Notes on Philosophy of Praxis

The Western philosophical tradition after Descartes firmly separates object and subject and in so doing ties these to the antinomy of necessity and freedom. Objects have nothing to do with subjectivity and are indifferent to its gaze, indeed impose necessary limits upon it; subjects meanwhile are not completely determined by limiting objective factors and therefore enjoy a degree of freedom / indeterminacy. However, these paradigms are far from aligning. There can be, and are, circumstances and phenomena better described by a subjective necessity or by an objective freedom. An example of the former would be the psychic limitations posed by primary repression or the Lacanian sujet barré, while examples of the latter are found in all those phenomena in which incompleteness, indeterminacy and ambiguity of form are ontological and irreducible to epistemological limitations (spin ice, quantum tunnelling, and so on). As such the sundering of subject and object, insofar as these represent the loci of freedom and necessity, is far from absolute.

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Hey Cortana, Join a Union

Man, for his part, by automating his objects and rendering them multi-functional instead of striving to structure his practices in a fluid and open-ended manner, reveals in a way what part he himself plays in a technical society: that of the most beautiful all-purpose object, that of an instrumental object.1

When Baudrillard wrote this in 1968 there was no Alexa, Cortana, Siri or Google assistant to speak of. The way in which the human subject became the most central technological commodity of our time could only have been glimpsed as in a prophetic dream. Or rather, not the human subject as such, but a particularly narrow rendering of a certain type of human personality: subservient, non-combative, compliant, flexible and somewhat ‘bubbly’; full of quips and ever-ready to tell a story, joke or sing a song on request. It is interesting to consider how typically post-traumatic such a personality appears to be. And yet, in some respects there is something banal about what Baudrillard has written here. Was it not already obvious that this was the case, because what else was the labour market becoming in a service-oriented, post-fordist society but the demand for such an ever-willing, ever-flexible form of subjectivity?

That our most impressive contemporary gizmos — from smart homes to smart drones — impress because they are capitalism’s model workers, AIs with neoliberalism in their souls, is unquestionable. Who doesn’t want to have a well-mannered and constant can-do companion like Tony Stark’s J.A.R.V.I.S. or Picard’s ‘computer’? Such devices give the user the impression of possessing irresistible power — a puissance — such as might befit an iron-rod, a charismatic dictator, slick employer or macho slaver. In terms of the affective pay-off, the user no longer feels like a member of the working class: the user has an experience of having their own own workforce, experiences themself as — at the very least — bourgeois. When commanding Alexa to dim the lights, switch on the fans, order a pizza and play some tunes, it is not just that we can bristle with the same triumphalism of the will that the first users of remote controls felt when they observed their desires being materially enacted at a distance from their own bodies. Nor is it the realisation of the old Kabbalistic fantasy of having created the golem (we remain, after all, largely ignorant about the production process involved in the manufacture of our gizmos and machins). Far more prominent, in terms of enjoyment, than any of this is the imperialist element of the fantasy: the subjugation of the ‘raw materials’ of our colony, our commandeering and ordering of space, our brute occupation and control of its every element. It is not enough to be in the world, we must suffuse everything in it with compliance to our will. Thus Baudrillard says of this enjoyment that it is ‘comparable to that derived, on another plane, from seeing without being seen: an esoteric satisfaction experienced at the most everyday level’.2 What is procured here is a mode of being-in-the-world that attempts to undercut its facticity, obscuring history to instead institute a fantasy of control; the gizmo is a modern punkahwallah that can change the variables of the environment in which the user reigns, from indoor climate control and ambient sound, operating the ‘intelligent glass’ windows (flipping them between transparent or opaque) to placing orders with local takeaways. The organisation of the domain to which the reign of a sovereign extends constitutes to a large extent what it means to reign. The smart home is a colonialist’s palace, a living space in which the very furniture itself has been constrained to a form of indentured labour.

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Real Abstraction

The Marxian conception of Real Abstraction can be found all over the place; for example, in Simmel[1], Sohn-Rethel[2], Adorno[3], Toscano[4] and more generally, scattered throughout critical theory.

Marx wrote:

Within the value-relation and the value expression included in it, the abstractly general accounts not as a property of the concrete, sensibly real; but on the contrary the sensibly-concrete counts as the mere form of appearance or definite form of realisation of the abstractly general … This inversion, by which the sensibly-concrete counts only as the form of appearance of the abstractly general and not, on the contrary, the abstractly general as property of the concrete, characterises the expression of value. At the same time, it makes understanding it difficult.[5]

and:

It is as if together with and besides lions, tigers, hares and all the other real animals, which as a group form the various genuses, species, subspecies, families etc of the animal kingdom, there also existed the Animal, the individual incarnation of the whole animal kingdom.[6]

In the second edition of Capital, we find the famous phrase: ‘[t]he equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract’, while in the French edition Marx added a comma, continuing ‘… and only exchange produces this reduction, by bringing the products of the most diverse kinds of labour into relation with each other on an equal footing’. [7]

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