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...

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"?