Saturday, 1 August 2015

An open response to the authors of 'HIC NIHIL, HIC SALTA! (a critique of Bartlebyism) '

Thank you for writing this well written, cogent and stimulating essay, and for inviting a 'conversation' with those to whom it is addressed - I hope it elicits the response that you are looking for. Speaking as one of the authors of Nihilist Communism, I think there are a number of problematic issues with your reading of that book, and with what you seem to take to be its message. I also think your reading of the character of Bartleby may be underdeveloped and that this constrains your interpretation of the phenomenon of disengagement which is the object of your study. I will restrict my response to these two components of your essay (Bartleby and Nihilist Communism) and leave to the others whom you address to speak for themselves as they see fit. 

It is now many years since the anti-politics project was in its heyday and as I am now an old man, it seems strange for me to revisit past controversies of dubious import. For this reason, I ask for your tolerance in my revisiting well-trodden ground and for the creaking in the bones of my argumentation. For old times sake, I am donning my dupontist hat and will speak as if Nihilist Communism was still the position that I am arguing from. I hope I remember the salient points by which 'anti-politics' on one side and Monsieur Dupont on the other developed in relation to the optimistic activism for which you appear to be advocates. 

I will talk about Bartleby first. This character was discussed at some length within the 'glow worm salon' (a spin-off forum from the main anti-politics project). The question rested on whether Bartleby's remarkable manner was a stratagem, a cover for other and unknown purposes, or whether it was an authentic expression of a particular position in the world. The discussion occurred under the title 'Bartlebyism' and was commenced in February 2009 (it is true, there is nothing new). I made initial arguments against the politicisation of Bartleby on these terms: 'My first readings of Bartleby were positive as were my readings of 'Cock-a-doodle-doo' and 'Billy Budd'... at that time, I seemed to locate the presence of an innate and natural 'resistance' to positions of authority. However, later readings have caused me to reverse my earlier interpretations – I now see only a refusal of the social. I now 'prefer' the clerks (and even his employer) to Bartleby, they are at least socialised, communisable; Bartleby is a terrifying dead-end.'

I then made the argument that, 'Bartleby fails to intervene in his own life and this failure has something to do with the historical appearance of 'preference' as a relation to the world and something to do with quantifying 'compulsive' behaviours which come to the fore in mass society (compulsive preference for eating, for not eating, for avoidance or for display, for aggravation, for drugs, for sexual images, for hand washing, for object counting etc).' 

I then go onto compare Bartleby at the level of 'agency' with the character of Shane (of the film of the same name) and the function in narrative of a messiah or avenging angel: 'It arrives at the critical point where vengeance is most called for, that is where the scene most resembles itself, the point where change appears impossible. However, because it arrives from outside, the avenger has no comprehension at all of the co-dependencies inherent to the dispute that it faces and therefore it merely strikes out, like an automaton; its ministry has no intrinsic meaning. The effect of the angel is to cause the entirety of the relation of offenders and offended-against to discover in itself a transformation, which is a giving way, within the insularity of their feud – columns, beams, props erode and weaken. There is no resolution, only release, an intervention at the level of forces which fall back into a different array. The avenging angel lays out the intestinal convolutions of the feud, of the predicament, of the frozen relation – what was held in place by the tension in the relation, precisely the terms which are 'preferred' by all participants (these habituations to the relation) are released; nothing is the same at this place for these people again, they are moved sideways, this does not imply improvement or progress.'

The point here, is that Bartleby becomes an agency of a particularly malignant type. Whilst, the early expression of his non-participation individualises and humanises him in relation to work, the unrelenting continuation along the same path becomes anti-social and pathological. Beneath the series of 'prefer not to' iterations, there is an inhuman orientation to, and opening up before, something hidden in the world that he is an agency for, something morbid (as implied in the preferences of interactive social media) which will swallow him and threatens everybody else. On this reading the authors of Nihilist Communism can resolutely refute the accusation of bartlebyism. Bartleby, as an agent of destruction and de-socialisation, realising his programme of solipsistic preferences by process of elimination, is closer to the psychology of political campaigners and revolutionaries. Then, to the authors of HIC NIHIL, HIC SALTA! the authors of Nihilist Communism may riposte: Bartleby, ce n'est pas moi; Bartleby, Ces't vous!

Bartleby is the elevation of what belongs to the person to the level of social organisation, he ceases to function as a product of his conditions and becomes a tyrant over them. This is also the fate of social revolutionaries who take their subjective insights for objective truths and feel justified in instigating a reign of terror, at whatever scale, to forcibly arrange commensurability between what they want and what is. As Nietzsche observed, the true nihilist is the one who still believes. It was to this fatal condition of belief in agency and of agency as a motor for belief that Nihilist Communism addressed itself.  

Nihilist Communism is a very simple book but it has the misfortune of making an argument that is both counterintuitive and unfamiliar. It begins by asking itself the question, 'what is the world' (and by world it means human social relations). It answers, 'the world is a product.' It asks a supplementary question, 'how is the world produced'? It hypothesises that there are two possible answers: 1. human agency; 2. social forces. It concludes that the produced world negates human agency whilst valorising productive process. By means of tautology it infers that the produced world is produced by productive forces. In accordance with marxist theories of social relations, it splits production between past labour solidified into machinery and the present labours of currently existing human beings. It then goes on to assign greater significance to the automated processes of machines in producing the world than it does to 'living labour' (we are born into the world as it already is, we do not invent it according to our preferences). By small steps it goes on to argue that just as a worker is employed within an already existing environment and may only add to its quantity without altering its nature, so all activity within the produced world (again a tautology) is a product, and expressive of, the environment which employs it. 

Once this basic mechanism of world-producing is established theoretically (the present is always the result of past productive activity which constrains presently employed humans to produce more of the same), Nihilist Communism asks the question: 'how does world-transformation' occur? It answers in accord with Hegel: changes in circumstances are the result of an accumulation of quantities of produced objects which, having saturated the social relations that constrain them, 'spill over' and begin to create new qualitative modifications to relations of power and ownership. Then, it asks, if the present is always constrained by forces developed from out of the past, how are those presently living going to break from what has gone before? It answers that this is wholly unknown, it speculates that such a rupture 'must' occur within the process of world-producing and specifically, if it is retain a human element, within the productive interface where past labour (machines) mingle with living labour. It further speculates that if those currently working halt the machines, then a rupture with the past will be effected. 

However, Nihilist Communism also observes that halting machines is no easy task and that workers are structurally inhibited from choosing this 'option' - all struggles are self-limiting or coterminous with that which is struggled against.  Nobody may truly strike against the world of which they are a product, they may prefer to suppress some tendencies that they have identified as unacceptable whilst at the same time realising others which they often to do not recognise. 

It is a curious political theory that treats a revolutionary class as both profoundly gullible, on the one hand, and possessed of a unique, essential genius, on the other.  There is therefore no reason whatsoever for Monsieur Dupont to continue writing, on the terms they’ve set for themselves, a fact they seem to have realized, retreating into spasmodic and convoluted orations on modernist art

Not really. The human component of the forces of production may not choose against the productive process as that is literally unimaginable (cattle may not choose against pasture) but perhaps it might be duped, tripped up or otherwise bamboozled into acting against its own environmental constraints and thus find itself in a position where it has induced a crisis in the productive apparatus (in the way 'plagues' put pressure on that which has produced them). Baudrillard explores the dangers inherent to the logic of 'self-organisation' as a mechanism of escape:

Such is the prophetico-inert: prophecy fulfilling itself. On closer examination, it was the very tenor of the revolutionary slogan: the workers will liberate themselves. Except that this contained a dangerous mystification: it merely opened on to the practico-inert, on to the liveration of work as an end in itself.

So it is that whilst the proletariat may not subjectively demand its self-abolition (it tends, in revolt, to electively re-institute 'the practico-inert', the world of work as general societal principle) it might, in pursuing a narrowly self-interested path of raising wages and reducing work-hours thereby overcome the quantitive constraints on its own reproduction. Where world-producing is suspended or has entered a state of crisis, 'ideas' begin to take on a productive character. It is only at this point of crisis that subjective 'agency' has objective significance. 

Well, what about us, those who are cursed with pseudo-agency and pro-revolutionary consciousness in the present? What about the elective opposition to world-producing? What about the agency of those of us already in opposition to the state of things as they are? As the author(s) of hic nihil hic salta you set the question of failure, and of blame: 

Most of the theoretical expressions that emerge from this confused condition share a fundamental misidentification of effects as causes. Identifying the source of their unhappiness in their own naïve optimism and commitment, their investment in some political project or process, they reason that, in order to spare themselves future suffering, they must cease to hope, to commit, to desire, they must treat each new event as dead from the start. They conclude not only that disaffection and pessimism will cause us to suffer less in the face of the failure of struggles, but that optimism, earnest commitment, investment, are the source of these failures. In other words, they reason that the reason we lose is because we keep trying, despite the fact that it is obviously the other way around. There are now dozens of accounts of how struggle against capitalist domination requires some form of withdrawal, subtraction, de-subjectivization, removal, impassivity, patience, slowness. In some cases, there may be real practical and psychological insights in these accounts, but each one makes, in our view, a fundamental mistake – it turns a political process into a psychological operation; it substitutes an ethics for a politics. Though it’s true that capitalism uses our investments and passions against us all the time, the better to render us compliant, exploitable; the better to set us against each other; the better to keep us scrambling after illusory goals, capitalism has no problem mobilizing various forms of disaffection, indifference, and unfeeling. These moods quite obviously render one just as pliable as the excited, enthused worker; the passionate consumer; the overly sentimental parent; the enraged activist. Depression is not a weapon, it’s a wound in the shape of a weapon.

Whilst depression and anxiety are the products of this society, I do not think it is quite right to say that these are the means by  which the mechanism of exploitation is maintained (of course, I may be wrong about this but then, it is for you to provide the proof). My understanding is that anxiety and depression are affective conditions (indicating increasing sensitivity to environmental cues) that occur at the boundary of viable patterns of social reproduction, and are demonstrative of a crisis of faith in the continuation of these patterns. Nihilist Communism leaves open the possibility for the individual to live a good life and escape as far as possible social reproduction. It does not claim that depression is a weapon, nor that any subjective state is a weapon. It warns against conflating personal commitments with objective processes. Its confines its determinism to abstract social relations and makes the observation only that all acts, and all people, whether conformists or rebels, are all equally produced by, and expressive of, this world as it is and no other. Nobody speaks for the world that is yet to come. 

The question here though is not one of failure (and depression) but of success (and optimism). If you accept a historical account of human beings (that is to say if you concur with the proposition that humans are the result of the social organisations which bind them), then by implication you also accept that no human individual fully possesses what they say or do, and still less can they be said to own the consequences of these. Again, we return to the question of the socialisation of Bartleby, and thus the degree of socialisation of all world-changing projects - to what extent is Bartleby driving and to what extent is he driven? Have you ever asked yourselves, as products of this world, how much your project furthers the values of the world as it is? The problem for all those who wish to see a communist transformation is not their failure to realise it, that was never their given task, but rather their success in realising those terrors of this world which otherwise would not have seen the light of day.

Thus, the problem of the proletariat's historical tendency in revolt to self-manage its own exploitation. Thus, the purpose of the armed struggle is not to asymmetrically confront remote power bases of the establishment but to subjugate the population it 'represents' and to see off equivalent rival gangs of exploiters.  Thus, every left-wing government succeeds in delivering its constituency over to the programme of 'austerity' where its right-wing predecessors have failed. Thus, every national liberation movement succeeds in exploiting the 'liberated' social body which previously the colonial power could not reach. And so it is, every successive 'new left' reveals the hidden violence structured into the 'old left' but then each new, new left and its theory of privileges, by which it names such violences, also sets in motion other oppressions, other terrors, other levers of exploitation which (passing unnamed) are downplayed or go unregistered. That is the nature of left-power. You write: 

Few are fooled, of course, since investment in preaching hopelessness to the true believers of activism is its own opiate and its own distraction. If they didn’t doubt the wisdom of their own advice, they’d depart for good. But like Bartleby, they remain stubbornly encamped in the antilaw-offices of the radical milieu, weakly re-enacting their passive aggressions at each new turn of events, each new failure-to-come.  This is a fundamentally therapeutic politics; a politics of feeling, that takes our own investments in things to be the problem; it proposes the dogma of certain failure as response to the pain of hope.

This is only slightly true. One may continue to adhere to principles whilst refusing to get one's hands dirty by involving themselves in those projects which become gratuitous exercises in hand dirtying and nothing else. For the impossibilist-communist, if I may speak for this hypothetical being occupying the space at the end of the ultraleft trajectory that begins with the SI and SouB, the actions of activists and the left are the only object of ongoing concern. If capitalism is structurally opposed by its own inherent contradictions, as these are embodied within the proletariat, then the true enemy is 'the left' (or the lamb horned 'second beast'), i.e. that agency which by false prophecy in the moment of economic crisis will persuade the people of the Earth to return to the patterns of world-producing. There is no project of liberation which does not constitute itself at the same time as a regime of enslavement. 

The problem then that confronts you is not your failure in changing the world but the likelihood of succeeding in committing acts of violence against innocent others and thereby sowing the seed of world-producing in those intimate locations where it has not yet taken hold. The problem is not one of social transformation but of realising that of this world which otherwise would have gone unrealised if you had not intervened. If you are an agent, then you are an agent of this world and no other, isn't that enough to induce you to run for the hills? 

Or, to put it another way and to bounce the ball back at you, what you are proposing, 'turns an anti-political process into a psychological operation.' My worry about revolutionaries is that they are, at the very core of their being, cops by other means - the ongoing depletion in the variety of discourses in social transformation and its deterioration in quality (as this is exacerbated in social media) only confirms its ideological and mystifying character. For this reason, the strategy of withdrawal and disengagement is not constituted either as a depressive relinquishment or as a response to 'failure' but as an absolute refusal of success in a world where this means only the further extension of world-producing. Speaking for myself, giving up participating in the project of elective political change, and adopting an equable pessimistic outlook actually broadened and deepened my commitments and facilitated my thinking through of various forms of the unthinkable which were otherwise denied me. (I do not claim objective significance in this, only personal consolation). 

Someone else, responding to your essay, and in defence of 'nihilism', puts this more succinctly than I:

the point of nihilism is to a) acknowledge that nothing that has been tried has worked. b) that we don't know (therefore) what would/will work. c) that it's entirely possible then that nothing (or at *least* nothing that we're capable of--which surely amounts to the same thing) *will* work. d) and that whatever action we take is in the face of that knowledge.some people think of that as a defeatist attitude [...] i consider it a call to bravery and beauty.


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