Friday, 14 December 2012

Hands, Knees and Bumps-a-daisy: On letting the wrong one out

in the depths all becomes law
I’m still processing the perils of ‘neo-kantianism’, and now there seems to be a further danger of ‘fascism’ as well. Or, at least that association seems to be there in your remarks; you have not fully formulated your argument so it is not clear what you are talking about. I think it has something to do with asking whether we can really possess in our discourse the ideas that we bring forth in the world. I think the short answer to that is, no. There is always a concealed edge to argument, sharpened by fate and irony, that cuts its proponent, even as he seeks to cut down others. Be that as it may, I have sufficient energy to pursue the longer answer and to investigate the unintended consequences of indulging in communist heresies. 

The association you seem to be trying to establish is between various group-experiments such as Le College de Sociologie, Acéphale, Contre-Attaque (which we could say were orientated towards an investigation into the nature of the ‘sacred’ alongside a study of the irrational in fascism) and the possibility that these investigations could have dipped in and out of fascist apologetics. The worry is that in abandoning critical thought, the dialectic, these reckless dabblers got themselves into something they were not intellectually equipped to understand.

In reality, I think the line of those experiments ended in the early ‘60’s with the salon at  5, rue Saint-Benoît rather than in fascism – and I think they have left no significant legacy behind them. Bataille's bunch sustained their account of mid-century modernity across a 40 year span and then lost the thread. The reason for this is probably historical (not to mention personal, with Bataille dying) but also the groups around Malaquais, Blanchot, Duras et al had been outflanked subjectively by the theory of the SI. 

The historical factors in the decline of post-surrealist communist ideas can probably be located in that specific post-war shift in society from repressive institutions to exploitative institutions... i.e. with the passage into the phase of domestication/real domination. Suddenly, the idea of a ‘left-sacred’ (dependent as it was on certain assumptions concerning primary repression) seemed obsolete in conditions where the ideology of desire was granted an officially designated domain. 

That is something of a digression. To return to your association, if I am correctly reading between the lines, of Bataille’s experiments with our own ‘neo-kantian’ efforts... by ‘neo-kantian’ we can understand you to mean the heretic discourse of the loose cannons. 

I will attempt to construct your argument below, as I anticipate it, for reason of my own enjoyment. There is no ethical pleasure more exquisite than that of defending one’s self against allegations of having committed the worst of transgressions.  Even so, as it is the way of things, I fully expect to convict myself on a more telling, all too human, technicality. 

I think you sense a problem of ethical commitment, and that if such commitment (which under present conditions, where it makes no objective difference what any of us says, can never amount to more than the ethics of an existentially engaged for-itself freedom) is suspended, it has potential to allow in (or out) ‘something else’, something dangerous, that goes both unidentified and unopposed. 

We can loosely describe the attributes of something else as the substance of romance, the atavisms of non-thought, aestheticisation of the perverse, the subjective state of wild enthusiasm – above all, perhaps, you worry that ‘anti-politics’ expresses an overriding need for subjective affect, the need to feel ‘real’, which by its exclusive demand-based character gets lost in antisocial morbidity, particularly as a celebration of perversity. 

Perhaps, the argument could also be made that ‘anti-politics’ is dangerously close to the ‘truncated critique of finance’. There is a risk of that which begins with, and thereafter immediately foreshortens, the critique of the generality, thereby lapsing into a politics of externalisation, and of a culture based on romance-identity, on confusion of categories, on attribution of blame etc. etc. 

This concern for the possibility of an ‘immersive’ aesthetic anti-politics, i.e. a positive feedback runaway involving the celebration of the immediately negative as a positive (as it were, a black mass inversion of the ‘cross’), the orientation towards desecration and transgression, the fetish of 'social war', would be valid if: i. those suspending what is ethically given as 'the left' were not also critically concerned with the substance of ‘atavistic’ tendencies; ii. if it were really possible to think of such matters without suspending the given progressive discourse (i.e. if the left was not involved up to its collective neck in those reform-institutions ‘delivering’ real domination); iii if the numerous atavisms in human social relations really were identical with fascism.

We need to know therefore, what it is exactly that you are talking about when you raise the question of fascism. Either fascism is a very definite thing (we can place it, prove it, demonstrate it) or it is something immanent and diffuse (it is a suspected element present ‘everywhere’ like a yeast). I’d prefer to think of it in the latter form, as something that is an ever-present peril in all political formulations (particularly those of the left). However, I would also say that very often the presence of the fascistic bacillus does not indicate a major pathology in the host, it is simply part of the inherited flora and fauna of political discourse. That is to say, ‘fascist traits’ only become dangerously toxic in certain bodies under certain circumstances. 

I do not think attendees at the ‘anti-politics’ salon (we no longer even talk of ‘anti-politics') are in any danger whatsoever of passing the necessary threshold of pathological fascism. Quite the opposite in fact. The purpose of the salon has been to diffuse all tendencies towards militant identity whilst providing its own explanation for the eruption of militancy elsewhere. For the salon, the subject is elsewhere and for this reason we do not collectively involve ourselves in projects either to realise programmes or participate in campaigns – we do not assign to ourselves any significance above the personal. We are caught up in trying to establish the ground of our internal discourse and in giving voice to that ground (evidently, in itself a paradox/recursive category type error)

To illustrate this endeavour to demilitarise our project, we could look at the reasons I stopped contributing to ‘Libcom’ in 2011 over the ‘Arab Spring’ events in Egypt. Two distinct aesthetics were in play here: the aesthetic of the ‘bigger picture’ and the aesthetic of the ‘telling detail’. For Libcom, the important factor was the widescale revolutionary potential of popular self-organisation and revolt. For us, actual instances of use of branded information technology, the rape of women, the anti-semitism, the nationalism, the religious element of the protests were all disquieting and unacceptable. Of course, these were also deplorable traits for Libcom but the significance of the wider ‘movement’  was ultimately decisive in their analysis. In short, they saw a chance of genuine communist movement emerging from those events. 

However, from our understanding, it was impossible to progress from the bourgeois (3rd estatist) character of ‘The Arab Spring’ (with its plethora of telltale ticks and twitches) to communist consciousness. We think, in Deleuze and Guattari’s term, there is only ever a falling back on. The Arab Spring is the doubtful high point in the release of forces which will facilitate further levels of exploitation. After 1848 came ‘49, 50, 51 and so on. For this reason we advised participants to go birdwatching, and drink some tea instead. From our perspective, ‘fascism’ seems to be the most likely medium term outcome of the Arab Spring, given the specific co-ordinates of its discourse of liberation. 

The two aesthetic sensibilities I have set out are expressive of two distinct political ‘attitudes’: the bigger picture aesthetic tends to encourage and seek involvement in protest movements, looking for positive widescale occurrences of ‘communisation’ or at the least, ‘self-organised’ popular assemblies. The aesthetic of the telling detail tends towards a perpetual and impatient berating of ‘our side’ for its faults, lapses and failings. For the former, capitalism is a state of affairs to be overcome by force whilst for the latter, capitalism itself constitutes the critique of capitalism (or put another way, we embody a state of affairs continuously overrun by capital).

It is appropriate here to return to the question of the ‘sacred’, if that is what it is (and that is not clear, as we might see something underneath or beyond the sacred and we might call it ‘the human’, or ‘the ground’, or even ‘the law’) involves the subjective suspension of our theoretical inheritance (i.e. the history of communist thought) because this enables us to engage with those aspects of humanity that have been suppressed by that tradition. Our readings of Platonov, Kharms, Grossman (what we might term, ‘the russian path’ communism) have led us to situate broken humanity, to use bataillean terminology, at the ‘left pole’, as a profaned sacred. We are acutely aware that the goals of the protesting voices, who set themselves against repression, are realised by capital as relations of insidious, and invisible exploitation. 

Of course, our interest in the small detail is not a political recommendation. If massified, such readings would result in a sentimentalist type of fascism... they are subjective experiments only. And event then I have to wind-back my remarks, ‘our interest’ is not the right formulation. You could say, the aesthetic of the telltale heart records a fascination, an enchantment even, with pathological traits and this state of fascination (which is part ‘channelling’ of spirits, and part absorbed forensic reconstructive analysis) is itself prey to the very morbidity from which ‘fascism’ also emerges. 

However, as I have said above, I think the magnitude of our endeavours is decisive in this question. Whatever toxins we bind into our ideas remain at our scale. Structures of particular magnitudes have to contend with problems specific to that magnitude. As Stephen Jay Gould has written, larger scale structures have to contend with an increasing volume in relation to proportionate smaller surface area... such structures have to be plumbed in. We can easily conceive the problems of large scale political organisations as they struggle to accede to the imperative that ‘functions must serve the entire volume of the body’. We can see, as a political analogy, how the ‘leg bone of a large animal’ (the disciplinary structure of an organisation) ‘must thicken disproportionately to provide the same relative strength as the slender bone of a small creature.’ The struggle of the large self-organised political structure is waged perpetually against both the external fascism of countering gravity, and the fascism that counters self-generated internal entropy. 

The struggle of the mass party or syndicalist union is to ‘increase surface in proportion to volume.’ But the struggle is, in a sense already lost:
Large organisms, like large churches, have very few options open to them. Above a certain size, large terrestrial animals look basically alike - they have thick legs and relatively short, stout bodies. 
That is to say, in this context, large ‘left’ organisations somewhat resemble large ‘fascist’ organisations; or rather, neither of them really resemble what they take themselves to be, but must if they are to survive, they must conform to external ‘laws’ of structure and ‘plumbing’ by which smaller organs are fitted into the larger. At a certain point, the large structure has no purpose other than seeking to secure resources for its own survival.  

Even so, the ‘anti-politics’ salon does not have those particular problems, gravity is ‘negligible to very small animals with high surface to volume ratios’. We are the insect Gould talks of, and live in a world:
...dominated by surfaces forces and judge the pleasures and dangers of their surroundings in ways foreign to our experience.
We might discuss the nature of these ‘surfaces forces’, the dangers of irrelevance, adhesion and ‘capture’. Perhaps we are just too-damn delighted to demonstrate the discrepancy of this huge maggot of the 'movement' and the tiny fly of its arrival. There is a ghoulish pallidity in it. But that doesn’t alter the assertion that we are not the revolutionary body, nor do we make any recommendations to whatever that body might be. We only seek to irritate it, and return it to its humanity, with the one millimetre punch of our stinging rebukes. 

And even that we undertake perversely, in a crabbed movement... we deliberately set out to utter our untimely thoughts, swimming upstream of relevance. We are heading upstream against history, back to rue Saint-Benoît and back further still, regressing all the time, back through past lives. If we are only recapitulating the spells of the sorcerer’s apprentice, we are also casting them backwards... if we are seeking to enchant ourselves, we are not looking to achieve a higher or truer or more fundamental state but on the contrary, our purpose is a lessening, and a loosening from a convergently constituted consciousness.  

All psychoanalytically informed exploration, I include my own, seeks the paradox of an effective disenchantment spell (such is the constraint of ‘afterwardsness’) – it is both psychopathologically attracted by the psychopathological and yet also seeks to release its hold. We are driven to turn off that motor which drives us to turn it off. As you are an admirer of Wilde, you will recognise what I am talking about here.

You could say, we have ritually chalked a pentangle onto the floor of our suburban temple and, sitting safely within it, we have observed and categorised the demons that have manifested before us. That we are not at risk, is a sort of ethical argument against ‘us.’ However, generally speaking, the question set by Dauve/Barrot of the situationists remains pertinent to us:
The insistence on subjectivity testifies to the fact that proletarians have not yet succeeded in objectifying a revolutionary practice. When the revolution remains at the stage of desire, it is tempting to make desire into the pivot of the revolution.
The question here concerns both ‘law’ (i.e. what forces speak through which subjects) and ethics. That is to say, it sets the problem of the relation between objective constraints and subjective participation. But Barrot’s question is also a matter of ‘magnitude’: we can foresee no means of scaling up any subjective formulation of human liberation that does not result in ‘fascism’ (i.e. the macro distribution of fatal levels of toxins). As Gould states, there are laws which prevent ‘giant ants’. There is no subject position sufficiently large-scale to find the edge of its conditions and thereby master them. Or, put another way, fascism is the giant ant, it is the name given to the result of the massification of subjective forms (and will emerge as much through the marxist party as through the avowedly fascist party). 

The implication of the question of scale (which is also the question of law and ethics) is that communists cannot make communism. It is a paradox which we cannot see any way out of... except in this counter-paradox: there must be communism before there can be communists. Going further, in its most radical formulation this rule may be stated as: there must be communism before there is communism. So, that might be the Law but now for the ethics. 

I trust you are now assured that I am just a soul whose intentions are good,

The insipid one


  1. The demilitarising of ones approach is useful to the critique of present conditions because it expresses a refusal to ‘play the game’ on the terms set by the opposition. Such a refusal enables one to ‘stand outside’ and ‘not get caught up’. ‘Not getting caught up’ is an appealing strategy because we know from history where all ‘left’ movements go: either to a refining of exploitation, or to ‘fascism’. Many radicals reach this position, at various levels of clarity. Most silently withdraw from engagement, not caring to face the hostility of former friends and comrades, some continue in the manner of unbelieving priests, and very few endeavour to delve deeper into this in extremis critique of present conditions in which they have unwittingly found themselves.

    The question always becomes: what to do, how to act, how to prevent oneself from becoming silent? This is the question that besets all those who arrive at the position I described just above. There are no handbooks on how to solve this dilemma, but observation reveals to us the three ways (described just above) people react to the dilemma. On continuing in the manner of unbelieving priests, Adorno writes: “All sacrificial acts, deliberately planned by humans, deceive the god for whom they are performed: by imposing on him the primacy of human purposes they dissolve away his power, and the fraud against him passes seamlessly into that perpetrated by unbelieving priests against believing congregations. Cunning originates in the cult. … Something of this fraud, which elevates the perishable person as bearer of divine substance, has always been detectable in the ego, which owes its existence to the sacrifice of the present moment to the future.”

    The problem of communists being able or unable to make communism is tied up with two conceptions of the communism. The first is that capitalism has already created the base conditions for socialised production; that is, that capitalism is the communist revolution as the change in the mode of production (from feudalism). In this schema communism can only be part of the battle of ideas as to how best to use the material basis of the economy, the communist revolution, therefore, is political and social. The communist revolution, thus, is not a change in the mode of production; it needs socialised production in order to continue to guarantee the provision of needs to all humans (this conception, in regard to satisfying global needs, is itself laden with pejorative views of ‘pre-history’, and positive views of ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’). Communism in this schema means that capitalism (let’s call it socialised production) needs to be managed by all people as equal participants. Here one can discern the Enlightenment roots of communism. Communism (as an ideal) is the best articulated form of an Enlightened society, where individuality and freedom (these are such modern and bourgeois concepts) are guaranteed by collective organisation. Communism has always been where the concepts underpinning the Enlightenment were heading.

    Part two next post.

  2. But what if by communism we really mean a complete change in the way we procure our survival and prosperity in the world? What if we compare the communist revolution to the capitalist revolution? By communism do we mean a throwing out of the material base of society (the way we make our living; the ways our days are organised, and for what purpose – that is, the production of goods and services) as well as its ideological, cultural and political superstructure? If we do, then the only lessons from history that we have to help us here are the records of the emergence of capitalism from the previous material base of feudalism. In the study of this transformation we find that no one decided to bring about capitalism, the economic motors which led to capitalism were set in motion ‘unconsciously’ (by real living people, who were subject to the feudal ideology). And we find that by the time capitalism had formed its own superstructure (Enlightenment, democracy, science, freedom, individuality, linear time, etc – through social and political events) capitalism itself, as the material base, was already well in place. To put it another way: before capitalism became an idea, something one could describe and define, it had already presented itself in reality.

    Therefore, using this lens, we can see that there could not be capitalists before there was capitalism, and that capitalism existed before capitalism.