Monday, January 2, 2012

Stuttering toward the Future

A new year, a planetary revolution completed: a good time to consider the hermeneutics of novelty, of revolution. If such a hermeneutics could exist, and nothing is less certain. For, certainly, liberal capitalism has functioned through the banalization of the new. We could think of myriad media technologies (the newspaper, the novel, a 24-hour news-cycle), consumption habits (“fashion” being the most obvious habit of practicing novelty), and technologies of governmentality as mechanisms that contain the new by proliferating novelties, inventions, deviations. The problem facing a hermeneutics of revolutionary novelty is this: How to read the appearance of the new in such a way that it is not (dis)figured by liberal capitalism’s deep embrace of novelty? We are, after all, conscripted imaginatively into liberalism: How are we to unthink the cognitive frameworks that enable thought at all?

Marx articulates the problem neatly in a famous passage. On one hand, “The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future.” For Marx, earlier revolutions suffered from a failure of imagination; they could not read the poetry to come, the poetry of the future: “Earlier revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content.” Marx resolves the problem with a normative claim—one that, humorously, “require[s]” a Christological messianism for it to make sense: “In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead.” (For readers without the dubious benefit of 12 years of Catholic education, “let the dead bury the dead” is an utterance of Jesus, Matthew 8:22.) That is, the revolution must move beyond the poetry of the past, the “required recollections,” and live dangerously open to a future-oriented present. Indeed, it must speak the future in the present as if it were already the future (“draw[ing] its poetry…only from the future”). But what would this poetry sound like, look like? Marx makes this poetry thinkable by comparing it, formally and semantically, to the past-oriented poetry of earlier revolutions: “There [in the past] the phrase went beyond the content; here the content goes beyond the phrase.” It’s not that the phrase says more than it means—rather, the phrase cannot say what it means. We don’t have the language yet, but the intuition of this content, this poetry of the future that lacks a language, has already beggared the words, the phrases that we do possess. The future that affects language does so by loosening its hold on the future, insofar as the future (the content) goes beyond the phrase.

Language has nothing to say about the future.

With brutal honesty, Marx submits his own work to the double bind he diagnoses. The future cannot be said, its content is exorbitant to its phrasing. Yet one writes. And, indeed, writes with phrases derived from “recollections of past world history” (e.g., “let the dead bury the dead”). One could read Marx’s entire corpus as a negotiation with this double bind: How to write the new, to develop a hermeneutic for reading novelty, knowing that one only possesses the poetry of the past—that one is “required,” cognitively, to read the future in the determinate figures generated by the past? Capital is little more than the generalization of this requirement, as if, one day, everyday, capitalism reads a kind of requerimiento to those whose imaginations it would colonize. We can see Marx playing with this fact at multiple points: the subordination of variable capital to constant capital discussed in volume 1 has its cultural-linguistic counterpart in Marx’s claim that “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” Value—as both a body of theoretical ruminations on value from Petty to Smith to Ricardo to Mill and as the value-form itself—similarly performs this operation of fashioning the new in a determinate image. All that remains for the revolutionary is this blank sign, the “future,” the “new,” which intimates a “content” that exceeds its phrasing. But one cannot speak the new as new, in new terms, in new words, because we lack the language, because we’re required, as conscripts of capital, to speak in such and such a way. But, at the same time, one cannot not speak: the future is the only thing worth speaking about, even if one cannot speak it.

The point is this: we lack a cognitive structure to perceive the new, because the new renders the cognitive structures that we do possess indeterminate. We might not know it when it hits us. But we might symptomatize it. As I re-read Marx’s sentence about phrasing revolution (“…here the content goes beyond the phrase”), I’m struck by how this seems to mimic a kind of stutter. A meaning-to-say that stumbles on the materiality of language, a content that can’t quite—but not for lack of trying—articulate itself. It’s at this point, where language can’t fully grasp the object or process it tries taking in hand, that some kind of newness is being illumined. The future appears, first and foremost, in moments where the epistemological authority of the past and present is evacuated. Not as a destruction, but as an indetermination—one that exposes the poetry of the past to the possibility of a poetry of the future. Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must stutter—that is, one must perform that inability of language to speak the force that affects one, that brings one to speech.

I want to think of Occupy as a series of revolutionary stutters, a movement that has brought one language (that of neoliberalism in the U.S.) to crisis while, simultaneously, seeking a language to describe the future it would inaugurate. We need to hold onto this stuttering revolutionary speech. (That, at least, is what I’ve been trying to do: to see how the slogans and practices of Occupy are potentiated by a “content” exorbitant to their “phras[ing],” a content that fleetingly appears in the articulation of such phrases.) We need to do so because the moment that Occupy’s stuttering indeterminacy becomes easily articulated speech, we will have lost the future, Occupy will have become a reform movement, and we will be left speaking the language of the present. We need to see in our stuttering critiques and programs that force of a future to come, to, indeed, become comfortable with the fact that we don’t have a language for what we want.  

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