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.

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