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.

Continue reading

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.

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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.

Continue reading

The theory of “reification”

A re­sponse to Georg Lukács

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Izrail’ Vain­shtein
Un­der the Ban­ner of
Marx­ism
10 (1924)
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The philo­soph­ic­al ex­plan­a­tions present among people claim­ing to be Marx­ists mani­fest a haphaz­ard­ness of spec­u­lat­ive philo­soph­iz­ing that must meet their nemes­is in the philo­sophy of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

The his­tory of hu­man thought, from the dia­lect­ic­al stand­point, is least of all a ground for con­struct­ing hy­po­theses, con­coct­ing du­bi­ous con­cepts that bear on their face the im­print of tra­di­tion­al philo­soph­ic­al striv­ings. True and deep thought, thought that opens a new epoch in his­tory, of­ten be­comes a pole of at­trac­tion for philo­soph­iz­ing per­sons whose con­cep­tu­al fancy seizes upon such thought only to cov­er it over with their own ques­tion­able designs. Such a ques­tion­able design is the the­ory of re­ific­a­tion of Georg Lukács.1

Marx, as is known, dis­closed the fet­ish char­ac­ter of the com­mod­ity. He showed that value is not a fet­ish in­vis­ibly resid­ing in the com­mod­ity, but a pro­duc­tion re­la­tion in a so­ci­ety based on in­di­vidu­al ex­change between com­mod­ity pro­du­cers. The struc­ture of com­mod­ity so­ci­ety in gen­er­al, and cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety in par­tic­u­lar, is such that a thing be­comes a point of in­ter­sec­tion in a nex­us of in­ter­link­ing labors. The com­mod­ity es­tab­lishes links in such a so­ci­ety, where there is no planned reg­u­lat­ory con­trol over pro­duc­tion and where a thing, dis­con­nec­ted from the pro­du­cer that made it, des­cends on to the mar­ket as a com­mod­ity unit, obed­i­ent to the spe­cif­ic laws of cir­cu­la­tion: “The labor of the private in­di­vidu­al mani­fests it­self as an ele­ment of the total labor of so­ci­ety only through the re­la­tions which the act of ex­change es­tab­lishes between the products, and, through their me­di­ation, between the pro­du­cers.”2 A thing is dis­con­nec­ted from the pro­du­cers be­cause they them­selves are dis­con­nec­ted from each oth­er. The over­com­ing of this sep­ar­a­tion is car­ried out in com­mod­ity cir­cu­la­tion, through which things es­tab­lish so­cial ties. To un­der­stand the con­scious­ness of such a so­ci­ety and its con­stitutive classes (a means in the struggle) it is ne­ces­sary to go bey­ond the lim­its of thing­hood and to ad­dress the liv­ing con­crete act­ors in struggle. Things do not struggle amongst them­selves. If the so­cial con­scious­ness is a crit­ic­al factor in this mu­tu­al his­tor­ic­al rivalry, then, of course, it is ne­ces­sary to un­der­stand it in terms of so­cial class in­terest, which only finds ex­pres­sion in liv­ing agents of the his­tor­ic­al pro­cess. The geni­us of Marx’s dis­clos­ure con­sisted in re­veal­ing be­hind re­la­tions of things the re­la­tions of people and, con­versely, in es­tab­lish­ing the ne­ces­sity of the re­ific­a­tion of pro­duc­tion re­la­tions in a com­mod­ity so­ci­ety. Lukács, pro­ceed­ing from the fact of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism — which Marx so bril­liantly dis­sec­ted hav­ing seen be­hind this oc­cult idol hu­man re­la­tions — at­tempts to con­struct an en­tire “mon­ist­ic” the­ory of re­ific­a­tion in whose im­age and like­ness all phe­nom­ena of this so­ci­ety are for­mu­lated, in­clud­ing con­scious­ness. However, Lukács’s con­struc­tion stands in sharp con­tra­dic­tion to the sense of dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism.

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First of all, when Marx speaks about cap­it­al “as auto­mat­ic gen­er­a­tion”3 in which all traces of its ori­gin dis­ap­pear, he in this case does not at all de­scribe, as Lukács thinks, “the in­clin­a­tion of con­scious­ness to­ward re­ific­a­tion.”4 Rather, Marx is speak­ing about the re­frac­tion of de­term­in­ate forms of so­cial re­la­tions, op­er­at­ing as re­la­tions of things in the con­scious­ness of bour­geois the­ory and rep­res­ent­a­tion. Polit­ic­al eco­nomy is the sci­ence of re­la­tions between people rep­res­en­ted as re­la­tions between things. The cap­it­al­ist eco­nomy is a com­mod­ity eco­nomy, the single cell of which — the private busi­ness en­ter­prise — is man­aged by form­ally in­de­pend­ent com­mod­ity pro­du­cers, between whom an in­dir­ect link is es­tab­lished in the pro­cess of ex­change. Speak­ing about com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism and all its modi­fic­a­tions in cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety, Marx least of all psy­cho­lo­gizes. He is de­scrib­ing an in­clin­a­tion of con­scious­ness, but he spe­cifies it in re­la­tion to the pro­duct­ive re­la­tions of people char­ac­ter­ist­ic of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety. Ru­bin is com­pletely right to say that the the­ory of com­mod­ity fet­ish­ism could be bet­ter called “a gen­er­al the­ory of the pro­duc­tion re­la­tions of cap­it­al­ist so­ci­ety.”5 Continue reading

Karl Marx: Prometheus and Lucifer

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From Edmund Wilson’s landmark To the Finland Station (1940). You can download a full-text PDF of the book by clicking on the link above.

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In the August of 1835, a young German-Jewish boy, a student at the Friedrich-Wilhelm Gymnasium at Trier on the Moselle, composed a theme for his final examination. It was called Reflections of a Young Man on Choosing a Profession, and it was radiant with those lofty ideals which are in order on such occasions and which in the present case have attracted attention only for the reason that the aspiring young man managed to live up to his aspirations. In choosing a profession, said Karl Marx at seventeen, one must be sure that one will not put oneself in the position of acting merely as a servile tool of others: in one’s own sphere one must obtain independence; and one must make sure that one has a field to serve humanity — for though one may otherwise become famous as a scholar or a poet, one can never be a really great man. We shall never be able to fulfill ourselves truly unless we are working for the welfare of our fellows: then only shall our burdens not break us, then only shall our satisfactions not be confined to poor egoistic joys. And so we must be on guard against allowing ourselves to fall victims to that most dangerous of all temptations: the fascination of abstract thought.

One reflection — which the examiner has specially noted — comes to limit the flood of aspiration. “But we cannot always follow the profession to which we feel ourselves to have been called; our relationships in society have already to some extent been formed before we are in a position to determine them. Already our physical nature threateningly bars the way, and her claims may be mocked by none.”

So for the mind of the young Marx the bondage of social relationships already appeared as an impediment to individual self-realization. Was it the conception, now so prevalent since Herder, of the molding of human cultures by physical and geographical conditions? Was it the consciousness of the disabilities which still obstructed the development of the Jews: the terrible special taxes, the special restrictions on movement, the prohibitions against holding public office, against engaging in agriculture or crafts?

Both, no doubt. There had been concentrated in Karl Marx the blood of several lines of Jewish rabbis. There had been rabbis in his mother’s family for at least a century back; and the families of both his father’s parents had produced unbroken successions of rabbis, some of them distinguished teachers of the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Karl Marx’s paternal grandfather had been a rabbi in Trier; one of his uncles was a rabbi there. Hirschel Marx, Karl’s father, was evidently the first man of brains in his family decisively to abandon the rabbinate and to make himself a place in the larger community.

The German Jews of the eighteenth century were breaking away from the world of the ghetto, with its social isolation and its closed system of religious culture. It was an incident of the liquidation of medieval institutions and ideas. Moses Mendelssohn, the Jewish philosopher, through his translation of the Bible into German, had brought his people into contact with the culture of the outside German world, and they were already by Karl Marx’s generation beginning to play a role of importance in the literature and thought of the day. But Mendelssohn, who had been the original of Lessing’s Nathan the Wise, produced a result far beyond what he had intended: instead of guiding the Jews as he had hoped to a revivified and purified Judaism, he opened to them the doors of the Enlightenment. For the young Jews, the traditional body of their culture seemed at once to collapse in dust like a corpse in an unsealed tomb. Mendelssohn’s daughters already belonged to a group of sophisticated Jewish women with salons and “philosopher” lovers, who were having themselves baptized Protestants and Catholics. Hirschel Marx was a Kantian free-thinker, who had left Judaism and Jewry behind.

Living in Trier, on the border between Germany and France, he had been nourished on Rousseau and Voltaire as well as on the philosophy of the Germans. Under the influence of the French Revolution, some of the restrictions on the Jews had been relaxed, and it had been possible for him to study law and to make himself a successful career. When the Prussians expelled Napoleon and it became illegal again for Jews to hold office, he changed his name to Heinrich, had his whole family baptized Christians and rose to be Justizrat and head of the Trier bar.

Next door to the Marxes in Trier lived a family named van Westphalen. Baron von Westphalen, though a Prussian official, was also a product of eighteenth-century civilization: his father had been confidential secretary to the liberal Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, the friend of Winckelmann and Voltaire, and had been ennobled by him. Ludwig von Westphalen read seven languages, loved Shakespeare and knew Homer by heart. He used to take young Karl Marx for walks among the vineyard-covered hills of the Moselle and tell him about the Frenchman, Saint-Simon, who wanted society organized scientifically in the interests of Christian charity: Saint-Simon had made an impression on Herr von Westphalen. The Marxes had their international background of Holland, Poland and Italy and so back through the nations and the ages; Ludwig von Westphalen was half-German, half-Scotch; his mother was of the family of the Dukes of Argyle; he spoke German and English equally well. Both the Westphalens and the Marxes belonged to a small community of Protestant officials — numbering only a scant three hundred among a population of eleven thousand Catholics, and most of them transferred to Trier from other provinces — in that old city, once a stronghold of the Romans, then a bishopric of the Middle Ages, which during the lifetimes of the Westphalens and Marxes had been ruled alternately by the Germans and the French. Their children played together in the Westphalens’ large garden. Karl’s sister and Jenny von Westphalen became one another’s favorite friends. Then Karl fell in love with Jenny. Continue reading

Schapiro contra Heidegger: The controversy over a painting by Van Gogh

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Below is republished the Latvian-Jewish art historian Meyer Schapiro’s epic troll of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, which originally appeared in 1968. He takes aim at the primary example used by Heidegger in his essay on “The Origin of the Work of Art”: a painting of a pair of shoes by the artist Vincent van Gogh. Schapiro contends that the artwork Heidegger examines, which is supposed to disclose an ageless truth about the relation of being to world, represents something entirely different from what he claims. Painstakingly reconstructing the exhibition Heidegger attended where he first saw the Van Gogh painting (gleaned from a letter in response to his inquiry), Schapiro pinpointed the precise work referred to in the essay.

Needless to say, Schapiro’s article cause quite the stir in aesthetic and philosophical circles. Jacques Derrida, the French theorist and longtime champion of Heidegger, responded to the controversy at length in his book The Truth in Painting, where he concludes: “Schapiro, insouciant, lays a trap for Heidegger. He already suspects the ‘error,’ ‘projection,’ ‘imagination’ in Heidegger’s text.”

Heidegger at spring Gelassenheit jpg1 Meyer Schapiro with his wife Lillian in 1991, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 6.25 x 6.25 inches

The relevant works can be downloaded here:

  1. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1936) in Off the Beaten Track (1950)
  2. Meyer Schapiro, “The Still Life as a Personal Object: A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh” (1968)
  3. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (1987)
  4. Meyer Schapiro, “A Further Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh” (1994)
  5. Babette E. Babich, Words in Blood, Like Flowers: Philosophy and Poetry, Music, and Eros in Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and, Heidegger (2006)

An orthodox Trotskyist living in New York during the 1930s, Schapiro was moreover an associate of the Frankfurters-in-exile Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. In 1937, he even helped the pioneering critical theorists find an apartment near Columbia University. Much to Adorno’s surprise, Schapiro was already acquainted with Walter Benjamin’s writings on “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.” Writing to Benjamin, who was then living in Paris, Adorno urged him to “establish contact with Schapiro, who is extremely familiar with your writings and in general is a well-informed and intellectually imaginative man…Politically speaking, Schapiro is an active Trotskyist. Here is his address: Prof. Meyer Schapiro, 279 West 4th Street, New York, N. Y. (he reads German fluently).”

Benjamin met with Schapiro in Paris in 1939, at the request of Adorno, who hoped his friend might be persuaded to move to New York. Tragically, Schapiro was unable to convince Benjamin to emigrate. He committed suicide near the Spanish border a year later.

Schapiro’s political involvement during that decade even led him to correspond with Leon Trotsky in Mexico. The former Red Army leader clearly appreciated the gesture, writing: “You belong to the camp of friends who as yet are not too numerous but who are, fortunately, increasing.” Later Schapiro acted as an intermediary between Bronstein and the surrealist leader André Breton, setting up the meeting where they would co-write the manifesto “Towards a Free Revolutionary Art.”

vincents_shoesVincent_van_Gogh_-_Still_life_with_Bible_-_Google_Art_Project

The still life as a personal object: A note on Heidegger and Van Gogh

Meyer Schapiro
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In his essay on 
The Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger interprets a painting by van Gogh to illustrate the nature of art as a disclosure of truth.[1]

He comes to this picture in the course of distinguishing three modes of being: of useful artifacts, of natural things, and of works of fine art. He proposes to describe first, “without any philosophical theory…a familiar sort of equipment — a pair of peasant shoes”; and “to facilitate the visual realization of them” he chooses “a well-known painting by van Gogh, who painted such shoes several times.” But to grasp “the equipmental being of equipment,” we must know “how shoes actually serve.” For the peasant woman they serve without her thinking about them or even looking at them. Standing and walking in the shoes, the peasant woman knows the serviceability in which “the equipmental being of equipment consists.” But we,

as long as we only imagine a pair of shoes in general, or simply look at the empty, unused shoes as they merely stand there in the picture, we shall never discover what the equipmental being of equipment in truth is. In van Gogh’s painting we cannot even tell where these shoes stand. There is nothing surrounding this pair of peasant shoes in or to which they might belong, only an undefined space. There are not even clods from the soil of the field or the path through it sticking to them, which might at least hint at their employment. A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more. And yet.

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stands forth. In the stiffly solid heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field, swept by a raw wind. On the leather there lies the dampness and saturation of the soil. Under the soles there slides the loneliness of the field-path as the evening declines. In the shoes there vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening corn and its enigmatic self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety about the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the advent of birth and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-in-self.[2]

Professor Heidegger is aware that van Gogh painted such shoes several times, but he does not identify the picture he has in mind, as if the different versions are interchangeable, all disclosing the same truth. A reader who wishes to compare his account with the original picture or its photograph will have some difficulty in deciding which one to select. Eight paintings of shoes by van Gogh are recorded by de la Faille in his catalogue of all the canvasses by the artist that had been exhibited at the time Heidegger wrote his essay.[3] Of these, only three show the “dark openings of the worn insides” which speak so distinctly to the philosopher.[4] They are more likely pictures of the artist’s own shoes, not the shoes of a peasant. They might be shoes he had worn in Holland but the pictures were painted during van Gogh’s stay in Paris in 1886-87; one of them bears the date: ’87.[5] From the time before 1886 when he painted Dutch peasants are two pictures of shoes — a pair of clean wooden clogs set on a table beside other objects.[6] Later in Arles he painted, as he wrote in a letter of August 1888 to his brother, “une paire de vieux souliers” which are evidently his own.[7] A second still life of “vieux souliers de pay san” is mentioned in a letter of September 1888 to the painter Emile Bernard, but it lacks the characteristic worn surface and dark insides of Heidegger’s description.[8]

In reply to my question, Professor Heidegger has kindly written me that the picture to which he referred is one that he saw in a show at Amsterdam in March 1930.[9] This is clearly de la Faille’s no. 255; there was also exhibited at the same time a painting with three pairs of shoes,[10] and it is possible that the exposed sole of a shoe in this picture, inspired the reference to the sole in the philosopher’s account. But from neither of these pictures, nor from any of the others, could one properly say that a painting of shoes by van Gogh expresses the being or essence of a peasant woman’s shoes and her relation to nature and work. They are the shoes of the artist, by that time a man of the town and city.

Heidegger has written: “The art-work told us what shoes are in truth. It would be the worst self-deception if we were to think that our description, as a subjective action, first imagined everything thus and then projected it into the painting. If anything is questionable here, it is rather that we experienced too little in contact with the work and that we expressed the experience too crudely and too literally. But above all, the work does not, as might first appear, serve merely for a better visualization of what a piece of equipment is. Rather, the equipmental being of equipment first arrives at its explicit appearance through and only in the artist’s work. What happens here? What is at work in the work? Van Gogh’s painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant’s shoes, is in truth.”[11]

Alas for him, the philosopher has indeed deceived himself. He has retained from his encounter with van Gogh’s canvas a moving set of associations with peasants and the soil, which are not sustained by the picture itself. They are grounded rather in his own social outlook with its heavy pathos of the primordial and earthy. He has indeed “imagined everything and projected it into the painting.” He has experienced both too little and too much in his contact with the work.

The error lies not only in his projection, which replaces a close attention to the work of art. For even if he had seen a picture of a peasant woman’s shoes, as he describes them, it would be a mistake to suppose that the truth he uncovered in the painting — the being of the shoes — is something given here once and for all and is unavailable to our perception of shoes outside the painting. I find nothing in Heidegger’s fanciful description of the shoes pictured by van Gogh that could not have been imagined in looking at a real pair of peasants’ shoes. Though he credits to art the power of giving to a represented pair of shoes that explicit appearance in which their being is disclosed — indeed “the universal essence of things,”[12] “world and earth in their counterplay”[13] — this concept of the metaphysical power of art remains here a theoretical idea. The example on which he elaborates with strong conviction does not support that idea.

Is Heidegger’s mistake simply that he chose a wrong example? Let us imagine a painting of a peasant woman’s shoes by van Gogh. Would it not have made manifest just those qualities and that sphere of being described by Heidegger with such pathos?

Heidegger would still have missed an important aspect of the painting: the artist’s presence in the work. In his account of the picture he has overlooked the personal and physiognomic in the shoes that made them so persistent and absorbing a subject for the artist (not to speak of the intimate connection with the specific tones, forms, and brush-made surface of the picture as a painted work). When van Gogh depicted the peasant’s wooden sabots, he gave them a clear, unworn shape and surface like the smooth still-life objects he had set beside them on the same table: the bowl, the bottles, a cabbage, etc. In the later picture of a peasant’s leather slippers, he has turned them with their backs to the viewer.[14] His own shoes he has isolated on the ground; he has rendered them as if facing us, and so worn and wrinkled in appearance that we can speak of them as veridical portraits of aging shoes.

We come closer, I think, to van Gogh’s feeling for these shoes in a paragraph written by Knut Hamsun in the 1880s in his novel Hunger, describing his own shoes:

As I had never seen my shoes before, I set myself to study their looks, their characteristics, and when I stir my foot, their shapes and their worn uppers. I discover that their creases and white seams give them expression — impart a physiognomy to them. Something of my own nature had gone over into these shoes; they affected me, like a ghost of my other I — a breathing portion of my very self.[15]

In comparing van Gogh’s painting with Hamsun’s text, we are interpreting the painting in a different way than Heidegger. The philosopher finds in the picture of the shoes a truth about the world as it is lived by the peasant owner without reflection; Hamsun sees the real shoes as experienced by the self-conscious, contemplating wearer who is also the writer. Hamsun’s personage, a brooding, self-observant drifter, is closer to van Gogh’s situation than to the peasant’s. Yet van Gogh is in some ways like the peasant; as an artist he works, he is stubbornly occupied in a task that is for him his inescapable calling, his life.

Of course, van Gogh, like Hamsun, has also an exceptional gift of representation; he is able to transpose to the canvas with a singular power the forms and qualities of things; but they are things that have touched him deeply, in this case his own shoes — things inseparable from his body and memorable to his reacting self-awareness. They are not less objectively rendered for being seen as if endowed with his feelings and revery about himself. In isolating his own old, worn shoes on a canvas, he turns them to the spectator; he makes of them a piece from a self-portrait, that part of the costume with which we tread the earth and in which we locate strains of movement, fatigue, pressure, heaviness — the burden of the erect body in its contact with the ground. They mark our inescapable position on the earth. To “be in someone’s shoes” is to be in his predicament or his station in life. For an artist to isolate his worn shoes as the subject of a picture is for him to convey a concern with the fatalities of his social being. Not only the shoes as an instrument of use, though the landscape painter as a worker in the fields shares something of the peasant’s life outdoors, but the shoes as “a portion of the self ” (in Hamsun’s words) are van Gogh’s revealing theme.

Gauguin, who shared van Gogh’s quarters in Arles in 1888, sensed a personal history behind his friend’s painting of a pair of shoes. He has told in his reminiscences of van Gogh a deeply affecting story linked with van Gogh’s shoes.

In the studio was a pair of big hob-nailed shoes, all worn and spotted with mud; he made of it a remarkable still life painting. I do not know why I sensed that there was a story behind this old relic, and I ventured one day to ask him if he had some reason for preserving with respect what one ordinarily throws out for the rag-picker’s basket.

“My father,” he said, “was a pastor, and at his urging I pursued theological studies in order to prepare for my future vocation. As a young pastor I left for Belgium one fine morning, without telling my family, to preach the gospel in the factories, not as I had been taught but as I understood it myself. These shoes, as you see, have bravely endured the fatigue of that trip.”

Preaching to the miners in the Borinage, Vincent undertook to nurse a victim of a fire in the mine. The man was so badly burned and mutilated that the doctor had no hope for his recovery. Only a miracle, he thought, could save him. Van Gogh tended him forty days with loving care and saved the miner’s life.

Before leaving Belgium I had, in the presence of this man who bore on his brow a series of scars, a vision of the crown of thorns, a vision of the resurrected Christ.

Gauguin continues:

And Vincent took up his palette again; silently he worked. Beside him was a white canvas. I began his portrait. I too had the vision of a Jesus preaching kindness and humility.[16]

It is not certain which of the paintings with a single pair of shoes Gauguin had seen at Arles. He described it as violet in tone in contrast to the yellow walls of the studio. It does not matter. Though written some years later, and with some literary affectations, Gauguin’s story confirms the essential fact that for van Gogh the shoes were a memorable piece of his own life, a sacred relic.

Notes


[1] Martin Heidegger, «Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes», in Holzwege (Frankfurt a.M.: Klostermann, 1950), 7-68. Reprinted separately, in paperback, with an introduction by H.-G. Gadamer (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1962). Trans. by A. Hofstadter, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in A. Hofstadter and R. Kuhns, Philosophies of Art and Beauty (New York: Random House, 1964), 649-701. All quotations are from the excellent Hofstadter translation and are reprinted by permission of Harper Row, Publishers, Inc., New York. It was Kurt Goldstein who first called my attention to Heidegger’s essay, presented originally as a lecture in 1935 and 1936.
[2] Origins of the Work of Art, 662-63. Heidegger refers again to van Gogh’s picture in a revised letter of 1935, printed in M. Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. by R. Manheim (New York: Anchor Books, 1961). Speaking of Dasein (being-there, or “essent”) he points to a painting by van Gogh: “A pair of rough peasant shoes, nothing else. Actually the painting represents nothing. But as to what is in that picture, you are immediately alone with it as though you yourself were making your way wearily homeward with your hoe on an evening in late fall after the last potato fires have died down. What is here? The canvas? The brushstrokes? The spots of color?” (Introduction to Metaphysics, 29).
[3] J.B. de la Faille, Vincent van Gogh (Paris: 1939): no. 54, fig. 60; no. 63, fig. 64; no. 225, fig. 248; no. 331, fig. 249; no. 332, fig. 250; no. 333, fig. 251; no. 461, fig. 488; no. 607, fig. 597.
[4] La Faille, op. cit., nos. 255, 332, 333.
[5] La Faille, op cit., no. 333; it is signed “Vincent ’87.”
[6] La Faille, op cit., nos. 54 and 63.
[7] La Faille, op. cit., no. 461. Vincent van Gogh, Verzamelde brieven van Vincent van Gogh (Amsterdam: 1952-64), III, 291, letter no. 529.
[8] La Faille, op. cit., no. 607. Van Gogh, Verzamelde brieven, IV, 227.
[9] Personal communication, letter of May 6, 1965.
[10] La Faille, op. cit., no. 332, fig. 250.
[11] Origins of the Work of Art, 664.
[12] Origins of the Work of Art, 665.
[13] “Truth happens in van Gogh’s painting. This does not mean that something is rightly portrayed, but rather that in the revelation of the equipmental being of the shoes that which is as a whole world and earth in their counterplay — attains to unconcealment…The more simply and essentially the shoes appear in their essence…the more directly and fascinatingly does all that is attain to a greater degree of being. (Origins oft he Work of Art, 680).
[14] La Faille, op. cit., no. 607, fig. 597.
[15] Knut Hamsun, Hunger, trans. by G. Egerton (New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc., 1941), 27.
[16] de Rotonchamp, Paul Gauguin 1848-1913, 2nd ed. (Paris: G. eres, 1925),33. There is an earlier version of the story in: Paul Gauguin, “Natures mortes,” Essais d’art libre, 1894, 4, 273-75. These two texts were kindly brought to my attention by Professor Mark Roskill.

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