found a replacement for the Church. And I'm not asking you to renounce your faith. I am merely sitting at a neighboring table, inviting you to partake, to sit down with me and to see if you too can find something savory in the practice of building life in a social space that might seem uncomfortable at first but that I trust won't be so distasteful once you press your lips to it. 

Taste and see...

 

 

Punitive Justice is Self-Harm

Punitive justice (or 'retributive justice') is a form of justice that advocates for a proportional punishment for the offense committed. An eye for an eye. The biggest problem with punitive justice, however, is that such equivalence is never possible.

This is because there is a disproportionate amount of value or meaning in the two instances (offense on the one hand and punishment on the other). A way we can understand this asymmetry is through Freud's concept 'cathexis'. Briefly, cathexis is the process of imbuing an object with libidinal energy. We might say that it is a process of affective, emotional, significatory piety that is infused into an object. The object on the receiving end is thus known as a cathectic object. 

Think of a loved one. This person becomes valuable, not just in some abstract sense, but because they are literally objects of meaning, value, and emotional connection for the lover. When such a person is lost, there is, therefore, a literal sense in which one loses oneself as well. This is a source of melancholy. Melancholy (different from depression) is the experience of loss when a cathectic object is lost or harmed. 

In an instance when such a loved one is harmed, punitive justice argues that there must be an equivalent made in order to balance the scales of justice. The problem however is that the punishment is never going to equal the intensity or form of cathexis that composed the lost object. Capital punishment is incapable of actually evening the scales for precisely this reason. Similarly, a jail sentence for rape will not be able to balance the scales of violated cathexis. This is manifold: for one, oneself is also a cathectic object for oneself that is replete with an infinite amount of cathectic value; second, the person is part of a family who will also experience harm; and third, there is a larger cultural value that is harmed, as the threat of violence is both shared in the instance and also as it becomes a real potential for others as they are exposed to the reality of such threats. All this makes the cut of the initial offense something irreparable according to punitivity, as there is no quantifiable equivalent. 

What is more, punitive justice requires that an external body (the State/the community/etc) decides on what a just measure of equivalence is. 10 years for rape. 1 year for theft. Etc. These are quantities in terms of time behind bars that have very little relation to the offense and that can't really recompense for the harm caused. The reason they can't is that this model presumes that an equivalent transfer of cathectic value is possible; that somehow a punishment can be equal to the crime – at least, in the eyes of the State. But who decides how such a cathectic equivalence is measured? How can the decision of the State's punishment allocation be deemed legitimate except according to its own sovereign self-legitimacy? And further, according to what logic does the State itself make such self-legitimizing decisions?

Not to beat a dead horse, but it does seem apparent that there is an embedded capitalist logic inherent in the liberal-capitalist State's intelligibility with regard to justice per se. That is, the determining logic by which the State itself thinks is capitalist.

In his lectures on "The Birth of Biopolitics," Foucault calls the market the 'site of veridiction'. What he means by this is twofold: 1) true prices are determined by market forces through the exchange mechanisms of the market; something different than when a 'just' price was determined under previous economic regimes and (more importantly I think) 2) that truth itself is completely detached from notions of 'right' or 'just' and are completely determined by the logic of marketability. This is to say that truth, under the logic of capitalism, requires market equivalence in order for there to be social exchange. And it is this logic of market equivalence that conditions of the logic of the liberal-capital State with regard to punitivity. 

Of course, this does not mean that capitalism created the 'eye for an eye' logic. This is something that has existed for millennia. Communities have long sought for appropriate ways to respond to offense. This is why 'eye for an eye' was such a revolutionary concept. The difference, however, is that pre-capitalist equivalence was rooted in different systems of exchange that go beyond pure reduction to number. For example, the Levitical priesthood's enforcement of 'eye for an eye' was still tied up in the larger ceremonial law structures of ancient Israel that required a relation to the transcendent. Add the sacrificial system, jubilees, and other ways of managing social and personal debt and you have a far more complex system than a simple one-to-one equivalence. This is because there was a profound understanding of the logic of cathexis. (Also, it is important to consider the prophets who persistently condemned the sufficiency of the Levitical order itself.)

The point in bringing this up is not to suggest that humans once had it figured out and that capitalism has somehow bastardized human efforts. Rather, it is to note the complexity of dealing with justice and the lengths that communities have gone in order to deal with the infinite value of harming cathectic life. And further, it is to highlight how it is that punitivity as a form of justice, particularly under the conditions of capitalism, is sorely deficient.

Finally, perhaps the ultimate reason that punitivity is deficient is that the it is a positive action upon oneself. What I mean is that punitivity claims to seek to balance the scales of justice by dishing out an equivalent punishment for an offense. It is supposed to be cathartic. However, what it actually does is provide a measure of enjoyment or pleasure for those witnessing the punishment. The State, the community, and the individuals who witness the punishment of the victim receive a doubled-back amount of pleasure as the punishment is carried out. However, if there is no possibility for genuine equivalence (as explored above), then this doubling back is not truly cathartic, but only deepens the loss, hiding it, repressing it further (both into the personal psyche and into the larger cultural logic). The result of this is that 1) the logic of equivalence itself becomes further embedded; it becomes a more intensified promise of justice (which according to this very logic is impossible), and so 2) intensifies the person's/community's need for further acts of 'justice' but that only perpetuate the field of repressed cathectic energy.

The point being, the logic of punitivity itself is a form of self-deception and self-harm that only deepens our own personal and social anxieties and that ultimately further separates us from understanding and/or achieving justice in any meaningful sense.   

Fantasy and Disappointment: In Defense of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Recently, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made some ambivalent remarks regarding her position on the Israel-Palestine situation. After being pressed for clarification about her initial remarks, she admitted that she was a bit outside of her wheelhouse on this topic and that she'd need to spend some time in the future working through this issue. Seeking to settle back into her comfort zone, she replied that she may not be using the appropriate terminology and that what she does know is that she approaches all situations as an activist, a community organizer, and a humanitarian.  

Leftist Twitter was not pleased. "What the shit!" and "I am so disappointed" were constant themes that accompanied quote-retweets of her PBS interview. What has become quite commonplace among very online leftists is an impatience with anything that is deemed outside the scope of the canon. And this sentiment is exacerbated when attached to the perceived failings of a public persona. In a sense, there is a logic that needs to be sensitively addressed here. There is a lot of felt momentum within burgeoning leftist communities in the United States and elsewhere, and so there will be growing pains as such groups figure out which hills to die on and which issues to grasp lightly. 

However, with that said, there is a current among leftists that needs to be recognized for what it is. This is the sentiment that responded to AOC with disappointment. And this sentiment is essentially counter-revolutionary. I say this not to simply incite. But rather, I say this because there is a logic that is being reproduced among communities that claim to want to build alternatives to this very logic. And if this desire is authentic (and it surely is), then we must be aware of the contaminations that would stifle such a project. This contaminating logic is the logic of capitalism. 

Capitalist logic breeds excessive and hastily deployed disappointment; one that does not allow for failure, incompleteness, development – in short, the dialectic. Everything must be purely positive. It must fit within the logic that capital itself establishes by immediately providing us with a modicum of enjoyment. When it does not, it is a disappointment. This is because capitalism requires that things do not disappoint. They must always measure a quantifiable amount of pleasure. Even when things do disappoint (England lost in the World Cup semis; your phone crashed; this beer tastes bad; etc) this is only so our desiring capacities will be directed towards another commodity to consume, which holds out the promise of satisfaction. And even when something does bring enjoyment, it is a fleeting enjoyment that does not satisfy but that merely increases the tempo of our need for further enjoyment through consumption. 

This process is precisely what is endemic in the disappointment surrounding AOC. She has been erected as a fantasy that promises to usher in a modicum of satisfaction for leftist consumption – through social media consumption (liking/retweeting/building followers/contributing to the online community/etc); joy shared over beers at the bar; or just the private 'way to go' within one's inner thoughts. Of course, being excited about what AOC and her team have accomplished is something worthy of joy. This is not to denigrate the value of being joyous over victories. Rather, it is to recognize the conditions under which joy emerges. 

And this is my primary concern. The disappointment directed towards AOC comes at the felt loss of enjoyment that her fantasy previously gave to the consumer. In this way, she has been commodified. Her image has become the object of consumption that is valued insofar as it is able to sustain a measure of social value. But is not the very language of disappointment here itself more a commentary on oneself than on the thing supposedly objected to? That is, is not disappointment an expression of one's feelings about oneself's feelings? Thus, disappoint with AOC is really a disappointment in the fantasy that one had projected into the political landscape; and this only because the projected fantasy has been revealed to be what it actually is – a real, human person in the process of becoming. And when the latter occurs, what we are faced with is Otherness – the Otherness of human subjectivity that is not merely an embodiment of a canonized political program; the Otherness that is not some ROI; the Otherness that is not a feedback of the same that we have come to expect because this is what capitalism perpetually gives us in a world of commodified media images.

So, yes, AOC will disappoint. She will grow and make mistakes and provide joy and falter and learn and improve and alienate and bounce back and smile and cry, and it will all be on display as her life is becoming more and more positivized for our viewing and social media sharing pleasure. But let us not forget that she is a human and that humanity is wrought with negativity, the hidden, the excess, the real. Let us not be so hasty in our need for enjoyment that we stifle process. Let us learn to be patient with our fellow travelers. And let us construct political communities governed by this alternative logic. 

Capitalism, The Embrace That Smothers: An Analogy

There are technical debates about how we should understand the nature of capitalism. One such debate pertains to the 'ontology of capital'. That is, how are we to understand the essence (or non-essence) of capital itself? Two prevailing schools of thought that are in tension would see capital as being either homogenous or isomorphic. The former term, homogenous, refers to capital's endless need to incorporate everything into its gamut in order to simply expand itself in every location around the globe. Capital-as-isomorphic means that there is a singular tendency but that heterogeneity is required by capital as such – that is, there must in fact be non-capitalist modalities in the periphery in order to sustain capital's power in the center. The former view fits more comfortably in orthodox Marxian circles, whereas the isomorphic view is loosely Deleuzian or post-Marxian (although these demarcations must be held loosely as they tend to slide past one another and cross-contaminate). 

That said, one analogy that has been bouncing around my mind to help me think through this tension is the ontology of Spinoza. Tersely, for Spinoza, there is a single substance that characterizes everything that exists (or insists). The totality of all things is what he referred to as God or Nature – substance. This is the single plane of being. It is immanence as infinite totality. But this totality – substance – is then divided into attributes and modes. Famously, Spinoza claimed that human minds can only know two attributes of substance: extension and thought (but let it be known that there is considerable debate among Spinozists what this means exactly). The modes on the other hand are infinite expressions or instantiations of substance. He says, "Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God." What he means by this is that everything that exists is a 'mode' of God, an affection; we might be more comfortable simply saying 'an instantiation of substance'. 

How this fits into the debate pertaining to capital's ontology is that it seems to me that (at least analogously, if not more concretely) we can view capital in a similar way: capital is substance with its attendant attributes and modes. This fits in nicely with Marx's definition of capital as "value in motion." As capital seeks to maximize itself, it does so through the proliferation of its instantiations (modes) which are themselves expressions of capital itself. Therefore, under the logic of capitalism, labor is a moment of capital's self-expansive value increase. Similarly, consumption is a modal activity of capital's self-expressive motion. And again, investment is an activity that generates from and reverts back into capital as substance.

What this means is that everything that exists within the capitalist matrix is therefore an instantiation of capital – or in the least, is inflected with capital's tendential motion. And this is where I think the debate between homogeneity and isomorphy becomes interesting. Because we might say that capital's "desire" is to be the substance; it's internal logic desires that it become God or Nature; and that it does this by expressing itself through an infinite proliferation of modes (commodities). But, even if capitalism's desire is to become the singular substance, it requires an Other to feed off of; which means that capitalism both seeks homogeneity and isomorphy. The problem with pure homogeneity is that it requires that everything become same, which would inevitably stop capital's growth. The limitation of isomorphy as a concept is that it requires an external relation between objects rather than seeing the infusion of capital being injected even into these heterogeneous elements. But perhaps the analogy of Spinoza's metaphysics helps us work through this impasse and bring them into a dialectical tension where they actually infuse one another. Perhaps, then, to complete the Spinoza analogy, homogeneity and isomorphy can be understood as two known attributes (transcendental conditions?) of capital's substance as value in motion that is expressed through infinite modalities...  

Leftist Nihilism: Thoughts Towards an Enlightened Hedonism

The left is boring and has no sense of humor. 

This is something I see relatively frequently in online discussion from critics. Setting aside obvious bad faith intentions, is there any merit in such a claim? I actually think it's worse. That is, the left is inflicted with nihilism. 

No, this is not to claim that the left does not believe in anything. I am not making a Peterson-esque remark about the ills of postmodernism or neo-Marxism or whatever banal and uninformed thing pseudo-intellectual reactionaries are peddling this week. In fact, there is a profound irony in Peterson and his IDW cronies identifying left tendencies as nihilistic, since their entire program revolves around what Heidegger referred to as the 'negation of nihilation'. That is, they are so uncomfortable with the flux and flow of a contingent reality that they have to cover the cracks through late-capitalist forms of myth-making: 'clean your room'; 'stand up tall'; 'be assertive'; 'hierarchy is natural'; etc. 

So, if this is not what I mean, what does it mean to worry about a tendential left nihilism? To be clear, this is not an absolute statement. Nor is it to suggest that a left orientation is nihilistic per se. Rather, it is recognizing a certain tendency within contemporary (especially online) leftist discourse; and further to wonder if this signals something more fundamental that this discourse is grounded upon: namely, a means-end nihilism in relation to the world that is in favor of a world-to-come to the detrimental neglect of potency within the world that is. 

Leftist narratives are shot-through with this type of thinking. In fact, so much of the leftist orientation is attributable to a refusal of this world in the pursuit of something better. Figures as disparate as Jesus, Lenin, and more recently Xenofeminists have articulated some discourse advocating the building of a world-to-come. In itself, I don't think this is nihilistic. It becomes nihilism when the world as such is denied and all the potential attendant joys and potencies denigrated. This is the tendency that I worry is far too ubiquitous among (online?) left orientations. 

And of course, I get it. The world is filled with suffering. Injustice is rampant. Anxiety grips us. But what is life if we have no joy? What is the purpose and value of existence if at the end we spent our days as means to some end that we never experience? If there is no post-life consciousness, then how is it that we measure the value of our lives? Based on some feedback that we in-present derive from a projected fantasy of how we'll be remembered? Or, patting ourselves on the back by reassuring ourselves that we are living for something greater than our own selfish ambitions? (Is this not also a narcissistic perversion?). The problem is that even in our bitching and complaining we derive satisfaction; a perverse satisfaction that refuses to acknowledge the deepening of this need for more networks of negative affect. And in so doing we foster a spirit of narcissistic nihilism that increasingly insulates us from the world as such.

It may not seem this way. It may seem that this tendency is rooted in an outward focus. But I think that actually to suppose this is to self-justify an auto-erotic tendency to self-immolate and then project this self-referentiality onto the world, thereby making the world in our own image. It is a form of selfish fantasy creation. The world becomes the thing we (ironically) want it to be, which we hate and reject as we aim towards another fantasy of a future salvation, which of course we'll never experience and that only has a feedback effect upon us that imposes a guilt furthering this narcissistic tendency. 

To reiterate, I'm not concerned with absolutism here. Let's think in terms of degrees of intensity and variation. Rare are those who entirely denigrate this world in favor of a Utopic vision. My concern, therefore, is not about eradicating or transforming so much as it is about maximizing and minimizing. I'm not sure if we can ever completely get beyond narcissism or some form of myth-making. But I do think that if we are to live lives of meaning and value, we need to refuse to succumb to a serial and mimetic spiral of nihilism. We need to fight for joy. And we need to let this joy define us, rather than have a spirit of negative affect become the identity marker that characterizes leftist rage. This might sound ridiculous. Shit, I'm not even sure what it means fully. In a way, I'm writing to think. But I do have a profound sense that the more we denigrate this world, the more we build an ideological persuasion that builds subjects incapable of joy. And what the fuck is the point of that? 

The State as Ultimate Insurer of Value

Bernard Stiegler argues that economy is always about protension. That is, the tendency that most characterizes a given economic system is one based on speculation and trust. This is the system of credit that undergirds economic relations. 

Something that my current work has been developing relates to this general logic in relation to the State as ultimate insurer of risk. In a concrete example, we saw this tendency in the bailouts of the financial markets after the GFC of '07/'08. But even more foundational than this, in a sense, the very system of economy itself is propped up by the State's insurance of value per se. This makes most sense in economies that are based on fiat currency, with the State being the consolidator and distributer of credited value. What does this mean? Well, take a look at those dollars in your pocket. They are promises to pay. They are IOUs. It's written on the face of them that this note is a promise to pay the value of $X. But where does this value ultimately rest? How is this IOU insured? Upon what does this credit system base itself? 

There is a lot of recent discussion in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) regarding this very issue. One thing that it continues to teach us is that in a system with a sovereign currency, money is really nothing other than a system of IOUs. This means that there is nothing "solid" to which it refers. What this means is that such an economy is a circulating networking of relational powers that is insured by, what Stiegler refers to as, mnemotechnics, or what Sartre would call practico-inert objects. These are externalizations (grammatizations, storehouses, memory banks) of affective and cognitive labor. Ultimately, the practico-inert object that insures the value of the economic system (with all its securities, financial instruments, relations of credit/debt, currencies, risk appraisals, credit scores, portfolios, etc.) is the State (with banks being smaller instantiations of this logic, granted power by the State and literally ensured by it – ex. FDIC regulations).

If you have been following along with our book club here on OaD, the State is the contingent institution of serial indexing that manages identities within a given 'world'. This world, as practico-inert object of the insurance of value, is that which insures speculative viability for a given economy. So, really, when financial speculation occurs, or when risk is evaluated, ultimately these are analyses of modes within this larger world; they are evaluations of the value of instantiations of the State as insurer of value. 

What does this mean? In a way, it gives us insight into a particular mechanism of how value is derived. But even more than this, it requires a robust analysis of what the State actually is. If the State is not some concrete referent upon which value is based, but rather a totality of shifting, contingent serial indexes, how are we to understand how this network insures economic protensions? From where does its power to insure derive? Is it based on the trust given to it by the people who infuse their piety into it (similar to the way Mauss refers to gods being sustained through the prayer of the practitioners)? And how does its capacity for insurance work within a global network of other States? This is something that I'll be working through in the coming months. 

The Debt Logic of Counter-Hegemony

Further to my thoughts from yesterday...

Just a thought: does 'left hegemony' or 'counter-hegemony' run into the same potential problem as hegemony described by Gramsci? Is there something inherent in the logic of hegemony per se that establishes the duality of consent or direct domination? If so, does this not mean that whatever is prescripted as the hegemonic logic (and all the component parts articulated therein in its performativity) must be followed or else we will bear the consequences of direct domination? That is, any perceived transgression to this hegemonic logic is seen as a threat by the new counter-hegemonic power bloc; which erects new dogmas, always threatening the 'people' with potential punishment (for example, perhaps: doxxing, de-platforming, public shunning, call-outs, etc). This could also mean that (as I discussed yesterday) the more piety that is directed towards the hegemonic logic (as it only exists insofar as it is perpetually fed by this infusion), expands the extent of its debt obligations, which works as a control mechanism by imposing guilt and the requisite servicing of this debt. 

Is this not what we see so often with the all-too-quick desire to shun those who don't fall in line with the dogmas as established by the 'good leftists'? Is not this tendency an expression of dogmatic hegemony, perpetually threatening the multitude with its ever-expanding debt-power, imposing a guilt that conditions and limits our thoughts, speech, and actions? 

Of course, this does not mean that we can't be internally striving to better our communities. But it does suggest that perhaps we can do so without imposing this type of debt/guilt logic over our socio-ethical lives. Such will only increase anxieties, and create humans infused with negative affect, rather than create a joyous people who live together in contradiction and struggle as we try to figure shit out together in a space of freedom that embraces experimentation and difference and mistakes and growth and learning and process... 

Something Always Escapes: Excess and Lack

Something I've been working through is the way constituted power structures, ideas, networks of power, systems, etc. gather power and then exert that power. The binary between constituted and constituent power has value, but only up to a point. It seems to lend itself too easily to static conceptions that ignore the co-constitutive and processual nature of each with the other. Similarly, hegemony vis-a-vis direct domination also seems insufficient. According to Gramsci, hegemony requires consent, like a social contract of sorts (the extent of the consciousness of this hegemony is debated). The hegemonic logic is 'consented' to by the people who then have the perpetual threat of direct domination if/when they refuse their consent. There is an indecidability that characterizes the hegemon. Like Agamben's state of exception, the hegemonic power is always threatening violence to those under its scope. The issue with this model (even as much as I find Agamben's work quite compelling; moreso generally than Gramsci's formulation) is that it does not account, at least to my mind sufficiently, for the ever-presence of its own dissolution. Sure, there is always the threat of revolutionary tumult from below. But the mechanisms of this irruption of freedom (and the subsequent potential of the reconstitution of hegemonic control) are not sussed out enough. 

One way I've been thinking through this is through a strange connection between Freud, Sartre, Deleuze and Badiou. Taking from Freud and Sartre the idea that (to paraphrase Freud) 'the more innocent you are, the guiltier you are', we can conceive of the reason power-images form, grow, and redouble in their exertion of power. That is, the more piety given to an idea (think: the logic of the Empire or the State or the Theological Doctrine), the greater its actuality increases, which then imposes an increasing guilt (i.e. a debt) that must be serviced. For Sartre, this process occurs through the logic of the practico-inert. As we work on objects (physical or non), our 'labor' is imbued into them. This labor is then stored in the object. The object then becomes a mediator over and between our social relations, imposing limits and demands on how it can be used, how we are oriented towards it, and thus how we relate to one another. Similarly, the piety attended to the image of Empire, for example, stores this immaterial labor (think of an ever-elastic balloon into which energy/air is blown). As it expands, its power increases, and so too does the extent and form of the demands imposed below. 

The curious thing that must be noted about this tendency is that it requires perpetual energy infusion. The balloon is never tied off. Rather it either expands or contracts based on the intensity of piety infused into it. Transgression of the law, for instance, diminishes the logic of the State (this is why it must be punished - to prevent the mimetic spread of transgression and the further decrease of State control). In this way, we can say that the State as such does not 'exist'. It is an artifice of collective piety - a transcendent fabrication. However, this piety is not conscious, nor is it ultimately based on consent. Rather, it is based on the control of affect in the perpetuation of habit. That is, the habitual practices that prop up the State are contingent. If they were to cease completely, so too would the State cease to 'exist'. This is why the State (or any power structure) requires endless worship - what Agamben calls 'glory' or 'doxa' and what we might as well refer to as 'liturgy' or 'allegiance'. Thus: take away the glory, take away the power. 

But what does this taking away of the glory look like? This is where Deleuze and Badiou come in - albeit only as sparring partners at the moment. For Deleuze, we might say that the way this glory is taken away is precisely because of the excess of life that perpetually tests the bounds of the Power. He would refer to this Power by many names. For now, we'll just call it 'territorialized' power. This power is a momentary, static snapshot of processes of perpetual deterritorialization and reterritorialization. As soon as power escapes, it is brought back into the fold. As soon as glory is directed elsewhere, it gets reconstituted - and then another flight away, and further reconstitution, ad infinitum. This is one of the ways neoliberal logic is so 'powerful': its ability to capture those 'lines of flight' (those excesses of piety) is due to its perpetual ability to decenter itself and reconstitute around new creations, endlessly morphing in response to the production of new flows. 

For Badiou, on the other hand, 'worlds' are constructed according to what he calls 'transcendental coordinates'. These are the transcendental conditions that constitute identities, knowledge, rules, codes, social norms, etc. Life lived in worlds, any world (a university is a world, a State is a world, a home is a world, a football pitch is a world, etc), is conditioned by these transcendental coordinates. And the logic that constitutes their emergence and that sustains them is based on exclusion, hierarchy, and restriction. Some worlds are more constituted thusly, and some less so. The extent to which these worlds are so constructed will determine what can be done politically (the extremes of which he calls either a Tensed World or an Atonic World). The point being this: for Badiou, in order for political action to emerge, there must be a dissolution of these transcendental coordinates. The power of their hold must be undone... but how? Is this through a shift in piety? Or is a shift in piety only possible after the softening of the stranglehold of these worlds?

This is where Deleuze and Badiou part most drastically. For Deleuze, piety is always excessive precisely because it is always productively creating new attachments that exceed the bounds of the 'world' which can't keep up initially to the speed of these lines of flight. Whereas for Badiou, there must be an irruption that dissolves the power of habitual glorying. This is where his notion of the Event enters. The potential for the transformation of the world is there, but it needs to be sparked to life by a transcendent force that breaks the stifling parameters that reproduce the logic of the world.

To bring this to a concrete example, I have been reading John Beasley-Murray's Posthegemony: Political Theory and Latin America and he spends considerable time discussing the logic of the Conquistadors. In one section, he discusses the journey of Christopher Columbus and the threat of mutiny that hung over the latter half of the journey to the West Indies. As the crew tired and weakened, as they grew frustrated with no land in sight far beyond promises made, they debated throwing Columbus overboard. Their limits had been reached. Their piety to the crown was diminished. Their affect and habits were morphed. And thus, so too was Columbus' authority. Beasley-Murray suggests that this highlights the idea that even under Empire, even under supposed hegemonic control, something escapes. But what is this something that escapes? Is it that the transcendental coordinates (a la Badiou) have dissolved releasing subjective freedom? Is it that a death-of-godding has taken place, where faith in the constituted powers are being challenged because of this dissolution? Or inversely is the death-of-godding taking place because pieties began to shift (the Deleuzian answer)? 

I'm not entirely sure how to answer this. I am tempted to side with the Deleuzian approach. I am inclined to think that there is always an excess of life and that the paradigms of control are always playing catch-up, and so it was just a matter of time before discontent with Columbus would emerge (which would then require his reassertion of power and the logic of the territorialized power, which is precisely what he did by bargaining - which itself is an example of power perpetually reterritorializing the lines of flight). But Badiou's orientation also has explanatory purchase in that it seems to allow for the release of freedom, the spark of subjectivity, under the conditions of dissolving power. Perhaps the two approaches can learn from one another. My tendency is very often both-and. Most people read these approaches as starkly either/or. I'm never satisfied with that. I'll keep pressing on...

Yesterday's Liberals are Today's Monarchs | Today's Liberals are Tomorrow's Ancien Regime

The constant assertion from free market apologists is that the market is the most rational agent for resource allocation. The market sees all and will respond accordingly to ensure general economic equilibrium. They counterpose the efficiency of markets to what they see as the stifling problematic of any centralization of economic power; whether feudal, socialist, or distributive-democratic. Free market apologists also claim the legacy of the liberal revolutions of the Eighteenth Century. Rousseau, Adams, Madison, Jefferson, Locke et al. are viewed as the great initiators of liberal freedom. In this way, the establishment of liberal democracies was really a victory of capitalist democracies. That is, the revolutions of the Eighteenth Century eradicated the stifling hierarchical oppression of centralizing social, political, and economic restraint and released liberal man (yes, "man") towards new socio-economic and political arrangements. 

But it seems to me that the key historical insight such persons overlook is that, while the liberal revolutions were indeed radical in their particular historical context, the victory of liberal, capitalist democracy was a victory for the few and not the many. This can be seen stridently in the discussions surrounding the drafting of the United States Constitution as Madison and others clearly sought to create a socio-political system that would concentrate power into the hands of the wealthy male constituents of the American colonies. The rest? They were literally inconsequential. Non-landowners (women, children, slaves, non-neurotypical, and the poor more broadly) were excluded from the freedom that was achieved and then subsequently protected by the establishment of the Nation State. In a sense, they were the subaltern of their day – they had no capacity to "speak."

History has thus unfolded by the expansion and further legitimation of this asymmetry of power relations. Written into the very fabric of our structural relations is the assumption that Classical Liberalism was about freedom tout court. When in reality, Classical Liberalism was about freedom for those who had a voice at the time. But here's the twist: even if we grant a measure of appreciation for the legacy of these revolutions (and I think we ought to), to seek to preserve that paradigm of socio-political legitimation is to ignore the need for further eradication of residual and expanding hierarchical rule.

Yesterday's liberals are today's monarchs.

Of course, this isn't literal. But there is a sense in which it must be taken seriously. The victorious ones who took power after the great revolutions of the Eighteenth Century are those who control the means of production. They are those with property-power. More than that, they are the ones with knowledge-power as well. Not only do they wield direct political and economic power through the construction of laws, the setting of wage relations, and the entire gamut of related social issues, but they also control the dominating ideologies of the day. Truth is conditioned by power. And our truths are the truths of liberal, capitalist democracy.

This hegemonic paradigm of control, however, is not freedom in any meaningful sense. This was Marx's insight. Yes, the revolutions of yesteryear were necessary to wrest power from the hands of clergy and king. Yes, new spaces of economic growth were opened. Yes, in many ways, human communities benefited around the globe from this. But we must not pretend that these were advancements so much as they were transfigurations. I say this because a new elite, capable of just as much control, if not more, was created and let loose. This is the new class of clergy and kings. Wielding not cross and sword but market and rule of law, they erect social tiers that cannot, must not, they threaten, be traversed if the system is to stay in tact.

The irony is that this threat is contrary to a perpetual disposition toward human freedom and global ecological flourishing. For while the establishment of liberal, capitalist democracies provided a modicum of freedom for market players, it excluded the majority of human beings from the fullness of democratic society. Free market ideologists miss this, or ignore it, or simply don't care. They continue to espouse that markets lead to freedom, that market choice is the embodiment of rationality – yesterday's liberals are today's monarchs. 

Perhaps then, we can hope – today's liberals are tomorrow's Ancien Regime

The Success of the Conservative Imagination

"[We] can chalk up the current state of the right not to its failures of imagination or excess of spleen – as some have done – but to its overwhelming success." - Corey Robin (The Reactionary Mind)

I am a firm believer that the imagination is the central identity marker of human consciousness.

Some prefer to speak of "reflective consciousness" (Sartre), "linguistic consciousness" (Jackendoff), "meta-consciousness" (Jaynes), or any other similar nexus of designation. This does not denigrate the other expressions of thought that compose the totality of imaginative consciousness. Quite the contrary. Thought is simultaneously affective, embodied, embedded, enacted, extended, pre-reflective, pre-subjective, pre-singular, etc, etc, etc...

These concepts all have value insofar as they indicate thinking tendencies of a co-inhering, co-constitutive, pluri-dimensional human expression. However, imaginative consciousness serves a unique set of purposes. For Hume, it was bringing the flux of sense data together. For Kant, it was the condition that allowed sense data to be apprehended. For Sartre, it was the moment of praxis that superseded the present toward the field of possibles. And for Burke, the imagination is the faculty that allows human beings to develop their moral tendencies – i.e. their character.

In fact, I tend to agree with all of these ideas. Not willing to limit the extent of the imagination's enactment, it seems best to me to recognize the ways in which the imagination is both transcendental and empirical. And what is more, it is crucial to recognize how it circumvents that simple bifurcation itself. This is why, following a term that Foucault employed, I think of the imagination as an historicized a priori. It is both an historically contingent construct and also the a priori transcendental grid by which we take up the world. 

With that, I am intrigued by Corey Robin's analysis of the conservative imagination in his 2011 stalwart prophecy The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Famous for being "The Book that Predicted Trump," The Reactionary Mind is not merely a foretelling but, more importantly, it is a forthtelling. The prophetic tradition is often thought of as a soothsaying enclave predicting apocalyptic events of the end of linear historical time. This reductionistic perspective limits the robustness of the prophetic imagination, which was concerned with hailing the dictates of divine truth and calling people to task for their failure to live faithfully. Interestingly enough, characterizing prophecy as psychic fortune telling is beholden to the very criticism of conservative thought that Robin expounds. 

Conservatism is not purely a spasm of irrationalism as Trilling once declared. Rather, for Robin, conservative logic is conditioned by a sense of nostalgia that is refracted through a counter-revolutionary spirit. Essentially, conservatism is an ideology of reaction that bears a logic not so dissimilar to the mark from which it seeks to separate itself. Of course, things must be understood in their unique expression, but the point is that conservatism has a malleability to it that enables conservative thinkers to perpetually reinvent themselves (albeit within particular parameters).

(it is not my interest here to explain the ways in which conservatism has reinvented itself, but I would definitely recommend checking out Robin's various expositions throughout the book)

For Burke, part of this is because of the power of the sublime. The sublime is that "terrible" beyond that shatters our comfort and rearranges how we comport ourselves with the world. Most notably, God is sublime. God serves as this fearful "lightness" and "darkness" that presents both "fear and pain" in his awesomeness (awfulness?). God is the transcendent beyond that stirs up opposition within the soul and constitutes the self in the process. The result is that the constituted self before the transcendent God-sublime is one that is made through tension, fear, pain, anxiety. 

This is a creative process for Burke. The self is forged before the sublime. And Robin rightly notes that this Burkean tendency resides to varying degrees within the conservative logic as such. However, something that I think needs to be pointed out is how this tendency is precisely not creative. It is the literal antithesis to creation. Reproduction? Sure. Repackaging? Undoubtedly. Transformation? That works too. But creation? No.

See, the God that Burke claims disrupts and makes the self is a God that is fashioned after man's own image (and I do mean "man"). It is the transcendent inverted inflation of those qualities of men that are deemed valuable. Projecting this image before the self, to only have that constructed image deconstruct said self, is to circularly flagellate oneself into submission by one's own hand. It is an act of ideological S&M. Although, even such a comparison does a disservice to the creative capacities of hedonic exploration that S&M could release (under particular conditions, of course). As such, the "sublime" that Burke touts, and that undergirds much of conservatism's imaginative logic, is essentially stale and suppressive. It is man's own moral character writ large and fed back to himself. A truly creative Sublime would be transgressive in its potency, not merely reproductive (exclusively at least, for reproduction itself is not contrary to creation).  

Thus, if this is accurate, and I think it mostly is, then what would be interesting to further explore are the ways in which this tendency of conservatism has morphed from the sublimity of Burke to a neoliberal immanent sublimity under the logic of the market – our God. As all is bestowed value according to the market's dictates (read: the market's "rationality"), in what ways is the market sublime in the Burkean sense? And then, once such is explored, how we can heighten the sense that this sublimity is not creative but is in fact, as Fukuyama declared, "boring"?