Friday, 1 March 2013

Beloved on earth: numerous remarks at the threshold of becoming too weary before the image of the Imaginary Party

Work is an idol, albeit a fallen one. Its imposition is no longer of a moral or religious kind ("You shall gain your bread by the sweat of your brow"), but profane and down-to-earth. In some Asian countries, labour is now being disciplined better by the pressure of consumerism than by an appeal to Confucianism. In Tai-Peh as in Berlin, public concern is about creating and getting jobs, not suffering to enter some earthly or heavenly paradise. So work now calls for a critique different from the time when an aura of self-inflicted pain surrounded it. Mobility and self-empowerment are the present slogans of capital. We cannot be content with anti-work statements such as the ones that the surrealists were rightly making eighty years ago. 
Gilles Dauvé To work or not to work? Is that the question? 

Even so, there are still those in the communist milieu who profess their eagerness to volunteer for work. They argue that a couple of hours a day in a communist factory is nothing. They assume that the pathology   of work is located in the meaningless necessity of value production and that once this has been removed, work activity may be reoriented towards use and need. 

It seems reasonable to infer that within the capitalist productive relation, the continuous expansion of labour across society (for example more people are ‘in work’ in the UK than ever before) is driven by a structural imperative to realise wealth as value. However, it does not follow from this that the pathology of work is located solely within value production. 

Even if one volunteers for work in a factory that does not mean the factory as a structure is thereby defined by voluntary relations. Of course, it is possible to volunteer for the most arduous and dangerous tasks but this says nothing of the otherwise compulsory and punitive nature of such tasks. On the contrary, there is something in the human psyche which compels the volunteer to identify with whatever is terrible if it appears disguised as necessity. The very act of volunteering indicates a structural compulsion. 

Those who would volunteer for communist work, for necessary work, are something like eciton burchelli, the Army ants, which create living nests from the interlinking of their own bodies. Those who intervene in society through their physical work-activity as a means for demonstrating their communist commitment, are thereby unconsciously suppressing the appearance of something else inherent to their arguments. This something else would seem to be a more or less hidden association of communism with a planned economy, and the subsumption of human variety to the dictates of a surplus-necessity that is exemplified subjectively by the willingness to work. The Army ant humbly presents communism as the victory of purified necessity over culture but also secretly exults in the prospect of his own submergence into a generalised flow of useful acts. 

It is at this point that we encounter a sharp divergence between the imagined and the imaginary – the imaginary stands for that compulsive repertoire of ‘fascinating’ conditioning images which the self fears is essential to its own continued reproduction. Wherever the category of the imaginary is introduced, we may ask ourselves what it is that is freely imagined in the arguments for communism and what it is that functions as a neurotic and compulsive image.

The immediate appearance of the argument for necessary sacrifice, for communism as a social relation that is inseparable from a prescribed and apportioned number of hours of enforced labour, and which is first presented in terms of voluntary service, immediately flags up an imaginary component. The involuntary image which presents a vindication of the self through application to useful labour and of volunteered good works, can be seen as an indicator of an anxiety concerning self-worth... if such a commitment is not made upfront the dependent individual conjectures, perhaps  society will disengage and abandon it.

The rush to defend the factory, albeit stripped of its association with value production, demonstrates anxieties concerning realism and social reproduction which are overcompensated for by reducing communism to production. A corollary of the anxiety felt by the dependent individual for his own safety, is a projected anxiety he feels for the ‘parent’ of society. If one does not step in and volunteer, like a good Army ant, might not the kingdom itself be lost? If one does not insist on the reasonable proportionality of a certain measurement of socially necessary, planned, measured and enforced labour time – a couple of hours a day of pure use-production – isn’t the feasibility, the very reality of the project of communism discredited and lost? If there is no integrated, performative, bottom-line, how might anything imagined be realised? 

Those who consider that the reproduction of communist society will be dependent upon the measurement of labour time and the voluntary sacrifices made by individuals in the interest of social necessity unconsciously locate another component in work activity which is violent and compulsory but which is not value production. 

These would-be communist worker-volunteers, who desire to build the nest of communism from the piling up of their own bodies, seem unable to recognise what is intrinsically alien in the received representations of use and necessity which they enthusiastically distribute in their arguments. They seem unable to reflect upon a possible runaway logic in productivism, nor do they see any dangers in the likely mechanisms of domination which might be activated as an emotional manipulation of workers via the compelling image of the common good.  

In the fantasy of imagined work-volunteering another pathology of production is uncovered... if the value form drives the expansion of capitalist work-activity, it may do so only by fixing onto and adapting other unhappy components of the work process. These adapted, psychological traits, will survive value’s suppression and perhaps come to dominate communist relations if these are grounded in the primacy of a productivist ideology.


  1. From Bataille's Theory of Religon:

    "Generally speaking, the world of things is perceived as a fallen world. It entails the alienation of the one who created it. This is the basic principle: to subordinate is not only to alter the subordinated element but to be altered oneself. The tool changes nature and man at the same time: it subjugates nature to man, who makes and uses it, but it ties man to subjugated nature. Nature becomes man's property but it ceases to be immanent to him. It is his on condition that it is closed to him. If he places the world in his power, this is to the extent that he forgets that he is himself the world: he denies the world but it is he himself that he denies."

    It is in the context of this self denial that those communists who cannot seem to rid themselves of 'production' and 'utility' speak. They champion something which is already the general condition, and which they do not recognize that they are carrying over into their idealized version of communism. What does it take for us to perceive that it is 'we' who are altered along with the world of things we attempt to alter? Sensitivity really seems to have gone by the wayside for those who have this fixation on production.

    In the most recent 'Theological Turn' post, we find this: "The Army ant humbly presents communism as the victory of purified necessity over culture but also secretly exults in the prospect of his own submergence into a generalised flow of useful acts. It seems this 'generalized flow of useful acts' also exists in a feedback loop in which it's secret exulting by those who want it to keep moving produces more waves of enthusiasm to 'keep production going' as they say, as if this 'flow' is like the gasoline that runs the motor of alienated humanity to victory without confusion and in all seriousness. There is a cold numb feeling of stillness within this 'productive' process, a disconnectedness from the felt body of pain which it produces (I can only speak for myself of course, I am a warehouse worker).

    If the 'army ant' communist is secretly exulting in 'the prospect of his own submergence into a generalized flow of useful acts", he is pushing himself and others deeper into the cowering fear of confronting our 'fallen' nature. These 'communists' cannot admit their human weakness, which is shared with all. They are literally denying the world and themselves. They hunger for a closeness to that which takes them most out of their intimacy to what might be left of their humanity. Always back to work...such a tired thought.

    1. Dear comrade turnip,

      (It is not until this moment that I realise I have always wished to address another in these words.)

      Thank you for your comments on immanence and alienation.

      To all alienated beings immanence is both abhorrent and mesmeric – it is possible that only alienated beings are able to truly pass into states of immanence, for what would immanence be without the excluded outside?

      And yet, here I am talking as if I know what I mean. What is immanence? I do not know. A flow within the flow. Is immanence all or nothing? Can there be partial immanence? A movement towards achieving it, are we fifty miles from immanence, or half an inch? Does it involve the entirety of a being, or merely some of its faculties. Are the autonomic functions already immanent? Perhaps we are 97% immanent. I do not know. Is immanence a goal? A political goal that we might desire? Aim for, fight for, die for? Would we know it if we were in it? Or are we condemned only to not know it? Can we see others in immanence, or are they invisible? Is immanence even located at the level of the being? Perhaps it is better to think of an entire ‘net’ of relations, moments, spaces? I don’t know. I don’t know.

      I certainly think that Bataille’s account of humanity is both fuller and more resonant than that of Marx – but then it would not have been possible without Marx.

      There are those who would argue that the real true Marx left a lot of space for others to fill in the blanks – to define an existential ‘marxism’. But after so many years, these projects of reorientation to another star are still the exception. And instead, the same reductive field of reference, a peculiar version of Vanegiem’s survival sickness, continues to preoccupy Marxist theories. Domination of nature, of social mechanisms, of the social body by the alleged uncertainty of reproduction remains the central anxiety of Marx-infused communist thought. Control, expropriation, security are the temporary goals (and also the means).

      Bataille, strangely perhaps, indicates another model for communism that is not grounded in terms of control or ownership and which is much closer to current concerns about living within the limits of the natural world. This model would involve regulation of energy flows, the rechannelling of these to conscious purpose but which would not be defined in terms of the pseudo-security of control and ownership. At a fundamental level, battaillean influenced communism would set itself within the great cascade of the solar system's system of energy rather than above, outside or against it. It is a communism situated in full awareness of its dependence upon cosmic forces rather than setting itself at the top of the food chain in an act of anthropomorphic hubris. One cannot imagine the equivalent of the four pests campaign, for example.

      The question then, is set at the level of sympathetically regulating flows in the world. And directing these towards a redefinition of the human community as a self-healing process. It is a matter of ensuring that the energy channels used by the human community belong to the world, that the switches regulating the channels belong to the world, and that the purpose to which the energy flows are diverted also belong to the world.

      Of course, as an alienated being, I would still prioritise the revolt of consciousness against cosmic process but this is a necessary act of delusion. It seems to me that it is helpful to use Gregory Bateson’s idea of ‘collateral energy’ here.

      May you swim,


    2. Part 1

      I also do not know what immanence is really. I was going to say it is a 'felt' phenomenon, like playing music or sex. It seems if it is anything, it is a personal, intimate thing. But really it's hard to say. I do not think immanence is a political goal, anymore than communism, or else I would find myself being a person who is demanding of the other: Can't you see it my way? This, this here is immanence. Immanence could be something which we can only inch closer to by describing what it is not, which also is then an inching away from being like 'water in water'. Immanence as well is subject to 'utilitarian' thinking.

      To answer your question about aims and what we will die for: I think that my aims at the moment are to keep the intimate contacts I have intact in the midst of the general whirlwind we live through, to be able to talk about my experience of the world, to find others who have veered completely off the political cliff. It is nice to be in contact with you. I don't have any political aims, although with all of my criticism it is a strange commitment to the communist milieu in a negative way (which I enjoy), so maybe I have anti-political aims, purely critical aims. My alienated life, like most, already has too much about 'necessity' within it (I try to find my way as best I can).

      Is this anxiety of Marx-infused communist thought played out in the small group form by those individuals who have gotten to the point of believing that the non-existence of their own group threatens the direction the world might be heading? The one's who, as you've pointed out, have hardened themselves into thugs who lay down the party line which much be adhered to? I as well have seen this time and time again in small groups, and it seems to exist even more so in one's who define themselves specifically as 'non-heirarchical'. This makes sense. But, unlike Bataille, they will not go so far as to kill a man. They are not as 'hardened' as they seem.

      A Bataillean infused communism seems to me at least more interesting to think about because, as you said, there is a turn away from control and ownership. But reflecting on your comments, even on a purely theoretical level (I should say, I am in agreement with 'impossible thought' is a constant source of relief for me to not have to strain my mind to be 'useful') it is hard to imagine how the self-healing process will happen. I am thinking here of a place where there is nothing 'to do'. This is the place where I think healing exists more than others.

    3. Part 2 (my comment wouldn't fit in one post)

      I am trying to understand the 'collateral energy' that Bateson is talking about, in the sense that the material world responds to us as a faucet does when we turn it on. It seems this means that the processes make this happen coalesce in an end result which will be healing for the human community. The 'work' goes both ways. It would be therapeutic to take for granted the flows of the world moving in our direction for once.

      And then there's the issue of machines and how they use us. I also cannot see how factories can figure into communism. Healing is a hard one...all the generations of damage, and on top of this perpetuated still by communists. How eager they are to go to war. It is all about scarcity and control for them.

      I am with you in prioritizing revolt of consciousness, however necessarily deluded this might be (and surely it is, but we must). You have written elsewhere about 'the anti-historical body' in revolt, and mentioned how many sick people there are. I have thought about this often, as I did work for a number of years in 'health care' as an ambulance attendant and driver. Insurrection or revolt could occur at this level...maybe it is this open void where 'nothing' can happen for long enough for these broken bodies to exist for themselves as they figure it out. I have no idea. How can we not go to war? is still the question here. You are right: this is the necessary self delusion, conscious revolt.

      As you mention in your most current post on machines, life seems to want to 'bloom' or 'flourish' (keeping even the problematic nature of these words – (I am thinking here of 'the language of flowers' and beauty coupled with decay). I wonder about machines and bodies and human fragility and sensitivity, this fleeting notion of the world responding to us in a self healing way.

      Thank you for your response.

      Black Turnip

    4. It is interesting that you suggest immanence might be approached inch by inch through a 'via negativa' practice, particularly when we are accustomed to think of immanence as a positive affirmation. Kafka's creature in the burrow, on your terms would live an 'immanent' existence. I think you are right to stress it as not a political goal, as the demand on the other, demand being constituted as direct address, sets in operation certain apparatuses of manipulation which would necessarily militate against 'immanence' (if by that we mean a thing that is in the world on its own terms). Your formulation has helped me. Thanks for reminding me that this project is concerned with 'not going to war'. If we are to reconsider this in the light of the above, it seems natural to conclude that if we do not accept the demand on the other which takes a direct and manipulative political form, and which immediately ties its own object in contradiction (along the lines of the order: THINK FOR YOURSELF), then we must be try and formulate a 'non-direct' politics. What is non-direct politics? That is another question.

  2. There is also something in 'not going to war' that is about not stating. There is a reason to evade non-direct address, for refusing the bald statement. Every politician knows this already of course, because direct statements lead to situations where retraction is necessary. But I am thinking of something else, something in metaphor which has to do with the riddle. What is indirect action? What then, if we are asking such questions, is direct action? It seems the latter is a completeness, or generality, supplied in a particular gesture. But there is, or so it seems to me, a poverty in this completeness. The direct action says everything but how is the other to respond to it. The upsurge in popular protest which lasted through 2010 and 2011 has now entirely dissipated (in the West at least). Could the reason for this be that it expressed everything of itself in that period and there was nothing that could be added to it? Why did people cease to participate in it? I think because in order to participate in anything, human beings need to find things out for themselves. They have a need for what they are participating in to be not already completed, and to have something of the story of itself still to be written. I think indirect action would include, perhaps a mystery (although mystery supposes an answer written but not known) but more likely an unfinished quality which the other must take away and work on. One of the reasons for 'not going to war' is to avoid the boom and bust of protest politics, which involves the sudden grasping of a total realisation, its maintenance over a brief period, and then its relinquishment. In other words, indirect action is an attempt to evade the impoverishing 'defeats' that are structured into conflict, and in this evasions, this indirect engagement with the pressures and forces of existence, thereby invite the other to provide the answer. Are we communists ready to let the other provide the answer for us?