Monthly Archives: January 2012

identity work is always collective

Note to self: Remember that the work of identity construction for any given individual is always collective. One’s identity is not the product of the identity-bearer’s labor only, but is also the product of those whose work sustains institutions and expressive codes and everything else that contributes to substantiating and expressing identity.

One’s personal immaterial labor of identity construction is not sufficient to make an identity. Identity for any given person is made also by forces outside of one’s control, directed by others in the service of goals other than that person’s self-knowledge. The work processes that make identity are multiple; identity is a combined and uneven form. The concept of identity, like labor itself, is a real abstraction, a moving target, a term simplified along ideological grounds that expresses a complex and inchoate blend of inputs.

Lots of builders of a given identity, but we are only authorized to acknowledge one.

Existential liberalism as ideological fog

From “Reflections on the Call” by Leon de Mattis, in Communization and Its Discontents. This is a good point:

It is certain that the division of society into classes would be infinitely more visible if inter-individual relations were the brute and unreserved translation of relations of production. The proletarian would doff his cap in passing to the capitalist with his top hat and cigar, and there would be nothing more to say. But unfortunately things are a little more complicated, and ‘existential liberalism’ is not the unique translation of the effect of relations of production in everyday life…

Class relations disguise themselves at the personal level, and dissolve into “existential liberalism.” Capitalists in general are bad, but each individual capitalist seems like a nice enough person, doing their philanthropy and what not, recycling like a good citizen, etc. The same is true of middle class/creative class types, whose personal congeniality and sympathy for proles at the personal level hides from them (read: me) their systemic role in oppression.

This is how ideological mystification at the level of everyday life proceeds; inequality is out there, we know, but above a certain level it is not experienced as such as a personal problem. No one wants to be proletarianized in their own subjectivity, in their own self-concept. So they explain the ways inequality affects them in terms of personal failings or bad luck — not, the system has declassed me despite my hard work.

Part of our energy is thus spent reproducing the ideological fog in which we are all supposedly equal in our everyday encounters (consumerist relations in “democratic” marketplaces where everybody’s dollar spends is a big part of this, but not all of it). We actually have to work to reproduce the illusion that “existential liberalism” coheres, that the deviations we experience are anomalies. It’s shocking, then, when we experience something we can’t resolve through this kind of work — when you get subjected to “unfair” police violence or are insulted through some bald piece of snobbery. But it may be that we prefer the ongoing work of sustaining our class-based sense of dignity than to cease with the work and live in the full, intolerable glare of the naked relations of power.

The fallacy of the voluntaristic capitalist subjectivity and how to overcome it

From “What Is to be Done?” by the Endnotes group; the first essay in Communization and Its Discontents, Ed. Benjamin Noys.

Though this analysis is grimly pessimistic, I think it’s largely right:

Since such supposedly liberated places cannot be stabilised as outside of ‘capitalism, civilization, empire, call it what you wish’, they are to be reconceived as part of the expansion and generalization of a broad insurrectionary struggle. Provided the struggle is successful, these alternatives will not turn out to have been impossible after all; their generalization is to be the condition of their possibility… But all of this is without any clear notion of what is to be undone through such a dynamic. The complexity of actual social relations, and the real dynamic of the class relation, are dispatched with a showmanly flourish in favor of a clutch of vapid abstractions. Happy that the we of the revolution does not need any real definition, all that is to
be overcome is arrogated to the they – an entity which can remain equally abstract: an ill-defined generic nobodaddy (capitalism, civilization, empire etc) that is to be undone by – at the worst points of Call – the Authentic Ones who have forged ‘intense’ friendships, and who still really feel despite the badness of the world.

But the problem cannot rest only with this ‘they’, thereby fundamentally exempting this ‘we of a position’ from the dynamic of revolution. On the contrary, in any actual supersession of the capitalist class relation we ourselves must be overcome; ‘we’ have no ‘position’ apart from the capitalist class relation. What we are is, at the deepest level, constituted by this relation, and it is a rupture with the reproduction of what we are that will necessarily form the horizon of our struggles…  In this period, the ‘we’ of revolution does not affirm itself, does not identify itself positively, because it cannot; it cannot assert itself against the ‘they’ of capital without being confronted by the problem of its own existence – an existence which it will be the nature of the revolution to overcome.

The point is that one cannot voluntarily opt out of the ways we are subjectivized by capitalism, by its relations, by the ways it allows for the reproduction of the everyday life it requires. We are always within this, thinking through it, whether we want to be or not, and it would hubris to believe that one could will oneself out of being contaminated by capital and its values. Further, the fable of voluntaristic self-exemption feeds capital’s capacity to reproduce subjects on its terms; it’s a useful alibi, a reassuring fiction of individual autonomy and the supposed viability of de-capitalistic zones.

The essay has little reassuring to say about what granting this point gains us. Their point that  “It is only in the revolutionary undoing of this totality that these forms can be overcome” is pretty cold comfort. They explicitly reject the idea of revolutionary exodus — “there is little need in the present moment to cast around for practical tips for the re-establishment of some insurrectionary practice, or theoretical justifications for a retreat into ‘radical’ milieus” — which I interpret as a rejection also of all forms of the politics of authenticity, of committing oneself to practice at the individual level in a quasi-competitive fashion. I will be more ascetic and authentic and dialectical and so on than anybody else and thereby personally win the revolution by the force of my will.

Still, this essay dissatisfied me because it doesn’t theorize a possible way out but instead vaguely gestures toward some sort of  magic dialectics by which communist theory works in spite of itself as a “real negative presence”: “Communist theory is produced by – and necessarily thinks within – this antagonistic relation; it is thought of the class relation, and it grasps itself as such. It attempts to conceptually reconstruct the totality which is its ground, in the light of the already-posited supersession of this totality, and to draw out the supersession as it presents itself here.” That seems like double talk to me. It sounds as though they are saying doing communist theory is akin to what Wittgenstein said about doing philosophy: what can be articulated is all tautological nonsense and the real action is what is implied in the process but inherently inarticulable.

What Endnotes says about occupation as a tactic and the demand for no demands sort of fits with this too:

Caught between the necessity of action, the impossibility of reformism, and the lack of any revolutionary horizon whatsoever, these struggles took the form of a transient generalization of
occupations and actions for which there could be no clear notion of what it would mean to ‘win’.

So we are stuck with the inability to deliberately try much of anything for fear of lapsing into a voluntaristic we/they patterning that oversimplifies the real conditions, and at the same time we must make patently wrong articulations of the totality because only through these attempts will we experience analytic clarity, even though we can’t express it. The question then is whether this experience is something that can be made collective, can be shared and used to build solidarity, or whether it simply isolates us as well, as thoroughly as fantasies of individual revolutionary virtue. How to collectivize the futile process of thinking the totality so it can succeed and unite us without anyone actually expressing it. And how to make this inarticulate thing practical? Does the experience of it automatically alter subjectivity, not as a matter of our choice and ego but as a matter of having the a prioris of our experience altered? This sort of thinking would serve as a mode of resubjectivization perhaps, though with none of the overt rewards that capitalist subjectivity has trained us to expect and is so good at doling out.

Demand doesn’t always precede the market

From “Post-Fordist Desires: The Commodity Aesthetics of Bangkok Sex Shows” by Ara Wilson (Feminist Legal Studies (2010) 18:53–67)

“Capitalist markets encroaching new spheres or intensifying commodification within existing spheres do not simply realise or liberate existing erotic desires but produce new modes of sexuality.”

The paper’s subject matter, sex tourism, is a bit sensationalistic. (Most academic papers don’t have sentences like this one: “My symptomatic reading of pussy shows argues for a more complex understanding of the place of commodification in the transnational sex trade.”) But its general point seems apt: Markets are a means of creating new desires, or at least commercializing unreified social longings by making them into products.   Commoditization makes new desires; it isn’t a response to pre-existing ones. Arguably in advanced capitalist societies, it is hard to imagine desires that do not take the form of some sort of product. Wilson points out how sex tourists themselves complain of being commodified, as commodified as the sex workers.

Another way of saying the same thing: Markets seem to simply the process of fulfillment but making satisfaction a transactional thing — a simple exchange of money for the desired thing that satisfies us. But this means that convenience is ultimately the only sort of satisfaction one can purchase; the more fleeting desires escape commodification even as the marketplace teeming with goods crowds such desires out of our consciousness.

It seems as though Wilson leans pretty heavily on Jason Read’s book, The Micropolitics of Capital, which I need to read soon.

The paper also has a section on Wolfgang Haug’s Critique of Commodity Aesthetics that makes me think I should re-read it; Wilson regards it as precipitating analyses that focus on immaterial labor and productive consumerism (and makes it sound far more bizarre than I remember it).