Against inadvertent climate change; for великое преобразование природы instead

Even casual readers of Marx will likely know that his favorite figure from antiquity was Spartacus. In his responses to one of the questionnaires that periodically circulated — or “confessions,” quite popular during the nineteenth century — he listed the great leader of the Roman slave revolt as his hero. Johannes Kepler was his modern idol. What is less widely known, however, is that Marx’s favorite figure from classical mythology was Prometheus, who revolted against the gods. Marx did mention Aeschylus, author of the famous tragedy Prometheus Bound, as his favorite ancient poet in the 1865 “confession.” Shakespeare took the title as greatest of the moderns; Nietzsche would have approved of both choices. He went so far as to quote Aeschylus’ Prometheus in the introduction to his dissertation, in March 1841: “Philosophy makes no secret of it. The confession of Prometheus — ‘in a word, I hate all gods’ — is its very own confession, its own sentence” (MECW 1, pg. 130).

Franz Mehring later pointed out the affinity Marx felt with the fallen Titan, who stole the technology of fire from the gods and bestowed it upon humanity. Edmund Wilson would expand on this motif in his outstanding intellectual history To the Finland Station, placing Lucifer alongside Prometheus as one of Marx’s twin patron anti-deities. Both challenged the gods. “In one of Karl Marx’s ballads,” Wilson explained, “a Promethean hero curses a god who has stripped him of his all; but he swears that he will have his revenge, though his strength be but a patchwork of weaknesses: out of his pain and horror he will fashion a fortress, iron and cold, which will strike the beholder livid and against which the thunderbolts will rebound. Prometheus is to be Marx’s favorite myth” (To the Finland Station, pg. 116).

After his journal, the Rheinische Zeitung, was suppressed by state censors in 1843, Marx was depicted in a contemporary cartoon as Prometheus chained to a printing press, being disemboweled by a Prussian eagle. There’s also a squirrel holding a rifle featured in the upper left of the picture, the symbolism of which has been lost to time. Regardless, Marx was quite flattered by the comparison.

One of the more controversial subjects within Marxist discourse over the last forty or so years has been Marx’s relationship to what is commonly called “Prometheanism.” Following the appearance of the Club of Rome’s neo-Malthusian study The Limits to Growth (1972) and the Romanian mathematician Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen’s ruminations on entropy (1970, 1975), optimistic visions of mankind’s mastery of self and world were generally frowned upon. Since this time, many sympathetic to Marx tried to distance the his theories from more Promethean strains of applied Marxism or actually-existing socialism. They stress Marx’s ambivalence toward large-scale machinery in heavy industry, marveling at its productive powers while also decrying their effect on the humans who operated them.

John Bellamy Foster, for example, tries to turn the tables by revisiting Marx’s critique of Proudhon, supposedly on grounds of the latter’s “Prometheanism.” In his book, Marx’s Ecology, Foster claims that Marx impugned “Proudhon’s fetishistic approach to machinery, which gives it a reified ‘Promethean’ character” (Marx’s Ecology, pg. 131). Foster fails to produce textual evidence that Marx argued in these terms. Marx’s argument, in fact, is not that Proudhon is too Promethean. If anything, he is not Promethean enough. Ever the dialectician, Marx recognized the dual-sided character of progress in capitalist society: “In our days, everything seems pregnant with its contrary,” wrote Marx. “Machinery, gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor, we behold starving and overworking it…At the same pace that mankind masters nature, man seems to become enslaved to other men or to his own infamy. Even the pure light of science seems unable to shine but on the dark background of ignorance” (MECW 14, pgs. 655-656).

Clearly, there is a dimension of the old man’s thought that is far from being naïvely enthusiastic about newfangled industrial technologies. He can hardly be called a vulgar technocrat. But it is not so easy to disaggregate Marx’s own Prometheanism from that of his so-called “epigones.” Quite plainly, if one looks to his writings, Promethean undertones are readily apparent. For example:

Herr Daumer’s cult of nature…is a peculiar one. He manages to be reactionary even in comparison with Christianity. He tries to restore the old pre-Christian natural religion in a modernized form. Thus he of course achieves nothing but Christian-Germanic patriarchal drivel on nature…[T]his cult of nature is limited to the Sunday walks of an inhabitant of a small provincial town who childishly wonders at the cuckoo laying its eggs in another bird’s nest, at tears being designed to keep the surface of the eyes moist, and so on, and finally trembles with reverence as he recites Klopstock’s Ode to Spring to his children. There is no mention, of course, of modern natural science, which, with modern industry, has revolutionised the whole of nature and put an end to man’s childish attitude towards nature as well as to other forms of childishness. But instead we get mysterious hints and astonished philistine notions about Nostradamus’ prophecies, second sight in Scotsmen and animal magnetism. For the rest, it would be desirable that Bavaria’s sluggish peasant economy, the ground on which grow priests and Daumers alike, should at last be ploughed up by modern cultivation and modern machines. (MECW 10, pg. 245)

Marx had very little patience for reverential attitudes toward nature, or romantic anticapitalism in general. As he saw it, the main problem faced by society under the capitalist mode of production was the subjugation of all its efficiency toward ends foreign to itself. Humanity, which is able to marshall wondrous materials and energies in pursuing its productive enterprise, nevertheless does not produce for the good of society. Social production serves an end outside of itself, namely the valorization of capital. Other considerations take a back seat to the primary goal of capitalization, so it is seldom that the unintended consequences or harmful byproducts of this process (such as climate change) are questioned. This is one of the ways production is “alienated,” to borrow the terminology of the young Marx.

In fact, the character of Prometheus reappears in Marx’s Capital. Here Prometheus stands in for enchained humanity: “[T]he law which always holds the relative surplus population or industrial reserve army in equilibrium with the extent and energy of accumulation rivets the worker to capital more firmly than the wedges of Hephaestus held Prometheus to the rock” (Capital, pg. 799). The implication is that capitalist production after a time actually constrains the creative capacities of mankind, instead of cultivating them. This was the sense of the metaphor summoned up by the revolutionary leader Clara Zetkin almost sixty years later, discussing Comintern’s need to “accelerate the advent of the proletarian world revolution.” Zetkin implored her audience to “learn from Lenin to believe implicitly that within the bosom of every proletarian and of every oppressed human being, there dwells the titanic promethean defiance which says to the strongest oppressors: ‘And yet you cannot slay me!’ Let his spirit teach us to snap the chains of Prometheus and forge them into weapons for freedom and into tools for construction.” Once again, the technologies which today constrain the proletariat tomorrow may just liberate them, effectively repurposed to serve society.

Continue reading

“Interview with Anthony Paul Smith on the slow reception of philosopher François Laruelle,” by C. Derick Varn

Originally posted on The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity.

Ross Wolfe: When I first began blogging in the summer of 2008, “speculative realism” and “object-oriented ontology” (still as yet largely undifferentiated) was on the rise.  Taylor Adkins contacted me about providing some insight into the German philosophical references used by François Laruelle in his “non-philosophy.”  I provided one brief commentary, having come out of a recent engagement with German Idealism via Dieter Henrich and Brady Bowman.  I’m still very ambivalent about Laruelle’s ideas, insofar as I pretend to understand them, though I find his critique of the common “Greco-Occidentalist” threads in the post-Hegelian “philosophies of difference” intriguing and appreciate Ray Brassier’s contributions that rely on Laruellean concepts.

[C Derick Varn: Anthony Paul Smith is a scholar and blogger for An und für sich. He came to my attention by a web seminar I “attended” on the philosophy of François Laruelle and non-philosophy which I attended.   I have since read his translations of Principles of Non-Philosophy (with  Nicola Rubczak)  and Future Christ: A Lesson in Heresy both out with Continuum. While still trying to wrap by head around the implications of Laruelle, I also wondered why Laruelle has taken so long to catch on compared to many of his contemporaries like Badiou, Derrida, and Deleuze. ]

C. Derick Varn: Why do you think Laruelle has been slow to be introduced to the Anglophone world?

Anthony Paul Smith: Regarding your first question, I taught at DePaul University as an adjunct for a year bouncing between the departments of Religious Studies, Environmental Studies, and Philosophy. During that year Alan D. Schrift came and presented a paper to the philosophy department. You may know that he’s editing a pretty comprehensive history of Continental philosophy and I jokingly asked him about why he hadn’t included Laruelle in his history. After explaining that he didn’t really know anyone who worked on him, it didn’t come to mind and whatever, he did tell me that he thought Laruelle was one of those figures who just fell through the cracks. If things had gone a little differently, he said, or someone had picked up a text to translate in the 70s or 80s, who knows if he would have been picked up. I didn’t get the impression he particularly liked Laruelle or anything, but he did bring out for me the contingency of these sorts of things. I mean, there are lots of brilliant thinkers in the world and some of them are exceedingly smart. But in the same way we pass homeless people and think that there is some perfectly good reason why that’s him and not me, I think as readers of philosophy we just assume that there is a really good reason we all keep talking about Derrida or Deleuze or Badiou or even Meillassoux now (just to stick with some sort of contemporary names). So that is clearly part of it, just an accident of history. At the same time his work and the language he uses to express it are difficult and I think this has put off a number of potential translators. I always wondered why Ray Brassier, for example, never translated one of his works, even one of the shorter ones, considering his own skills in that area. But he has tended to go with relatively more straight forward writers like Badiou and Meillassoux. But that’s the real issue — the lack of anything of his to read unless you’re willing to track down the French and work through it in a language unfamiliar to most Anglophone readers.

C.D.V.: Do you think Laruelle’s linkage to Ray Brassier’s work and also to Badiou has limited his reading in the US and Europe?

A.P.S.: As for Laruelle being linked to Brassier’s work, I don’t know if it has limited his reading. Brassier really was the first person to advocate for him in his Radical Philosophy article. At the same time, I think that Brassier’s own development (which is ongoing as far as I understand) did really color how many younger readers ended up reading him. There was a certain assumption, since many of them weren’t reading the primary sources I don’t think, that Laruelle shared Brassier’s antipathy for the human, for religion, for meaning, even for a vision of science that isn’t itself colored by a certain grimness and darkness. I think with Laruelle’s own texts starting to finally be available in English this is starting to fade away, which means many of those first-generation of readers have moved on from Laruelle finding his work concerned with issues they are not. But, I think we are seeing new readers, many coming from the arts, and I’m looking forward to conversations that do build off of Laruelle’s actual work rather than Brassier’s. I should say, I think Brassier was always quite clear that he had found something  useful in Laruelle, that he wasn’t just explicating him. And I think we see some of the harshest criticism of Laruelle, if respectful, in the chapter of Nihil Unbound where Brassier deals with him. Continue reading

Ray Brassier on the speculative realist “movement”

Including his reaction to my satiric
Manifesto of speculative realist/
object-oriented ontological blogging

Image: Ray Brassier


I first came across Dr. Brassier’s brutal excoriation of the Speculative Realist/Object-Oriented Ontological blogging “movement” after my own lighthearted sendup of the phenomenon was met with such disapproval by Tim Morton, Levi Bryant, and (seemingly) Nick Srnicek, although Srnicek was perhaps justifiably upset that I counterposed his e-mail to me to Bryant’s. In any case, I felt some sense of vindication upon seeing Ray Brassier’s own scathing commentary on SR movement in his interview with the Polish magazine Kronos:

The “speculative realist movement” exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers promoting an agenda for which I have no sympathy whatsoever: actor-network theory spiced with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy. I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students. I agree with Deleuze’s remark that ultimately the most basic task of philosophy is to impede stupidity, so I see little philosophical merit in a ‘movement’ whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity.

Now, Brassier’s unsparing invective against this trend within the theory blogosphere has already been widely circulated, and I must admit that I was something of a latecomer in discovering the sentiments he expressed. Most have probably been aware of these statements for much longer than me. Nevertheless, I’ve been slowly working through his recent book, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, and must admit that I’ve enjoyed it so far more than anything I’ve read from Harman or Latour. I especially appreciate his engagement with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment; his interpretation is really quite good. So there’s a level of respect I had for him that preceded my stumbling upon this little snippet.

Anyway, following my recent publication of the satyric Manifesto of Speculative Realist/Object-Oriented Ontological Blogging and subsequent discovery of Brassier’s somewhat similar (though no doubt deeper) position on the matter, I e-mailed him with a link to the satyric piece. With the largely mixed response to the post that I’d received from the rest of the theory blogosphere, I was curious as to what Brassier might make of it. He responded this morning, rather promptly. The correspondence ran as follows.

Cover to the volume The speculative turn

Cover to the volume The speculative turn

Continue reading