Saturday, November 29, 2008

notes on Fourier

1. According to Walter Benjamin "Fourier appears, at many points, to prefigure a new type of human being, one conspicuous for its harmlessness". I agree he represents a new type of human being insofar as he represents a new kind of writer. It isn't too much of an imposition to state that Fourier represents a kind of writer whose career is made possible by the rise of the bourgeois economy in France. Fourier is a petit bourgeois writer; as such he gains access to the means of pursuing a literary career but without access to the traditional channels of patronage such as existed for bourgeois writers until much later. Fourier writes for the anonymous audience established by the commodification of literary culture even though he does not write works intended as commodities. Hence what distinguishes Fourier is not so much his harmlessness as his unusual earnestness.

2. The writers of the petit bourgeoisie in France in the early nineteenth century are already contributors to the spectacular society. The writers of the bourgeoisie, all the great writers, are not. The writers of the petit bourgoisie for the most part lack talent and have compelling commercial reasons to not analyse their condition in its metaphysical aspects. They are a class who cannot claim authority. Central authority has crumbled, for this class but not all the others.

3. In Fourier's ideal society class distinctions are not abolished but further exaggerated. The classes that existed in early nineteenth century France are to be further fragmented. Class mobility will be a matter of volition, rather like mobility between mystical states in Swedenborg.

4. Fourier's refuse collectors carry flags like the actors in Jiang Qing's revolutionary model operas. The flags represent the coincidence of theory and practice. They sound musical instruments to signify that their work is carried out under their own volition. So:

“The charge of the Little Hordes is sounded by a din of alarm bells, carillons, drums, trumpets, barking dogs, and mooing cows. Then the Hordes, led by their Khans and their Druids, rush forth with great cries, passing before the patriarchs, who sprinkle them with Holy Water. They gallop frenetically to labour, which is executed as a work of piety, an act of charity toward the Phalanx, the service of God and of unity.”

They think about and approve their actions. Harmony, therefore, has two aspects: it can be understood as the harmonisation of labouring classes or as the harmonisation of thinking classes. Since each class has both attributes: it is simultaneously a labouring class and a thinking class, both problems are simultaneously solved in Fourier's overall solution.

5. Fourier's problem as a writer is the crumbling of central authority, as much as it's the problem of later bourgois writers such as Beckett or Sartre. He is in a position somewhat analagous to that of a child delivering a lecture for adults, a lecture that nevertheless must urgently be given. His utopia is conceived as a solution to precisely this problem: how the institutional forms of endemic ignorance can be reconciled with each other and with society as a whole. Graduate students love to hear about the little hordes in which they recognise their veritable image.

6. The real solution to the problem consists in bypassing the commodity spectacle, obviously.

Friday, November 21, 2008

historicism (2)

Another example of historicism: C.P. Fitzgerald writes in The Birth of Communist China:

"Confucianism was not, however, a dynamic creed. It looked back in a half-antiquarian spirit to a supposed golden age in the distant past. It did not attempt to arouse enthusiasm, to inspire the mass. It was quite content to let the "stupid people" worship any manner of god as and how they wished. The Communists being by definition the party of the people must make a religion which will satisfy the people, but which must be no more "superstitious" than the ethical system which used to be the privilege of the scholars. The people have no reason to think that they were happy in the remote past, any more than today, so the new heaven must be cast into the future, to which all may strive, even if few will see it come to pass.

The gods must be overthrown, since they promised nothing in this life and the Communists are only concerned with this world, to them the only reality. The people must also be aroused, given purpose and hope, simple ideas and clear manifestations of the improvements which the Communists seek to bring about. This is achieved by making the people into a God. The people are themselves God. They can do nothing wrong, because by their doing it it becomes necessarily right. They cannot be identified with any one or two fallible human beings; even the party, the chosen instrument, may make a mistake, may fail to do the will of the people. The fact that it has made a mistake is itself evidence that it has not done the will of the people, just as its triumph is evidence of the "correctness" of its line"


"Nothing against the will of the people can ultimately triumph"

Fallibility was formerly thought to especially afflict the common people: the labouring classes. Now it is understood to afflict the higher cadres; the labouring classes are no longer to be thought of as fallible, if not individually then certainly as a class.

This change in the way people think certainly does track a change in the way society is. But is this the same kind of historicism as the example from the textbook of European philosophy? Perhaps what C.P. Fitzgerald has noticed shouldn't be counted as historicism at all. But why not? The only reason to exempt it is that it's overly correct: the periodisation of history (empire - interregnum - communism) is obvious, and part of the mechanism by which ideas are reproduced obviously exists (CP indoctrination, for one thing). The underlying process is exactly the same in Fitzgerald's book and the Chinese textbook. The real difference is in the style employed. And the distinction between between what Fitzgerald writes and what we normally think of as historicism - fairly free speculations about human existance - is also stylistic. Fitzgerald is not in the business of writing after dinner paradoxes - that's it, mainly.

It is a matter of judgement, a weighing up of efficacy against accuracy, as to how far it is prudent to advance with speculative historicism. Onto thinner ice: it's noticeable that the new paradigm in Chinese political thought shows a marked similarity to European liberalism, with the minor variation of the market standing in for the people in liberal thought. The change in both cases tracks that slippery category, the advent of modernity (China had a modern bureaucracy for two thousand years but not a political structure subserviant to commodity production). It could be argued that with the advent of the commodity system (principally in the domain of the intellectual class), one no longer reasons by ordinary induction from human nature to social institutions but by a special kind of induction from social institutions to human nature. This, inevitably, is speculation.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

introduction to historicism

People find our marxism inconsistant and our avant gardism passé. But just as an A rated investment can be made out of several B rated investments, a single valid genre can be made up out of these two discredited genres: historicism.

Historicism seeks to pin changes in consciousness to changes in the structure of society.

From marxism is borrowed the idea that social structures determine patterns of thought and the periodisation of history. From the theory of avant gardism (e.g. Hegel) comes the idea that history can be profitably considered as a series of avant garde movements that progressively succeed each other. Because they have a necessary relation to social structures, the particular mechanisms by which they develop out of these structures (which are obscure in any case) do not need to be given.

For instance, Simon Leys writes about a Chinese history of European philosophy, printed subsequent to the Cultural Revolution:

"the introduction of the class struggle into European philosophy turns that history into a shooting gallery where no one is spared"

Leys then translates part of the section on Nietzsche, which is meant to represent a particularly crass example of historicism:

"Nietzsche pursued and developed the esoteric voluntarism of Schopenhauer. He announces fascism. He publicly defended enterprises of cruel oppression and aggression launched by the reactionary-bourgeois class, having developed to the point where it could shed its democratic trappings, openly adopted a policy of violent dictatorship: it developed in the last part of the nineteenth century when capitalism was changing into imperialism"

In some ways this might be useful information if the reader were permitted to actually read Nietzsche. The major fault, by my reckoning, is treating a casual relationship between Nietzsche's writings and Imperial policy as a necessary one (in the pantheon of Nietzsche's muses Bismarck looms inordinately over Syphilis). But that's not really the point. The premises of historicism are necessarily faulty: material structures determine thought in ways too complex for us to understand; the periodisation of history is an exercise of taste; Hegel's avant gardism is second cousin to horse racing systems. The point is that history can be simplified to the point at which it becomes useful, acording to the necessarily unscientific application of the faculty of taste.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

"the inexplicable is enthroned in bourgeois society"

Art criticism ought to be written in the knowledge that it is basically beside the point. Any valid explanation ought to be verifiable from the picture (or sculpture or whatever) itself, making the written explanation redundant. The same applies to the criticism of social institutions: shopping precincts or the social services for instance. The following paragraphs attempt to explain Alfred Jarry's poster for Ubu Roi via a historical analysis of changes in the way authority is articulated. But history is written within history. I wrote the whole thing at work with no research whatsoever.

Authority is reconfigured in bourgeois society. The system by which authority is relayed becomes entangled in the system of commodity reproduction. Social control over the greater part of the day is taken over by capitalist firms. Direct orders take on a puritan simplicity.These firms altogether constitute a diffuse network of control with no fixed centre. The weakened state apparatus floats above this. Later, the the state expands serving to underwrite the system of capitalism. The state apparatus becomes swollen with thousands of bureaucrats. Social control over the remaining part of the day hardly exists since it hardly needs to exist. The stark world of direct commands that scaffolds a society in which commodity production predominates is supplemented by a mass culture made out of commodities. Since this culture is based on the commodity form it is determined by the consonant or conflicting interests and ideas of its proprietors and audience and by the exigencies of commodity reproduction: the imperative that costs be more than covered by revenues. Authority, then, appears in a second form, contextualising its first appearance as direct command.

The task of propagating a higher culture eventually falls to a specialised clerissy. The collaborative product of this class is a vast system of structuralism: a heaven of structuralist thought floating above the secular realm of the giant bureaucracy. It hardly advances beyond an officialisation or a rendering orthodox of notions from capitalist mass culture. Its solidity is also a reflection of the clerical disavowal of initiative. Practice is reified as BestPractice. Structuralism can be recognised from the works of Renan or Taine to a modern psychotherapy that does not recall its originators.

Authority in the developed form of clerissese tends toward pure abstraction. It comes to resemble medieval thought, itself concerned with "structures", with the important distinction that the substance of medieval authority was not held to be perfectly interchangeable. The worldview of the clerissy is like a cardboard theatre with interchangeable characters and interchangeable sets.

It would be all too easy to demonstrate the ways in which the above paragraphs fail to conform to professional historiography. At best they could be a sort of parody of the compressed style of Hegel. No matter.

To return to the poster, Jarry is able to point to, criticise and lampoon this interchangeability of the substance of modern clerical authority. The improper object of veneration, Père Ubu, appears as an unexpected profanation of veneration unexpectedly rendered contentless.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

monument to change we can believe in: Easter Island

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

les derniers mohicans du neoliberalism

After first being described as a bail-out, the bill was now being called a rescue package, and all those lobbying to push it through were emphasising that this was meant to help the average American on Main Street, not the bankers of Wall street.

Wasn't this a dog of a bill? According to a strict application of the rules of analogy the partisans of pure neoliberalism disappointed by this bill could be compared to the supporters of the socialism of the third international, disappointed by the Nazi-Soviet pact. In both cases the directorate of a political tendency abruptly changed course and adopted a line wholly contrary to that which it had hitherto taken and the line advocated by its erstwhile supporters. Consequently in each case the directorate was revealed as less the providential expression of the will of its supporters than an appendage of other interest groups (respectively: Wall Street; the Kremlin). Nevertheless it would be unjust to make this comparison. While it is legitimate to consider the Republican Party and the PCF to be equivalent in the matter of disappointing their supporters, the existance of many generic similarities that are not consequential to the main point of comparison serves to blur a limited comparison into a general comparison. Hence one can suggest a general analogy between the Republican Party and the PCF without having to substantiate an explicit claim to this effect by establishing an accurate limited analogy.

The operatic struggle in the House of Representatives told us some things about the nature of the links between the economic and legislative powers in the US. Principally House Republicans fought to derail the bill or at least to gallantly appear among the defeated when it inevitably passed. The Democrats mainly caved in. The "rebels" could have framed their objections in the cold style of the professional economist but did not. They could have put together a credible manifesto and tried to defend it. The science of economics, as is well known, is hardly effective without the warranty of finance capital: of JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs etc. It appears that the Representatives took seriously their role as conduits between the people and the executive and framed their objections in folksy populism, to judge from the comments of those whose minds were changed:

Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri who voted "no" on Monday, said: "America feels differently today than it did on Monday about this Bill."

Sue Myrick, a Republican, returned from her North Carolina district having changed her mind after an array of local banks told her that they were at risk of collapsing.

John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, held back tears: "I think most Americans realise we are facing a serious crisis. It's time to act on behalf of the American people. It's about their savings, about their jobs."

They have some autonomy but the gravitational pull of economic power makes real independence onerous, unpalatable, eccentric.