Sunday, December 21, 2008

James and Purposivity

Before doing anything with James and transnational readings of Facing Reality, I'd like to take a quick look at James on the concept of purposivity.

Now, it is clear to me that marxism (as a body of texts affiliated with the corpus of Marx, not as an official movement or organized set of interpretations) has difficulty with non-purpose driven modes of sociality. One thing I am interested in is a Heideggarian Marxism that would open up the ontological constitution of the subject to non-intending modes of being-in-the-world. Can labor coexist, say, with language as ontological determinants of a marxist subject? Perhaps not. The point, however, is that Marx, for me, took liberalism and liberal philosophy at its word in terms of its constitution of its subject. Corporate subjects (like classes) are either inert and mute, like potatoes in a sack, and therefore existent only in-themselves; or, they have been activated as purposive subjects and become for-themselves. Similarly, non-corporate sociality - like simple exchange - is also, for Marx, always already premised on relations of desire and purposeful interaction. One is never just with someone. Because of this subject constitution, vanguardism seems to me to be the inherent and ever-present risk in marxism itself.

But what if subjects were not merely constituted through purposivity; or, if purposivity were held to be a fiction? James of the early 40’s (and even through Notes on Dialectics, though there things begin to tilt into an organicist language) was self-conscious regarding the artificiality and exteriority of “purpose” to the entity that was being organized as purposive. That is, James did not imagine that a political purposivity naturally or essentially emerged from “the worker” once the worker had received his name (if we read naming as a moment of purpose/identity endowing). In a 1943 article on Sidney Hook, James takes issue with Hook’s characterization of Marxist historical philosophy. Hook, James writes, sees Marxism as endorsing a nearly theological teleology that is scientifically untenable; for Hook’s Marx, the proletarian’s purpose is inscribed in the fabric of time. James responds:
[An entity like a river] acts that way because that is its nature, and my business as a scientist is to examine that, and not look for the hand of God or any outside agency. On this use of “purpose”, both Hegel and Engels, as we see, had common ground. But both Marx and Hegel understood quite clearly that you could never finally prove this purpose or any necessity purely by empirical observation. […] As Engel’s says: “The empiricism of observation alone can never adequately prove necessity…. But the proof of necessity lies in human activity, in experiment, in work.” Could anything be simpler? (James 1943, 55)
“Purpose” is not verifiable as a fact within the world. The proof of the philosophical attribution of purposivity rests in changing the world itself. (Here James interprets the eleventh thesis.) The attribution of “purpose” establishes the agency of the actor (not “the hand of God or any outside agency”) and the necessity of the actor’s work within the world to make true the attribution of purpose. Establishing purpose is thus a program. It is, properly speaking, a fiction.

The question that I have, that I will address later, is this: does this fiction overcode the real of alternative socialities, and can these different modes of being-in-the-world gain recognition by a marxist politics? If the attribution of purposivity makes a class that was in-itself legible as for-itself, what do we make of the "pre-"purposive socialities catechrestically named as class "in-itself"? I ask this only because, as I think I showed below, James' post-trotskyist work extends the function of purpose-giving to the proletiat itself; the proletariat, in production, produces knowingly its own purpose (cf. Facing Reality, 78, 88, 109) This position is coterminous with James' increasing organicism. But can we think of politically actionable "inorganic" socialities violated by the fiction of purpose? James on race or anti-colonialism might be a way out here, but I'm not sure.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

James and Selbstbetätigung

To get a read of Jamesian Bildung, I'd like to pick out the Marxian resonances of a term dear to James' heart - that of "self-activity." Turning to a passage in Marx's EPM, we read:

Only through developed industry, i.e. through the mediation of private property, does the ontological essence of human passion come into being, both in its totality and in its humanity; the science of man is therefore itself a product of the practical self-activation of man [ein Produkt der praktischen Selbstbetätigung des Menschen]. (Early Marx, 377)

I have modified the translation somewhat. Selbstbetätigung was translated as “self-formation,” which is misleading, and led Livingstone to add an entirely superfluous phrase. He did not translate “praktischen Selbstbetätigung” as “practical self-activation” but rather split its meanings through “self-formation” and “practical activity." The translation is useful, insofar as it invokes both ordinary practice and something like Bildung (self-formation).

But what is Selbstbetätigung? I would argue that, for Marx, self-activation partakes in an odd intentionality that translates into a circular causality. The "science of man" that he is after appears as an effect of the emergence of man as the product of his own activity; however, man only emerges as man through working on himself. What does it mean to activate (or, in less loaded terms, act on) oneself when the status of that self is only confirmed and made possible through the act/ivation?

What we assume as teleological in Marx is frequently a theoretical fiction that Marx writes in order to make the past legible. Posited but erased in the term Selbstbetätigung is a project stated in the future anterior tense whose present we now inhabit. The “self” of the “self-activation” is on loan from the present as if it had always been a reality; or, rather, as if it had always been projected as becoming a reality. The human in history appears as both the cause and the effect of his own activity. Where, from one point of view, human labor in the past could have been mere activity possessing no reflexive value, from the Marxian perspective of the present previous labor appears as a purposive project of self-elaboration – a self-activation. This fiction of the purposive, self-activating subject, which operates through a pseudo-telos, becomes dominant within Marx’s text; it comes, as we see above, to constitute the principle of scientificity for Marxism.

This fiction of self-activation nullifies the possibility of heteronomy in the ontological constitution of the human subject. For this Marx, the human makes its own ontology; it is autological and autonomic. It is a self-producing organism, whose life is its purpose and product. Of course, this fiction is also utopic: the self-production of man always occurs within a regime of exploitation. The fiction of self-activation that Marx writes, however, allows us to read exploitation as inorganic and exterior to the self-constitution of the worker-human. The political and ethical stance of Marxism follows almost necessarily from this ontology: if humanity produces its own being, but external or inorganic control over production and distribution leads to an unequal proportioning of these products in which the producers lack that which they made, the very producers of being experience ontic lack. The task, for a certain form of Marxism, is then not to focus on redistribution of goods (which, read dialectically, is nothing more than a redistribution of lack), but is rather to expel heteronomy from the self-elaboration of the proletarian subjects. The Marxian program thus becomes not so much an economic as a great philosophical drama, in which the worker attempts to reestablish himself as the producer/product of Selbstbetätigung, and in which the value-form, the State, or simply capital attempts to taint this self-activation with an external trace of power. The worker attempts to rest control (or the ability to endow activity with purpose) from the capitalist; the worker wishes to work not for the enrichment of another, but for the humanity that he actively produces.

Capitalist purposivity, then, versus proletarian purposivity: heteronomy versus autonomy. We are on the track of Bildung.

James developed a shorthand for the theoretical expression of the purposivity of capitalism, naming it “rationalism.” Texts like State Capitalism and World Revolution (1958 [1986]) and Facing Reality (1951 [2006]) provide an elaboration of the history of this rationalism, its development in and through capitalism, and a strategy for overcoming the force of capitalist rationalism. Importantly, a proletarian philosophy is never named, save rather vaguely as a “philosophy of life” (James 2006). The vitalism implicit in this to-be-elaborated philosophy is important to the discussion that follows.

James wrote in State Capitalism that “the war over productivity is fought in terms of philosophy, a way of life” (James 1986, 114). Productivity is thus linked in a real way to philosophy, which is glossed as a mode or disposition of living. James’ philosophy of history, as it emerges in this period of texts (roughly 1947 to 1961), is an attempt to identify the motive force of history. Initially, the bourgeoisie provided an economic rationality to production that furthered historical progress:

In the springtime of capitalism this rationalistic division of labor was the basis of a common attempt of individual men associated in a natural environment to achieve control over nature. (James 1986, 115)

Rationalism (frequently embodied for James through Descartes) enabled a tremendous explosion of creative energies. Capitalist rationality “all over the world […] united the population as never before” (James 1999, 62). Enlightenment and rationalism were liberating inasmuch as they freed the intellect from traditional determinations and freed the laboring body for the superadequation of capitalist commodity production. (James had a somewhat rosy view of primitive accumulation and, as we see in this narrative, colonization. Postcolonial approaches to James cannot afford to overlook these problematic passages.)

While rationalism first brought together and “associated” “individual men” in a “common attempt” at organizing and metabolizing nature, it eventually tended toward something more sinister. In the scene that James elaborates as the “springtime of capitalism,” we see the positive aspect of capitalist rationality: it establishes a common (even when it enclosed the commons), it produces association (even as these associations became increasingly less voluntary), and it controls nature (even as this led to total de-naturing). But the point of this mythical story of “springtime” is that while rationality/capitalism initially produced healthy results, this same technique or technic quickly became poisonous. Rationalism, as James tells us, is pharmakontic; it is both poison and antidote. While rationalism brings men together in labor, it simultaneously submits them to external controls, determinations, demands, and forces. An antagonism develops between the associated workers and the rationality that appears increasingly exterior and inorganic to the productive process of labor:

This antagonistic relation between an administrative elite calculating and administering the needs of others, and people in a social community determining their own needs, this new world, our world, is a world which Descartes never knew or guessed at. As an actual liberating philosophy of life, rationalism is dead. (James 2006, 72)

By this point, a switch has occurred. Where rationality initially extended a collective purposivity to masses of men in associated labor, it eventually becomes vestigial to the process of labor itself. Rationality only retains its position through state force: “Nothing but the most unlicensed, unrestrained, carefully cultivated brutality can keep [the great masses] down” (James 2006, 79). For James, the proletariat of 1950 knows exactly what it wants. The proletariat has incorporated rationality for itself.

What has happened here? Rationality – which is alternately figured as Descartes, capitalism, and the State – functions to produce a new organization of life and labor. This new organization of labor develops into a type of systematicity that eventually attempts to erase the fact of its exterior causality. Rationalism, while now dead, was once, if not alive, then at least life-bestowing and purpose-endowing. Capital/reason is a techne that begins and enables the production of a certain mode of life. For James, this mode of life develops its own mode of being that becomes antagonistic to the very techne that originally gave it life. That which attempts to efface the radical and exterior gift of life through positing a vital force as an always already interiorized motor is called (in a philosopheme going from Aristotle to Blumenbach to Kant to Hegel to James) an organism. It is no accident, then, that James will refer to “the organism we have been following, the proletariat” in his Notes on Dialectics (1948). This organicism is not a disfiguration or mystification of Marx; this logic follows the fiction of Selbstbetätigung that I discussed above.

The organism of the proletariat does not, by James’ admission, emerge as the result of a Selbstbetätigung. It does not turn itself on or give itself life. Frankenstein-like, the proletarian organism has been given life only to turn against the intentions of its creator. The turn against the creator, the incorporation of the giver of life such that life appears to be self-given (or self-activated), is what James explores through dialectics. In what he calls a “Hegelian critique of rationalism,” James establishes a number of rules for the movement of his organic multitude (James 1986, 116). He deploys vitalist and organicist metaphors, metaphors that construct the proletarian multitude as a living body, self-moving, extending itself imaginatively and materially through space. One assertion of the “Hegel” whom James pirates is that “[a]ll development takes place as a result of self-movement, not organization or direction by external forces” (James’ emphasis; James 1986, 117). Thus, a given body contains within itself its own principles of movement and causation and its own purposivity; it is auto-causal.

However, this theory of organic auto-endowment of purposivity does not account for why a body would move in the first place. If an organism gives itself purpose, there would still be an initial irruptive break at which this organism would make a gift to itself, in which the organism would activate itself. What makes the organism move itself? To answer that the organism would move itself of itself is tautological. James wants to inscribe a technic of movement that is at once exterior to but incorporated by the organism. He wants to inscribe what should be before the organism as the organism. James continues: “Self-movement springs from and is the overcoming of antagonisms within an organism, not the struggle against external forces” (James’ emphasis; James 1986, 117). An organism thus produces its own contradictions, its own antagonisms; an organism is a set of self-contained, self-produced antagonisms.

This is obviously a sleight of hand. This dialectical rule of self-movement effectively erases the initial gift of life and purpose that capital/rationalism extended to the “individual men” associated in labor. James attempts to incorporate the dubious gift of capitalist rationality. The exterior technical organization of men in associated labor becomes, over time, an organic self-technique for the purposive production of the organism itself. The proletarian organism of 1950 is thus able to incorporate (as if it were proper to it) an entire capitalist history of technical production. Proletarian rationality becomes, in fact, the true motor of history. The point here is that the proletariat produces itself; or, rather, from a certain historical perspective, can be seen to have produced itself, and can be seen to be producing itself purposively. Having lost their position as the bearers of rationality, the state and capitalism only remain through and as violence. The state contradicts the auto-purposivity of the organism by submitting it to an enforced Plan. Capitalist value only reproduces itself as command.

James’ revolutionary argument is that the state is no longer required to plan and to distribute; the real subsumption of society by the organism of the proletariat means that the proletariat can look after society for itself (for itself in a double sense). In fact, the social becomes as organic as the proletariat: “Modern society in particular is an enormously complex organism” (James 2006, 47). In fact, James figures society as an organism at the precise moment that he is attempting to evade charges of economism and workerism:

Social relations in production do not constitute society and no one has ever claimed that they did. Modern society in particular is an enormously complex organism, comprising relations of production, commercial relations, scientific investigation, the highly scientific organizations of certain aspects of industry itself (such as for instance the production and use of atomic energy). The means of communication of information and ideas play an enormous role in the routine of today’s society. There is the organization of political life, the creation of literature and art at various levels. But despite all the complexity, there are clear, unmistakable, irrefutable patterns and laws which allow us to understand the general movement. (James 2006, 47)

How do we read this “organism of society in light of James’ previous philosophy of organisms? Here, the organicism of the proletariat producing itself in the factory emerges as an organizing (if not organicizing) figure for the organism of society:

If we have based our concept of the future of society upon the working class in the social relations of production, it is because it is the single stable, unifying, and integrating element in […] society. (James 2006, 47)

This is Bildung from below. The worker does not merely provide the material base for the civil social world of bourgeois exchange and sociality; in James' view, the worker is actively constructing a new type of Bildung that is centered on the production of the social itself. This social is responsive to the auto-causality of labor; the social is not a set of reified positions or a network of exchange relations, but the constantly deterritorialized expression of the productive capacities of workers themselves.

If only, right?


On preview: moving from the factory to the plantation, I will track the differential meanings that arise when Facing Reality was read in America, and when it was read (after James sent copies to piss off Eric Williams) in Trinidad.

Friday, September 12, 2008

James, Virno, Bildung

In my last post, I noted that for Virno, as for C.L.R. James, culture (or cultural production) provides the ontological paradigm for production-in-general. As a note, one could, I think, make a similar claim about Hardt and Negri: their notion of “biopolitical production of subjectivity” is, for me, a merely to say that culture and subjectivity is directly included in, and produced through, labor.

The phrase “ontological paradigm for production-in-general” is grotesque, but couldn’t be helped. That is to say, the production of aesthetic/communicative objects or virtuosities (a product without end product, a valued performance) is at once the historically real foundation for the current cycle of production, as well as the philosophical figure for production-in-general. As Virno argues (with Debord’s “spectacle” standing as a metonym for the culture/communications industry):
[Spectacle] is the reigning productive force, something that goes beyond the domain of its own sphere, pertaining, instead, to the industry as a whole, to poiesis in its totality. In the spectacle we find exhibited … the most relevant productive forces of society, those productive forces on which every contemporary process must draw: linguistic competence, knowledge, imagination, etc. Thus, the spectacle has a double nature: a specific product of a particular industry, but also, at the same time, the quintessence of the mode of production in its entirety. (60)
So, culture – as the “common” repository of language, knowledge, imagination, etc. – becomes increasingly integrated into production, not merely as a product, but as a functioning aspect of production itself. According to Virno, the post-Fordist relations of work move in such a direction that base/superstructure arguments are not only dinosaur skeletons best left buried in hard soil, but rendered absolutely absurd. Culture is no longer to be conceived of as a product of the relations of production; rather, production-as-labor comes to be one moment of cultural activity. In this sense, labor becomes a modality of culture:
The general intellect is the foundation of a social cooperation broader than that cooperation which is specifically related to labour. Broader and, at the same time, totally heterogeneous. (67)
There thus emerges a tension between the multitudinous commons, the amorphousness of its presence, and the state and factory: the culture of the multitude exceeds the site of labor, but the factory, through adjusting its mode of production to incorporate and profit from linguistic, intellectual, and cultural training away from the factory, is able to profit. Essentially, socialization that occurs outside of labor functions to train workers for labor in the post-Fordist world:
Since the appearance of the Intellect becomes the technical prerequisite of Labor, the acting in concert beyond labor which it [intellect-in-common] brings about is in turn subsumed into the criteria and hierarchies which characterize the regime of the factory. (67)
The current regime of production, then, incorporates the “whole” of the human: its language, its affects, its knowledge, and so on. The human worker is no longer split from himself when he labors: his entire being, and not merely an abstract quantum of socially averaged brute force, is put to work. There is no longer any concrete distinction between labor in the factory and living in the world; work (labor) and living (culture) mirror one another. The full field of the human, as a cultural being with communicate-social abilities, is put to work:
Labor-power incarnates (literally) a fundamental category of philosophical thought: specifically, the potential, the dynamis. (82)
Of course, the wage- and state-forms channel and determine the flow and actual appearance of this newfound dynamism. The important thing here is that the dynamism of the potential is not predetermined in the form of an abstract social quantum (or, rather, it needn’t be). The entirety of the human enters as a possible input into the production process. In this way, labor as work (in the office, in the factory) becomes a subset of common labor, common knowledge – culture. The problem now centers on incarnation: the sensuous means of presenting a form. Capitalism as a system (pre)determines the specific modalities of incarnation. What James will encourage us to imagine is: is it economically and socially possible to construct a system wherein the mode of incarnation (which will register as genre in the literary sphere, and relations of production in the economic) is not predetermined? That is to say: can we construct a new, as yet unthought mode of incarnation?

This question, the question that James will pose, which I will address in my next post, centers around this network of ideas: If, in Euro-American modernity, theories of development centered largely on the development of potential itself, what happens when potential is developed to its fullest potential, but humans still are not free? The issue centers on the notion of Bildung. Bildung, as development, formation, culture, forming, and image-ing, encapsulates the problematic of Euro-American modernity. For James, as we will see, and for Virno, as I hope I showed, the Bildung of potential reaches its terminal point when the full culture of the human is available for sensuous incarnation in the process of labor. If potential has fully developed itself as potential, the actualization of potential, James will argue, is impoverished due to the capitalist value form itself. Capitalism develops potential but cannot, of itself, develop a means of incarnation, a form of sensuous manifestation, adequate to this potential. In short, the old problematic returns: capitalism limits itself of itself. The intolerable thing, for James, is that now more than ever the disparity between potential and incarnation is more keenly visible and felt than ever. And so James embarks on his impossible project: to develop a form of incarnation adequate to the ever-exceeding, though totally immanent, power of people in associated, culture-d labor.

Key texts:
Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude
C.L.R. James, After Ten Years: On Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed [here]
C.L.R. James, Facing Reality
Pheng Cheah, Spectral Nationalities

James and those Italians

No need to begin grandly; let's set ourselves to work. Here's a large chunk of information of dubious importance. Pardon the style; it's a footnote from a recent paper on James, in which I attempt to work out his relationship to Hardt and Negri.
In addition to the theoretical similarities, a history of the exchange of ideas between these revolutionary coteries [Italian workerists and James' Johson-Forrest and Facing Reality groups] would be quite fascinating. In 1972, for instance, George Rawick published with Negri, among others, Operai e stato [Workers and the state] (Milan: Feltrinelli). In 1973, Rawick’s From Sundown to Sunup: The Making of the Black Community was published as Lo schiavo americano dal tramonto all’alba (Milan: Feltrinelli). The speed of the translation (just one year after its American publication), and its publication with the same house as Operai e stato indicates a tight exchange of ideas. Alex Lichtenstein has documented the importance of C.L.R. James to Rawick’s work; Rawick met James in 1964. Martin Glaberman was another Jamesian, a leader of the Facing Reality Group, and the eventual editor of Marxism for Our Times: C.L.R. James on Revolutionary Organization. In 1976 he published Classe operaia, imperialismo, rivoluzione negli USA (Turin: Musolini). Jame himself was apparently published in Italian, co-writing Da schiavo a proletario with Harold Baron and Herbert Gutman. This was published in 1973, with the same publishing house as Glaberman. These connections of James to Italian workerism, and Negri more specifically, indicate that more work needs to be done in situating James – historically and theoretically – within the major currents of Western Marxism. See Ferdinando Fasce, “American Labor History, 1973-1983: Italian Perspectives,” Reviews in American History, 14.4 (1986); Alex Lichtenstein, “In Retrospect: George Rawick’s From Sundown to Sunup and the Dialectic of Marxiam Slave Studies,” Reviews in American History, 24.4 (1996), p. 712-13.
This small heap of publication data was intended to authorize a more theoretical inquiry. For those who have bothered to read James' (post-)trotskyist theoretical texts, a question quickly emerges: what is the theoretical relationship between James' politico-economico-cultural theory and Hardt and Negri's Empire? The comparison in scholarly work is almost becoming old hat:
In his review of Empire, Tim Watson writes that “Hardt and Negri recall the populist Marxism of C.L.R. James, who had a similar faith in the creative energies of the proletariat of all countries” (emphasis added). The reduction of James’ theoretical position to faith is an odious tendency in writing on James, who provided sustained arguments for his positions. Chamsy el-Ojeili laments the lack of influence that James and the Johnson-Forest had on Italian workerism, even while noting the exchanges (generally mediated through Castoriadis, who published with James as well as European groups) between these groups. Peter Hudis writes that “James’s emphasis on spontaneity can be seen as having influenced a number of currents in autonomous Marxism, including Negri and Hardt. At the same time, in regard to the problem of organization, they seem not to have gone beyond [James’s] stopping point, as seen from the conclusion of Empire.” See Tim Watson, “An American Empire?” Postcolonial Studies, 4.3 (2001), p. 355; “‘Many Flowers, Little Fruit’? the Dilemmas of Workerism,” Thesis Eleven, 79 (2004), especially pp. 114-16; Peter Hudis, “Workers as Reason: The Devleopment of a New Relation of Worker and Intellectual in American Marxist Humanism,” Historical Materialism, 11.4 (2003), p. 290.
So, a relationship clearly exists, both in terms of historical connections and in terms of theoretical positions. Unfortunately, writing on the relationship hasn't moved much beyond the simile: James is like Hardt and Negri. To add insult to injury: what could be worse than hearing that one's theory of the present has already been theorized as the present of a past? The problem cannot be resolved by claiming that Hardt and Negri complete and elaborate James's project (though, of course, such a claim would still require proving). Finally, it is my feeling that Virno (of The Grammar of the Multitude), and not Hardt and Negri, better mediates James' project from the position of the present. For one, Virno restricts himself to post-Fordist societies; the rule(s) of Empire are global in a way that James does not theorize. Secondly, Virno's understanding of culture and media is, as I hope to show in another post, closer to James' understanding. This distinction is important for two reasons: firstly, in both James and Virno cultural apparatuses are introjected into production; secondly, in James' and Virno's texts cultural production works as the ontological paradigm of production-in-general.

In the posts to follow, then, I want to trace the relationship of James to Virno/Hardt/Negri through his theory of culture and its relation to production. I do not have a ready answer to the question of the status of the relationship between James' theoretical work and the current theories of the multitude. In marxism, as ever, the lines between theory-of-history, theory-as-history, history-of-theory, and history-as-theory is too fraught to enable anything but the patient working-through of the texts themselves.

[A note: I do not have any Italian, and have been unable to verify, in any way to my liking, the bibliographic data above. If anyone is in the know, please drop your knowledge on me.]