Sunday, March 9, 2014

Life's Candy and the Sun's a Ball of Butter

From time to time, I have occasion to watch a clip of a news segment from Fox News. Since I am not currently teaching Rhetoric as Argument, these days the occasion involves my viewing of The Daily Show with John Stewart. Concerning these news clips, something stands out to me in a way it that never really has before: namely, Marx’s arguments that include thousand-plus page books are reduced to catch phrases and watch words that are perpetuated without much consideration. I am never sure if a Fox News host knows the distinction between socialism and communism. Then again, I have to admit that the denizens of the liberal media (which I love) don’t do much better. (In fact, they make “practical” arguments, which I will talk about in a minute.) I have also noticed that John Stewart simply avoids engaging, choosing simply let someone like Sean Hannity’s usage speak to his ignorance. Unfortunately, I think that by allowing the rhetorical vernacularization (there must be a better word that that!) of these terms proves to be just as problematic because a certain anachronism is being implied: why are they talking about communism?; Communism was defeated by America. Althusser critically intercedes on this trend by advocating against reductionism, or even lazy simplification: “We have not posed the question as to whether Marx, far from borrowing it, did not himself invent this method of analysis which he thought he was merely applying, as he really did invent the dialectic which he tells us he took from Hegel, in certain well-known passages which are too often re-hashed by hurried interpreters” (50).

I find it interesting that in “From Capital to Marx’s Philosophy” Althusser undergirds his argument with a suitable rhetorical strategy. Specifically, he expands his analysis into new territory toward the end of each of his numbered section before stating something along the lines of “and now back to Marx.” Althusser is pressing on the assumption of knowledge. He demands, in his writing, that we engage in the exercise of considering the production of knowledge: “by what mechanism does the production of the object of knowledge produce the cognitive appropriation of the real object which exists outside thought in the real world?” (61). Though probably not the best analogy, I kept thinking about the sun. At one point in ancient Greece, the sun was thought to have been pulled across the sky by a chariot. A little later, while the sun was determined to be a celestial body, it was also believed to circled the earth. (My people have posited the intriguing and I believe convincing argument that the sun is in fact a ball of butter.) Althusser, and Marx for that matter, are not interested in the sun. They are interested in understanding how the sun is appropriated into the field of knowledge. (In case anyone hasn’t noticed by now, I require significantly simplified analogies to acquire large concepts.) Of course, this analogy is imperfect as the real object under scrutiny by Marx is an object that is produced. But I want to stick with the analogy for just one more minute. Since there has been life on the planet, there has been the sun (and I don’t even think that is a hyperbolic statement); what is interesting is that the modes of knowledge that had no idea of the physical function of the object nevertheless always had mechanisms for appropriating it into that field of knowledge.

When Althusser argues that Marx is in fact asking new questions and positing a new dialectic, he is making a powerful and consequential assertion. Whenever we hear the feeble-mindedness of Fox News (or occasionally MSNBC) or the brilliant Dr. McClosky argue against Marx’s views on the economy, there is an apples and oranges operation at work: the former is arguing “that” (whether or not) capitalism works, and the latter is considering “how” capitalism work. Along the whether-or-not line of inquiry, I also appreciate Althusser’s arguments against praxis as an argument. It works! So what? The sun warms (I know, I know, it’s that problematic analogy again). And while I do think that, in the bowels of Christ, there are one or two things about which I might be mistaken, I do think that Alicia’s point that a whole lot was happening on or about 1800 is significant. From the field of theory I study, I can attest that arguments about praxis can lead a movement astray.

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