On the first socialist tragedy

Andrei Platonov

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It is essential not to thrust oneself forward and not to get drunk on life; our time is both better and more serious than blissful delight. Everyone who gets drunk is sure to be caught, sure to perish like a little mouse that messes with a mousetrap in order to “get drunk” on the fat on the bait. All around us lies fat, but every piece of this fat is bait. It is necessary to stand in the ranks of the ordinary people doing patient socialist work — that is all we can do.

The arrangement of nature corresponds to this mood and consciousness. Nature is not great and is not abundant. Or her design is so rigid that she has never yet yielded her greatness and her abundance to anyone. This is a good thing; otherwise — in historical time — we would long ago have looted and squandered all nature; we would have eaten our way right through her and got drunk on her right to her very bones. There would always have been appetite enough. Had the physical world been without what is, admittedly, its most fundamental law — the law of the dialectic — it would have taken people only a few centuries to destroy the world completely. More than that, in the absence of this law, nature would have annihilated itself to smithereens even without any people. The dialectic is probably an expression of miserliness, of the almost insuperable rigidity of nature’s construction — and it is only thanks to all this that humanity’s historical development has been possible. Otherwise everything would long ago have come to an end on this earth — like a game played by a child with sweets that melt in his hands before he has even had time to eat them.

What is the truth to be seen in the historical picture of our own time?

It goes without saying that this picture is tragic — if only because true historical work is being carried out not on the whole of the earth but only on a small, and greatly overburdened, part of the earth.

Truth — in my opinion — lies in the fact that “technology decides everything.” It is indeed technology that constitutes the theme of our contemporary historical tragedy — if technology is understood to mean not only the entire complex of man-made production tools but also the social organization that is based on the technology of production, and if ideology too is included in this understanding. Ideology, incidentally, is located not in the superstructure, not on some “height,” but somewhere within, in the heart of society’s sense of itself. To be more precise, unless in our concept of technology we also include the technician himself — the human being — our understanding of the question will remain obtuse and leaden.

The relationship between technology and nature is tragic. Technology’s aim is “Give me a fulcrum and I shall overturn the world.” But nature’s construction is such that she does not like being outmaneuvered. With the right moment of force it is possible to overturn the world, but so much will be lost in the journey and in the travel time of the lever that in practical terms the victory will be useless. This is an elementary example of the dialectic. Let us look now at a fact from our own time: the splitting of the atomic nucleus. It is the same thing. The hour will come when we expend n quantity of energy on the destruction of an atom and in return receive n + 1 — and we will be ever so pleased with this meager increase, because this absolute gain will have been obtained by virtue of something like an artificially induced change to nature’s most fundamental principle: the dialectic itself. Nature stays aloof, she keeps us at bay; a quid pro quo — or even a trade with a mark-up in her own favor — is the only way she can work. Technology, however, strains to achieve the opposite. It is through the dialectic that the external world is defended against us. And so, however paradoxical this may seem: nature’s dialectic is both humanity’s enemy and its instructor. The dialectic of nature constitutes the very greatest resistance to technology; the aim and function of technology is to deny, or at least mitigate, the dialectic. Up until now its success in this has been modest, which is why the world cannot yet be kind and good for us.

And at the same time, the dialectic is our only instructor and our only means of defense against the premature and senseless destruction involved in childish delight. Just as the dialectic is itself the power that has created all our technology.

In sociology, in love, in the depth of a human being, the law of the dialectic functions no less immutably. A man with a ten-year-old son left the boy with the boy’s mother — and married a young beauty. The boy began to long for his father and patiently, clumsily hanged himself. A gram of delight on one end of the lever is balanced by a ton of graveyard earth on the other. The father took the rope from the boy’s neck and soon followed him into the grave. What he wanted was to get drunk on the innocent beauty; he wanted to bear love not as a duty, not as an obligation with a single wife, but as pleasure. Don’t get drunk — or it will be the end of you.

Some naïve people may retort that the contemporary crisis of production overturns this point of view. It does not overturn anything. Imagine the extremely complex technical equipment of the society of contemporary imperialism and fascism, the grinding exhaustion and destruction of the people of these societies — and it will become only too clear at what price this increase in the forces of production has been achieved. Self-destruction in fascism, war between states — these are the losses entailed by increased production, these are nature’s revenge for it. The tragic knot is cut — but without being resolved. What results cannot — in the classical sense of the word — even be called tragedy. Without the USSR, the world would be certain to destroy itself in the course of no more than a century.

The tragedy of man, armed with machine and heart, and with the dialectic of nature, must in our country be resolved by way of socialism. But it must be understood that this task is an extremely serious one. Ancient life on the “surface” of nature was able to obtain what was essential to it from the waste products and excretions of elemental forces and substances. But we mess about deep inside the world, and in return the world crushes us with an equivalent strength.

Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth
Chandler, Jonathan Platt, and Olga Meerson

Continue reading

To the planetarium

Walter Benjamin

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What follows is an excerpt from Walter Benjamin’s 1928 book One-Way Street, his first definitively Marxist work. The photos that come afterward are of the modernist Moscow Planetarium, built by Mikhail Barshch, M. Siniavskii, and G. Sundblat in 1928-1929. Benjamin would write his well-known Moscow Diary over the course of his stay with Asja Lacis in Russia in 1926-1927, so he would not have been able to visit the structure, for which the foundation had not even been laid. Still, I would like to think that something of its spirit carried over from the missed encounter that isn’t just speculative fluff.

If one had to expound the doctrine of antiquity with utmost brevity while standing on one leg, as did Hillel that of the Jews, it could only be in this sentence: “They alone shall possess the earth who live from the powers of the cosmos.” Nothing dis­tinguishes the ancient from the modem man so much as the former’s absorption in a cosmic experience scarcely known to later periods. Its waning i marked by the flowering of astro­nomy at the beginning of the modem age. Kepler, Copernicus, and Tycho Brahe were certainly not driven by scientific im­pulses alone. All the same, the exclusive emphasis on an optical connection to the universe, to which astronomy very quickly led, contained a portent of what was to come. The ancients’ intercourse with the cosmos had been different: the ecstatic trance. For it is in this experience alone that we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest to us, and never of one without the other. This means, however, that man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only commun­ally. It is the dangerous error of modem men to regard this experience as unimportant and avoidable, and to consign it to the individual as the poetic rapture of starry nights. It is not; its hour strikes again and again, and then neither nations nor generations can escape it, as was made terribly clear by the last war, which was an attempt at new and unprecedented com­ mingling with the cosmic powers. Human multitudes, gases, electrical forces were hurled into the open country, high­ frequency currents coursed through the landscape, new constellations rose in the sky, aerial space and ocean depths thundered with propellers, and everywhere sacrificial shafts were dug in Mother Earth. This immense wooing of the cosmos was enacted for the first time on a planetary scale, that is, in the spirit of technology. But because the lust for profit of the ruling class sought satisfaction through it, technology betrayed man and turned the bridal bed into a bloodbath. The mastery of nature, so the imperialists teach, is the purpose of all technology. But who would trust a cane wielder who proclaimed the mastery of children by adults to be the purpose of education? Is not education above all the indispensable ordering of the relation­ ship between generations and therefore mastery, if we are to use this term, of that relationship and not of children? And likewise technology is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man. Men as a species completed their development thousands of years ago; but mankind as a species is just beginning his. In technology a physis is being organized through which mankind’s contact with the cosmos takes a new and different form from that which it had in nations and families. One need recall only the experience of velocities by virtue of which mankind is now preparing to embark on in­ calculable journeys into the interior of time, to encounter there rhythms from which the sick shall draw strength as they did earlier on high mountains or at Southern seas. The “Luna parks” are a prefiguration of sanatoria. The paroxysm of genuine cosmic experience is not tied to that tiny fragment of nature that we are accustomed to call “Nature.” In the nights of annihilation of the last war the frame of mankind was shaken by a feeling that resembled the bliss of the epileptic. And the revolts that fol­lowed it were the first attempt of mankind to bring the new body under its control. The power of the proletariat is the measure of its convalescence. If it is not gripped to the very marrow by the discipline of this power, no pacifist polemics will save it. Living substance conquers the frenzy of destruction only in the ecstasy of procreation.

Walter Benjamin
One-Way Street
(1925-1926)

The planetarium in Moscow

Against gravity

Benches, chairs, rocketships

Untitled.
Image: Ilse Gropius sits in the “Kandinsky,”
a chair designed by Marcel Breuer (1927)
Untitled.

James Kopf recently alerted my attention to an article by Emily Badger addressing “The Humble Public Bench,” on the redesign of a number of public benches in Boston. “Benches: the new chair?” he asked.  

The WA Chair by designer Katsuya Arai, Boston (2013)

“WA Chair,” by Katsuya Arai, Boston (2013)

What follows are a few thoughts in response to this question.

Above, one can see the benches mentioned in the article. The sleek, aerodynamic appearance of the benches Badger describes is something I’m oddly familiar with, having worked in an office building down at 1 State Street in Manhattan. Outside the entrance to South Ferry, the nearest Metro station, there are a number of benches working along the same modular lines, albeit in a slightly more distended, elongated form. Every time I’d exit the subway walking toward the grim black tower where our office was located, I’d pass them:

The benches at South Ferry in Manhattan

The benches at South Ferry

In either case, the author of the article briefly glosses the social and ideological role played by benches in the urban built environment. It’s a serviceable enough treatment, even if it slips into rather shallow moralizing toward the end:

The public bench has long been a mediator between cities and their citizens. A pleasant, functional park seat communicates to pedestrians that they’re welcome to linger, to treat public spaces like communal living rooms. Just as often, though, cities have been accused of deploying intentionally uncomfortable street furniture, angular benches with unnecessary guardrails dividing them to dissuade homeless loiterers and overnight guests. This second class of benches communicates something quite the opposite to residents: Move along, you’re not welcome here. Continue reading

Three models of “resistance” — Notes

Notes


[1] “[The] political beginnings [of ‘resistance’] in the West are conservative; this helps to explain some of the politics of resistance.  It’s Edmund Burke, the British conservative, who actually counsels resistance against the radical change of the French Revolution in 1790.  About 75 years later, the same call was taken up by Mathew Arnold, who essentially argues for culture as a means of resistance against the tides of anarchic progress…Marx and Engels, when they [were] writing the Communist Manifesto, actually single out resistance in the form of reactionary socialism as a major stumbling block to any sort of revolution…Resistance has this sort of conservative cast in the 18th and 19th centuries.”  Albert, Michael; Cutrone, Chris; Duncombe, Stephen; and Holmes, Brian. “The 3 Rs: Reform, Revolution, and ‘Resistance’: The Problematic Forms of ‘Anti-capitalism’ Today.”  Platypus Review.  (No. 4.  April, 2008).

[2]Upping the Anti Editorial Board.  With Eyes Wide Open: Notes on Crisis and Resistance Today.”  Upping the Anti.  (No. 10.  May, 2010).

[3] Postone, Moishe.  Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 1993).  Pgs.

[4] Burke, Edmund.  Selected Works, Volume 2: Reflections on the Revolution in France.  (Liberty Fund.  Indianapolis, IN: 1999).  Pg 180.

[5] Paul, Alexander.  The History of Reform: A Record of the Struggle for the Representation of the People in Parliament.  (George Routledge & Sons.  New York, NY: 1884).  Pg. 138.

[6] Wolfe, Ross.  “Reflections of Resistance, Reform, and Revolution.”  Upping the Anti,  (No. 14.  November, 2012).

[7] Derrida, Jacques.  “Resistances.”  Translated by Peggy Kamuf, Pascale-Anne Brault, and Michael Naas.  Resistances of Psychoanalysis.  (Stanford University Press.  Stanford, CA: 1998).  Pg. 2.

[8] Ibid., pg. 16.

[9] Ibid., pg. 17.

[10] Dilthey, Wilhelm.  “The Origin of Our Belief in the Reality of the External World and Its Justification.”  Translated by Maximilian Aue.  Selected Works, Vol. 2: Understanding the Human World.  (Princeton University Press.  Princeton, NJ: 2010).  Pg. 19.

[11] “Fichte’s system is the culmination of subjective idealism.  This means simply that it completes the attempt to explain the world through the I, and to derive the nexus of all sensations and intuitions, of all that is given and exists, from the spontaneous, productive subject.  The essence of this system consists in raising all givenness, all beings, into something active, or more precisely, into the active I.  This givenness or reality is not sought for ‘out there’ in the world.  For Fichte there is no ‘out there.’  Rather the ‘out there’ exists only for consciousness itself.”  Dilthey, Wilhelm.  Hermeneutics and Its History.  Translated by Theodore Nordenhaug.  Hermeneutics and the Study of History.  (Princeton University Press.  Princeton, NJ: 1996).  Pg. 100.

[12] “The not-self is posited in the self…but all such counterpositing presupposes the identity of the self, in which something is posited and then something set in opposition thereto.”  Fichte, J.G.  The Science of Knowledge.  Translated by Peter Heath and John Lachs.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 1982).  Pg. 106.

[13] Dilthey, “The Origin of Our Belief in the Reality of the External World and Its Justification.”  Pg. 23.

[14] Ibid., pgs. 49-50.

[15] “As is the case with many other opinions of this great author [i.e., Schopenhauer], this opinion constitutes a development of propositions set forth by his teacher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, although he does not refer to him on this occasion, and rarely mentions his name at all without piling abuse on it.”  Ibid., pg. 12.

[16] “We know that multiplicity in general is necessarily conditioned by time and space and is thinkable only through them; in this respect, we call them the principium individuationis.”  Schopenhauer, Arthur.  The World as Will and Representation, Volume 1.  Translated by Christopher Janaway, Judith Norman, and Alistair Welchman.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 2010).  Pg. 152.

[17] Dilthey, Wilhelm.  Selected Works, Volume 3: The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences.  Translated by Rudolf A. Makkreel and John Scanlon.  (Princeton University Press.  Princeton, NJ: 2002).  Pg. 55.

[18] Dilthey, “The Origin of Our Belief in the Reality of the External World and Its Justification.”  Pg. 42.

[19] “This activity then becomes the ego’s highest function; decisions as to when it is more expedient to control one’s passions and bow before reality, and when it is more expedient to side with them and to take arms against the external world — such decisions make up the whole essence of worldly wisdom.”  Sigmund Freud, The Question of Lay Analysis: Conversations with an Impartial Person.  Translated by James Strachey.  (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.  New York, NY: 1978).  Pgs. 23-24.

Compare with Dilthey: “A volition first produces an impulse to move, which, in the course of the imagined motion, is accompanied by barely noticeable feelings of pleasure: then the experience of resistance arises.  Does the impulse simply disappear in it? Does it vanish by turning into a mere sensory state? No, it persists, supplemented by the consciousness that the will is being restrained.”  Dilthey, “The Origin of Our Belief in the Reality of the External World and Its Justification.”  Pg. 20.

[20] Dilthey, The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences.  Pg. 185.  My italics.

[21] Dilthey, “The Origin of Our Belief in the Reality of the External World and Its Justification.”  Pg. 14.

[22] Schmidt, Konrad.  “Final Goal and Movement.”  Pgs. 210-211.

[23] Bernstein, Eduard.  Selected Writings, 1900-1921.  Translated by Manfred B. Steger.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 1996).  Pg. 64.

[24] Luxemburg, Rosa.  Reform or Revolution? Translated by Integer.  (Haymarket Books.  Chicago, IL: 2008).  Pg. 46.

[25] Lenin, Vladimir.  “A Protest by Russian Social Democrats.”  Translated by.  Collected Works, Volume 4: 1898-1899.  (Progress Publishers.  Moscow, USSR: 1977).  Pg. 178.

[26] Lenin, Vladimir.  “Fear of the Collapse of the Old and the Fight for the New.”  Translated by Yuri Sdobnikov.  Collected Works, Volume 26: September 1917-February 1918.  (Progress Publishers.  Moscow, USSR: 1972).  Pg. 401.

[27] “The crude confrontation of subject and object in naïve realism is of course historically necessitated and cannot be dismissed by an act of will.  But at the same time it is a product of false abstraction, already a piece of reification.  Once this is seen through, then a consciousness objectified to itself, and precisely as such directed outward, virtually striking outward, could no longer be dragged along without self-reflection.”  Adorno, Theodor.  “On Subject and Object.”  Critical Models.  Pg. 249.

[28] Clearly, the differences between these two conflicting orders of reality — the natural and the historical — must not to be ontologized by erecting some kind of permanent boundary between them, thereby succumbing to a form of metaphysical dualism.  An underlying material foundation unites both nature and history.  Depending on the way that one approaches this unity, however, diverging pictures can result.  The paradigmatic example of this was given by Theodor Adorno’s student Alfred Schmidt in contrasting Marx’s concept of nature against that of his influential predecessor, Ludwig Feuerbach.  “What Feuerbach described as the unity of man and nature,” Schmidt explained in his 1954 study on The Concept of Nature in Marx, “related only to the romantically transfigured fact that man arose out of nature, and not to man’s socio-historically mediated unity with nature in industry.”  In this sense, at least, Feuerbach remained a materialist in the eighteenth century mold:  “Nature as a whole was for Feuerbach an unhistorical, homogeneous substratum, while the essence of the Marxist critique was a dissolution of this homogeneity into a dialectic of Subject and Object.  Nature was for Marx both an element of human practice and the totality of everything that exists.”  Schmidt, Alfred.  The Concept of Nature in Karl Marx.  Translated by Ben Fowkes.  (New Left Books.  London, England: 1971).  Pg. 27.

To be sure, Dilthey distinguishes the historical world from the natural world at several points in presenting his philosophical system: “[N]ature is a constituent of history only insofar as it has an effect and in how it can be affected.  The proper domain of history is, to be sure, also external; yet the tones that form a musical composition, the canvas on which we paint, the courtroom in which a verdict is pronounced, merely have their material in nature.  Every operation of the human sciences dealing with such external states of affairs has to do merely with the sense and meaning they receive through the activity of spirit and how it serves the understanding that grasps this meaning and sense in themThe difference between the human and natural sciences is not just about the stance of the subject toward the object; it is not merely about a kind of attitude, a method.  Rather, the procedure of understanding is grounded in the realization that the external reality that constitutes its objects is totally different from the objects of the natural sciences.  Spirit has objectified itself in the former, purposes have been embodied in them, values have been actualized in them, and understanding grasps this spiritual content that has been formed between them.”  Dilthey, The Formation of the Historical World in the Human Sciences.  Pgs. 140-141.  Still, the distinction between these two objective forms of external reality is posterior to their common experience as resistant to an individual’s will.

Despite their anthropological predispositions, Feuerbach and Dilthey each fell into the same fundamental error by conceiving nature as merely the baseline condition of human activity.  They failed to take into account the extent to which nature was itself conditioned by human activity.  “Labor is, first of all, a process between man and nature,” Marx wrote in Capital, “a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature.”  In labor, especially industrial labor, man “sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head, and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs.  Through this movement he…develops the potentialities slumbering within nature, and subjects the play of its forces to his own sovereign power.” Marx, Karl.  Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1.  Translated by Ben Fowkes.  (Penguin Books.  New York, NY: 1882).  Pg. 283.

[29] Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich.  Manifesto of the Communist Party.  Pg. .

[30] Lukács, Georg.  “Class Consciousness.”  Translated by Rodney Livingstone.  History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pg. 70.

[31] Marx, Capital, Volume 1.  Pg.  165.

[32] Marx, Karl.  Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.  Translated by.  (Progress Publishers.  Moscow, USSR: 19).  Pg. 274.

[33] Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich.  The German Ideology.  ‘Pg. 47.

[34] “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.”  Translated by Rodney Livingstone.  History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pg. 185.

[35] Engels, Friedrich.  Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.  Translated by Edward Aveling.  Collected Works, Volume 24: 1874-1883.  (International Publishers.  New York, NY: 1989).  Pgs. 323-324.

[36] Freud, Sigmund.  Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis.  Translated by James Strachey.  (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.  New York, NY: 1989).  Pg. 364.

[37] “From what part of the mind does an unconscious resistance…arise? The beginner in psychoanalysis will… answer: it is, of course the resistance of the unconscious.  An ambiguous and unserviceable answer!… Resistance can only be a manifestation of the ego, which originally put the repression into force and now wishes to maintain it.”  Freud, Sigmund.  New Introductory Lectures to Psychoanalysis.  Translated by James Strachey.  (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.  New York, NY: 1989).  Pg. 86.

“We must above all get rid of the mistaken notion that what we are dealing with in our struggle against resistances is resistance on the part of the unconscious.  The unconscious — that is to say, the ‘repressed’ — offers no resistance whatever to the efforts of the treatment.”  Freud, Sigmund.  Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Translated by James Strachey.  (W.W. Norton & Co.  New York, NY: 1961).  Pg. 13.

[38] Very little has been written concerning the historical conjuncture of reification, repetition, and resistance that takes place under the conditions of capitalist social life, much less in the moment of profound crisis within international Marxism (1914-1923).  Of the few authors who have touched on the issue, Postone has perhaps gone the furthest toward understanding their interconnection, albeit within a far more general purview.  He calls attention to the homology that exists between individual and social manifestations of this tendency to compulsively repeat.  “One could draw a parallel between [the Marxian] understanding of the capitalist social formation’s history and Freud’s notion of individual history, where the past does not appear as such, but rather in a veiled, internalized form that dominates the present,” Postone astutely notes.  “The task of psychoanalysis is to unveil the past in such a way that its appropriation becomes possible.  The necessary moment of a compulsively repetitive present can thereby be overcome, which allows the individual to move into the future.”  Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination.  Pg. 377.

[39] Lukács, Georg.  “Class Consciousness.”  Pgs. 76-77.

[40] Reich, Wilhelm.  “Ideology as a Material Force.”  Translated by Vincent R. Carfagno.  The Mass Psychology of Fascism.  (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.  New York, NY: 1980).  Pg. 31.

[41] Adorno, Theodor.  “Sociology and Psychology.”  Translated by Irving N. Wohlfarth.  New Left Review.  Pg. 78.

[42] Any attempt to apply diagnostic categories acquired from the analysis of single subjects to larger groups — in moving from individual to mass psychology — obviously runs the risk of careless interpolation.  There is a danger of lapsing into mysticism, thus repeating Jung’s misguided inquiries into the so-called “collective unconscious” (and various speculations concerning its contents).  Yet as Adorno correctly pointed out, the applicability of theories pertaining to particular, individual subjects to a more universal, social subject is vouchsafed by the specific historical milieu out of which they both commonly emerged.  Inasmuch as psychoanalysis takes the individual patient as its point of departure, it already presumes a context in which persons come to be individuated — lifted out of self-enclosed, organic communities rooted in tradition.  In a word, the entire discipline takes for granted the existence of society.  More specifically, it takes for granted the society of exchange, wherein structures such as the family still play a powerful role in psychological development but consciousness is principally organized around the individual: “The social moment is…the origin [of] the individual with whom psychoanalysis concerns.  [This] itself is an abstraction vis-à-vis the social context in which individuals find themselves…through the dominant form of exchange between individual contracting parties.”  Adorno, Theodor.  Introduction to Sociology.  Translated by Edmund Jephcott.  (Stanford University Press.  Stanford, CA: 2002).  Pg. 112.

Of course, this recognition cannot by itself suffice to justify this procedure.  At the very least, it does not eliminate the need to exercise a certain delicacy when handling psychoanalytic concepts in a sociological key.  Nevertheless, it explains the partial legitimacy and the overwhelming suggestive power of notions like Jung’s “collective unconscious” or Durkheim’s “collective consciousness.” Ibid., pg. 113.  The real problem with such forula was not so much their illegitimacy, according to Freud, as it was their superfluity.  Repressed material belongs not only to the individual; its content belongs more broadly to humanity as a species.  Freud indicated as much in his final published work: “The term ‘repressed’ is here used not in its technical sense.  Here I mean something past, vanished and overcome in the life of a people, which I venture to treat as equivalent to repressed material in the mental life of the individual.  It is not easy to translate the concepts of individual psychology into mass psychology, [but]…not…much is to be gained by introducing the concept of a ‘collective’ unconscious the content of the unconscious is collective anyhow, a general possession of mankind.”  Freud, Sigmund.  Moses and Monotheism.  Translated by Katherine Jones.  (Hogarth Press.  New York, NY: 1939).  Pg. 208.  Thanks are due to Bruno Bosteels, who alerted me to this passage from Freud’s writings in his excellent Marx and Freud in Latin America.  (Verso Books.  New York, NY: 2011).  Pg. 88.

[43] Marx, Karl.  The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.  Translated by Terrell Carver.  Later Political Writings.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 1996).  Pg. 32.

[44] “[World history] presents the development of spirit’s consciousness of its freedom and of the actualization produced by such consciousness.”  Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich.  Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Volume 1: Manuscripts of the Introduction and The Lectures of 1822-1823.  Translated by Robert F. Brown and Peter C. Hodgson.  (Oxford University Press.  Pg. 118. 

[45] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Untimely Meditations.  Translated by R.J. Hollingdale.  (Cambridge University Press.  New York, NY: 1997).  Pg. 61.

[46] Freud, Sigmund.  The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.  Translated by James Strachey.  (W.W. Norton & Company.  New York, NY: 1966).  Pgs. 62-63.

[47] Freud, Sigmund.  “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through.”  Translated by Joan Riviere.  Pg. 150.

[48] Freud, Sigmund.  Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  Translated by James Strachey.  (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.  New York, NY: 1978).  Pg. 12.

[49] Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through.”  Pg. 151.

[50] Cutrone, Chris.  “Adorno and Freud: The Relation of Freudian Psychoanalysis to Marxist Critical Social Theory.”  Platypus Review.  (No. 24: June 2010).  Pg. 4.

[51] Marx, Karl.  Collected Works, Volume 34: Economic Manuscripts, 1861-1864.  (International Publishers.  New York, NY: 1994).  Pg. 397.

[52] Marx, Karl.  Capital, Volume 1.  Pg. 711.

[53] “The circuit of capital, when this is taken not as an isolated act but as a periodic process, is called its turnover.  The duration of this turnover is given by the sum of its production time and its circulation time.  This period of time forms the capital’s turnover time.  It thus measures the interval between one cyclical period of the total capital value and the next; the periodicity in the capital’s life-process, or, if you like, the time required for the renewal and repetition of the valorization and production process of the same capital value.”  Marx, Karl.  Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 2.  Translated by David Fernbach.  (Penguin Books.  New York, NY: 1992).  Pgs. 235-236.

[54] Maksakovskii, Pavel.  The Capitalist Cycle: An Essay on the Marxist Theory of Cycle.   Translated by Richard B. Day.  (Haymarket Books.  Chicago, IL: 2009).  Pg. 103.

[55] “Variable capital…loses its character of a value advanced out of the capitalist’s funds only when we view the process of capitalist production in the flow of its constant renewal.  But that process must have had a beginning of some kind.  From our present standpoint it therefore seems likely that the capitalist, once upon a time, became possessed of money by some form of primitive accumulation [ursprüngliche Akkumulation] that took place independently of the unpaid labor of other people, and that this was therefore how he was able to frequent the market as a buyer of labor-power.  However this may be, the mere continuity of the process of capitalist production, or simple reproduction, brings about other remarkable transformations which seize hold of not only the variable, but the total capital.”  Marx, Capital, Volume 1.  Pg. 714.

[56] Postone, Moishe.  Time, Labor, and Social Domination.  Pgs. 298-306.

[57] Marx, Capital, Volume 1.  Pg. 727.

[58] Jameson, Fredric.  Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One.  Pg. 106.

[59] Lukács, Georg.  “Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat.”  Translated by Rodney Livingstone.  History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pg. 83.

[60] Marx, Karl.  Grundrisse.  Pg. 701.

[61] Rubin, Isaak.  “The Reification of Production Relations among People and the Personification of Things.”  Translated by Milos Samardzija and Fredy Perlman.  Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value.  (Black Rose Books.  New York, NY: 1990).  Pg. 24.

[62] Postone, Time, Labor, and Social Domination.  Pg. 377.

[63] Korsch, Karl.  “Marxism and Philosophy.”  Translated by Fred Halliday.  (Monthly Review Press.  2009).  Pgs. 53-54.

[64] Cutrone, Chris.  “Book Review: Karl Korsch.  Marxism and Philosophy.”  Platypus Review.  No. 15: .  Pg. 3.

[65] Korsch, “Marxism and Philosophy.”  Pg. 88.

[66] Lukács, Georg.  “What is Orthodox Marxism?” Translated by Rodney Livingstone.  History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pg. 19.

[67] Lukács, “Class Consciousness.”  Pg. 52.

[68] Ibid., pg. 59.

[69] Lukács, Georg.  “Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organization.” Translated by Rodney Livingstone.  History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pg. 304.

[70] Jacoby, Russell.  Social Amnesia: A Critique of Contemporary Psychology from Adler to Laing.  (Transaction Publishers.  New Brunswick, NJ: 1996).  Pg. 4.

[71] Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max.  Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments.  Translated by Edmund Jephcott.  (Stanford University Press.  Stanford, CA: 2002).  Pg. 191.

[72] Lukács, Georg.  “Legality and Illegality.” Translated by Rodney Livingstone.  History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics.  (MIT Press.  Cambridge, MA: 1971).  Pg. 168.

[73] Marx, Karl.  “Theses on Feuerbach.”  Translated by.  Collected Works, Volume 5: 1845-1847.  Pg. 4.  My italics.

[74] Lukács, Georg.  Tailism and the Dialectic.  Translated by Esther Leslie.  (Verso Books.  New York, NY: 2003).  Pg. 81.

[75] Lukács, Georg.  “Intellectual Workers and the Problem of Intellectual Leadership.”  Translated by Rodney Livingstone.  Tactics and Ethics: Political Essays, 1919-1929.  (Harper & Rowe Publishers.  New York, NY: 1972).  Pg. 17.

[76] Reich, “Ideology as a Material Force.”  Pg. 6.

[77] “The social situation is only the external condition that has an influence on the ideological process in the individual.  The instinctual drives through which the various social influences gain exclusive control over the emotions of an individual are now to be investigated.”  Reich, Wilhelm.  “The Authoritarian Ideology.” Translated by Vincent R. Carfagno.  The Mass Psychology of Fascism.  (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux.  New York, NY: 1980).  Pgs. 64-65.

[78] Reich, Wilhelm.  “A Practical Course in Marxist Sociology.”  Translated by Mary Boyd Higgins.  People in Trouble.  Pg. 36.

[79] Freud, Sigmund.  The Question of Lay Analysis: Conversations with an Impartial Person.  Translated by James Strachey.  (W.W. Norton & Co.  New York, NY: 1969).  Pg. 53.

[80] Reich, Wilhelm.  “The Emotional Plague.”  Translated by Mary Boyd Higgins.  Character Analysis.  (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.  New York, NY: 1990).  Pg. 511.

[81] Reich, Wilhelm.  “An Abortive Biological Revolution.”  Translated by Mary Boyd Higgins.  The Function of the Orgasm: Discovery of the Orgone, Volume 1.  (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.  New York, NY: 1973).  Pg. 238.

Max Ajl vs. Alex Gourevitch in Jacobin on society, nature, and the Left: An intervention

.
Alex Gourevitch
, whose presence I greatly appreciated on our environmentalism panel at the Left forum this last year, has been causing quite a stir with his articles “Two Hurricanes” and “Nature and Progress.”  Like Gourevitch, I “come from the minority on the Left that is skeptical of environmentalism.” Some of my polemics on the subject of “the ideology of ‘green’,” especially my long essay on “Man and Nature” (published in the speculative realist journal Thinking Nature), elicited a great deal of outrage from the “small-is-beautiful” Left as well. For example, this neat bit of screed from the environmental philosopher and ecofeminist Ronnie Hawkins:

I find myself virtually speechless in the wake of having read Ross Wolfe’s “Man and Nature,” however, especially in light of its concluding quotation, seemingly with approval, of Trotsky holding forth on “the Socialist man” who “will rule all nature by machine,” changing the course of rivers and cutting down mountains — I am left wondering whether this essay was intentionally crafted to be a cartoonish caricature of a position that has been undergoing an active process of rejection over many years now, and rightly so. At a time in which we are recognizing that we live in a world of limits — not only limits on how much GHG we can stuff into our atmosphere but limits on how much longer we can continue all the complex industrial processes that depend on fossil fuel consumption, including the translocation of staple foods from one continent to another, upon which some millions if not billions today depend — here is an author trotting out the same old, tired anti-Malthusian tirade, without giving the faintest hint of what sort of goal we might be “progressing” toward under his “vision of unlimited human freedom,” apparently unconstrained by any sort of planetary finitude. Wolfe provides not argument but ridicule against the positions of deep ecologists and animal rightists of various stripes, and he betrays an embarrassing lack of familiarity with philosophical ecofeminism. He does environmental philosophy a service, however, by addressing green anarchism head-on, something that the more mainstream journals have shied away from for all too long.

While I’m not quite ready to reject all that goes under the heading of “civilization,” I think a VERY deep critique of the presently dominant, near-global, industrial worldview (cutting at least as far down to the bone as John Zerzan’s problematization of language and the beginning of our primate symbol-use), to be followed by a REVERSAL of the trajectories of many of the activities that are currently being carried out by collective human action — for example, the building of a whole new round of nuclear reactors, and nuclear weapons, and mega-projects of many types as currently contemplated (all ultimately justified on the basis of continuing the growth of our human population indefinitely, though the proximal reasons are often very different) — is absolutely essential if our species is to make it through the twenty-first century. Without some kind of acknowledgment of the wrongness of continuing on in our current direction, and a turning away from it, we will indeed suffer the dystopian future heralded by the “zombie” genre — it will simply be natural selection acting on a species unwilling, to the bitter end, to relinquish its self-deception (one part of a finite system cannot continue to grow indefinitely — that’s very simple logic indeed). I’m afraid neither Marx nor Wolfe’s sort of contemporary Marxist ever got around to understanding “productivity” in terms of what REALLY keeps us all alive — NPP, the net primary productivity of green plants, not the sham “productivity” of human beings making plastic crap in sweatshops nor the complete fantasy of “production” in imagining we are creating something real by the calculation of compound interest.

Instead of continuing to converse in the worn-out terminology from another era, or to stay largely within disciplinary boundaries even with narrow, if more updated, concepts, I think we’re inhabiting a space now where all disciplines need to take an active role in addressing our common human situation, as Ted Toadvine may be advocating. But in that space we now all have access to certain significant findings of contemporary biological science, should we take the trouble to investigate, not the least of which are the astounding commonality (underlying a very broad spectrum of more superficial differences) of Earthly lifeforms, the complexity of organization of every living being, and the myriad interrelationships among them, some of which are importantly linked to considerations of finitude. There is a reality of “what it means to be alive,” in thermodynamic, organizational, and experiential dimensions, that needs to be recognized by everyone who would propose to philosophize about such matters, and a new vitalism — one that does not shy away from acknowledgment of the fact that the living IS different from the nonliving–may be very much in order. There are also interesting possibilities to explore with respect to the relationship between our collective level of awareness and our human social ontology: when we begin to ask questions like “what IS money?” or debt or any of the other socially agreed-upon symbols that we presently invest with power over ourselves but need not, for example, some things may change rapidly. Bumping up our self-reflexive awareness a level or two may well spell the end of globalized exploitative capitalism, which seems to be virtually synonymous with our highly centralized and now faltering industrialism (and let’s not forget patriarchal militarism). That’s why we need local agricultural communities of various sorts to spring up everywhere, by the way — so that there will be an alternative way of feeding people when the great “machine” grinds down — a pattern of social organization based on mistaken metaphysical assumptions that our species must finally leave far behind.

Émile Bayard, from Autour de la lune (All around the moon), by Jules Verne, Paris (Hetzel), circa 1870

Despite Hawkins’ insinuation that I “intentionally crafted [my essay] to be a cartoonish caricature of a position that has been undergoing an active process of rejection over many years now,” I was in fact and remain quite serious about the positions I laid out in that paper. The tendentiousness of her brief list of objections, including a complete misreading about what is meant by “production” in a specifically Marxist sense and her scientifically-misunderstood invocation of the second law of thermodynamics, should be obvious to anyone who knows the first thing about either Marxism as a social science or physics as a natural science. And yet many of the same arguments Hawkins makes in these lines are trotted out yet again by authors like Chris Bertram of Crooked Timber of Humanity or Max Ajl in his rejoinders to Gourevitch on Jacobin‘s online section, “Climate Change and the Politics of Responsibility” or “Really-Existing Environmentalism.” Ajl closes the second of these papers with the following lines:

Heavy industrialization has no answer to these questions of how to regulate the human interaction with the surrounding environment. But one thing is for sure, at its core, Gourevitch’s argument reduces to a call for total human control over nature and a destructive demand for the demobilization of all radical environmentalist social forces.

Both requests are criminally stupid. They have no place on the Left.

Criminally stupid, eh? No place on the Left, eh? I defer to the statements of both Friedrich Engels and Leon Trotskii included in the close to my essay on “Man and Nature.” The reader can decide for himself whether or not Engels or Trotskii were here behaving “criminally stupid” or if their opinions “have no place on the Left”:

In the final analysis, far from being a single, unitary ideology, the ideology of Green is rather just a hodgepodge of past ideological remnants — neo-Romanticism, vitalism, primitivism, Luddism, Eastern mysticism, and quasi-fascist Germanic naturalism. Though there is a small kernel of truth to its project insofar as it deals with sustainability (i.e., the ability to carry on the exploitation of natural resources without the threat of environmental catastrophe), more often than not there is an underlying notion amongst eco-activists that humanity should have some sort of “respect” for nature as an inviolable thing-in-itself. The Green movement therefore views nearly every industrial-technical instrumentalization of nature, plant and animal alike, as invasive and chauvinist. Insofar as it preaches “eating local” and “going organic,” and then promotes the long-outdated ideal of self-sufficiency, it’s tacitly advocating a return a semi-feudal mode of production, which would necessarily involve massive famine and urban depopulation.

Humanity does, indeed, stand alienated from nature. And yes, there is good scientific evidence that supports the theory of global warming, though the scientists are characteristically more cautious in their predictions. Those on the Right who insistently deny the fact of climate change are just as delusional as the hysterical dispensationalists on the Left who declare the world is doomed. But the present-day Green movement provides no real answers for reconciling man with nature, when posed as a social problem, outside of, perhaps, its notion of sustainable growth. So what might a Marxist approach to the societal problem of man’s relation to nature look like?

To begin with, it must acknowledge that the answer can only lie in radical social transformation. Since humanity’s alienation from nature began with the foundation of the first societies — i.e., the beginning of history as such — and since the precise form in which this alienation has manifested itself has varied throughout history, we are left two options. Either we renounce society in its entirety, with all its freedoms and higher sensibilities, and retreat into the dark recesses of prehistory (as the anarcho-primitivists suggest), or we must progress into a new, as-yet-unseen social formation. With the former option, nature would no longer present itself as a problem to humanity because there wouldn’t be a consciousness of anything different, and we would act on our every savage instinct. Following the latter course of action, human society must gain a more self-conscious mastery over nature, such that it would become merely an extension of our will. What we are faced with is thus clear: either we must accept the renaturalization of humanity, or, inversely, the humanization (or socialization) of nature. Only by pursuing one or the other of these options can the contradiction be overcome — only then might humanity be disalienated from the natural world.

For the Marxist, the choice is simple. Though regressions do occasionally take place throughout history, one cannot turn back the hands of time wholesale. Thus is the dream of the anarcho-primitivists only a nightmarish fantasy, never to be realized. One can only progress by moving forward. The only answer the Marxist can accept is worldwide revolution — the fundamental transformation of existing social relations. This revolution must honor neither regional convention nor national boundary, it must extend to encompass the globe. And only by eliminating society’s foundation on that insatiable category called Capital, only then can society exist for itself, only then can men truly make his own history, rather than be made by history. In the words of Marx, “[m]en make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Engels expanded on this in later work, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific:

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by systematic, definite organization. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time, man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organization. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action.The extraneous objective forces that have, hitherto, governed history, pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, more and more consciously, make his own history — only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom. [my emphases]

How to achieve such a seizure of the means of production is a political question, one that has been dealt with historically by figures like Lenin and Trostkii. And although it would be utopian to speculate exactly what such a realized society would look like, a few possibilities seem plausible. First, such an emancipated society, freed from the rule of Capital and the forces of history, can now consciously direct its actions at a global level. No longer would there be the haphazard, chaotic hyperexploitation of nature that one sees under capitalism, which so often gives rise to crises and acute shortages. Secondly, humanity, liberated from its servitude to merely use technology as a tool to generate relative surplus-value, can now self-consciously harness the vast technological forces bestowed upon it by capitalist society. No longer beholden to these machines, gadgets, and other devices, but their master, human society can use these technological instruments to radically reshape nature for the benefit of both society and nature.Indeed, this would involve both the transformation of man and nature. Or, as Trotskii put it in the conclusion of his book, Literature and Revolution, in a quote that might as well serve as an appendix to our whole discussion:

The Socialist man will rule all nature by the machine, with its grouse and its sturgeons. He will point out places for mountains and for passes. He will change the course of the rivers, and he will lay down rules for the oceans. The idealist simpletons may say that this will be a bore, but that is why they are simpletons. Of course this does not mean that the entire globe will be marked off into boxes, that the forests will be turned into parks and gardens. Most likely, thickets and forests and grouse and tigers will remain, but only where man commands them to remain. And man will do it so well that the tiger won’t even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine is not in opposition to the earth.[…]

[And thus, t]he wall will fall not only between art and industry, but simultaneously between art and nature also. This is not meant in the sense of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that art will come nearer to a state of nature, but that nature will become more “artificial.” The present distribution of mountains and rivers, of fields, of meadows, of steppes, of forests, and of seashores, cannot be considered final. Man has already made changes in the map of nature that are not few nor insignificant. But they are mere pupils’ practice in comparison with what is coming. Faith merely promises to move mountains; but technology, which takes nothing “on faith,” is actually able to cut down mountains and move them. Up to now this was done for industrial purposes (mines) or for railways (tunnels); in the future this will be done on an immeasurably larger scale, according to a general industrial and artistic plan. Man will occupy himself with re-registering mountains and rivers, and will earnestly and repeatedly make improvements in nature. In the end, he will have rebuilt the earth, if not in his own image, at least according to his own taste.

The Marxist vision of an emancipated society is one of abundance and plenitude, not of scarcity and shortage. It is a vision of unlimited human freedom, not within the constraints of an ascetic lifestyle. And these are precisely the terms that the Green movement have set up as unchallengeable, terms of shortage and “ecoscarcity.” And “[t]he danger here is of accepting, often without knowing it, concepts that preclude radical critique,” writes the Marxist theorist and radical geographer David Harvey. “Consider, for example, the way in which ‘ecoscarcity’ (and its cognate term of ‘overpopulation’) plays out in contemporary debate.” With such terms as “ecoscarcity” and the supposed dearth of natural resources, contemporary eco-activism shortchanges the possibilities of human freedom. Harvey continues, writing that the assumption of “ecoscarcity” by contemporary environmentalists implies “that we have not the will, wit or capacity to change our social goals, cultural modes, our technological mixes, or our form of economy and that we are powerless to modify ‘nature’ according to human requirements.” The history of capitalism supports none of these claims. There may be limitations in terms of what we might accomplish in transforming nature at the present moment, but that is no reason set arbitrary limits on what might be accomplished in the future. “Hitherto philosophers have only described the world; the point, however, is to change it,” reads Marx’s famous eleventh thesis on Feuerbach. We might close by saying that not only can the social world be changed, but our physical world as well.

Henri de Montaut, from De la terre à la lune (From the earth to the moon), by Jules Verne, Paris (Hetzel), 18??

Henri de Montaut, from De la terre à la lune (From the earth to the moon), by Jules Verne, Paris (Hetzel), 18??

In this vein, reading Marx on Feuerbach, I recall a passage from The German Ideology that Gourevitch himself cited toward the end of the discussion of environmentalism and Occupy at the Left Forum. With Ajl’s objections to Gourevitch I cannot help but be reminded of Marx’s brilliant critical insight into Feuerbach’s neo-Romantic ruminations on the supposed peace and tranquility one experiences in community with “nature.” Feuerbach, disgusted with the filth and soot of the industrial cities, fled to the countryside, where he contemplated the “natural simplicity” and appreciation human beings feel when surrounded by a natural setting. The specific object of his most sublime contemplations was a cherry blossom (prunus serrulata, I believe), which he commended for its beauty, untouched by the hand of mankind.

Marx pointed out, of course, that this particular species of cherry had actually been imported centuries ago from Japan, through trans-oceanic commerce. And so it was not that Feuerbach was appreciating some pristine bit of nature, apart from human influence; rather, it was only by virtue of human influence acting in history that he was able to sit there and appreciate it at all:

In reality and for the practical materialist, i.e. the communist, it is a question of revolutionizing the existing world, of practically attacking and changing existing things. When occasionally we find such views with Feuerbach, they are never more than isolated surmises and have much too little influence on his general outlook to be considered here as anything else than embryos capable of development. Feuerbach’s conception of the sensuous world is confined on the one hand to mere contemplation of it, and on the other to mere feeling…He does not see how the sensuous world around him is, not a thing given direct from all eternity, remaining ever the same, but the product of industry and of the state of society; and, indeed, in the sense that it is an historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations, each standing on the shoulders of the preceding one, developing its industry and its intercourse, modifying its social system according to the changed needs. Even the objects of the simplest “sensuous certainty” are only given him through social development, industry and commercial intercourse. The cherry-tree, like almost all fruit-trees, was, as is well known, only a few centuries ago transplanted by commerce into our zone, and therefore only by this action of a definite society in a definite age it has become “sensuous certainty” for Feuerbach.

Incidentally, when we conceive things thus, as they really are and happened, every profound philosophical problem is resolved…quite simply into an empirical fact. For instance, the important question of the relation of man to nature (Bruno [Bauer] goes so far as to speak of “the antitheses in nature and history,” as though these were two separate “things” and man did not always have before him an historical nature and a natural history), crumbles of itself when we understand that the celebrated “unity of man with nature” has always existed in industry and has existed in varying forms in every epoch according to the lesser or greater development of industry, just like the “struggle” of man with nature, right up to the development of his productive powers on a corresponding basis. Industry and commerce, production and the exchange of the necessities of life, themselves determine distribution, the structure of the different social classes and are, in turn, determined by it as to the mode in which they are carried on; and so it happens that in Manchester, for instance, Feuerbach sees only factories and machines, where a hundred years ago only spinning-wheels and weaving-rooms were to be seen, or in the Campagna of Rome he finds only pasture lands and swamps, where in the time of Augustus he would have found nothing but the vineyards and villas of Roman capitalists.

Feuerbach speaks in particular of the perception of natural science; he mentions secrets which are disclosed only to the eye of the physicist and chemist; but where would natural science be without industry and commerce? Even this pure natural science is provided with an aim, as with its material, only through trade and industry, through the sensuous activity of men. So much is this activity, this unceasing sensuous labour and creation, this production, the basis of the whole sensuous world as it now exists, that, were it interrupted only for a year, Feuerbach would not only find an enormous change in the natural world, but would very soon find that the whole world of men and his own perceptive faculty, nay his own existence, were missing. Of course, in all this the priority of external nature remains unassailed, and all this has no application to the original men produced by generatio aequivoca [spontaneous generation]; but this differentiation has meaning only insofar as man is considered to be distinct from nature. For that matter, nature, the nature that preceded human history, is not by any means the nature in which Feuerbach lives, it is nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral-islands of recent origin [!!]) and which, therefore, does not exist for Feuerbach.

There is truth, in part, to the nature/culture dichotomy, but it is precisely an historical truth, and nothing more. Positing a strict divide between humanity in nature is impossible. In light of such examples from Marx, Engels, and Trotskii, I cannot but conclude that it is in fact Max Ajl who is criminally stupid, and who has no place on the Left.

An exchange with conservative Swedish permaculturalist Øyvind Holmstad on the concept of “civilization”

Monuments to permanent unnature: The Egyptian Pyramids

I recently had an exchange with Øyvind Holmstad, a blogger and self-described conservative permaculturalist, on the subject of my reflections on the idea of “civilization,” which I posted not too long ago.  The only edits I made are grammatical.  Øyvind’s comments will appear in normal font, aligned to the left, while my responses will appear in goldish-orange, indented once to the right.

“…as Engels wrote in 1849, in the core of old Europe: “On the one side the revolution, on the other the coalition of all outmoded estate-classes and interests; on the one side civilization, on the other barbarism.”[62]”

I’ve really never thought of this distinction between culture and civilization as outlined in your article. If civilization really means technological control of nature, I don’t want civilization. But I think the alternative is not barbarism, but permaculture, applying the “technologies of life” to live in symbiosis with nature. So probably we’re better off with a permanent culture (permaculture) than with civilization.

I think I should work these thoughts into an article for the PRI-institute some day. Thanks for offering me this new insight!

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:07 am |

No problem. Though I would again stress that the opposition of culture to civilization was usually invoked by right-wing nationalists, if not outright fascists. I think that is why Adorno, Elias, and others objected to any sort of hard-and-fast line of separation between them.

Also, “civilization” is usually contrasted to “barbarism.” Only under barbaric conditions is it contrasted to “culture.” The concept usually opposed to “culture” is “nature,” as structuralist anthropology taught us long ago.  Permaculture could thus be seen to signify a state of permanent unnature.  It is humanity’s lot to cultivate the earth.  In a different key, “culture” may be seen to be humanity’s mastery over nature. “Civilization,” by contrast, would be humanity’s self-conscious mastery of its own activities (i.e., freedom).But I imagine you and I would have very different ideas as to the extent of that cultivation.

Ross Wolfe said this on June 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |

Thanks again for very interesting viewpoints and information! All this is brand new thoughts to me, so I anyway have to digest it a long time before I eventually write my article. Have you written other essays on this subject, or do you have some good ones to recommend? I don’t know what to name my article. Maybe “Permaculture, Nature and Civilization”?By the way, I’m not an academical so I can come up with whatever crazy ideas I like without influencing my career, I see this as my advantage. Anyway, if you had read “The Nature of Order” you would have known that Alexander has documented by empirical findings that order and wholeness in nature, art and architecture is one and the same, i.e., all nourishing art and architecture is unfolded through the same processes and laws. So I think that after “The Nature of Order” was published culture and nature are not opposites anymore.

I’ve only read “The Phenomenon of Life” yet, so I might should have finished the whole series before I eventually write my essay. I’ll have these new ideas in my mind while reading it.
Here are some of the findings documented in this work:

http://www.livingneighborhoods.org/library/empirical-findings.pdf

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm |

First and foremost I identify myself as Alexandrin, after Alexander. Now that I see that Alexander has wiped out the oppositions of nature and culture, I feel even more proud of my identity. I believe this reunion of nature and culture has to be the basic of a new permanent civilization.And nothing of this I had ever thought of when I wake up this morning.

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 3, 2012 at 4:23 pm | 

I continued thinking about these things tonight and couldn’t help myself from starting to write my essay, so here it is:

http://permaliv.blogspot.no/2012/06/permaculture-nature-civilization.html

I really don’t know if it’s of any interest for you, as I’m not full of knowledge like you. I’m just a hobby philosopher, so maybe you find it naive? But it’s a lot of naive people out there, so I’m sure some will appreciate it.

Øyvind Holmstad said this on June 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm |

Well, Øyvind, I think if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I do find your view a little naïve. But that’s not because it’s not erudite or sophisticated enough; often erudition and sophistication conceal an underlying weakness in an argument. (For me, I think my footnoting is largely a result of an obsessive-compulsive pattern. But obviously having a bunch of footnotes doesn’t mean that my argument is right).Ultimately, I think that the question of how humanity will continue to live in this world can only be resolved through a radical restructuring of how society organizes itself. Rather, society would have to finally become capable of self-consciously organizing itself, rather than remaining unconscious and uncontrollable. This, actually, would be the truth of concepts like economy and ecology, from the Greek οἶκος (oikos, or home). The relationship between these two terms is effectively analogous to the relationship between astrology and astronomy today.There’s a beautiful bit from the young (pre-Marxist) Lukács that I think still rings true, no matter how idealistic:

Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths — ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars; the world and the self, the light and the fire, are sharply distinct, yet they never become permanent strangers to one another, for fire is the soul of all light and all fire clothes itself in light. Thus each action of the soul becomes meaningful and rounded in this duality: complete in meaning — in sense — and complete for the senses; rounded because the soul rests within itself even while it acts; rounded because its action separates itself from it and, having become itself, finds a center of its own and draws a closed circumference round itself. ‘Philosophy is really homesickness,’ says Novalis: ‘it is the urge to be at home everywhere.’

This, ultimately, must be the end of all ecology and economics: to make humanity at home in the world once more. I don’t think that this would mean a vast simplification of human production, or a global permaculture à la Mollison or whatnot. Humanity remains alienated from nature. This alienation can only be suspended through some balance of humanizing nature, or naturalizing humanity. I think that it would have to be some combination of both, but I would hope far more the former than the latter (insofar as in nature, we remain at the mercy of forces which dwarf us).

Ross Wolfe said this on June 8, 2012 at 7:29 am | Continue reading

Thinking Nature, a Speculative Realist Journal, Volume 1 Released

Thomas Cole's "A Tornado in the Wilderness" (1835)

Volume 1 of the Speculative Realist journal Thinking Nature is finally out.  Though I do not consider myself part of the Speculative Realist movement and have on several occasions been extremely critical of it, the content of my article was deemed relevant enough that it warranted inclusion in the journal.  My essay, “Man and Nature,” posted on this blog already, is written from a thoroughly Marxist perspective.  In any case, the other accepted submissions are listed below:

Volume 1

Essays

/1/ – What did the Early Heidegger Think about Nature? – Paul Ennis

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/2/ – Being and Counting: Speculative Materialism and the Threshold of the Given – David Lindsay

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/3/ – Unthinking Nature: Transcendental Realism, Neo-Vitalism and the Metaphysical Unconscious in Outline – Michael Austin

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/4/ – Philosophies of Nature in the Differentials of Iain Hamilton Grant and Ray Brassier – Himanshu Damle

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/5/ – Ecological Necessity – Tom Sparrow

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/6/ – Six Myths of Interdisciplinarity – Ted Toadvine

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/7/ – Some Notes Towards a Philosophy of Non-Life – Timothy Morton

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/8/ – Towards a Philosophy of (Dejected) Nature – Ben Woodard

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/9/ – Man and Nature – Ross Wolfe

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On the first socialist tragedy

Andrei Platonov

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It is essential not to thrust oneself forward and not to get drunk on life; our time is both better and more serious than blissful delight. Everyone who gets drunk is sure to be caught, sure to perish like a little mouse that messes with a mousetrap in order to “get drunk” on the fat on the bait. All around us lies fat, but every piece of this fat is bait. It is necessary to stand in the ranks of the ordinary people doing patient socialist work — that is all we can do.

The arrangement of nature corresponds to this mood and consciousness. Nature is not great and is not abundant. Or her design is so rigid that she has never yet yielded her greatness and her abundance to anyone. This is a good thing; otherwise — in historical time — we would long ago have looted and squandered all nature; we would have eaten our way right through her and got drunk on her right to her very bones. There would always have been appetite enough. Had the physical world been without what is, admittedly, its most fundamental law — the law of the dialectic — it would have taken people only a few centuries to destroy the world completely. More than that, in the absence of this law, nature would have annihilated itself to smithereens even without any people. The dialectic is probably an expression of miserliness, of the almost insuperable rigidity of nature’s construction — and it is only thanks to all this that humanity’s historical development has been possible. Otherwise everything would long ago have come to an end on this earth — like a game played by a child with sweets that melt in his hands before he has even had time to eat them.

What is the truth to be seen in the historical picture of our own time?

It goes without saying that this picture is tragic — if only because true historical work is being carried out not on the whole of the earth but only on a small, and greatly overburdened, part of the earth.

Truth — in my opinion — lies in the fact that “technology decides everything”. It is indeed technology that constitutes the theme of our contemporary historical tragedy — if technology is understood to mean not only the entire complex of man-made production tools but also the social organization that is based on the technology of production, and if ideology too is included in this understanding. Ideology, incidentally, is located not in the superstructure, not on some “height”, but somewhere within, in the heart of society’s sense of itself. To be more precise, unless in our concept of technology we also include the technician himself — the human being — our understanding of the question will remain obtuse and leaden.

The relationship between technology and nature is tragic. Technology’s aim is “Give me a fulcrum and I shall overturn the world”. But nature’s construction is such that she does not like being outmaneuvered. With the right moment of force it is possible to overturn the world, but so much will be lost in the journey and in the travel time of the lever that in practical terms the victory will be useless. This is an elementary example of the dialectic. Let us look now at a fact from our own time: the splitting of the atomic nucleus. It is the same thing. The hour will come when we expend n quantity of energy on the destruction of an atom and in return receive n + 1 — and we will be ever so pleased with this meagre increase, because this absolute gain will have been obtained by virtue of something like an artificially induced change to nature’s most fundamental principle: the dialectic itself. Nature stays aloof, she keeps us at bay; a quid pro quo — or even a trade with a mark-up in her own favor — is the only way she can work. Technology, however, strains to achieve the opposite. It is through the dialectic that the external world is defended against us. And so, however paradoxical this may seem: nature’s dialectic is both humanity’s enemy and its instructor. The dialectic of nature constitutes the very greatest resistance to technology; the aim and function of technology is to deny, or at least mitigate, the dialectic. Up until now its success in this has been modest, which is why the world cannot yet be kind and good for us.

And at the same time, the dialectic is our only instructor and our only means of defense against the premature and senseless destruction involved in childish delight. Just as the dialectic is itself the power that has created all our technology.

In sociology, in love, in the depth of a human being, the law of the dialectic functions no less immutably. A man with a ten-year-old son left the boy with the boy’s mother — and married a young beauty. The boy began to long for his father and patiently, clumsily hanged himself. A gram of delight on one end of the lever is balanced by a ton of graveyard earth on the other. The father took the rope from the boy’s neck and soon followed him into the grave. What he wanted was to get drunk on the innocent beauty; he wanted to bear love not as a duty, not as an obligation with a single wife, but as pleasure. Don’t get drunk — or it will be the end of you.

Some naïve people may retort that the contemporary crisis of production overturns this point of view. It does not overturn anything. Imagine the extremely complex technical equipment of the society of contemporary imperialism and fascism, the grinding exhaustion and destruction of the people of these societies — and it will become only too clear at what price this increase in the forces of production has been achieved. Self-destruction in fascism, war between states — these are the losses entailed by increased production, these are nature’s revenge for it. The tragic knot is cut — but without being resolved. What results cannot — in the classical sense of the word — even be called tragedy. Without the USSR, the world would be certain to destroy itself in the course of no more than a century.

The tragedy of man, armed with machine and heart, and with the dialectic of nature, must in our country be resolved by way of socialism. But it must be understood that this task is an extremely serious one. Ancient life on the “surface” of nature was able to obtain what was essential to it from the waste products and excretions of elemental forces and substances. But we mess about deep inside the world, and in return the world crushes us with an equivalent strength.

Translated by Robert Chandler, Elizabeth
Chandler, Jonathan Platt, and Olga Meerson

Андрей Платонов

Надо не высовываться и не упиваться жизнью: наше время лучше и серьезней, чем блаженное наслаждение. Всякий упивающийся обязательно попадает и гибнет, как мышонок, который лезет в мышеловку, чтобы «упиться» салом на приманке. Кругом нас много сала, но каждый кусок на приманке. Надо быть в рядах обыкновенных людей терпеливой социалистической работы, больше ничего.

Этому настроению и сознанию соответствует устройство природы. Она не велика и не обильна. Или так жестко устроена, что свое обилие и величие не отдавала еще никому. Это и хорошо, иначе — в историческом времени — всю природу давно бы разворовали, растратили, проели, упились бы ею до самых ее костей: аппетита всегда хватило бы. Достаточно, чтобы физический мир не имел одного своего закона, правда, основного закона — диалектики, и в самые немногие века мир был бы уничтожен людьми начисто. Больше того, и без людей в таком случае природа истребилась бы сама по себе вдребезги. Диалектика наверно есть выражение скупости, трудно оборимой жесткости конструкции природы, и лишь благодаря этому стало возможно историческое воспитание человечества. А то бы все давно кончилось на земле, как игра ребенка с конфетами, которые растаяли в его руках, и он не успел их даже съесть.

В чем же истина современной нам исторической картины?

Конечно, эта картина трагична, — уже потому, что действительная историческая работа совершается не на всей земле, а только на меньшей ее части с огромной перегрузкой.

Истина, по-моему, в том, что «техника… решает все». Техника это и есть сюжет современной исторической трагедии, понимая под техникой не один комплекс искусственных орудий производства, а и организацию общества, обоснованную техникой производства, и даже идеологию. Идеология, между прочим, находится не в надстройке, не на «высоте», а внутри, в середине общественного чувства общества. Точнее говоря, в технику надо включить и самого техника — человека, чтобы не получилось чугунного понимания вопроса.

Между техникой и природой трагическая ситуация. Цель техники — «дайте мне точку опоры, я переверну мир». А конструкция природы такова, что она не любит, когда ее обыгрывают: мир перевернуть

можно, подобрав нужные моменты рычага, однако надо проиграть в пути и во времени хода длинного рычага столько, что практически победа будет бесполезной. Это элементарный эпизод диалектики. Возьмем современный факт: расщепление атомного ядра. То же самое. Настанет всемирный час, когда мы, затратив на разрушение атома П — количество энергии, получим в результате П+1 и этим убогим добавком будем так довольны, потому что он, абсолютный выигрыш, получен в результате как бы искусственного изменения самого принципа природы, т. е. диалектики. Природа держится замкнуто, она способна работать лишь так на так, даже с надбавкой в свою пользу, а техника напрягается сделать наоборот. Внешний мир защищен против нас диалектикой. Поэтому, пусть это кажется парадоксом: диалектика природы есть наибольшее сопротивление для техники и враг человечества. Техника задумана и работает в опровержение или в смягчение диалектики. Удается ей пока это скромно, и поэтому мир для нас добрым быть еще не может.

Одновременно лишь диалектика является единственным нашим наставником и средством против ранней, бессмысленной гибели в детском наслаждении. Так же, как она же явилась силой, создавшей всю технику.

В социологии, в любви, в глубине человека диалектика действует столь же неизменно. Мужчина, имевший десятилетнего сына, оставил его с матерью, а сам женился на красавице. Ребенок затосковал по отцу и терпеливо, неумело повесился. Грамм наслаждения на одном конце уравновесился тонной могильной земли на другом. Отец взял с шеи ребенка бечеву и вскоре ушел за ним вслед, в могилу. Он хотел упиться невинной красавицей, он любовь хотел нести не как повинность с одной женой, а как удовольствие. Не упивайся — или умирай.

Некоторые наивные могут возразить: современный кризис производства опровергает такую точку зрения. Ничего не опровергает. Представьте сложнейшую арматуру общества современного империализма и фашизма, истощающее измождение, уничтожение тамошнего человека, и станет ясно, за счет чего достигнуто увеличение производительных сил. Самоистребление в фашизме, война государств — есть потери высокого производства и отмщение за него. Трагический узел разрубается, не разрешаясь. В классическом смысле трагедии даже не получается. Мир без СССР несомненно уничтожился бы сам собою в течение одного ближайшего века.

Трагедия человека, вооруженного машиной и сердцем, и диалектикой природы, должна разрешиться в нашей стране путем социализма. Но надо понимать, что это задание очень серьезно. Древняя жизнь на «поверхности» природы еще могла добывать себе необходимое из отходов и извержений стихийных сил и веществ. Но мы лезем внутрь мира, а он давит нас в ответ с равнозначной силой.

A Marxist Approach to the Nature-Culture Divide: A Reply to Adam Robbert’s “Six Common Problems in Thinking Nature-Culture Interactions”

Still from Tarkovskii's "Stalker" -- Entering the Zone (1979)

The following is taken from a response I wrote to Adam Robbert’s recent post on his blog,“Six Common Problems in Thinking Nature-Culture Interactions.”  If you would like to read another interesting response to the article, check out Matthew David Segall’s reply here, “Towards an Eco-Ontology.”  My Adornian opposition to ontologies of any sort remains unchanged, and while this doubtless complicates any attempt at discourse I might have with the OOO approach, I still think that some fruitful dialogue might be taken from this discussion.


A very interesting reflection on the old problem of the nature-culture relationship. Your points are thorough, calm, and considered — and I will say that none of them fall prey to the kind of pernicious metaphysical proclamations I sometimes see being issued out of the OOO blogosphere. Seeing your measured comments on my blog, it is little surprise to see that you are equally measured and reasonable in writing posts for your own blog.

In any case, I, like Matthew, also appreciate some of the thinkers you brought into constellation with one another. Ellul and Mumford are among my favorite critics of technology, though I prefer their insights as filtered through and appropriated by Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse. For this reason, along with my general Marxist inclinations, the most important point you highlighted (in my opinion) was the third, considering the effects of capitalism and globalization on the relationship between humanity and nature. For me, capitalism, globalization, and modernity are all coterminous — globalization is simply a spatial register for capitalism’s inherently expansionary logic, while the time-consciousness of modernity is merely capitalism’s temporal register.

I would argue, viewing the problem historically, that the problem of humanity’s alienation from nature — the widening chasm between Nature and Culture, even if they be inextricably intertwined — arose historically. That is to say, although humanity’s self-distinction as a society distinguishable from nature arrived fairly early, with the project of agriculture and primitive domestication, the estrangement of humanity from nature only rose to the level of consciousness with the advent of capitalism. Only after the Enlightenment’s thorough disenchantment of nature, the coldly rationalizing and technicizing logic of capitalism, even in the eighteenth century, only after this point do we see writers like Schiller, Holderlin, Schelling, and Hegel writing of the problem of humanity’s alienation from nature. Marx rationalized the Romantic thinkers’ thoughts on the matter in his Economic-Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.

This bleeds into your second point, where you talk about the problem of nature being one that nature considered as an entity unto itself must also be thought alongside the various ideological conceptions of nature arrived at by society through history. This is why I, in my own writings on the subject, have referred to nature as a fundamentally social problem. That is to say, one can look back through history at the way that humanity has conceived of nature, in its various iterations through the ages, and see that the way that nature has presented itself to us largely depends on the social constitution of a particular epoch. This is not to fall into the idealistic fantasy that nature has no existence apart from our conception of it, but rather to admit that while nature might have its own objective rhythms and regularities, it is not some sort of Kantian Ding-an-Sich, and the way that we conceptualize nature has much to do with how it appears to us as a problem. Oppositely, this would suggest that our way of thinking has much to do with the objective relations of whatever mode of production prevails throughout society at a given time, such that there is a quite real divide between Nature and Culture that has arisen historically. This means that we cannot overcome the problem simply by “reconceptualizing” it, but rather only through a fundamental transformation of our social structure.

Regarding the “pluriverse” and multiple conceptions of nature that you discuss in the fourth part, I thus believe that it is collapsible into the second part, since the multiple manifestations of nature arise historically as part of the social being of mankind. But I’m fully on board with you, also, on the facile attempt to dismiss the real opposition between nature and culture by simply saying that they are wholly intermingled with one another.

If you would like to read my own musings on the subjects, in a rather long essay that is due to be published in the upcoming SR journal Thinking Nature, edited by Ben Woodard and Timothy Morton, you can check it out on my blog. It’s much more detailed than the point-by-point reaction I give here, and I think you might be interested in taking a glance at it.

Man and Nature, Parts I-IV (Complete)

For those who would like to read my series of articles on Man and Nature, here they are, presented as a continuous text.  Also, for a detailed response to the fourth installment of my series on Man and Nature, please visit the Oroborous Self-Sufficient Community.  Its founder, the scientist Allister Cucksey, is a Robert Owens of sorts, and his counter-critique is welcome.

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