Fredric Jameson after the postmodern

Jameson’s style invites derision. Russell Jacoby once described his manner of writing as “a peculiar American baroque” — i.e., “a gray mash of half-written sentences punctuated by tooting horns and waving pennants,” “confounding rigor mortis with rigor.” Essays by Jameson are frequently ponderous, convoluted, and opaque. No other writer is so emblematic of contemporary Marxism’s professorial bent. Densely allusive, with many meandering asides, what Jonathan Arac called “the deliberate scandal of Jameson’s method” consists in its casual comparisons of a whole range of thinkers from across the European philosophical tradition.

Alberto Toscano might be seen as the legitimate successor to this method, along with Benjamin Noys and the late Mark Fisher (though these latter two are much more fluid writers). The theoreticism of their texts often leads readers far afield of the topic at hand, but by and large returns from these divagations enriched by the journey. One of the most brutal send-ups of Jameson’s work came from Robert Hullot-Kentor, whose approach to translation was praised at the outset of Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (1990). In a polemical review of this same book, “Suggested Reading: Jameson on Adorno,” Hullot-Kentor painted a very unflattering portrait of its author:

Fredric Jameson is one of the great tattooed men of our times. Every inch of flesh is covered: that web of cat’s cradles coiling up the right calf are Greimas and Levi-Strauss; dripping over the right shoulder, under the sign of the Cimabue Christ — the inverted crucifixion — hangs Derrida. And hardly recognizable in those many other overlapping splotches of color is just about everybody else: Lyotard, Sartre, Habermas, et al. “All One, All Different” scrolls across the panoramic chest. In Late Marxism Jameson scouts carefully before setting portentious digit on a densely engraved quadrate of his left hip, Adorno! and falls into a roll: “Adorno you will notice is like Althusser, only more like Sartre, except the idea of totality, in my opinion, as I’ll say again later, differs from Rorty, coming back to Luhmann, like Marxism, late, very late, minus Hegel’s concept of time. Perhaps, maybe, almost… Take another look, another look, just not too close, please, ladies and gentleman, give the man room to breathe!”

Still, if one can get past all the offhand references Jameson makes, the experience can be quite rewarding. Late Marxism was perhaps an unfortunate target for such ire, however — yes, “perhaps.” Hullot-Kentor’s caustic criticism of this work, though doubtless deserved, could have just as easily applied to Postmodernism or The Political Unconscious, released a few years before. And while it is understandable that Hullot-Kentor, the celebrated translator and interpreter of Adorno, would take Jameson to task on this subject, it was nevertheless bold for anyone to publish a defense of Adorno’s Marxist credentials in 1990. Whatever its other shortcomings may be, and they are many, Late Marxism is noteworthy at least in this respect. Especially given the Anglophone reception of Adorno up to that point, which apart from Susan Buck-Morss and Gillian Rose either ignored his Marxism or exaggerated its heterodoxy.

Regarding the rest of Jameson’s vast corpus, the stuff on periodization is probably what interests me the most. Modernity, postmodernity, and everything that comes in between. Aijaz Ahmad was right, of course, to scold Jameson for his overreach when it came to Third World literature, and Adorno was right to be skeptical of so-called “revolutions” taking place in the Third World. The sheer scope of his theoretical reading — not to mention his focus on film, literature, and architecture — is astounding. You can download a number of his works by clicking on the links below. Full-text PDFs only, since I don’t like E-books (for whatever reason):

  1. Fredric Jameson, Sartre: The Origins of a Style (1961)
  2. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (1971)
  3. Fredric Jameson, The Prison-House of Language: A Critical Account of Structuralism and Russian Formalism (1972)
  4. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1981)
  5. Fredric Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory (1988, 2008)
  6. Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (1990)
  7. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991)
  8. Fredric Jameson, Signatures of the Visible (1992)
  9. Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (1994)
  10. Fredric Jameson, Brecht and Method (1998)
  11. Fredric Jameson, The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998 (1998)
  12. Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (2002)
  13. Fredric Jameson, “Dialectics of Disaster” (2002)
  14. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005)
  15. Fredric Jameson, Conversations on Cultural Marxism (2007)
  16. Fredric Jameson, The Modernist Papers (2007)
  17. Fredric Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (2009)
  18. Fredric Jameson, The Hegel Variations: On the Phenomenology of the Spirit (2010)
  19. Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One (2011)
  20. Fredric Jameson, The Antinomies of Realism (2015)
  21. Fredric Jameson, The Ancients and the Postmoderns (2015)
  22. Fredric Jameson, “The Aesthetics of Singularity” (2016)
  23. Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (2016)
  24. Fredric Jameson, “Badiou and the French Tradition” (2016)
  25. Fredric Jameson, Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality (2016)

Below you can read an excellent review of Valences of the Dialectic by Benjamin Kunkel, originally published by the London Review of Books (and subsequently included in the Jacobin collection Utopia or Bust). Kunkel’s reviews of individual books tend to be skillful, if sweeping, overviews of a thinker’s entire oeuvre, and this one delivers well as far as that goes. He’s correct, in any case, that Jameson is more of an essayist than anything else. Enjoy!

Into the big tent

Benjamin Kunkel
London Review
April 22, 2010
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Fredric Jameson’s preeminence, over the last generation, among critics writing in English would be hard to dispute. Part of the tribute has been exacted by his majestic style, one distinctive feature of which is the way that the convoy of long sentences freighted and balanced with subordinate clauses will dock here and there to unload a pithy slogan. “Always historicize!is one of these, and Jameson has also insisted, under the banner of “One cannot not periodize,” on the related necessity (as well as the semi-arbitrariness) of dividing history into periods. With that in mind, it’s tempting to propose a period, coincident with Jameson’s career as the main theorist of postmodernism, stretching from about 1983 (when Thatcher, having won a war, and Reagan, having survived a recession, consolidated their popularity) to 2008 (when the neoliberal program launched by Reagan and Thatcher was set back by the worst economic crisis since the Depression). During this period of neoliberal ascendancy — an era of deregulation, financialization, industrial decline, demoralization of the working class, the collapse of Communism and so on — it often seemed easier to spot the contradictions of Marxism than the more famous contradictions of capitalism, and no figure seemed to embody more than Fredric Jameson the peculiar condition of an economic theory that had turned out to flourish above all as a mode of cultural analysis, a mass movement that had become the province of an academic “elite,” and an intellectual tradition that had arrived at some sort of culmination right at the point of apparent extinction.

Over the last quarter-century, Jameson has been at once the timeliest and most untimely of American critics and writers. Not only did he develop interests in film, science fiction, or the work of Walter Benjamin, say, earlier than most of his colleagues in the humanities, he was also a pioneer of that enlargement of literary criticism (Jameson received a PhD in French literature from Yale in 1959) into all-purpose theory which made the discussion of all these things in the same breath established academic practice. More than this, he succeeded better than anyone else at defining the term, “postmodernism,” that sought to catch the historical specificity of the present age.

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The works of Henri Lefebvre

Henri Lefebvre’s work spans a variety of disciplines and fields, ranging from philosophy and sociology to architecture and urbanism. Obviously, this relates to a number of the themes discussed on this blog. A past entry featured Alfred Schmidt’s laudatory essay dedicated to Lefebvre, which I urge everyone to read. Roland Barthes, in his Mythologies, defended his contemporary against “criticism blind and dumb” in the press: “You don’t explain philosophers, but they explain you. You have no desire to understand that play by the Marxist Lefebvre, but you can be sure that the Marxist Lefebvre understands your incomprehension perfectly, and above all that he understands (for I myself suspect you to be more subtle than stupid) the delightfully ‘harmless’ confession you make of it.”

Lefebvre blazed a path, moreover, in the theoretical inquiry into “everyday life,” taking up a thread from the early Soviet discourse on the transformation of “everyday life” [быт] and Marx’s musings on “practical everyday life” [praktischen Werkeltagslebens]. Trotsky had authored a book on the subject in the 1920s, under the title Problems of Everyday Life, and the three-volume Critique of Everyday Life by Lefebvre, released over the course of four decades (1946, 1961, and 1981), can be seen as an elaboration of its themes. Eventually, inspired by this series, the Situationist upstar Raoul Vaneigem would publish The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967), while the Catholic theorist Michel de Certeau released two volumes of The Practice of Everyday Life (1976, 1980).

Russell Jacoby passingly remarked in his excellent Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (1981) that “Lefebvre’s career in France recapitulates the general development of Western Marxism.” He continued: “Lefebvre left the French Communist party only after 1956, but his earlier activities and writings betrayed a commitment to unorthodox Marxism. He belonged to a group called ‘Philosophies,’ which briefly (1925-1926) formed an alliance with the surrealists. With Norbert Guterman he translated Hegel, Lenin’s Hegel notebooks, and early Marx. He also wrote with Guterman a book that represented a high point of French Western Marxism in this earlier period, La Conscience mystifiée. Published in 1936, the title itself hints of History and Class Consciousness… rewritten in the context of the struggle against fascism.” Continue reading

Society, totality, and history

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Dia­lectics elude straight­for­ward defin­i­tion. No doubt it is easi­er to say what dia­lectics is not, rather than to say what it is. Against Ferdin­and Las­salle, Marx re­marked in a let­ter to En­gels that “Hegel nev­er de­scribed as dia­lectics the sub­sump­tion of vast num­bers of ‘cases’ un­der a gen­er­al prin­ciple,” and there­fore con­cluded that “the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od is wrongly ap­plied.”1 Vladi­mir Len­in like­wise poin­ted out that Geor­gii Plekhan­ov, the founder of Rus­si­an Marx­ism, erred in treat­ing dia­lectics as “the sum-total of ex­amples,” a mis­take from which even En­gels was not fully ex­empt.2

Still less is dia­lectics re­du­cible to an ab­stract for­mula or ste­reo­typed pro­ced­ure of thes­is-an­ti­thes­is-syn­thes­is. James re­garded this series as “a ru­in­ous sim­pli­fic­a­tion” in his 1948 Notes on Dia­lectics,3 while Len­in fol­lowed Hegel in con­sid­er­ing “the ‘tripli­city’ of dia­lectics… [as] its ex­tern­al, su­per­fi­cial side.”4 In sim­il­ar fash­ion, the Frank­furt School the­or­ist Theodor Ad­orno re­called that “Hegel ex­pressed the most cut­ting ob­jec­tions to the claptrap tripli­city of thes­is, an­ti­thes­is, and syn­thes­is as a meth­od­o­lo­gic­al schema.”5 Early in his ca­reer, Len­in up­braided the pop­u­list Nikolai Mikhail­ovsky for his fatu­ous por­tray­al of the ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic as some sort of par­lor trick which “proves” cap­it­al­ism must col­lapse. “Marx’s dia­lect­ic­al meth­od does not con­sist in tri­ads at all,” ex­plained Len­in in 1894, “but pre­cisely in the re­jec­tion of ideal­ism and sub­ject­iv­ism in so­ci­ology.”6

How can this meth­od be re­tained in so­ci­ology, however, while at the same time get­ting rid of its ideal­ist residues? Ob­vi­ously, if the dia­lectic is to be any­thing more than a sub­ject­ive ad­di­tion, an ar­bit­rary “way of think­ing” about the world, its lo­gic has to be dis­covered in the ob­ject (i.e., so­ci­ety) it­self. The ma­ter­i­al­ist in­ver­sion of Hegel’s dia­lectic can only be jus­ti­fied if its con­tours ap­pear at the level of so­cial real­ity. “Dia­lect­ic­al un­der­stand­ing is noth­ing but the con­cep­tu­al form of a real dia­lect­ic­al fact,” wrote Georg Lukács in his 1924 mono­graph Len­in: A Study in the Unity of His Thought.7 Lukács’ con­tem­por­ary, the Bolshev­ik re­volu­tion­ary Le­on Trot­sky, main­tained that the meth­od should not be ap­plied to just any sphere of know­ledge “like an ever-ready mas­ter key,” since “dia­lectics can­not be im­posed upon facts, but must be de­duced from their char­ac­ter and de­vel­op­ment.”8 Re­flect­ing on his con­ver­sion to Marx­ism, Trot­sky wrote that “the dia­lect­ic­al meth­od re­vealed it­self for the first time, not as an ab­stract defin­i­tion, but as a liv­ing spring found in the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess.”9

Trot­sky’s meta­phor of the spring re­curs fre­quently in his art­icles and speeches. “Marx­ism without the dia­lectic is like a clock without a spring,” he later de­clared.10 Wound tightly in­to the shape of a spir­al, the ma­ter­i­al­ist dia­lectic simply mir­rors the dy­nam­ic ten­sion of cap­it­al­ism it­self. “Cycles ex­plain a great deal,” Trot­sky main­tained in 1923, “form­ing through auto­mat­ic pulsa­tion an in­dis­pens­able dia­lect­ic­al spring in the mech­an­ism of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.”11 Earli­er in the year he stressed that an ad­equate so­ci­olo­gic­al ac­count must be both strong and flex­ible, since “dia­lect­ic­al thought is like a spring, and springs are made of tempered steel.”12

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Materialism, postmodernity, and Enlightenment

Jac­obin pub­lished an art­icle just over a week ago en­titled “Ali­ens, An­ti­semit­ism, and Aca­de­mia,” writ­ten by Landon Frim and Har­ris­on Fluss. “Alt-right con­spir­acy the­or­ists have em­braced post­mod­ern philo­sophy,” the au­thors ob­serve, and re­com­mend that “the Left should re­turn to the En­light­en­ment to op­pose their ir­ra­tion­al and hate­ful polit­ics.” While the ar­gu­ment in the body of the text is a bit more nu­anced, re­fer­ring to the uni­ver­sal­ist­ic egal­it­ari­an “roots of En­light­en­ment ra­tion­al­ity,” the two-sen­tence con­dens­a­tion above the byline at least has the vir­tue of blunt­ness. The rest of the piece is fairly me­dio­cre, as per usu­al, a rather un­ob­jec­tion­able point de­livered in a flat pop­u­lar style. Fluss and Frim strike me as ly­ing some­where between Do­men­ico Los­urdo and Zer­stö­rung der Ver­nun­ft-vin­tage Georg Lukács, minus the Stal­in­oid polit­ics. But the gen­er­al thrust of their art­icle is sound, draw­ing at­ten­tion to an­oth­er, more ori­gin­al cur­rent of thought that arises from the same source as the ir­ra­tion­al­ist ideo­lo­gies which op­pose it — i.e., from cap­it­al­ist mod­ern­ity. Plus it in­cludes some amus­ing tid­bits about this Jason Reza Jor­jani char­ac­ter they went to school with, whose ideas eli­cit a certain mor­bid fas­cin­a­tion in me. Gos­sip is al­ways fun.

Is it pos­sible to “re­turn to the En­light­en­ment,” however? Some say the past is nev­er dead, of course, that it isn’t even past. Even if by­gone modes of thought sur­vive in­to the present, em­bed­ded in its un­con­scious or en­shrined in prom­in­ent con­sti­tu­tions and leg­al codes, this hardly means that the so­cial con­di­tions which brought them in­to ex­ist­en­ce still ob­tain. One may in­sist on un­timely med­it­a­tions that cut against the grain of one’s own epoch, chal­len­ging its thought-ta­boos and re­ceived wis­dom, but no one ever en­tirely es­capes it. So it is with the En­light­en­ment, which now must seem a dis­tant memory to most. Karl Marx already by the mid-nine­teenth cen­tury was seen by many of his con­tem­por­ar­ies as a com­pos­ite of thinkers is­su­ing from the Auf­klä­rung. Moses Hess wrote en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally to Ber­thold Auerbach about the young re­volu­tion­ary from Tri­er: “You will meet in him the greatest — per­haps the only genu­ine — philo­soph­er of our gen­er­a­tion, who’ll give schol­asti­cism and me­di­ev­al theo­logy their coup de grâce; he com­bines the deep­est in­tel­lec­tu­al ser­i­ous­ness with the most bit­ing wit. Ima­gine Rousseau, Voltaire, Hol­bach, Less­ing, Heine, and Hegel fused in­to one per­son (I say fused, not jux­ta­posed) and you have Marx.” Though steeped in the an­cients, he was also a great ad­mirer of mod­ern po­ets and play­wrights like Shakespeare and Goethe. Denis Di­derot was Marx’s fa­vor­ite polit­ic­al writer.

Cer­tainly, Marx and his fol­low­ers were heirs to the En­light­en­ment project of eman­cip­a­tion. Louis Men­and has stressed the qual­it­at­ive break­through he achieved, however, along with En­gels and sub­se­quent Marx­ists. Ac­cord­ing to Men­and, “Marx and En­gels were phi­lo­sophes of a second En­light­en­ment.” What was it they dis­covered? Noth­ing less than His­tory, in the em­phat­ic sense:

In pre­mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life: people do things in their gen­er­a­tion so that the same things will con­tin­ue to be done in the next gen­er­a­tion. Mean­ing is im­man­ent in all the or­din­ary cus­toms and prac­tices of ex­ist­en­ce, since these are in­her­ited from the past, and are there­fore worth re­pro­du­cing. The idea is to make the world go not for­ward, only around. In mod­ern so­ci­et­ies, the ends of life are not giv­en at the be­gin­ning of life; they are thought to be cre­ated or dis­covered. The re­pro­duc­tion of the cus­toms and prac­tices of the group is no longer the chief pur­pose of ex­ist­en­ce; the idea is not to re­peat, but to change, to move the world for­ward. Mean­ing is no longer im­man­ent in the prac­tices of or­din­ary life, since those prac­tices are un­der­stood by every­one to be con­tin­gent and time­bound. This is why death in mod­ern so­ci­et­ies is the great ta­boo, an ab­surdity, the worst thing one can ima­gine. For at the close of life people can­not look back and know that they have ac­com­plished the task set for them at birth. This know­ledge al­ways lies up ahead, some­where over his­tory’s ho­ri­zon. Mod­ern so­ci­et­ies don’t know what will count as valu­able in the con­duct of life in the long run, be­cause they have no way of know­ing what con­duct the long run will find it­self in a po­s­i­tion to re­spect. The only cer­tain know­ledge death comes with is the know­ledge that the val­ues of one’s own time, the val­ues one has tried to live by, are ex­pun­ge­able. Marx­ism gave a mean­ing to mod­ern­ity. It said that, wit­tingly or not, the in­di­vidu­al per­forms a role in a drama that has a shape and a goal, a tra­ject­ory, and that mod­ern­ity will turn out to be just one act in that drama. His­tor­ic­al change is not ar­bit­rary. It is gen­er­ated by class con­flict; it is faith­ful to an in­ner lo­gic; it points to­ward an end, which is the es­tab­lish­ment of the class­less so­ci­ety.

Ed­mund Wilson like­wise saw this drama in nar­rat­ive terms. That is to say, he un­der­stood it as hav­ing a be­gin­ning, middle, and end. Wilson gave an ac­count of this dra­mat­ic se­quence in his 1940 mas­ter­piece To the Fin­land Sta­tion, for which Men­and wrote the above pas­sage as a pre­face. It began in Par­is in the last dec­ade of the eight­eenth cen­tury. (Per­haps a long pro­logue could also be in­cluded, in­volving murky sub­ter­ranean forces that took shape un­der feud­al­ism only to open up fis­sures that sw­al­lowed it whole). After this first act, though, a fresh set of dramatis per­sonae take the stage. Loren Gold­ner ex­plains that “it was not in France but rather in Ger­many over the next sev­er­al dec­ades that philo­soph­ers, above all Hegel, would the­or­ize the ac­tions of the Par­isi­an masses in­to a new polit­ics which went bey­ond the En­light­en­ment and laid the found­a­tions for the com­mun­ist move­ment later ar­tic­u­lated by Marx… This real­iz­a­tion of the En­light­en­ment, as the re­volu­tion ebbed, was at the same time the end of the En­light­en­ment. It could only be salvaged by fig­ures such as Hegel and Marx.” Bur­ied be­neath re­ac­tion, the lu­min­ous dream of bour­geois so­ci­ety would have to en­dure the night­mare of in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion be­fore ar­riv­ing with Len­in in Pet­ro­grad. Among Len­in’s first ex­ec­ut­ive acts after the Bolshev­ik seizure of power in Oc­to­ber 1917 was to or­gan­ize a Com­mis­sari­at of En­light­en­ment [Ко­мис­са­ри­ат про­све­ще­ния], where his sis­ter Maria would work un­der his long­time friend and com­rade Anato­ly Lun­acharsky.

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Once again on the term “identitarian”

An­gela Mitro­poulos, an Aus­trali­an aca­dem­ic and au­thor of Con­tract and Con­ta­gion: From Bi­opol­it­ics to Oiko­nomia, re­cently pos­ted a note on her blog about the ori­gins of the term “iden­tit­ari­an­ism.” This is something that’s come up at dif­fer­ent points in de­bates over the past few years, in­clud­ing the con­tro­versy sparked by the late Mark Fish­er’s art­icle “Ex­it­ing the Vam­pire Castle,” so I thought it might be ger­mane to treat the is­sue at great­er length. Mitro­poulos dir­ectly in­ter­vened in that de­bate against Fish­er, moreover, so it’s ap­pro­pri­ate to en­gage with her at that level as well.

“Iden­tit­ari­an­ism” is an un­for­tu­nate word, for sev­er­al reas­ons. First of all, it’s an awk­ward and off-put­ting con­struc­tion. Ugly neo­lo­gisms — phrases like “pluriver­sal trans­mod­ern­ity,” “phal­lo­go­centric on­to­theo­logy,” “de­co­lo­ni­al epi­stem­o­logy,” etc. — are these days sadly all too com­mon. Second, it’s a poly­semous ex­pres­sion, sig­ni­fy­ing more than one thing. Of­ten it refers to things which are not just dis­tinct from one an­oth­er but even op­pos­ite in mean­ing, a prob­lem I’ve writ­ten about be­fore. Lastly, it has both pos­it­ive and neg­at­ive con­nota­tions de­pend­ing on what’s meant and who’s us­ing it.

Hope­fully, this will be­come clear in what fol­lows. Re­turn­ing to Mitro­poulos’ entry, men­tioned at the out­set, we find:

Ad­orno coined the term “iden­tit­ari­an­ism” in Neg­at­ive Dia­lectics (1966), promp­ted by cri­tique of Kan­tian and Hegel­i­an philo­sophies.

The ar­gu­ment, very briefly, goes something like this: Like Hegel, Ad­orno re­jec­ted the man­ner of Kant’s dis­tinc­tion between nou­men­al and phe­nom­en­al forms. Put simply, Ad­orno gran­ted Hegel’s claim con­cern­ing the his­tor­ic­ally- and con­cep­tu­ally-gen­er­at­ive qual­it­ies of non-cor­res­pond­ence, but wanted to press Marx’s cri­tique of philo­soph­ic­al ideal­ism fur­ther against Hegel­i­an Marx­ism. Ad­orno re­mains a dia­lec­tician. But, un­like Hegel and more like Marx, he es­chewed the af­firm­at­ive, syn­thet­ic moves of con­scious­ness (i.e., philo­soph­ic­al ideal­ism) and ac­cor­ded epi­stem­o­lo­gic­al-his­tor­ic­al pri­or­ity to the ob­ject (mat­ter, ma­ter­i­al­ism) rather than the sub­ject (ideal­ism) in ex­plain­ing the course of this gen­er­at­ive, non-cor­res­pond­ence (or non-iden­tity). Iden­tit­ari­an­ism and the ideal­ist philo­sophies of Kant and Hegel are thereby con­tras­ted to a ma­ter­i­al­ist philo­sophy of non-cor­res­pond­ence, or what Ad­orno calls “neg­at­ive dia­lectics.”

How it happened that “iden­tit­ari­an­ism” came to be plaus­ibly used as a syn­onym for “iden­tity polit­ics” — or, more ac­cur­ately, co-op­ted by arch-iden­tit­ari­an Hegel­i­an Marx­ists against any em­phas­is on race, gender and/or sexu­al­ity, and in their de­fense of more or less ex­pli­cit ar­gu­ments that class is the a pri­ori or primary cat­egor­ic­al di­vi­sion of sub­stance — is a mys­tery to me.

Mitro­poulos dis­tin­guishes, in oth­er words, between the ho­mo­gen­eity as­ser­ted by lo­gic­al op­er­a­tions of equi­val­ence or iden­tity, which de­clare un­like things (A & B) to be alike (A = B), and the het­ero­gen­eity as­ser­ted by vari­ous iden­tity groups with com­pet­ing sec­tion­al in­terests, which de­clare them­selves dif­fer­ent from everything else. She in­dic­ates, quite cor­rectly, that the former was cri­ti­cized by Ad­orno in the six­ties, where­as the lat­ter has been cri­ti­cized by fig­ures like Ad­olph Reed, Wal­ter Benn Mi­chaels, Nancy Fraser, and Mark Fish­er over the last fif­teen or so years. Continue reading

Culinary materialism

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Cook­ing a pot of beans from scratch is a re­volu­tion­ary act that hon­ors both your an­cest­ors and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.

Un­less your an­cest­ors hap­pen to be Py­thagoreans, of course. De­col­on­ize Your Diet is a new cook­book writ­ten by Luz Calvo, pro­fess­or of eth­nic stud­ies at Cal State East Bay in Hay­ward and Ca­tri­ona R. Esquibel, as­so­ciate pro­fess­or of race and res­ist­ance stud­ies at San Fran­cisco State. They’ve got a web­site (seems to be down right now), main­tain a Face­book page to boot, and gen­er­ally urge their read­ers to “[re­claim] our col­lect­ive an­ces­tral know­ledge of food, herbs, re­cipes, and cul­ture, with an em­phas­is on a plant-based diet us­ing Mesoamer­ic­an in­gredi­ents.”

Either way, I’m skep­tic­al. Re­mem­ber, kids, de­col­on­iz­a­tion is not a meta­phor. By pre­par­ing this dish, you’re lit­er­ally over­throw­ing the ex­ist­ing state of af­fairs. You’re bring­ing about “the co­in­cid­ence of the chan­ging of cir­cum­stances and of hu­man activ­ity or self-chan­ging.” Or maybe they just mean that eat­ing this will help you evac­u­ate the con­tents of your colon — de-colon-ize. Maybe it’s just sup­posed to be edi­fy­ing. However, there’s at least one philo­soph­er who might agree with the im­per­at­ive to eat beans, and its re­volu­tion­ary portent: Lud­wig Feuerbach. Sid­ney Hook ex­plains.

625510_669374049740997_1668188857_nFeuerbach’s “degenerate sensationalism”

Sidney Hook
From Hegel to
Marx (1936)
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Feuerbach’s por­trait as a philo­soph­er would be in­com­plete if we were to omit a phase of his thought which, it must be con­ceded at once, is more im­port­ant for an un­der­stand­ing of the re­cep­tion of his ideas than for their de­vel­op­ment. For this phase was a short-lived en­thu­si­asm in­duced by the first ex­per­i­ment­al steps of or­gan­ic chem­istry. But it must be treated here, if only to present the con­text in which ap­pears his fam­ous sen­tence “Man is what he eats” [Der Mensch ist Was er isst] — a sen­tence which the philo­soph­ic­al phil­istines have used as a pre­text to con­demn rather than to read Feuerbach’s works.

Feuerbach sin­cerely be­lieved that his cri­tique of re­li­gion and philo­sophy marked the turn­ing point in the his­tory of West­ern thought. And if not all of his dis­ciples made the same claims for his philo­sophy, even the crit­ic­al among them, like Ruge, re­ferred to it as “the third cock’s crow of Ger­man spir­itu­al free­dom.” Feuerbach’s last word in the peri­od of his thought we have just been con­sid­er­ing was a call for philo­sophy to break its mésalliance with re­li­gion and enter in­to a liv­ing uni­on with sci­ence. In his Vorläufigen: Thesen, he main­tained that philo­sophy must ally it­self once more with sci­ence and sci­ence with philo­sophy” (S.W., Bd. 2, p. 267).

Car­ry­ing out his own pro­gram, Feuerbach reached for the nearest sci­ence at hand which would jus­ti­fy his hu­man­ist­ic in­terest. And without stop­ping to an­swer the very dif­fi­culties which he had so co­gently ar­gued against Dor­guth’s ab­so­lute ma­ter­i­al­ism, he pro­ceeded to swal­low bag and bag­gage the nat­ur­al philo­sophy of Moles­chott, com­pared to whom Dor­guth and all the ma­ter­i­al­ists of the eight­eenth cen­tury were mod­els of crit­ic­al re­straint. Feuerbach’s philo­soph­ic­al ex­tra­vag­ance was ap­par­ently an ef­fect of his read­ing Moles­chott’s Lehre der Nahrungs­mit­tel, a work now only of his­tor­ic­al in­terest and even in its own day of du­bi­ous sci­entif­ic im­port­ance. It ap­peared to Feuerbach as if the long sought-for bond of unity between mind and body, spir­it and nature, had at last been dis­covered through the re­volu­tion­ary prin­ciples of food chem­istry. Philo­soph­ers in their quest for truth have been over­look­ing what was, lit­er­ally speak­ing, un­der their noses. Feuerbach runs lightly through all the ma­jor philo­soph­ic cat­egor­ies — Sub­stance, Ex­ist­ence, Be­ing, Es­sence, Thought — and no longer iden­ti­fies them with sens­ib­il­ity, love, and pas­sion but with something more ba­sic still. Only Feuerbach’s own words can al­lay the sus­pi­cion that we are in­vent­ing them:

How the concept of Sub­stance has vexed philo­soph­ers! That is it, Self or Not-Self, Spir­it or Nature or the unity of both? Yes, the unity of both. But what does that mean? Susten­ance [Nahrung] only is sub­stance. Susten­ance is the iden­tity of spir­it and nature. Where there is no fat, there is no flesh, no brain, no spir­it. But fat comes only from Susten­ance. Susten­ance is the… es­sence of es­sence. Everything de­pends upon what we eat and drink. Dif­fer­ence in es­sence is but dif­fer­ence in food (S.W. Bd. 2, p. 82).

One would ima­gine that a thinker of Feuerbach’s caliber would con­tent him­self with the neg­at­ive ob­ser­va­tion that without food there can be no hu­man activ­ity; that cer­tain types of food un­der cer­tain con­di­tions pro­duce cer­tain re­ac­tion, and pass on from these ir­rel­ev­ant com­mon­place truths to more sig­ni­fic­ant state­ments. In­stead he de­liv­ers him­self of a piece of rhet­or­ic which would lend it­self ad­mir­ably to philo­soph­ic ca­ri­ca­ture and which might serve as a num­ber in some un­writ­ten Gil­bert and Sul­li­van light op­era:

Be­ing is one with eat­ing. Be­ing means eat­ing. Whatever is, eats and is eaten. Eat­ing is the sub­ject­ive, act­ive form of be­ing; be­ing eaten, the ob­ject­ive, pass­ive form. But both are in­sep­ar­able. Only in eat­ing does the empty concept of be­ing ac­quire con­tent, thereby re­veal­ing the ab­surdity of the ques­tion wheth­er or not be­ing and not-be­ing are identic­al, i.e., wheth­er eat­ing and starving are the same.

How the philo­soph­ers have tor­tured them­selves with the ques­tion as to where and with what philo­sophy be­gins… Oh, you fools, who open your mouth in sheer won­der over the en­ig­mas of the be­gin­ning and yet fail to see that the open mouth is the en­trance to the heart of nature: who fail to see that your teeth have long ago cracked the nut upon which you are still break­ing your heads. We be­gin to think with that with which we be­gin to ex­ist. The prin­cipi­um es­sendi is also the prin­cipi­um cognoscendi. But the be­gin­ning of ex­ist­ence is nour­ish­ment [Ernährung]; there­fore, food [Nahrung] is the be­gin­ning of wis­dom, The first con­di­tion of put­ting any thing in­to your head and heart, is to put something in­to your stom­ach (S.W. Bd. 2, p. 83).

Feuerbach had a strong sense of hu­mor. And one feels al­most cer­tain that he is in­dul­ging it; that this pas­sage is dir­ec­ted against the pop­u­lar sci­entif­ic evan­gel­ists who were cry­ing up as a new truth, a simple fact, known to every­body, but now clothed in a new tech­nic­al robe, trail­ing clouds of chem­ic­al for­mu­lae be­hind it. In­deed, it con­tains an even more de­li­cious par­ody. Sub­sti­tute “know­ing” for “eat­ing” and you have pure ideal­ist­ic doc­trine with typ­ic­al ar­gu­ment and ex­pres­sion. Feuerbach seems to be mak­ing fun of the ideal­ists, for whom know­ing is like eat­ing, the “ob­ject” be­ing to “food” as the “sub­ject” is to “eat­ing.”

But alas! Feuerbach is in deadly earn­est. His motto is Der Nahrungsstoff ist Gedanken­stoff — a doc­trine which he makes the basis not only of a philo­sophy of per­son­al­ity but of a philo­sophy of his­tory. What hu­man be­ings eat af­fects their feel­ings and tem­pera­ment; the activ­ity of the group de­pends upon the tem­pera­ment of its mem­bers. Con­sequently, con­cludes Feuerbach, the vi­cis­situdes of the struggle between dif­fer­ent groups in his­tory re­flect the char­ac­ter of their di­ets. Food chem­istry be­comes the key to his­tory. Feuerbach does not con­tent him­self with ab­stract gen­er­al­it­ies here. He goes in­to some de­tail. Pota­toes, for ex­ample, are the staple diet of all the work­ers of European coun­tries. But since pota­toes have no great quant­it­ies of the phos­phor­es­cent fat and pro­tein ne­ces­sary for healthy brain and muscle, the fate of the work­ing class is hope­less. “Slug­gish potato blood” [träges Kar­tof­fel­blut] can nev­er sup­ply them with re­volu­tion­ary en­ergy. The struggle between Eng­land and Ire­land, Feuerbach cites as a case in point:

Poor Ire­land, you can­not con­quer in the struggle with your stiff-necked neigh­bor whose lux­uri­ant [üppige] flocks sup­ply its hire­lings with strength. You can­not con­quer, for your susten­ance can only arouse a para­lyz­ing des­pair not a fiery en­thu­si­asm. And only en­thu­si­asm will be able to fight off the gi­ant in whose veins flow the rich, power­ful, deed-pro­du­cing blood [roast beef] (Ibid., p. 90).

If pota­toes ac­count for the de­feat of the Ir­ish in their struggles against the Eng­lish, it is the use of salad which “did” for the Itali­ans, and the ex­clus­ive ve­get­able diet of the Hindus which bind them to the chari­ot wheel of the Brit­ish Em­pire.

And then comes that clas­sic pas­sage one sen­tence of which, torn from the only con­text which could give it a particle of sense, has gone the rounds of the world:

We see of what im­port­ant eth­ic­al sig­ni­fic­ance the doc­trine of food has for the people. What is eaten turns to blood, the blood to heart and brain, to the stuff of thought and tem­pera­ment. Hu­man fare is the found­a­tion of hu­man cul­ture and dis­pos­i­tion. Do you want to im­prove the people? Then in­stead of preach­ing against sin, give them bet­ter food. Man is what he eats (p. 90).

Des­pite its com­ic fea­tures there is one as­pect of this doc­trine which, if prop­erly de­veloped, would have had im­port­ant im­plic­a­tions for a re­ori­ent­a­tion of Feuerbach’s hu­man­ism to­wards the so­cial prob­lem. If man is what he eats, the im­me­di­ate cent­ral prob­lem of man­kind is not polit­ic­al, eth­ic­al, cul­tur­al, but eco­nom­ic. To im­prove man­kind means at least to im­prove its fare. And since it is the fare of the work­ing class which is in greatest need of im­prove­ment, the work­ers can be or­gan­ized as the con­scious lever of so­cial change. Feuerbach, however, brings the re­volu­tion­ary mor­al home in a more lit­er­al fash­ion. If the work­er’s fare is bad, his so­cial fu­ture can­not be made any bet­ter un­less a di­et­ary sub­sti­tute is found for his present spir­it­less fare. The re­volu­tion of 1848, he con­tends, ended with the tri­umph of re­ac­tion be­cause the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion were mar­tyrs to their potato diet. Potato blood can make no re­volu­tion! The fu­ture of the poorer classes looks dark. It is broken by only one ray of light from Moles­chott’s chem­ic­al labor­at­ory.

Shall we there­fore des­pair? Is there no oth­er food­stuff which can re­place pota­toes among the poorer classes and at the same time nur­ture them to manly vig­or and dis­pos­i­tion. Yes, there is such a food­stuff, a food­stuff which is the pledge of a bet­ter fu­ture, which con­tains the seeds of a more thor­ough — even if more gradu­al — re­volu­tion. It is the bean!

Had this be­come the ideo­logy of a mass move­ment, its fun­da­ment­al re­volu­tion­ary prin­ciples would have been drawn from the for­mu­lae of food chem­istry, its strategy and tac­tics dir­ec­ted to work­ing out spe­cif­ic menus rich in deed-pro­du­cing ele­ments, and its cent­ral agit­a­tion­al slo­gan “beans in­stead of pota­toes”! This phase of Feuerbach’s thought, if we call it such, mani­fes­ted it­self in 1850, some years after the in­flu­ence of Feuerbach upon Marx and En­gels had waned. Marx had already com­mit­ted to pa­per his cri­ti­cism of Feuerbach’s doc­trine when Feuerbach made his fant­ast­ic somer­sault back to the most “vul­gar” of “vul­gar ma­ter­i­al­isms.” It is a sign of the homage in which, des­pite their cri­ti­cism, both Marx and En­gels held Feuerbach that they nev­er refer to it in their writ­ings. What in­ter­ested them much more was pre­cisely the ad­vance which Feuerbach made over tra­di­tion­al philo­sophy and the in­com­plete char­ac­ter of that ad­vance.

Early Marxist criticisms of Freudian psychoanalysis: Karl Korsch and Georg Lukács

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Much has been written over the years about the similarity between and compatibility of Marxian sociology and Freudian psychology. Here is not the place to evaluate those claims. Suffice it to say, for now, that both social critique and psychoanalysis have seen better days. Both doctrines have lost whatever pretense they once had to scientific status and today are relegated mostly to the humanities. One is more likely to hear Marx and Freud mentioned in the halls of the academy than shouted in the streets or whispered in clinical settings.

Tomorrow or the next day I plan to post PDFs of the complete works of Wilhelm Reich in English, German, and possibly Spanish. I will perhaps devote a few lines to the question of Marxism and Freudism, to the way each approaches and interprets irrationality. Whether as social ideology or psychopathology, this is their shared concern and primary motivation. Each aims to render that which is unconscious conscious, to master the forces of nature (external or internal) in a more rationally ordered life. “Just as Marxism was sociologically the expression of humanity becoming conscious of the exploitation of a majority by a minority,” asserted Reich, “so psychoanalysis is the expression of humanity becoming conscious of the social repression of sex.”

Freudian analysis tends to fall back on biological explanations of irrational behavior, whereas Marxist theory places more emphasis on the historical dimension. Yet both of them ultimately fall under the heading of materialism, even if somewhat “idealistic” strains. Psychoanalysis gives too much priority to sexual factors, important though these doubtless are. Vulgar Marxism is quite often guilty of reducing everything to economic factors. Desires and drives are a major part of psychoanalysis, while needs and motivations are a major part of Marxism.

A word about these texts. Korsch’s article first appeared in the councilist periodical Living Marxism in February 1938. Its main point of reference, besides Freud’s work, is Wilhelm Reich, whose writings were virtually unknown in America at the time. Reuben Osborn’s 1937 book on Marx and Freud: A Dialectical Study is also dealt with, but Reich is the one Korsch for the most part has in mind. He is generally appreciative of both Freud, whose postulates about the unconscious Korsch calls a “genuine discovery,” as well as Reich’s efforts to understand the rise of fascism on its basis. Oddly, Korsch — who by then had long since abandoned Leninism and increasingly considered Marxism a lost cause — had recourse to Lenin’s arguments against the Economists in defending Marxist methodology.

Lukács’ review of Group Psychology by Sigmund Freud appeared even earlier, in the German communist paper Die rote Fahne [The Red Flag] in 1922. For whatever reason, Lukács never struck me as someone interested in Freud. Victor Serge had described him as “a philosopher steeped in the works of Hegel, Marx, and Freud” in Memoirs of a Revolutionary, so maybe I just forgot. Either way, Lukács makes very clear that he considers Freud “a researcher of integrity,” and even after criticizing psychoanalytic interpretations of military psychology insists: “We did not quote this example in order to expose an otherwise meritorious researcher to deserved ridicule.” Interesting stuff.
Continue reading

Slavoj Žižek on the refugee crisis: A critique

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Earlier today someone commented on an old post I wrote after a bit of sleuthing, which determined that the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek did not attribute a quote by the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Lately Žižek has been the subject of some controversy, voicing bizarre and often offensive opinions on the plight of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. This is worth taking more seriously than the wild accusations of deranged tankie Twitteristas like Molly Klein.

Over the last fifteen years, Žižek has been a towering figure on the Left. He has played more the role of celebrity intellectual than low-profile scholar, loudmouthed and provocative rather than quiet and reserved. No one can deny the commercial success Žižek has achieved. Recycling the same jokes and stitching together bits of old text into new Frankensteins, the sales of his books have doubtless made up for dozens of lackluster releases by lesser authors on the Verso roster (likely written off as a loss). For this reason alone Žižek will not be rebuked too harshly by his peers and publishers, bristle though they may at his contrarianism of late.

Žižek should not be written off simply on account of these recent indiscretions. Mostly because his polemics against Derridean poststructuralism in the 1990s, particularly For They Know Not What They Do, are worth salvaging. His critique of facile multiculturalism, his defense of Marxist negativity and universality against the affirmative and particularistic claims of postcolonial professors, came at an important juncture following the end of the Cold War. They remain valuable today. I even find him to be an insightful reader of Hegel at times, though I disagree with the structuralism he inherits from Althusser and Lacan.

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Also because this is part of a larger pattern of outrageous remarks on Žižek’s part, calculated to elicit a specific response or just generally get under people’s skin. In his 2008 book In Defense of Lost Causes, building on a shorter treatise on Violence earlier that same year, Žižek glorified violence as inherently emancipatory (almost as an end-in-itself). Heidegger’s decision to join the Nazi party in 1933 was thus “the right step, albeit in the wrong direction” according to Žižek. Similarly, Foucault’s cheerleading for Khomeini in 1979 was the best thing he ever did. By no means are these statements less wrongheaded than what he’s said in the last year.

Maybe such claims are less contentious because they have to do with phenomena further removed in time and space. The refugee situation in Europe has a deadly immediacy to it, so the uproar is only to be expected. Esben Bøgh Sørensen wrote an excellent piece several months ago, however, rebutting Žižek’s disgraceful remarks about the flow of populations displaced by political and economic strife. It is reproduced with slight grammatical and stylistic edits below. Republishing this article made is all the more timely given that Žižek has since had occasion to reiterate these sentiments, and is reportedly compiling them into a book.

A couple quick comments, though, before proceeding. Sørensen’s article is far better than, for example, this tedious diatribe featured on the World Socialist Website. Peter Schwarz faults Žižek for making what should be an uncontroversial observation: “The fact that someone is at the bottom, does not make them automatically a voice of morality and justice.” I am not sure how anyone could believe that Marxism is simply about rooting for the underdog, or that it is the secular successor to the Christian doctrine that “the meek shall inherit the earth.”

Žižek’s call for the Left to “embrace its radical Western roots” has at least two possible meanings. On the one hand, it could be read as saying that the Left should embrace only those roots which are radical in the Western tradition. On the other hand, it could be read as saying that Western roots are radical by virtue of being Western. Sørensen gets to the heart of the matter when he points out the ambivalence of the European legacy. Capitalism and anticapitalism were both born in Europe — anti-imperialism no less than imperialism — and so on down the line.

Those roots which are truly radical have already ceased to be peculiarly Western as soon as they prove themselves such in practice. Even if they originated in the West, they assume a global significance. Regardless of their origin, these roots are thus the common lot and rightful inheritance of all humanity. Better yet, they provide the blueprint of some future humanity.

Portraits of philopsher Slavoj ZizekRefugees_1987

Fortress Europe’s staunch defender on the left

Esben Bøgh Sørensen
Roar Magazine: Borders
November 29, 2015
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In a recent article Žižek replied to the critique of a previous text he wrote on the so-called “refugee crisis.” The exchange between Žižek and his critics essentially revolved around whether the left should support the refugees and migrants’ demands for open borders and the right to live where they choose, or not.

Žižek claimed that the refugees’ dream, represented by “Norway,” doesn’t exist, whereas one critic contended it is our duty to create it. Particularly problematic is his use of phrases like “our way of life,” “Western values,” and figures like “the typical left-liberal.” The most important thing that is missing in Žižek’s text is an analysis of the potential of refugee and migrant struggles.

In his response to the criticism, Žižek begins by complaining about the shift from what he calls “radical emancipatory movements” like Syriza and Podemos to “the ‘humanitarian’ topic of the refugees.” This, we are informed, is not a good thing because the refugee and migrant struggles are actually nothing but “the liberal-cultural topic of tolerance” replacing the more genuine “class struggle.”

Why this is the case remains unclear. Rather, we are told that

[t]he more Western Europe will be open to [immigrants], the more it will be made to feel guilty that it did not accept even more of them. There will never be enough of them. And with those who are here, the more tolerance one displays towards their way of life, the more one will be made guilty for not practicing enough tolerance.

There are several problems in this statement, especially the idea of a “we” of “Western Europe” contrasted against an image of a “way of life” somehow shared by all refugees and migrants. Before turning to that problem, however, it is useful to examine one of Žižek’s favorite tropes: the “typical left-liberal,” which sits at the heart of his critique. Continue reading

The Marxism of Roland Barthes

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Here are a number of books I’ve found across the web by the French semiologist and literary critic Roland Barthes, all of them downloadable as PDFs:

  1. Writing Degree Zero (1953)
  2. Michelet (1954)
  3. Mythologies (1957)
  4. “Seven Photo Models of Mother Courage” (1958)
  5. Elements of Semiology (1964)
  6. Critical Essays (1964)
  7. Criticism and Truth (1966)
  8. “An Introduction to the Structuralist Analysis of Narrative” (1966)
  9. The Fashion System (1967)
  10. Semiology and Urbanism (1967)
  11. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews, 1962-1980 (1980)
  12. Empire of Signs (1970)
  13. Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971)
  14. S/Z (1973)
  15. Roland Barthes (1974)
  16. Image Music Text (1977)
  17. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977)
  18. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980)
  19. The Rustle of Language (posthumously published in 1984)
  20. The Language of Fashion (compiled posthumously from Œuvres complètes 1993, 1994, 1995)

Below I have composed a brief sketch of Barthes’ early political leanings, broken into three parts and interspersed with snippets from his biography and articles he wrote.

Part 1

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Roland Barthes’ Marxism tends to get downplayed, especially in light of his post-1968 “turn” toward deconstruction. When he was still a structuralist, however, this dimension of his thinking could scarcely be ignored. Barthes’ structuralism was of a different sort than that of Louis Althusser, or even Claude Lévi-Strauss, who declined to oversee his thesis in the 1950s. His version was sensitive to historical change, despite Saussure’s methodological synchrony. As he put it in “The Structuralist Activity”:

Structuralism does not withdraw history from the world: it seeks to link to history not only certain contents (this has been done a thousand times) but also certain forms, not only the material but also the intelligible, not only the ideological but also the aesthetic. And precisely because all thought about the historically intelligible is also a participation in that intelligibility, structural man is scarcely concerned to last; he knows that structuralism, too, is a certain form of the world, which will change with the world.

It is significant that Barthes’ entry into Marxist political discourse came through his contact with a young Trotskyist named Georges Fournié. French Marxism since the 1920s had been dominated by the Stalinist PCF, with all competing tendencies deemed “dissident.” All this occurred while the two roomed together at a Swiss sanatorium, recovering from tuberculosis.

Thus the literary theorist Martin McQuillan remarks: “Like Lenin, [Barthes] learned his future Marxism in the quiet cantons of Switzerland” (Roland Barthes, Or the Profession of Cultural Studies, pg. 24). McQuillan’s a bit inaccurate here, as Lenin was already a convinced Marxist before ever staying in Switzerland. But he certainly honed his Marxism there, and so the error is a slight one.

Louis-Jean Calvet, Barthes’ biographer, relates the story of Barthes and Fournié’s friendship below.

jacques_livet_1938

Switzerland and Marxism

Louis-Jean Calvet
Roland Barthes: A
Biography
(1990)
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[Georges Fournié] was three years younger than Barthes, and his social background and subsequent life had been completely different from his. An orphan, Fournié had to earn his own living from the age of twelve or thirteen. He had also taken evening classes and eventually become a proofreader. At the age of seventeen, with the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, he joined the republicans and had fought with the POUM on the Aragonese front, where he had been injured. He had then returned to Paris, where he met his future wife Jacqueline and worked with militant anti-fascist groups. Through such groups he had met David Rousset and Maurice Nadeau.

Fournié had been a Trotskyist, an anti-fascist, and a member of the Resistance. His code name in the Resistance had been “Philippe” and his friends continued to call him this after the war. On 19 December 1943 he had been arrested by the Gestapo along with Rousset and other comrades and imprisoned at Fresnes and Campiègne before being deported to Buchenwald. Finally, he had been transferred to Porta Westfalica, a concentration camp near Hanover. For a year and a half his wife had no news of him and it was only in the spring of 1945 that he returned, on a stretcher, exhausted and suffering from tuberculosis. At Bichat hospital he was given a pneumothorax and sent to Leysin. His wife tried to make arrangements to rejoin him there. In October he met Roland Barthes.

However different their backgrounds and temperaments, both men had in common their aloofness from the general atmosphere of the place. Roland, at thirty, was a somewhat distant intellectual, while Georges had survived both the Spanish civil war and deportation. Both men were more mature than the average patient at Leysin. Neither of them liked the adolescent antics and barrack-room humor, which were supposed to take one’s mind off the illness and constant threat of death. In the canteen, where the atmosphere was rather childish (glasses of water and spoonfuls of mashed potato were frequently thrown across the room), both men kept very much to themselves.

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After several attempts, Jacqueline Fournié had finally found work in a luxury sanatorium for rich tuberculosis patients, The Belvédère, which is now a Club Méditerranée hotel. She visited her husband every evening and ate with him in the canteen every Sunday. She remembers Barthes as being extremely reserved in the expression of his thoughts and feelings. The only indication of how he felt was the expression in his eyes or the movement of his lips, and his somewhat mocking sense of irony. He never really laughed out loud, totally uninhibitedly, as if it would be indecent to let himself go. He seemed to be someone without strong passions, always self-controlled, completely a creature of nuance. In this he was the complete opposite of Fournié, who was about to initiate him into the previously unknown universe of Marxist theory and the reality of class struggle.

The two would talk together for hours. Barthes discussed theater, literature, and of course Michelet. Fournié talked about Marx, Trotsky, and Spain. They had mutual admiration for each other, and each taught the other things which had previously been foreign to them. Barthes was extremely lucky that at a time when initiation into Marxism usually came through the Communist party — and more often than not required unconditional support for the political positions of the Soviet Union — Fournié’s Marxism was Trotskyist, anti-Stalinist, and non-dogmatic. [Roland Barthes: A Biography, pgs. 62-64]

Part 2

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Later, when Barthes moved to Paris and began engaging the intellectual scene there, he reaffirmed his Marxian convictions, this time with reference to the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. “Barthes was bound to find such an atmosphere exciting, since he considered himself both a Sartrean and a Marxist. He decided then that his project was to combine these two philosophies in his approach to literature: to develop a ‘committed’ literature, and to justify Sartre in Marxist terms” (Roland Barthes: A Biography, pg. 74).

Apart from Sartre, the other major literary figure bridging the gap between Barthes’ object of critique and Marxism was Bertolt Brecht. “Near the end of May 1954, [Barthes and his friend Bernard Dort] saw the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Mother Courage at the Paris international festival. It was a revelation to Barthes, who with astonishing speed came up with the following phrase to describe its impact: ‘Brecht is a Marxist who has thought about the sign,’ a phrase he was to use many times. As far as the two friends were concerned, Brecht provided Marxism with the aesthetics it lacked” (Roland Barthes: A Biography, pg. 111). Continue reading

Art into life

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Marx once declared, critiquing Hegel, that the historical task confronting humanity was “to make the world philosophical.” Hegel had completed philosophy, effectively brought it to a close. Now all that was left was to make this philosophy real by transforming the world according to its dictates. As he put it:

It is a psychological law that the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself, turns into practical energy, and, leaving the shadowy empire of Amenthes as will, turns itself against the reality of the world existing without it. (From a philosophical point of view, however, it is important to specify these aspects better, since from the specific manner of this turn we can reason back towards the immanent determination and the universal historic character of a philosophy. We see here, as it were, its curriculum vitae narrowed down to its subjective point.) But the practice of philosophy is itself theoretical. It’s the critique that measures the individual existence by the essence, the particular reality by the Idea. But this immediate realization of philosophy is in its deepest essence afflicted with con­tradictions, and this its essence takes form in the appearance and imprints its seal upon it.

When philosophy turns itself as will against the world of appearance, then the system is lowered to an abstract totality, that is, it has become one aspect of the world which opposes another one. Its relationship to the world is that of reflection. Inspired by the urge to realize itself, it enters into tension against the other. The inner self-contentment and completeness has been broken. What was inner light has become consuming flame turning outwards. The result is that as the world becomes philosophical, philosophy also becomes worldly, that its realization is also its loss, that what it struggles against on the outside is its own inner deficiency, that in the very struggle it falls precisely into those defects which it fights as defects in the opposite camp, and that it can only overcome these defects by falling into them. That which opposes it and that which it fights is always the same as itself, only with factors inverted.

Reflecting on these lines nearly a century later, in the aftermath of the stillborn October Revolution, Karl Korsch famously concluded that “[p]hilosophy cannot be abolished without being realized.” In other words, it is vital not to cast philosophy unceremoniously aside simply because its time has passed. One must come to terms with it, and critically engage it, before doing away with it completely. Theodor Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, in many ways a sequel to Korsch’s essay on “Marxism and Philosophy,” thus begins with the sobering observation: “Philosophy, which once seemed obsolete, lives on because the moment to realize it was missed. The summary judgment that it had merely interpreted the world, that resignation in the face of reality had crippled it in itself, becomes a defeatism of reason after the attempt to change the world miscarried.”

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Alfred Sohn-Rethel, who corresponded for decades with Adorno, explained at the outset of his monumental work on Intellectual and Manual Labor, provided a clue as to what this might have meant:

[Work on the present study] began towards the end of the First World War and in its aftermath, at a time when the German proletarian revolution should have occurred and tragically failed. This period led me into personal contact with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor W. Adorno, and the writings of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse. Strange though it may sound I do not hesitate to say that the new development of Marxist thought which these people represent evolved as the theoretical and ideological superstructure of the revolution that never happened. In it re-echo the thunder of the gun battle for the Marstall in Berlin at Christmas 1918, and the shooting of the Spartacus rising in the following winter.

Korsch’s insight into this theme from the early thought of Karl Marx, reaffirmed subsequently by Adorno and his best followers, can be extended to encompass art and religion as well. For Hegel, of course, art and religion each provided — in their own, particular way — privileged access to the Absolute. Art reigned supreme in the ancient world, while religion dominated medieval thought (with its “great chain of being”). By the time Hegel was writing, however, these modes of apprehending the Absolute had been surpassed by philosophy, which rationally comprehended the Absolute Idea in its spiritual movement. Intuition and belief had been supplanted by knowledge. Science, or Wissenschaft, had been achieved.

Yet this achievement did not last long. After Hegel’s death, his successors — Left and Right, Young and Old — battled for possession of the master’s system. Only Marx succeeded in carrying it forward, precisely by realizing that philosophy itself must be overcome. The same may perhaps be said for those older forms of life which had the Absolute as their object, art and religion. Feuerbach’s religion of humanity, which read theology as secret anthropology, perhaps found its most revolutionary articulation in the writings of Bogdanov, Gorky, and Lunacharsky, who promoted a project of “God-building” [богостроиетльство]. Lenin rightly scolded them for their excessive, premature exuberance, but they were on the right track. Similarly, the avant-garde project of dissolving art into life, in hopes of bringing about the death of art, can be read as an effort to make the world artistic (“to make the world philosophical”). Or, better, to make the world a work of art.

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