January 06, 2010

Dialogue with Graham Harman

After reading Capitalist Realism, Graham Harman had a few questions for me. I present our email dialogue below.

    Graham: We agree that imaginative failure is the problem. But my question is as follows: is the Left sufficiently imaginative right now? One of the reasons I shy away from political discussions in our philosophical circles is that they seem to be so awfully narrow. There is only one socially acceptable political position: not only the Left, but a Left devoted to Revolution, with everything else packaged as compromised "reform" that merely preserves the awful system it attempts to shape. But one of the reasons I love Zizek so much as a political writer (despite being nowhere close to him on the political spectrum) is that he refuses the "beautiful soul" position and wants actual politics rather than what your book rightly calls the hysterical extreme protest gestures that don't really expect their demands to be met. I like Zizek's call for finite, real demands rather than "infinite" ones, which merely allow the ruling powers to say "ah yes, wouldn't it be great if we lived in a perfect world, but alas we do not." I think Zizek made this point about Bush's reaction to the Iraq War protests: "Isn't this great? That's what we are fighting for: the freedom for Iraqis to protest just like this." And you're right in your book that protests become a kind of carnivalesque background noise that don't change anything.

I don't disagree with anything here. The Left hasn't been sufficiently imaginative, and I take it that the Jameson/Zizek formula that's so central to Capitalist Realism - it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism - was an admission of that failure. But it also pointed to the ways in which the conditions for new thinking just haven't been in place. The problem isn't imagination itself; the failure of imagination was a symptom of real impasses.
I also agree that the opposition between revolution and reform has become a facile commonplace, a kind of religious doctrine which we are required to pay lip service to. One of the reasons I'm interested in Nick Srnicek's work is that he is trying to think of alternatives to this binary by looking at how sustainable political change actually happens.
One problem with the reform-revolution binary - and I think this is absolutely relates to the point about finite versus infinite demands - is that it sets the bar so ridiculously high, such that anything short of a total and immediate eschatological transformation of society will count as a failure. The right doesn't have this problem; it has concrete and determinate aims - but achieving those aims actually allowed it to achieve a total switch in the system that governs social reality. This was more insidious than the Revolution which dominates the old Left (lack of) imagination - certain events, such as the Miners Strike in the UK, were clearly crucial, both for their symbolic and for their practical effects, but the neoliberals fought an attritional campaign, waged on many fronts
over a long period of time.

    Graham: On a related note, you identify capitalist realism with a jaded, critical distance. The odd thing is that I feel much the same about the going-for-broke calls for "Revolution." They seem so little in touch with concrete issues and conditions. By calling for Revolution they take a position of moral superiority that is unlikely to be tested (I don't expect a Revolution to occur, and neither do they when you get right down to it).

Yes. Revolution - particularly amongs the academic Left - has too often become something one is committed to in the same sense that one has a particular aesthetic orientation or group affiliation. We criticise positions for being "too reformist" without really thinking that there is anything much more than an academic parlour game at stake. Because the discussions are detached from credible, determinate proposals, they are part of the end of history rather than an alternative to it. As Alex Williams has rightly argued, the differences between, say, Deleuze and Badiou mean a lot in continental philosophy, but they don't have any purchase politically in the lack of any agents corresponding to these positions.

    Graham: And more concretely... Is it really the case that Frederic Jameson is more imaginative than, say, Steve Jobs? Sure, Steve Jobs is rich. And he has a whole marketing apparatus to pitch his products. But don't you love those products? I do. My life has been tangibly improved by Macintosh computers, iPods, and soon iPhones (once I rise above my current preschool student skill level with them). Isn't there a danger in whitewashing all products that get sold to consumers as a kind of equally vapid capitalist landscape?

I'm not sure Jameson would say that he is more imaginative than Jobs. One of the best aspects of Jameson - and Zizek for that matter - is that he has never given up on what for me is the crucial Marxist idea that an authentic anti-capitalism must develop out of capitalism at its most modern and modernizing. There are some rousing passages in both First As Tragedy, Then As Farce and Valences Of The Dialectic which reiterate this commitment. And Jameson's essay on "Wal-Mart as Utopia" (also in Valences) is a tremendous attempt to think in this way, against the moralizing and agragrian tendencies in certain stripes of anti-capitalism. Anti-capitalism has to struggle over modernization, not reject it.
The problem with any attempt to posit an anti-capitalism opposed to IPhones and IPods is not only that it invites accusations of inconsistency - here we all are, fermenting anti-capitalist discontent on the internet - but that it surrenders the inorganic - and therefore also libido - to capitalism. For me, the crucial discovery of modernist theory and art is that libido is inorganic: as everyone from Freud through to Eistenstein and Burroughs have recognised, lbido montages, it cuts and pastes, it's no respecter of organic wholeness.

    Graham: Another thought... You're surely right about the jaded postmodernist pastiche of dead forms, and I love your reference to Eliot and Bloom and how the tradition is dead unless it is brought back to life in the here-and-now, and thus reinvented and reconfigured. My question is whether the dreaded predicament is really specific to "late capitalism." There have been numerous jaded periods of pastiche in the past, such as the shallow Hellenism of the Alexandrian period, the various fin-de-siècle periods, etc. I tend to see this more as a recurrent stage in the life cycle of civilizations than as the dangerous symptom of a capitalist dead end.

That's a good question. But the point is not that post-Fordist capitalism's tendency towards pastiche and recapitulation is unique or unprecedented. It's rather to counter the image of capitalism - presented by capitalism itself, as it were - as ceaselessly inventive, mutant force. What I wanted to draw attention to was the curious phenonemon whereby the kinds of social and economic instability peculiar to post-Fordism correlate with stasis and retrospection at the cultural level.

    Graham: At first I was worried about your remarks on Cobain, because they painted a picture of how we are all trapped in the system, including Cobain himself. This suggested the hopeless sort of logic that one finds in correlationism: "there's no way outside the closed circle of thought." And even if Cobain was on MTV and sold a lot of records, is it really true that he didn't jar the system at all? Sure, record companies and merchandizers were able to appropriate Nirvana, but did they really do so without being changed in some way by the exercise? Is capitalist realism really that all-powerful?

I think what was unique and interesting about Cobain and Generation X, the step they took on from punk, was in starting from the awareness that everything was commodified, contained. It was as if Nirvana began where the Pistols had ended, with Rotten's moment of disgust and despair at Winterland: "ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Any jarring to the system that they caused was of an Althusserian kind - it consisted in demonstrating the omniphagic power of the System itself. Nevermind is saturated with reflexive impotence: "Here we are now, entertain us", "I know it's wrong, but what can I do?" An almost cosmic sense of uselesness, inertia, lassitude: "I feel stupid and contagious."
At the same time, I agree that the emphasis on the omnipotent power of commodification is not helpful. That becomes another religiose notion. Everything is commodifiable; as Lyotard insisted in Libidinal Economy, there is no pure subversive region immune to the commodity form. But commodities aren't just commodities. Something of this debate was at stake in the (successful) campaign to get Rage Against The Machine to be the Christmas number one here. It doesn't matter that Rage are a Sony act and that the corporations win either way; or, rather, if that does matter, it is only one dimension of what is happening. What you have with the X Factor single is not just something that makes money, but whose sole raison d'etre is to make money. People bought into the Rage campaign because they wanted something more from culture than that. In a way, it's a nostalgia for older forms of repressive desublimation! But, given how conservative the Restoration has become, this is not nothing.

    Graham: In any case, I hope your book shakes things up a bit, because I'm not just finding neo-liberal civilization stale (though less sale than you obviously do). I'm also finding staleness in the Leftist discourse of whatever post-continental philosophy is called. In our circles it is now possible simply to shout "Revolution!" without context or explanation in the middle of a philosophical article and somehow be seen as having taken a serious political position. I've seen several cases of this lately. Isn't the very notion of the Revolution ripe for some re-imagination? Take Badiou, for instance-- one of the great heroes of the Leftist element in our circles. Are people really shaken up politically by reading Badiou, or does he not simply provide more evidence for them that: "yes, I was right all along"? I'm not seeing enough evidence of people allowing their political positions to be falsified. It's just a lot of fuzzy slogans about revolution and neo-liberalism, and the range of acceptable politics is suffocatingly narrow. Don't people have any smart conservative friends? They ought to get some. It broadens your world and really challenges you to think. Otherwise, you simply get a party game where everyone is trying to outflank everyone in one direction. Your thoughts?

I like the line you quote from Latour in Prince Of Networks about politicians being the best we can hope for. Some might take that as quetist resignation in line with Latour's apparently neoliberal politics. But I take it as the right kind of realism, and an incitement to start with the problems of institutionalisation and organisation instead of regarding them as some Fall from the moment of revolutionary rapture. No doubt, the Cultural Revolution of the 60s to which Badiou pledges allegiance had to happen - but we can't keep acting as if the problem is a centralizing State or a Stalinist Party structure. At the same time, no simple return to a centralizing State or a strong party is possible either - which is why so many of Zizek's political provocations amount to what Alex Williams calls "comedy Stalinism". In many ways, I would argue that the "politics of the event" articulated (albeit very differently, of course) by Deleuze and Badiou is an elaborate apologetics for an actual political failure. The injunctions to keep faith with the event, the claim that Chronos doesn't matter, only the aeonic event: both are a kind of theology of consolation, akin to Paul's shifting in position when it became clear that Christ was not going to return immediately. Obligatory affirmationism conceals a surreptitious melancholy.
For me, Badiou's value lies in his rousing encouragement for anti-capitalist struggle, his contempt for "democratic materialism" (the postmodern ontology of bodies and languages), what Peter Hallward characterises as the rejection of worldliness, and his periodisation of what we are living through as a moment of Restoration. But the central problem with Badiou's philosophy as I understand it is its retrospective quality. Everything has already happened. It is literally preaching to the converted. The irony, of course, is pointed to in your question - in that it is hard to imagine anyone actually being converted by Badiou. But it is possible to imagine Zizek converting people; indeed, he had that effect on me, rousing me from my neoliberal slumber.
No doubt Badiou describes a certain kind of militant phenomenology... but what use are these descriptions? All anyone can say is, "yes, that's what it's like to attain a militant subjectivity". But it seems to me that the important questions are how to engender that kind of subjectivity. What practical steps can be taken? Again, that's what I appreciate in Nick Srnicek's approach, the way that he instrumentalizes actor-network theory for leftist purposes. These questions are key: what are the actors in any particular network? How can these actors be affected? How can dominant networks be decomposed and new networks installed? The focus on this style of thinking in Prince Of Networks meant that, from my point of view, the book was buzzing with political potentials in a way that so much 'political philosophy' is not - all the more so because it wasn't explicitly political.

Posted by mark at January 6, 2010 05:43 PM | TrackBack