Left Intentionally Blank

It irks me no end to see Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek ‘Finance Minister’ under Syriza, persistently referred to in the press — even on the left — as a game-theorist, when his published position on game theory is very far from being an uncritical endorsement.

To quote from Game Theory: A Critical Text (2004):

As a glimpse of game theory’s increasing confidence, we cited two prominent game theorists’ explanation of the attraction:

Game Theory may be viewed as a sort of umbrella or ‘unified field’ theory for the rational side of social science… [it] does not use different, ad hoc constructs… it develops methodologies that apply in principle to all interactive situations. (Aumann and Hart, 1992)

To overcome the reader’s suspicion that such exuberance was confined to game theory’s practitioners, we also cited Jon Elster, a well-known social theorist with very diverse interests, whose views on the usefulness of game theory did not differ significantly from that of the practitioners:

[I]f one accepts that interaction is the essence of social life, then… game theory provides solid microfoundations for the study of social structure and social change. (Elster, 1982)

(Varoufakis & Hargreaves 2004 1.1.1)

What Varoufakis and Hargreaves noted was the overinflation, if not imperialism, of claims commonly being made about game theory both by the gamers themselves and the social scientists they had influenced, and so together they set about evaluating such claims.They did so from a position of immanent critique, which is to say that they deployed the methodology of game theory in order to demonstrate the insufficiency of its basic assumptions and presuppositions. Particularly damning was game theory’s reliance on methodological individualism and a human subject figured as nothing but a preference-ranking. One of the implications of this dependency (on what is basically a liberal ‘tradition’ of assumptions comprising a set of individualist and preferentist theories of value) is that the ideological underpinnings of game theory undermines its claims to universality and throws into question its understanding of human behavior.

[We] felt that game theory’s further substantial contribution was a negative one. The contribution comes through demonstrating the limits of a particular form of individualism in social science: one based exclusively on the model of persons as preference-satisfiers. This model is often regarded as the direct heir of David Hume’s (the eighteenth-century philosopher) conceptualisation of human reasoning and motivation. It is principally associated with what is known today as Rational Choice Theory, or with the (neoclassical) Economic Approach to social life (see Downs, 1957, and Becker, 1976). Our first edition’s main conclusion (which was developed through the book) was that game theory exposes the limits of these models of human agency. In other words, game theory does not actually deliver Jon Elster’s ‘solid microfoundations’ for all social science; and this tells us something about the inadequacy of its chosen ‘microfoundations’.

(Varoufakis & Hargreaves, 2004, 1.1.3)

It’s my contention that a number of references to Varoufakis as a ‘game theorist’ in the press are simply the result of lazy research and bad journalism. It’s as if you could summarise an economist’s credentials merely by noting he co-authored a book called ‘game theory’. This won’t do. It isn’t enough just to look at the titles of published works to establish a person’s position on anything; perhaps it serves better to read past the title and take a look at what they are actually saying. Varoufakis is far better characterised as a critic of game theory.

Antimodern Life is Rubbish

One may have a Marx-on-Capital, Ollivander-on-Voldemort appreciation of the achievements and greatness of popular culture without this in any way having to constitute a ‘guilty pleasure’. What appeals to us appeals to us for a reason, and often that reason lies precisely in the promise of how much better it might be outside of relations of commodity, in some different system of social mediation.

There is no guilt to be associated with using or consuming the products of capitalism while engaged in co-ordinating its downfall. This is not a moral exercise. Those who complain that the use of technologies like tablet PCs and mobile phones in anti-capitalist organisation is self-contradictory are missing the very point of contradictions and what they are. Contradictions are inherent to capitalism, principally the one between the processes and relations which are generative of value and the potentialities of the human being and human world, including all its technology, prosthetics and telecommunication. Fissures and faultlines in a static edifice generally cause it to eventually give way under its own weight; in a dynamic system however these same fractures allow for periodic restructuring and a cycle of productive crises. Only the most pervasive contradiction can lead to a meta-crisis, a crisis of the critical cycle itself in which its ability to reconsolidate itself is permanently lost. Thus the demise of global capitalism must proceed immanently, through and by the mechanisms of crises and abatement upon which it depends and reproduces itself. The way in which capital reconstitutes and restructures itself through crises must itself be forced to undergo crisis.

Ultimately the question of the provenance of the means used in our struggles must itself become a matter of emancipation–an emancipation of means. Appropriation has always been a tactic in this wider strategy.

Prawns, Slavery, Shame and the Disciplinary Market

Just a few hurried notes.

Firstly, why the shock? Did anyone ever seriously doubt that neoliberalism was deeply criminogenic with respect to its supply chains? You can’t keep food prices ‘competitively’ low–further legitimating, by the way, the lowest possible wage for working consumers–without the use of extreme exploitation somewhere in the production process (including of course ‘technical’ production, distribution, exchange and consumption). Everyone already knew this, or at the very least deeply suspected it. By now we’ve become adept at disavowing our own sense of complicity, while individual expressions of guilt really do achieve nothing.

No, what constitutes the shock is the deposition of the open secret in the public Other, i.e. it appearing in print. Imagine the magnification of this same shock effect, for example, if the experience of shopping in a supermarket (convenient, pleasant, or at least indifferent) were interrupted by products which bore the printed label: “this product contains inhumane slavery of other human beings“.

The Guardian’s investigative journalism, like the attempt of much liberal media, was animated by the desire to mediate some ‘big Other’, assuming the outrage of social conscience in an attempt to engage government, and the opposition, as some kind of ethical court of appeal. While Labour immediately joined the media in condemnation of a practice we are supposed to assume it knew nothing about, the reaction of David Cameron’s office is absolutely contemporary, shifting focus onto individual responsibility for personal choices: there is no big Other, it’s up to the individual consumer–exposed completely and face to face with perfectly ‘spontaneous’ and ‘natural’ markets–to decide. The result of such absolute nakedness/exposure is not then the production of liberal guilt, but neoliberal shame. Shame is coming into focus quite a lot theoretically in recent times, and this is perhaps signal of the attempt to describe ever more accurately the subjectivising (and thus dominating, hegemonising) techniques of a neoliberal form of governmentality.

Shame is the theological tool neoliberalism uses to humiliate the consumer, diminishing him or her in the very act of indicating markets’ all-providing ‘choices’. This diffraction of consumers’ decisions over products into an existential register, situating them as personal moral dilemmas for each to experience in his or her own way–in the absence of any external regulative codification which one might appeal to–leads to an absolutely isolating experience, adrift and alone in the moral vacuum of a universe of markets. It were as if one were always already undercut, and always arrived too late as an ethical subject, ‘thrown’ into the markets of decision-making processes which one could never go beneath and reconstitute. Markets immediately assail the subject, which is to say, are placed into a direct and unmediated relationship with the ongoing constitution of subjectivity. The effect is the creation of a paradigm of living, a form of life, in which personal choice just is the morally discerning navigation of markets and nothing more. Subjectivisation just is learning to shop in a personal, ‘engaged’, style. Neoliberalism constitutes human experience as being-in-the-market.

The basic ideological ploy in all this is of course the naturalisation of marketised practice, which one could equally well define as the practice of naturalising markets. At no point does neoliberalism wish to examine the means of production in the context of universal justice, because ‘justice’ is something that for neoliberals only emerges at the end, through the disciplinary–in fact, punitive–effect of markets. Hence the response of all the supermarkets has been to do nothing to address the use of slavery per se, but rather to issue statements to the effect that they are constantly seeking to improve the quality of their sources, again couching their own choice as consumers within the supply chain as the only possible bearer of moral influence, or indeed political power. The register and rhetorical strategies used in all the supermakets’ replies and statements so much constitute what Foucault would have called a ‘regularity’ or ‘positivity’ that it is right to see them as part of a larger discursive formation, in which the emergence of subjectivity (and thus the very possibility of judgement, justice, and any moral framework for decisions) is entirely pendant to the interaction of consumers with markets. Political action, such as it may even exist in such a formation, is exercised as a practice of expressing moral preferences in the global supermarket; protest against capitalism is redirected into protest-shopping, preferring some brand or marque against another with tarnished reputation; slave-traders can be disciplined only through a withdrawal of demand.

The problem for us as consumers is that this is also the ideological formation in which boycotting is received and set in view–not primarily as a form of political leverage or action intended to throw a spanner in the works, and demonstrating a social, collectively produced rule applicable to a much wider context, but as the individualising practice of constituting an ethical subject, through the expression of a moral preference over a particular brand. What we face is therefore akin to a form of methodological individualism which serves to atomise collective efforts and to disperse their wider social force. A boycott is received as a series of unique expressions of subjectivity which only ever constitute ‘feedback’, ultimately carrying pricing signals–the cost of the new information about this product on this person’s moral conscience is too great to offset the saving they are making by buying this brand, using this supermarket, rather than alternative ‘x’ etc. You simply can’t reason with that because the way it encapsulates the entire issue in its own discourse prevents an understanding commensurate with the folk-language and folk-practises of social justice, by which I mean the way the issue is experienced from below. There is a Lyotardian differend–a wrong–here, which is not exhausted in the issue itself, but exceeds it, and which calls politics in its current mode entirely into question. The terms of no emancipatory or egalitarian social movement have translations in neoliberal discourse.

Questions in a World of Blue pt.1

Bat020 asked:

In answering this question, I want to contextualise the political aesthetics of blue, so to speak. This won’t even touch anything like a fully-considered genealogy of the aesthetic usage of blue, but constitutes what I would consider to be a paradigmatic ‘sampling’.

Nu bleu, Souvenir de Biskra, Henri Matisse, 1907 The early years of the Twentieth Century saw the rise of die Brücke and the Fauves, movements in Germany and France which have been labelled ‘Expressionist’ by art historians. Although distinct they both made strong use of colour and primitivist forms in a painterly and flattened style, rejecting classical realist representation as well as the tendency of Impressionists to continue modelling realist representations in a merely pointillized or diffuse form, adapting the techniques of divisionism. In 1907 the Fauvist leader Henri Matisse painted his controversial Blue Nude which served as a valediction to the intense but short-lived era of Fauvism before turning to Protocubism and the shattered forms of four-dimensional perspective.

In Germany, however, on the heels of these developments rode der Blauer Reiter, a group of artists who, like die Brücke, are classed as Expressionist. In 1909 in Munich a society called the New Artists’ Alliance (Neue Künstlervereinigung) was formed by a number of artists including Kandinsky, Jawlensky, Münter, Kubin and Marc. These were to be the principle contributors to the Blauer Reiter exhibitions. Initially Kandinsky had sought to lead the New Artist Alliance in a spiritual direction emphasising the expression of inner realities and desires, but meeting with resistance from other members, Kandinsky and Marc splintered from the alliance to form a new group explicitly committed to the shared vision of art as spiritual thoroughfare. Der Turm der blauen Pferde, Franz Marc, 1913The ‘rider’ motif in the name ‘Blue Rider’ had much to do with Kandinsky’s attraction to the figure of the medieval knight. One might imagine such a knight thundering forth across Marc’s ‘bridge to the spiritual world’; however it is the hue of the rider which intrigues us here, and Marc’s own 1913 work The Tower of Blue Horses holds the same intrigue.

From a purely formalist perspective one may say that the creation of a blue figure–especially any figure not usually so coloured when found in nature–in painting is already (somewhat) of a departure from the conventions of classical figural painting in that blue is considered to be a ground colour, in contrast to red which is clearly a figure colour. The naturalistic convention of reserving blue for backgrounds derives both from the evolved processes of depth perception in the human ocular system itself, which account for and reads the bluer, ‘cooler’ and more ‘faded’ visual scenery as being further away, and the real atmospheric effects of an Earth-bound environment, in which Rayleigh scattering tends to cause the naked daytime sky to be blue in colour. Objects within the naturalistic conventions of depicting pictorial depth (or illusory space) which are intended to be seen as closer to the picture plane are therefore typically not only sharper in definition and delineation but markedly less blue. Any accumulation of blue tends to recede from the picture plane, seeking the hindmost location to appear as a background, be it as a line of hills, a daytime sky or its reflection, the sea. For a figure to be a blue figure was, and to some extent still is, against this context of convention, immediately an invocation of the uncanny (the umheimliche, the ‘not-at-home’ or other-worldy), since the proximity of its form in the composition of pictorial depth is in a relationship of tension with its colour. The sensitive, aesthetic eye is confronted with a paradoxical torsion or ‘short-circuit’ in the very figure-ground opposition (which normally distributes depth and proximity to the elements of a composition). Image of a blue rose downloaded from a wallpaper siteJust as the diminution of angels and fairies in the classical pictorial arts functioned to short-circuit the process of perspective and foreshortening to create a distanciation of proximate forms in an uncanny effect (and thereby allegorising the presence of ‘the spiritual’), so too does the ‘enblueing’ of foreground figures, which can be found in expressionism, surrealism and avant-garde movements of the early 20th century function to de-familiarise their forms, and within the space, hiatus or pause of this distanciation, signify transcendence and unnaturalness.

In the period between the inception and the demise of German Romanticism, the colour blue held also special significance for German artists, poets and writers. The Blue Flower, for example (Blaue Blume) represented both inspiration and sehnsucht, a deep yearning for the transcendent and inaccessible. The paradigmatic case of this use of the blue flower imagery occurs in Henry of Ofterdingen by Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) (1772-1801)1.

Towards the end of his short life, Novalis […] turned towards the novel, which the early German Romantics conceived as the poetic genre that could encompass all the other genres. He wrote two ‘prose romances’, Die Lehrlinge zu Sais (The Disciples at Sais) and Heinrich von Ofterdingen, both of which remained unfinished at his death. Like Ludwig Tieck’s Franz Sternbald’s Wanderings, Heinrich von Ofterdingen is the story of an artist, in this case the historical ‘minnesinger’ or courtly poet who was active in the twelfth or thirteenth century. Novalis imagines the Middle Ages as a period of unity prior to the divisions inaugurated by the ‘age of reason’. The story of Heinrich’s quest for artistic and personal fulfilment is also an allegory of Novalis’ own spiritual life. Heinrich von Ofterdingen has been described as the representative novel of early German Romanticism, and in the image of the ‘blue flower’ it provided this movement with one of its enduring motifs. Heinrich’s quest to locate the blue flower which he sees in a dream typifies the Romantic condition of yearning (Sehnsucht) for an unobtainable ideal. The idea of a secret symbolism of flowers is also to be found in the work of Philipp Otto Runge […]. The unfinished novel, which was largely composed in 1799, was first published by Friedrich Schlegel and Ludwig Tieck in the first volume of their edition of Novalis’ Schriften (Berlin, 1802). The following excerpt, which forms the opening section of the book, is taken from the anonymous translation, Henry of Ofterdingen: A Romance, Cambridge: John Owen, 1842, pp. 23-6.

The parents had already retired to rest; the old clock ticked monotonously from the wall; the windows rattled with the whistling wind, and the chamber was dimly lighted by the flickering glimmer of the moon. The young man lay restless on his bed, thinking of the stranger and his talcs. ‘It is not the treasures,’ said he to himself, ‘that have awakened in me such unutterable longings. Far from me is all avarice; but I long to behold the blue flower. It is constantly in my mind, and I can think and compose of nothing else. I have never been in such a mood. It seems as if I had hitherto been dreaming, or slumbering into another world; for in the world, in which hitherto I have lived, who would trouble himself about a flower? I never have heard of such a strange passion for a flower here. I wonder, too, whence the stranger comes? None of our people have ever seen his like; still I know not why I should be so fascinated by his conversation. Others have listened to it, but none are moved by it as I am. Would that I could explain my feelings in words! I am often full of rapture, and it is only when the blue flower is out of my mind, that this deep, heart-felt longing overwhelms me. But no one can comprehend this but myself. I might think myself mad, were not my perception and reasonings so clear; and this state of mind appears to have brought with it superior knowledge on all subjects. I have heard, that in ancient times beasts, and trees, and rocks conversed with men. As I gaze upon them, they appear every moment about to speak to me; and I can almost tell by their looks what they would say. There must yet be many words unknown to me. If I knew more, I could comprehend better. Formerly I loved to dance, now I think rather to the music.’

The young man gradually lost himself in his sweet fancies, and fell asleep. Then he dreamed of regions far distant, and unknown to him. He crossed the sea with wonderful case; saw many strange monsters; lived with all sorts of men, now in war, now in wild tumult, and now in peaceful cottages. Then he fell into captivity and degrading want. His feelings had never been so excited. His life was an unending tissue of the brightest colors. Then came death, a return again to life; he loved, loved intensely, and was separated from the object of his passion. At length towards the break of day his soul became calmer, and the images his fancy formed grew clearer, and more lasting. He dreamed that he was walking alone in a dark forest, where the light broke only at intervals through the green net-work of the trees. He soon came to a passage through some rocks, which led to the top of a neighboring hill, and to ascend which he was obliged to scramble over the mossy stones, which some stream in former times had torn down. The higher he climbed, the more was the forest lit up, until at last he came to a small meadow situated on the declivity of the mountain. Behind the meadow rose a lofty cliff, at whose foot an opening was visible, which seemed to be the beginning of a path hewn in the rock. The path guided him gently along, and ended in a wide expanse, from which at a distance a clear light shone towards him. On entering this expanse, he beheld a mighty beam of light, which, like the stream from a fountain, rose to the overhanging clouds, and spread out into innumerable sparks, which gathered themselves below into a great basin. The beam shone like burnished gold; not the least noise was audible; a holy silence reigned around the splendid spectacle. He approached the basin, which trembled and undulated with ever-varying colors. The sides of the cave were coated with the golden liquid, which was cool to the touch, and which cast from the walls a weak, blue light. He dipped his hand in the basin and bedewed his lips. He felt as if a spiritual breath had pierced through him, and he was sensibly strengthened and refreshed. A resistless desire to bathe himself made him undress and step into the basin. Then a cloud tinged with the glow of evening appeared to surround him; feelings as from Heaven flowed into his soul; thoughts innumerable and full of rapture strove to mingle together within him; new imaginings, such as never before had struck his fancy, arose before him, which, flowing into each other, became visible beings about him. Each wave of the lovely element pressed to him like a soft bosom. The flood seemed like a solution of the elements of beauty, which constantly became embodied in the forms of charming maidens around him. Intoxicated with rapture, yet conscious of every impression, he swam gently down the glittering stream. A sweeter slumber now overcame him. He dreamed of many strange events, and a new vision appeared to him. He dreamed that he was sitting on the soft turf by the margin of a fountain, whose waters flowed into the air, and seemed to vanish in it. Dark blue rocks with various colored veins rose in the distance. The daylight around him was milder and clearer than usual; the sky was of a sombre blue, and free from clouds. But what most attracted his notice, was a tall, light-blue flower, which stood nearest the fountain, and touched it with its broad, glossy leaves. Around it grew numberless flowers of varied hue, filling the air with the richest perfume. But he saw the blue flower alone, and gazed long upon it with inexpressible tenderness. He at length was about to approach it, when it began to move, and change its form. The leaves increased their beauty, adorning the growing stem. The flower bended towards him, and revealed among its leaves a blue, outspread collar, within which hovered a tender face. His delightful astonishment was increasing with this singular change, when suddenly his mother’s voice awoke him, and he found himself in his parents’ room, already gilded by the morning sun. He was too happy to be angry at the sudden disturbance of his sleep. He bade his mother a kind good morning, and returned her hearty embrace.

From here to some of its appearances today there has clearly a fascinating journey in the appearance of the blue flower. Consider some of the most recent uses:

  • the blue flower used in Batman Begins as a token of Wayne’s resolve and commitment–and later as the source of a panic-inducing hallucinogen in Ra’s al Ghul’s plot to purge Gotham;
  • the substance ‘D’ in the 2006 adaptation of Phillip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly;
  • the blue rose as the one element of FBI Agent Chester ‘Chet’ Desmond’s surrealistically ‘coded’ briefing which he refused to speak about in David Lynch’s Fire Walk With Me and as that element the search for which resulted in his disappearance;

Today, no longer does the blue flower stand simply for that pining for ‘full’ or integrated presence or a metaphysical fusion with a beatific ‘nature’ which author and theologian C.S.Lewis wrote about. Between its Romantic use as a literary and artistic trope and today’s use perhaps it endured only as the blue rosette, in largely ceremonial and completely disregarded contexts. No doubt there has been some cross-fertilisation in the modern usage with the Ancient Greek mythology of the lotus-eaters, and we should recall that a particularly iconic species of the lotus, Nymphaea caerulea, produces some intensely blue specimens that were perhaps well known to the Greeks in antiquity. Such a knowledge might have cemented in Western history an association of blue flowers with that sickness of the human soul known as acedia, in an ambiguous pharmacological relationship wherein the full depth of human sadness contemplating its own alienation is only ever detained, confined, and ultimately magnified by some medicinal Nepenthe, resulting in a state of apathy that yearns for more of itself, for the freedom of a complete arataxia. The desire to arrest all excitations, passions and disturbances (and thus rid oneself of the passivity of the soul) becomes itself a new and distorted all-governing passion, resulting only in an exacerbated passivity alerted to the minutest excitations, condemned to an ever-gnawing sense of its own sensitivity. The psychology of narcotic addiction here finds its moral precedent. Irrespective of this speculative continuity, already by 1934 Hergé would, in one of his characteristic fits of Orientalism, transplant the blue lotus (a North African species) into a Chinese setting for his Tintin story Le Lotus bleu. In this way he melded various orientalist motifs–opium dens, poison-tipped darts, shadowy cabals–to produce what can be regarded as an early but paradigmatic example of the toxicological mystique that characterises the appearance of the Blue Flower in modern literature and cinema.

In its recent cinematic manifestations the Blue Flower has become the symbol of a radical evil, a dark spirituality and sinister shadow-play. When it arises as a thematic in today’s literature and cinema the Romantic vision of the blue flower is a warped, creepy and most likely psychotic vision, the vision of a hyper-reactionary villain, a serial killer morbidly obsessed with the ‘beautiful’ death of high school girls or with the mass extermination of ‘degenerate’ populations in the pursuit of some underlying aesthetic, order or rhythm. What to make of this transformation of the Blue Flower, having gone from being a motif of inspiration and spirituality for the Romantic movement, through the revocation of meaning in mere adornment and dusty regalia, to undergoing today an inverted resurrection of meaning as contaminant and propagator of mass ‘hysteria’, madness and death?

Already in 1925 Walter Benjamin wrote on the intransitive historicity of the theme of the Blaue Blume, its having passed beyond the horizon of any stable significance: “[n]o one really dreams any longer of the Blue Flower. Whoever awakes as Heinrich von Ofterdingen today must have overslept.” Benjamin witnessed here the inaccessibility of the very reference to what had been already inaccessible. Dragging any rigidity of designation along with it, the ‘good’ Blue Flower of the Romantics disappeared into an absolutely external night, an oblivion, beyond the reach even of dreams. The meaning of Novalis’ Blue Flower–an aristocratic yearning for the integration of the human being into the ‘natural world’, in conversation with animals, plants and stone–has been foreclosed. When the Blaue Blume appears now, in an age that is not only beginning to understood its own historicity but is also beginning–through the natural sciences–to witness the very ‘unnaturalness’ of nature itself in its contingency, chaos, under-determination and non-unification, the bloom is a rootless perigone–an empty husk, a pure image–and can stand only for a dangerous falsity, if not a sickening toxicity, of any vision of harmonious integration and order.

There are several interesting discussions to be had about the aesthetic uses of the colour blue, its role within European Romanticism, and the wider place of romantic and aesthetic philosophies in relation to the art, texts and debates between idealism and materialism which were to follow its demise. It is also worth considering the political resurrection of certain romantic themes and aspirations in modern conservatism, which will help in turning to the question which sparked this discussion, which can be adumbrated: can blue be dissociated from its conventional and contextual European aesthetic, and to what extent has the American attempt to do so succeeded? Rather than preserving the radical impetus at the heart of the democratic project, which has lost its way in an ongoing crisis of representation, has the use of blue in the United States not tended to intoxicate the figure of the American Left, condemning it to an over-spiritualised, psychologised evanescence, effectively conceding any claim to historical revolutionary legacy to Republican hands? What can we learn from this, and what can it tell us about supine ‘blue Labour’ and disingenuous ‘red Tory’ parliamentary politics in today’s UK?

In the next instalment: Färbt die blaue Blume rot!–The Politics of Blue and Red in Europe and the US


[1] The following excerpt is taken from Harrison, Wood and Gaiger, Art In Theory 1648-1815, VIB13, pp.976-8

The Spectre of Totality and the Human Opening On It

What I find interesting is that all social movements, from 1968 onwards, tend to confidently assert that they are ‘not a unified social movement’. This even goes for the latest neoreactionary groups like the ‘Dark Enlightenment’. Indeed the fact that a deep unease over asserting any kind of unity, long used as a kind of shibboleth for the new social movements, can so easily be accommodated to the new political Right, is deeply troubling. After this point, whatever was distinctly politically Leftist about the systematic rejection of ‘totalising’ forms of social unity, especially when the rhetoric is uncritically and unthinkingly reproduced by groups on the Left, begins to evaporate. How many accounts of social movements and groups begin by including the disclaimer, ‘of course, _____ is not, and never was, a unified social force’? In this ubiquitous and flippant usage, not even functioning as a token Deleuzean valorisation of ‘difference’ over ‘dialectic’, it risks meaning virtually nothing. It risks shading into continuity with late capitalism, which has itself functioned perfectly ‘through the management and distribution of differences’ (Noys 2010:x)

Is the spectre of ‘totality’ really this haunting? Do we really envisage ourselves becoming ‘totalitarian’ merely because we dared to represent a unison of voices over a nontotalisable multiplicity? How can we ever produce the vox populi, a coherent demand, and how can we live by the basic Left-wing truth that ‘the people think’ (les gens pensent) if we refuse any abstraction or simplification which might mediate the particular and the universal?

It seems to me that Badiou’s foray into axiomatic set theory (as ontology) is precisely an engagement with this dilemma, although I am less confident about how his adventures in category theory (as logical phenomenology) elaborates upon it. While multiplicity is always open to supplementation in the process of adding ‘one more’ voice or factor to an ever-growing diversity and inclusiveness, the idea of the set is that of drawing around this potentially infinite process the brackets of a fully completed history, without having to ever enumerate this process. Sets are, in the sense, the site of a dialectical agency or intervention in a runaway enumeration of difference. And this does indeed appear to be Badiou’s position: just as the Real of an irrational decimal expansion must be ultimately denoted by ellipsis or given a proper name in any symbolic system in order to be communicated, so the bad Deleuzean multiple (a multiple of units), and the late-capitalist ‘multiplicity’ of individuals and their interests, must be recaptured in thought as genuine multiplicity, which is to say, as a set which is amenable to a thought of generality and axiomatically capable of taking (or including) a generic form. Badiou tends to frame this in terms of the Idea, which distinguishes potential subjects from mere human animality, but in this Platonic move I also see something akin to the reasoning underpinning the analytic philosopher Wilfred Sellars’ distinction between sapience and sentience. For Sellars sapient beings (i.e. humans) are marked out by the rule of inference, and so in contrast to the merely sentient, they are able to abstract the idea or concept and arraign it before thought on the same level as other cognitively manipulable objects. So in Sellars’ terms, what Badiou calls the reign of markets, the endless distribution of difference, and the domain of ‘human animality’, merely constitutes a level of sentience and not sapience. To become sapient beings, it is necessary to place this endless flowering and unfolding of difference (which for Deleuze’s problematic vitalism still held some radical potentials), in brackets, which is to say to abstract it and view it from the point of view of an Idea it absolutely cannot think–i.e. itself. In Badiou’s vision, the reign of market difference and competing voices becomes known as Democratic Materialism, and it can be reduced to this rule: there is no Truth; there are only bodies and languages (Badiou 2005).

Here the parallel comes unstuck, however. For Sellars, sentient beings follow rules without knowing that they are following rules, whereas only sapient beings can follow a rule on the basis of it being a rule. Well, it is perfectly possible, if not the norm, that ‘human animals’ know perfectly well what they are doing when they fall in with the endless reproduction and diversification of capital. We endlessly agonise about how we follow the rules. What marks out the critical awareness of becoming-subjects would be something over and above ‘knowing’ versus ‘not knowing what they do’. It would have to be something like–and Sellars himself points in this direction–having a metalanguage or grammar which allows the normalisation of the rule to become a communicable and manipulable object capable of being opposed or negated.

Here we might say that the bracketing of the elements of a set adds to them only the halo of their facticity, their specific haecceity. This is something subtly beyond ‘the inference rule’, or mathematical induction, or symbolisation or anything like that. It is true that the set constitutes what Dupuy analyses as a ‘tangled hierarchy’ in which levels are crossed (Dupuy 2013), and I believe that this is indeed best understood through the mathematical set which is at once both a multiple and an element, and also that Badiou is correct to assert here that ontology is mathematics.

The set adds nothing to that which it is a set of; a set is defined solely by its extension. Yet it is that by which even the nondenumerable can itself be considered an element among others (such as the sequence of alephs or cardinals which Cantorian mathematics uncovered). In a brilliant analysis, this ‘relativising’ capacity of Set Theory has been described by Peter Hallward as the ‘laicization of the infinite’ (Hallward 2003), It constitutes a further step in the unfinished business of the Death of God (beyond, for example, a simplistic rejection of God that would preserve intact all the unifying structural supports, so that some other metaphysical contender–perhaps physics–might occupy the position of ‘the One’) Indeed, this laicization of ‘the’ infinite is a profanation of an absolute, recasting infinity in relation to ‘the space of its inscription’, opening the One-All to its position as merely an infinite collection among untold others, some of which vastly exceed it. In this way ‘the’ infinite slips, as in a tangled hierarchy, from being an overarching all-inclusive and absolutely unique One-All, a ‘bad’ infinity if you like, to being just another element in a greatly expanded infinity (the transfinite). This fall is a fortunate one, a felix culpa; and everything that a unified politico-theological vision of the One-All supported falls with it. As such, a historical situation such as Democratic Materialism is not, and could never attain to be, all that there is. Neither is it the complete field of determination of what can be. This means that inherent to the edifice of Democratic Materialism exists the fissure or crack of what would remain only ‘metapossible’ there, but which within the expanded horizon of the Materialist Dialectic would become a new and ‘real’ possibility.

Mathematical induction and the rule of inference is the ability to extract a rule from repetition. Democratic Materialism is, despite its vitalistic ever-flourishing diversity, essentially repetition. It can be abstracted, projected to the point of completion and set in brackets. Its particular unfolding–its denumeration–can be elided, since for all its emphasis on difference it cannot ever do anything different to what it does, which is to reproduce itself. There are no Truths, only bodies and languages; but around this rule can be seen the glow of this very specification, marking it off from what it lacks. The ‘encyclopaedic’ totality of knowledges which Democratic Materialism produces always lacks that which is capable of puncturing it: the fundamentally qualitative difference of a Truth.

Consequently, against Democratic Materialism can be elaborated a new rule, which Badiou names the Materialist Dialectic, and which is not really ‘new’, but has been at the basis of every genuine social revolution: there are only bodies and languages, except that there are also Truths.

Here Badiou’s elaboration of the becoming subject begins in earnest. Over and above being able to see what it is doing and know that the rules it follows are rules, the escape from ‘human animality’ minimally involves a schematic thought in which the rules it follows say nothing about a Truth-Event. For Badiou it will only be through a process of fidelity to this Truth, which Democratic Materialism cannot account for, that the subject will be a subject. Fidelity here does not mean faith or still less belief, and more a commitment to live with all the consequences of the reality of the Truth. The incorporation of this Truth into the domain of activity and life, in which formerly there was nothing but bodies and languages, is the task of the subject and also the task that makes the subject.

This curious reflexivity, I would say, results from the mathematical/ontological basis, the ‘tangled hierarchy’ of axiomatic set theory in which a set is at once both multiplicity and a multiple (ontologically the same) and not at all owing to a held-over influence from Sartre (who was one of Badiou’s teachers) insisting that the subject must become itself and exists only ‘in becoming’. Like the Subject, the (axiomatic, non-naive) set cannot be represented graphically, without resorting to inventive ways of representing its inherent two-ness, its co-extensiveness with itself in a further, undecidable space of inscription.

The philosophical delineation of this process is also reflexive in that the Materialist Dialectic, as that Other anthropology which differs in its admission of Truths, appears itself to be a Truth–or perhaps a meta-Truth, a Truth which admits the other Truths. I doubt that Badiou would consider it in these terms, but his own determinations still presuppose nonetheless a certain open-ness of the ‘human animal’, perhaps a residual ‘anxiety’, that the regime of Democratic Materialism, the market of bodies and languages, is not all that there is. How could the human animal, without the anxious bridge of this sapience–which allows it to cognitively externalise the rules of capital, move externally with respect to them, abstract them and make of them an object towards which it could open itself in a relation of contingency?

What I am suggesting really is that it is possible to align the threshold between sapience and sentience as outlined by Sellars with a ‘missed step’ or vanishing mediator in Badiou, and furthermore that Badiou’s reticence in elaborating on the anxiety of the human animal in confrontation with the contingency of its situation is entirely coincident with his reluctance to theoretise the death-drive (something already pointed out by Zizek). The ability of the sapient species to subject its own processing to a process of self-differentiation and re-uptake in order to produce contingency is what is at stake here. An inclusion of this consideration would not alter the theoretisation of the subject as a process of fidelity to a Truth; on the contrary it would concern only an opening on Truth that ‘troubles’ the human animal. It raises other issues, such as how ‘animal’ this troubled animal would truly be, and of course, this will cascade into becoming the whole problematic of just what an animal would be in the first place and how we could know anything about its motivation and cognitive mapping, especially from a vantage point which has always already presupposed the animal life but never really defined it, such as was beginning to be explored by Derrida in his last days, and which Agamben has, from an opposing point of view, visited much too briefly and fragmentarily. I’m saying that there is an inadequacy in the analytic philosophy of Sellars which reflects an ancient presupposition or undertheoretisation of animal life in Western metaphysics and that it could be fruitful to interrogate Badiou’s ‘human animal’ on the same basis, since it concerns a threshold where a mysterious resource, an opening on abstraction, conceptuality, totality and finally Truth, appears.

It interests me because I also see here the possibility of a fruitful (re)engagement with Marx’s anthropology on Badiou’s part, in an area in which others (such as Paolo Virno, for one) have dared to tread.


Badiou, A., (2006) [seminar] Bodies, Languages, Truths, originally delivered at the Victoria College of Arts, University of Melbourne, on September 9th 2006, available online at http://www.lacan.com/badbodies.htm, retrieved 12/03/2014 @ 13:45
Dupuy, J.P. (2013) The Mark of the Sacred, Stanford University Press
Hallward, P. (2003) Badiou: A Subject to Truth, University of Minnesota Press
Noys, B. (2012) The Persistence of the Negative: A Critique of Contemporary Continental Theory, Edinburgh University Press
Sellars, W. (1956) Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind, Harvard University Press

Stuart Hall on Althusser

A few select quotations from the late Stuart Hall:

“By enabling us to think about different levels and different kinds of determination, For Marx gave us what Reading Capital did not: the ability to theorize about real historical events, or particular texts (The German Ideology, Marx & Engels, 1970), or particular ideological formations (humanism) as determined by more than one structure (i.e., to think the process of overdetermination). I think ‘contradiction’ and ‘overdetermination’ are very rich theoretical concepts—one of Althusser’s happier ‘loans’ from Freud and Marx; it is not the case, in my view, that their richness has been exhausted by the ways in which they were applied by Althusser himself.

Stuart Hall“The articulation of difference and unity involves a different way of trying to conceptualize the key Marxist concept of determination. Some of the classical formulations of base/superstructure which have dominated Marxist theories of ideology, represent ways of thinking about determination which are essentially based on the idea of a necessary correspondence between one level of a social formation and another. With or without immediate identity, sooner or later, political, legal, and ideological practices—they suppose—will conform to and therefore be brought into a necessary correspondence with what is—mistakenly—called ‘the economic.’ Now, as is by now de rigueur in advanced post-structuralist theorizing, in the retreat from ‘necessary correspondence’ there has been the usual unstoppable philosophical slide all the way over to the opposite side; that is to say, the elision into what sounds almost the same but is in substance radically different—the declaration that there is ‘necessarily no correspondence.’ Paul Hirst, one of the most sophisticated of the post-Marxist theorists, lent his considerable weight and authority to that damaging slippage. ‘Necessarily no correspondence’ expresses exactly the notion essential to discourse theory—that nothing really connects with anything else. Even when the analysis of particular discursive formations constantly reveals the overlay or the sliding of one set of discourses over another, everything seems to hang on the polemical reiteration of the principle that there is, of necessity, no correspondence.

“I do not accept that simple inversion. I think what we have discovered is that there is no necessary correspondence, which is different; and this formulation represents a third position. This means that there is no law which guarantees that the ideology of a class is already and unequivocally given in or corresponds to the position which that class holds in the economic relations of capitalist production. The claim of ‘no guarantee—which breaks with teleology—also implies that there is no necessary non-correspondence. That is, there is no guarantee that, under all circumstances, ideology and class can never be articulated together in any way or produce a social force capable for a time of self-conscious ‘unity in action,’ in a class struggle. A theoretical position founded on the open-endedness of practice and struggle must have as one of its possible results, an articulation in terms of effects which does not necessarily correspond to its origins. To put that more concretely: an effective intervention by particular social forces in, say, events in Russia in 1917, does not require us to say either that the Russian revolution was the product of the whole Russian proletariat, united behind a single revolutionary ideology (it clearly was not); nor that the decisive character of the alliance (articulation together) of workers, peasants, soldiers and intellectuals who did constitute the social basis of that intervention was guaranteed by their ascribed place and position in the Russian social structure and the necessary forms of revolutionary consciousness attached to them. Nevertheless 1917 did happen—and, as Lenin surprisingly observed, when ‘as a result of an extremely unique historical situation, absolutely dissimilar currents, absolutely heterogeneous class interests, absolutely contrary political and social strivings…merged…in a strikingly harmonious manner.’ This points, as Althusser’s comment on this passage in For Marx reminds us, to the fact that, if a contradiction is to become ‘active in the strongest sense, to become a ruptural principle, there must be an accumulation of circumstances and currents so that whatever their origin and sense…they ‘fuse’ into a ruptural unity’ (Althusser, 1965/1969, p. 99). The aim of a theoretically-informed political practice must surely be to bring about or construct the articulation between social or economic forces and those forms of politics and ideology which might lead them in practice to intervene in history in a progressive way—an articulation which has to be constructed through practice precisely because it is not guaranteed by how those forces are constituted in the first place.

“That leaves the model much more indeterminate, open-ended and contingent than the classical position. It suggests that you cannot ‘read off’ the ideology of a class (or even sectors of a class) from its original position in the structure of socio-economic relations. But it refuses to say that it is impossible to bring classes or fractions of classes, or indeed other kinds of social movements, through a developing practice of struggle, into articulation with those forms of politics and ideology which allow them to become historically effective as collective social agents. The principal theoretical reversal accomplished by ‘no necessary correspondence’ is that determinacy is transferred from the genetic origins of class or other social forces in a structure to the effects or results of a practice. So I would want to stand with those parts of Althusser that I read as retaining the double articulation between ’structure’ and ‘practice,’ rather than the full structuralist causality of Reading Capital or of the opening sections of Poulantzas’ Political Power and Social Classes (1968/1975). By ‘double articulation’ I mean that the structure—the given conditions of existence, the structure of determinations in any situation—can also be understood, from another point of view, as simply the result of previous practices. We may say that a structure is what previously structured practices have produced as a result. These then constitute the ‘given conditions,’ the necessary starting point, for new generations of practice. In neither case should ‘practice’ be treated as transparently intentional: we make history, but on the basis of anterior conditions which are not of our making. Practice is how a structure is actively reproduced. Nevertheless, we need both terms if we are to avoid the trap of treating history as nothing but the outcome of an internally self-propelling structuralist machine. The structuralist dichotomy between ’structure’ and ‘practice’—like the related one between ’synchrony’ and ‘diachrony’—serves a useful analytic purpose but should not be fetishized into a rigid, mutually exclusive distinction.

“Let us try to think a little further the question, not of the necessity, but of the possibility of the articulations between social groups, political practices and ideological formations which could create, as a result, those historical breaks or shifts which we no longer find already inscribed and guaranteed in the very structures and laws of the capitalist mode of production. This must not be read as arguing that there are no tendencies which arise from our positioning within the structures of social relations. We must not allow ourselves to slip from an acknowledgement of the relative autonomy of practice (in terms of its effects), to fetishizing Practice—the slip which made many post-structuralists Maoists for a brief moment before they became subscribers to the ‘New Philosophy’ of the fashionable French Right. Structures exhibit tendencies—lines of force, openings and closures which constrain, shape, channel and in that sense, ‘determine.’ But they cannot determine in the harder sense of fix absolutely, guarantee. People are not irrevocably and indelibly inscribed with the ideas that they ought to think; the politics that they ought to have are not, as it were, already imprinted in their sociological genes. The question is not the unfolding of some inevitable law but rather the linkages which, although they can be made, need not necessarily be. There is no guarantee that classes will appear in their appointed political places, as Poulantzas so vividly described it, with their number plates on their backs. By developing practices which articulate differences into a collective will, or by generating discourses which condense a range of different connotations, the dispersed conditions of practice of different social groups can be effectively drawn together in ways which make those social forces not simply a class ‘in itself,’ positioned by some other relations over which it has no control, but also capable of intervening as a historical force, a class ‘for itself,’ capable of establishing new collective projects.

“These now appear to me to be the generative advances which Althusser’s work set in motion. I regard this reversal of basic concepts as of much greater value than many of the other features of his work which, at the time of their appearance, so riveted Althusserian discipleship: for example, the question of whether the implicit traces of structuralist thought in Marx could be systematically transformed into a full blown structuralism by means of the skilful application to it of a structuralist combinatory of the Levi-Straussean variety—the problematic of Reading Capital; or the clearly idealist attempt to isolate a so-called autonomous ‘theoretical practice’; or the disastrous conflation of historicism with ‘the historical’ which licensed a deluge of anti-historical theoreticist speculation by his epigoni; or even the ill-fated enterprise of substituting Spinoza for the ghost of Hegel in the Marxist machine. The principal flaw in E. P. Thompson’s (1978) anti-Althusserean diatribe, The Poverty of Theory, is not the cataloguing of these and other fundamental errors of direction in Althusser’s project—which Thompson was by no means the first to do—but rather the inability to recognize, at the same time, what real advances were, nevertheless, being generated by Althusser’s work. This yielded an undialectical assessment of Althusser, and incidentally, of theoretical work in general. Hence the necessity, here, of stating simply again what, despite his many weaknesses, Althusser accomplished which establishes a threshold behind which we cannot allow ourselves to fall. After ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination,’ the debate about the social formation and determinacy in Marxism will never again be the same. That in itself constitutes ‘an immense theoretical revolution.’”

— Stuart Hall, Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-structural Debates, Critical Studies in Mass Communication vol.2. no.2 June 1985, pp..95-97

“Note that Althusser says ’systems,’ not ’system.’ The important thing about systems of representation is that they are not singular. There are numbers of them in any social formation. They are plural. Ideologies do not operate through single ideas; they operate, in discursive chains, in clusters, in semantic fields, in discursive formations. As you enter an ideological field and pick out any one nodal representation or idea, you immediately trigger off a whole chain of connotative associations. Ideological representations connote—summon—one another. So a variety of different ideological systems or logics are available in any social formation. The notion of the dominant ideology and the subordinated ideology is an inadequate way of representing the complex interplay of different ideological discourses and formations in any modern developed society. Nor is the terrain of ideology constituted as a field of mutually exclusive and internally self- sustaining discursive chains. They contest one another, often drawing on a common, shared repertoire of concepts, rearticulating and disarticulating them within different systems of difference or equivalence.”

ibid., p.104

“There is ‘no necessary correspondence’ between the conditions of a social relation or practice and the number of different ways in which it can be represented. It does not follow that, as some neo-Kantians in discourse theory have assumed, because we cannot know or experience a social relation except ‘within ideology,’ therefore it has no existence independent of the machinery of representation: a point already well clarified by Marx in the ‘1857 Introduction’ but woefully misinterpreted by Althusser himself.”

ibid., p.105

Louis Althusser“[T]here is no experiencing outside of the categories of representation or ideology. The notion that our heads are full of false ideas which can, however, be totally dispersed when we throw ourselves open to ‘the real’ as a moment of absolute authentication, is probably the most ideological conception of all. This is exactly that moment of ‘recognition’ when the fact that meaning depends on the intervention of systems of representation disappears and we seem secure within the naturalistic attitude. It is a moment of extreme ideological closure. Here we are most under the sway of the highly ideological structures of all—common sense, the regime of the ‘taken for granted.’ The point at which we lose sight of the fact that sense is a production of our systems of representation is the point at which we fall, not into Nature but into the naturalistic illusion: the height (or depth) of ideology. Consequently, when we contrast ideology to experience, or illusion to authentic truth, we are failing to recognize that there is no way of experiencing the ‘real relations’ of a particular society outside of its cultural and ideological categories. That is not to say that all knowledge is simply the product of our will-to-power; there may be some ideological categories which give us a more adequate or more profound knowledge of particular relations than others.”

ibid., p.105

“Because there is no one to one relationship between the conditions of social existence we are living and how we experience them, it is necessary for Althusser to call these relationships ‘imaginary.’ That is, they must on no account be confused with the real. It is only later in his work that this domain becomes the ‘Imaginary’ in a proper Lacanian5 sense. It may be that he already had Lacan in mind in this earlier essay, but he is not yet concerned to affirm that knowing and experiencing are only possible through the particular psychoanalytic process which Lacan has posited.”

ibid., p.105

“[L]et us consider Althusser’s use of this phrase, ‘the real conditions of existence—scandalous (within contemporary cultural theory) because here Althusser commits himself to the notion that social relations actually exist apart from their ideological representations or experiences. Social relations do exist. We are born into them. They exist independent of our will. They are real in their structure and tendency. We cannot develop a social practice without representing those conditions to ourselves in one way or another; but the representations do not exhaust their effect. Social relations exist, independent of mind, independent of thought. And yet they can only be conceptualized in thought, in the head. That is how Marx (1953/1973) put it in the ‘1857 Introduction’ to the Grundrisse. It is important that Althusser affirms the objective character of the real relations that constitute modes of production in social formations, though his later work provided the warrant for a quite different theorization. Althusser here is closer to a ‘realist’ philosophical position than his later Kantian or Spinozean manifestations.”

ibid., p.105

“In Jamaica, where I spent my youth and adolescence, I was constantly hailed as ‘coloured.’ The way that term was articulated with other terms in the syntaxes of race and ethnicity was such as to produce the meaning, in effect: ‘not black.’ The ‘blacks’ were the rest—the vast majority of the people, the ordinary folk. To be ‘coloured’ was to belong to the ‘mixed’ ranks of the brown middle class, a cut above the rest—in aspiration if not in reality. My family attached great weight to these finely-graded classificatory distinctions and, because of what it signified in terms of distinctions of class, status, race, color, insisted on the inscription. Indeed, they clung to it through thick and thin, like the ultimate ideological lifeline it was. You can imagine how mortified they were to discover that, when I came to England, I was hailed as ‘coloured’ by the natives there precisely because, as far as they could see, I was ‘black,’ for all practical purposes! The same term, in short, carried quite different connotations because it operated within different ’systems of differences and equivalences.’ It is the position within the different signifying chains which ‘means,’ not the literal, fixed correspondence between an isolated term and some denotated position in the color spectrum.

“The Caribbean system was organized through the finely graded classification systems of the colonial discourses of race, arranged on an ascending scale up to the ultimate ‘white’ term—the latter always out of reach, the impossible, ‘absent’ term, whose absent-presence structured the whole chain. In the bitter struggle for place and position which characterizes dependent societies, every notch on the scale mattered profoundly. The English system, by contrast, was organized around a simpler binary dichotomy, more appropriate to the colonizing order: ‘white/not-white.’ Meaning is not a transparent reflection of the world in language but arises through the differences between the terms and categories, the systems of reference, which classify out the world and allow it to be in this way appropriated into social thought, common sense.”

ibid., 108

The full essay is available to download here: stuart_hall_on_althusser.pdf

Three quick thoughts on Mimesis

Posted on facebook recently, this early 1990s ‘Viz.’ parody of the red-top / tabloid hatred of benefits recipients during the last Tory recession leads me to make several points. In fact I think that realistically I could write all day and possibly all week about it, but I will limit myself to just three:

Firstly, it’s hard to shake off the overwhelming impression that today’s newspapers, when seen in the light of this historical context, are nothing if not comics that have become autonomous and unmoored, in the popular consciousness, from their connection with some form of entertainment. Startlingly, it’s as if they were originally put there to ‘send up’ a certain attitude, but became alienated from this function and ended up expressing the very thing they were intended to satirically mimic. Maybe this appearance can tell us something much more general about the level of cultural awareness, and how it has been progressively assaulted, stunned, and traumatised by the mediations and insertions of late capitalism, to the point of developing as a defence a schizophrenic disconnection with discursive level, a severe atonality that does not distinguish between different qualities of information. This atonia is also symptomatic of an always-on digital age, since the internet is most certainly guilty of presenting qualitatively different sources as if they were equally weighted or modally homogeneous. This peculiarity of the online plays into that ‘fair world’ level playing-field fallacy which supports the emergence of reactionary and counter-revolutionary groups like men’s rights activists and the economic-freedom-is-also-freedom market libertarians. The always-already skewed and distorted frame in which social antagonisms are even approached or engaged with is obscured by the frame of the mediating device and the discursive apparatus. The reality of various social asymmetries, inequalities, and axes of oppression is elided in advance of any interaction, yet it is just such realities which were to be discussed.

Secondly, during the Big Benefits Row, Annabel Giles mocking Hopkins’ puerility (‘shhh, the adults are talking’) got the audience clapping vigorously whereas argued refutations based on statistical and empirical information alone generally fell flat. Maybe there’s a lesson in that about the cultural mythologies created by ideology, and how, while being resistant to argumentation alone, they are nonetheless susceptible to more ‘formalist’ tactics of interruption. In such a ‘bear pit’, as Owen Jones called it, defamiliarizing and foregrounding the level of discourse and the unspoken rules about how to approach and engage with an issue seems more effective than argumentation on the level offered. This apparently worked for Viz in the early 1990s, and to some extent it worked for Annabel Giles last week. The long-term argument of the Left, its economic and political rationalisation, on the other hand, generally falls on deaf ears or is only heard by those who already subscribe to it. Perhaps we need to process this realisation a bit more thoroughly. Can propitious tactical interruptions create the occasions for more weighty strategic interventions?

Thirdly, today’s Edwina Curry, Katie Hopkins and a host of yellow press hacks must not have realised they were satirical figures in themselves. They make me want to dig out my old Fast Show and Harry Enfield episodes and view those Tim-nice-but-dim and Loadsamoney caricatures. How is it possible for modern, educated people to so perfectly coincide with the stock figure of the dim, opinionated and bigoted Right-winger without any cognizance of this? The fact that what is said and done today in all (apparent) earnestness by the Right wing has already been done and said thirty years ago as farce should, in any sane world, give us pause for thought. Is there some kind of limit at which stereotype and reality converge in a hyper-real semblance that undermines the distinction? These are very weird times. However, I’ve said that such commentary originates only in apparent earnestness, irrespective of the sincerity of those who only propagate and reproduce the message — largely those with petite-bourgeois aspirations, anxious about their own position within a social hierarchy. I say this because partly I am of the suspicion that dumbing down to a level that doesn’t really exist, in the hope of actually creating that level as the practical and popular standard, is something like a regulative ideal of the Tory. It’s not that all right-wingers are anti-intellectual, more that the reproduction of an anti-intellectual political climate is strategically expedient. People must never realise the true value of the abstract labour they collectively generate through intellectual activity or they will compose the dreaded thing: a self-conscious class, an agent with the ability to change history. Instead value must only ever be realised through the channels already expropriated by capital and regulated by state imposition of markets.

Notes on Underdetermination

The thing to ‘get’ about  underdetermination in the sense of a weak naturalism is that it is the condition for overdetermination in the sense of a particular historical social formation ‘setting the agenda’ from many directions.

One could well say that the constitutive weakness of any state of nature opens the space for something like a State (as a stratified system of relations, of course). It is precisely because we are ‘free’ (not fully constituted ontologically) that we are so exposed to historical constitution, to determining forces.

History burdens us because there is a hole where ‘Nature’ forgot to be that providential guarantor of universal consistency that scientific naturalism so often mistakes her for. This lack is bombarded by forces that attempt to cover over it with myriad ideological accounts, over-determining a particular historical form.

‘The Century’ by Osip Mandelshtam 1922

My age, my beast, who can
Gaze into your pupils
And with his blood cement
The vertebrae of two centuries?
Blood the Builder gushes
From the throat of earthly things,
The parasite must tremble
On the threshold of new days.
A creature drags its backbone
As long as it’s alive,
While a wave toys
With the invisible spine.
The age of infant earth
Is like a child’s soft cartilage –
Again the tender skull of life
Is brought to sacrifice like a lamb.
To wrest the age from captivity,
To begin a new world,
We must bind together like a flute
The knees of knobby days.
The age rocks the wave
With human anguish,
And the grass adder breathes
The golden rhythm of the age.
Although the buds will swell,
And a spray of green will sprout
Your spine has been broken,
My fair, pitiful age!
And with a meaningless smile
You look back, cruel and weak,
Like a once-agile beast,
On the track of its own prints.
Blood the Builder gushes
From the throat of earthly things,
And the warm cartilage of the seas,
Splashes to shore like a hot fish.
And from the high bird net,
From the damp azure boulders
Pours, pours indifference
On your mortal wound.

Social Security under Neoliberalism: The Department of Answerable Beholden Unworthies

The work of Maurizio Lazzarato on ‘the indebted man’ is surprising. I’ve had it lying around for a few weeks and not had to time to dip into it but find myself glad I did so today, as it is helping me piece together more of my wiki page on neoliberalism. The following is a slightly amended version of a section on that page, which I felt was too significant given the current political and media climate not to publish to the blog.

Writing in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis—and its subsequent ‘conversion’ into a series of sovereign debt crises through governments bailing out failed financial institutions—Lazzarato criticises definitions of neoliberalism which, following Foucault, overplay its historical roots in liberalism at the expense of analysing its contemporary configuration.

The governmentality Foucault describes in The Birth of Biopolitics does not seem sufficient for understanding what it implies from the 1990s on, when governmentality began to limit the freedom which Foucault made the condition of ‘liberalism’. The freedom in liberalism is always and primarily the freedom of private ownership and owners. When the ‘rights of man’ are threatened—by a crisis, a revolt, or some other phenomenon—regimes of governmentality other than liberal governmentality are required in order to ensure their durability. In this way, the problem of ‘governing as little as possible’ first created the conditions for, then gave way to, as has always been the case in the history of capitalism, ever more authoritarian politics. To read The Birth of Biopolitics in light of what is taking place today is to be struck by a certain political naivete, since the parable of ‘liberalism’ always describes, leads to, the same thing: crisis, limitations on democracy and ‘liberal’ freedoms, and the institution of more or less authoritarian regimes according to the intensity of the class struggle to wage in order to maintain the ‘privileges’ of private property.

For Lazzarato, Foucault’s socially-pervasive ‘techniques of biopower’ operating alongside a liberal discourse on rights, freedoms and creative power no longer hold the explanatory merit or epistemologically paradigmatic grasp which they once did, as they fail to explain how post-crisis regimes have responded, i.e. by replacing the means by which the subjugation of bodies is maintained with more direct, centralised and authoritarian power brandishing a deeply moralising discourse.

[T]he current crisis is not only a financial crisis but also a failure of neoliberal governmentality of society. This mode of government founded on business and proprietary individualism has failed. By revealing the nature of power relations, the crisis has led to much more ‘repressive’ and ‘authoritarian’ forms of control, which no longer bother with the rhetoric of the 1980s and 1990s of greater ‘freedom’, creativity, and wealth.

Lazzarato notes that under neoliberalism the democratic principle of ‘social rights’ is transformed into an ‘affective environment’ of biopolitical life management or ‘processes of control and subjectivity production’, in which a deeply moralised relation of indebtedness dominates and pervades all transaction between state and beneficiary:

With neoliberalism, the creditor-debtor relationship redefines political power, since the Welfare State not only intervenes in the “biology” of the population (birth, death, illness, risks, etc.), it requires ethico-political work on the self, an individualization involving a mix of responsibility, guilt, hypocrisy, and distrust. When social rights (unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, healthcare, rtc.) are transformed into social debt and private debt, and beneficiaries into debtors whose repayment means adopting prescribed behaviour, subjective relations between “creditor” institutions, which allocate rights, and “debtors”, who benefit from assistance or services, begin to function in a radically different way, just as Marx foresaw.

The reference to Marx is to an early manuscript (‘Comments on James Mill’). In this work, Marx identifies a series of features of the credit system and of the credit-debt relation, which includes the following characterisations:

Mutual dissimulation, hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness are carried to extreme lengths, so that on the man without credit is pronounced not only the simple judgment that he is poor, but in addition a pejorative moral judgement that he possesses no trust, no recognition, and therefore is a social pariah, a bad man, and in addition to his privation, the poor man undergoes this humiliation and the humiliating necessity of having to ask the rich man for credit.


Since, owing to this completely nominal existence of money, counterfeiting cannot be undertaken by man in any other material than his own person, he has to make himself into counterfeit coin, obtain credit by stealth, by lying, etc., and this credit relationship ? both on the part of the man who trusts and of the man who needs trust ? becomes an object of commerce, an object of mutual deception and misuse. Here it is also glaringly evident that distrust is the basis of economic trust; distrustful calculation whether credit ought to be given or not; spying into the secrets of the private life, etc., of the one seeking credit; the disclosure of temporary straits in order to overthrow a rival by a sudden shattering of his credit, etc. The whole system of bankruptcy, spurious enterprises, etc…. As regards government loans, the state occupies exactly the same place as the man does in the earlier example…. In the game with government securities it is seen how the state has become the plaything of businessmen, etc.

On the basis that in this document Marx foresaw something of the cynical and invasive bio-morality inherent to neoliberalism already latent in the credit capitalism of his time, and on the basis of his own investigations while engaged with activism on behalf of precarious workers in France, Lazzarato writes of the violence of the ‘neoliberal’ process by which social rights are transformed into debts:

[The transformation] into debt is part of a long process in which we have witnessed techniques for making a debtor “subject”. Indeed, rights are universal and automatic since they are recognised socially and politically, but debt is administered by evaluating “morality” and involves the individual as well as the work on the self which the individual must undertake. The logic of debt now structures and conditions the process of individualization, a constant of social policies. Each individual is a particular case which must be studied carefully, because, as with a loan application, it is the debtor’s future plans, his style of life, his “solvency” that guarantees reimbursement of the social debt he owes. As with bank credit, rights are granted on the basis of a personal application, following review, after information on the individual’s life, behaviour, and modes of existence has been obtained.

Building critically on the work of Nietzsche and Foucault, Lazzarato identifies the Welfare State under neoliberalism with a form of subjectivation which prompts an individual to produce a certain kind of subjectivity that exists in a state of moral indebtedness and culpability, answerable to the State. These obligations and affects then become entangled in the existential conditions of the individual as they produce and relate to a “self”, such that they are difficult to historicise.

The relationship with the institution always comes down to the user’s “self”. It requires the user/debtor to constantly consider the “self”, to negotiate and compete with oneself. As Nietzsche says, the main purpose of debt lies in its construction of a subject and a conscience, a self that believes in its specific individuality and that stands as guarantor of its actions, its way of life (and not only employment) and takes responsibility for them. The techniques used in the individual interviews, which intrude on one’s private life, that which is most subjective, push the welfare recipient to examine his life, his plans, and their validity. The State and its institutions act on subjectivities, mobilize the “innermost depths of the human heart” in order to orient behaviour.

Nietzsche and Marx converge on the realisation that, through relations of indebtedness, frequent periodic monitoring and practices of evaluation (including self-evaluations) become widespread techniques for governing people’s behaviour. A governmentality of this kind does not control in an absolutely irresistible way, but rather induces in individuals a subjectivity which stands in the shadow of an abstract potential, posited by the State and internalised as its own, which it must always compete with and remain in debt to.

[E]ven in the case where the recipient resists this invasion of privacy, the violence against his person and subjectivity, he is no less troubled by the “work on the self” these institutions oblige him to undertake.

The generalisation of the creditor-debtor relation as a paradigm for all relations—something Lazzarato identifies as a fundamental feature of neoliberalism—thus condemns those in receipt of State assistance to an affective context of insurmountable indebtedness, obligation and constitutive unworthiness. The experience is not merely subjective or paranoid, and indeed is further objectivised by the institutionalised attitude of the State itself and its media representation in ‘conditions of ubiquitous distrust created by neoliberal policies’ furnishing the heart of all social relations with ‘hypocrisy and cynicism’.

In the same way as credit turns trust into distrust, the Welfare State suspects all users, and especially the poorest, of being cheats, of living at society’s expense by taking advantage of public assistance instead of working… In the same way, according to Marx, as credit encroaches on the private life of the person who applies for it by “spying” on him, the Welfare State invites itself into individuals’ private lives in order to control the users’ existence… [Spying] is what welfare agents increasingly do, since underlying their work is “distrust” of the poor, the unemployed, precarious workers, all the potential “cheats” and “profiteers”.

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So there it is. I find these passages resonate deeply with what Alenka Zupancic has to say on ‘bio-morality’ in her book Odd One In: On Comedy, although there is nothing particularly amusing about the paranoia and insecurity emanating from a state department that supposedly attends to social security. Even this term is passée now, the ‘Department for Work and Pensions’ instead de-emphasising the collective nature of the fabric of social cohesion and interdependency in favour of highlighting a depoliticised, individualised labour and the personalised ‘account’ it generates. Zupancic’s claim is that bio-morality fixates or anchors the moralising of the Other in a sort of biological vision of the individual, which she sees as a new from of racism or at least biologist ‘racization’ of individuals. I’m not married to the idea of ‘racization’ which she elaborates, especially since it risks conflating and possibly diffusing existing institutional racism in an over-generalised and impressionist picture, and so I would prefer to see the bio-morality she describes as a kind of ‘moralising biologism’. However, when taken together what Zupancic and Lazzarato describe—as something at work in contemporary political ideology and at large in the media—goes some way to accounting for the attitude and behaviour of some government employees, such as the Jobcentre adviser who angrily insisted that a ‘disgusting’ mother leave the premises merely because she was breastfeeding her infant. Rather than being indignantly infuriated with this story, I can only confirm it as being the tip of the iceberg as far as Jobcentre advisers go. When out of work and signing on myself, I’ve overheard small groups of advisers grouped round a screen in their little cubicles eagerly discussing ways in which such-and-such an ‘unworthy’ claimant can be penalised, including advice to one another on how to exploit loopholes in the wording of official policies.

One doesn’t need ‘conspiracy theories’ or visions of master puppeteers pulling the strings to see how this affective environment works, or how an otherwise probably quite rational person devolves into a cynical Othello tragically suspicious and jealous of even those who possess much less. It’s tempting to simplistically summarise the problem as one of ‘projection’, whereby those in the grip of neoliberal ideology’s valorization of competitiveness as the principle of markets disown their own introjects and characteristics (success through ‘gaming’ behaviour, venality, the performance of ‘reputable’ lies as a way of life) and unable to accept the unbearable sense of inauthenticy that confronting them would unleash, project precisely these characteristics upon an intrinsically unknowable Other.

All this is to miss the objective or social dimension to the distrust which Marx identified as the fulcrum of credit-debt relationships. The distrust, the reduction of the other to a shit of a person, a conniving and disgusting way of life too proximate to the animal and to the biological, is not merely a question of psychological selves disavowing their own functioning, but of a social relation which in an important sense precedes the psychological selves which then locate themselves within it. The adviser in the Jobcentre no doubt felt that the woman she was interviewing ‘owed’ it to her to be something more than a mother, that she ‘owed’ it to herself too, and ‘should have’ (the moral or deontic element) found a way to disguise the human neediness of a baby behind some kind of stoical professional veneer. This is the dimension of debt which Lazzarato, after Foucault and Marx, helps to elaborate. If the other is dehumanised then it is because this social relation is an inherently dehumanising one. And you only have to think briefly about debt-credit and its logic of prospective evaluation to reach the same conclusion that the young Marx did: it’s a loss of human scale, or human measure. We can go beyond this ‘humanist’ conclusion though; it’s too obvious to say that the debtor is reduced to a status of a pet, an object of enjoyment/disgust. It’s not particularly more penetrating to say that the creditor has also lost their humanity. All this was already present in the early Marx’s concept of alienation. At some point we have to move, as he did, beyond this also-moralising frame and talk in more systemic or structural terms, about the social form and the struggle of classes within that form for consciousness of their own position and, ultimately, ownership of the means to produce their own lives. This takes us beyond the scope Lazzarato has set for himself in The Making of the Indebted Man—he leans on Marx but never really takes it further—but as far as a richly descriptive investigation into the details and the subjectivity of neoliberalism goes, it remains a surprisingly good work. There is certainly a pleasure, ostensibly the same as in observational humour, in having everyday experiences of asymmetrical power, often humiliating and frustrating, broken down into their constituent moments and thoroughly described. There is a minor rush in being able to articulate exactly how it was done, like discovering the ‘trick’ behind some illusionist act. I worry however that this kind of critical descriptive work is not enough, far too ‘sociological’ and far too commonplace; the Freudian platitude that making the unconscious mechanism conscious is in itself the sought-after intervention doesn’t really wash here. What we want is an inventive exploration of ways in which we can fight these situations both individually and collectively.

One final note: persistently lurking in the background while reading The Indebted Man was the spectre of Martin Heidegger’s own Schuldigkeit, plaguing the reading with the sensation that as human beings (or as dasein, at least) we can’t really help feeling indebted, that it’s part of our condition to never be able to coincide with what is potential in us. What is interesting is the way Lazzarato addresses this ‘existential’ dimension obliquely, although in name, and ambiguously. The ‘affective environment’ created by creditor-debtor relations can fool us into believing that it is ‘existential’, that it is a given of our condition, just as one of the ways in which the capitalist social relation reproduces itself is through the ideological claim that ’twas ever thus and ever thus shall be’. The question lingers, however, of how we might have the capacity to feel such debt, and thus to become indebted, and this is the nagging thought that a dalliance with Heidegger leaves as a philosophical residue that can’t be simply wiped away— the structure of dasein is such that it is always ‘worried’ about the way in which it is oriented as a trajectory in the world, trailing behind while reaching ahead. If temporality (or ‘Time’) is the essence of Being then one can say that dasein is always ontologically insecure, and this can damage the claim that a certain historical social relation is to blame for the great unease which we currently feel. If you accept this as a transhistorical fact of human existence, however, you can still argue that the historical creditor-debtor relationship, with its inherently distented, delayed and deferred structure, attempts (perhaps successfully) to ‘hijack’ this dynamic, and that in doing so it simultaneously gains the appearance of a transhistorical given itself. Lazzarato does not say as much, but there are indications in the text that this is what he is thinking.


Lazzarato, M., (2012) The Making of the Indebted Man, Semiotext(e), New York
Marx, K., (1823) ‘Comments on James Mill?Elements d’economie politique Translated by J. T. Parisot?Paris, 1823’ in Marx, K. (2005) Karl Marx, Friederick Engels: Collected Works, vol. 3, Marx and Engels: 1843-1844, trans. Jack Cohen, International Publishers, New York