Monday, April 28, 2014

What is it that I do, again? Okay, now ... how do I say that, exactly...?

Reading Watkins this week came at a particularly reflective time for me. I apologize for being so transparent in this post, but I would love your feedback – and sense we’re skipping the Watkins reading, I would like to focus on it. For another class that I am taking right now, I need to write a teaching statement. The teaching statement, or philosophy, as I’m sure that many of you know, has all the ambiguities of the personal statement plus the added stress of trying to articulate exactly what is you “do” in the classroom, what you want from your students, what you do to aid in their learning, ect. This is particularly challenging for me sense I’ve never actually taught a class before. But for the sake of this particular assignment I’ve been ruminating on something that is future tense. In my thinking, I continue to return to Watkins and the class problems of both teaching and higher ed and being a student in higher ed, and how to simultaneously manage the demands placed on teachers while also dealing with the demands and expectations that rise up through the students. 

I found myself lazily slipping back in to the old standbys of, “reading writing and literacy” or “English is a tool for other/any/all disciplines,”ect. I wrote these words because part of me thought that that was what I’m supposed to say. I’m supposed to boast of how my future class, my discipline can prepare anyone for anything! As if, some how, reading A Brave New World will prepare someone to work on an oil rig or some other job that any one of my future students will find themselves in. And part of my answer to this is “Yes!” it will prepare them, because literature and the studying the humanities makes a person human; it’s not about being cultured at the end of the day, it’s about the infinite variety of experience that literary studies provides in aiding our understanding of ourselves and of one another.

However, I know that this humanist, idealistic, bleeding heart response isn’t . . . enough . . . or isn’t all that we can say or do for our students and for our discipline. Furthermore, I don’t want to trap myself into some kind of moralist argument about how literacy makes someone a “better person” or Fisher’s "surrogate parenting". This discussion is slippery and endless while the the urgency to nail down the infinite variety of work accomplished by departments of English is imminent. “Higher ed” is becoming more and more corporate, more and more a “knowledge factory” designed for profit. “Middle management” grows to oversee and regulate this system while part time writing teachers work hard for little pay and are ultimately charged with mitigating the greater class distinctions in society. The truly terrible thing about this is if H&N are correct, then the writing teachers are the ones we need most- they may not be recruited (as Chandler pointed out) like those of STEM, but they should be.

Again, I know this is a rehashing of an old problem to which there is probably not a clear answer. I would love to hear some of your responses to these questions and problems. Some solutions may be with Marx, but when the problems of higher ed develop from a larger global culture of Capitalism, it is hard to feel like one very small, somewhat helpless, piece of the puzzle. The options for action seem to fall along the lines of Clover's "Cars are going to burn" or McClosky's "Optimism." Szmen's careful, mindful analysis of the oil industry (and thoughtful writings) may pave a more middle road not entirely unlike H&N.

Final Class Meeting: Reminder

Just a reminder: I'll talk a bit about Jameson tonight before we turn to Capitalist Realism (remember I had told you that we'd skip the Watkins reading). We'll finish with course evals--and if anyone is game we can head over to Marz for a drink (I'll be heading there, in any case, and anyone interested in joining should feel free to do so).
This looks interesting: Marxism and the Critique of Value.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Fisher's Capitalist State of Affairs

Fisher's Capitalist State of Affairs

Mark Fisher's book reminded me of the comment about dialectics being the state of affairs; it seems that capitalism has become a state of affairs out of which imagination seems incapable of transporting us. Although the constant re-tellings of capitalism's appropriations of rebellion (with punk culture's fascination with "selling out," the marketability of the "Basquiat-ball shoes," and the hipster irony of expensive ripped jeans or mustachioed commodities) sometimes seem impossible to get beyond, Fisher inflects the same old story with a twist inspired by Zizek, Foucault, and Deleuze-- that the force of capital is so pervasive that it preconceives of these minor rebellions as capitalist enterprises. Fisher's pastiche of theoretical and pop-culture references subtly reinforces this in a Jamesonian way, even as he moves beyond Jameson.

What Fisher describes as "reflexive impotence" in students reminds me of what I've heard called "learned helplessness." The hedonic component of reflexive impotence-- that these young consumers have become incapable of pursuing anything but commodified pleasure, which is likely always moving just out of reach (22)-- coincides nicely with his characterization of ADHD and the instant gratification of internet culture. The "learned helplessness" I've encountered as a high-school sub and a 100-level instructor is this difficulty to make an effort beyond a certain point, which is accompanied by cries for help. I see this in that email from a student asking a question that has been discussed in class and is clearly answered on a prompt and/or syllabus. They're trying, at least, but there seems to be an obstacle to trying to figure this out by rereading the materials that I know they have. How do we help students become more independent?

This attention-deficit impotence goes along with Fisher's thoughts on the dreaming of social reality through a sort of flexibility that is characterized by constant change and memory lapse (60). And as past readings have also suggested, the nomadism and schizophrenization that appear to offer lines of flight out of capitalism also appear to be characteristic of it. Even the constant state of change intrinsic to capitalist success resembles the points that Deleuze makes in his description of an ontology of difference. Especially intriguing is this dreamlike, capitalist trait of the ability to overlook gaps in memory and logic. This dreaminess is Kafkaesque for Fisher, who compares it to call centers and the constant remakings of capitalist production.

Although Fisher ends on a hopeful note, we still have to wonder: If capitalism has pre-formatted/preconceived of minor rebellions in its favor, mightn't it also pre-format/preconceive of anti-capitalist theories as capitalist enterprises as well?

No dark sarcasm in the classroom...

I have started typing out three or four blog posts this evening. I keep erasing them. I wanted to be clever and add a commentary on Breaking Bad to correspond with Daniel’s (very interesting) analysis of Mad Men (a show I have never watched).  I started writing a post about mental disorders and the emergent role of a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. While I see a great deal of nonsense about autism appearing on news aggregates like HuffPo and on my Facebook feed, I find it interesting how much emphasis is placed on an overreaction to late capitalism’s stimulus society. For example, I have seen what the inside of a McDonald’s can do to my quirky, very sweet, and mildly autistic nephew. Moreover, I have watched my sister’s family deal with the financial realities of having to home school their kid with the hopes of “mainstreaming” him into elementary school. Unlike so many kids diagnosed on the autism spectrum, there are ample resources in many public schools for kids with other learning disabilities to become “productive.” I will always remember how proud I was supposed to be of my fellow high school student with Down syndrome who I actually observed sweeping the floors at a McDonalds (the one on I20 and Cooper). But more to the point, what does this mainstreaming into public education even mean? Fisher’s discussion of education is not so appealing.

I guess this train of thought leads me to the third topic I keep wanting to write about: teaching. Fisher states that he has “chosen to focus on mental health problems and bureaucracy because they both feature heavily in an area of culture which has becom[e] increasingly dominated by the imperatives of capitalism realism: education” (20). One of my favorite plays deals with the events that take place in a mid-twentieth-century British school. To paraphrase the line spoken by the retiring head master, he says that he never like the word education; he preferred the term schooling. Notions of teaching have come a long way from then to what Fisher now describes: “teachers are now increasingly required to act as surrogate parents, instilling the most basic behavioral protocols in students and providing pastoral and emotional support for teenagers who are in some cases only minimally socialized” (26). By all accounts, the system criticized by Charles Dickens has metastasized except that Nicholas Nickleby can’t help out because he dropped out of high school and is now the evening shift supervisor at Radio Shack.

Fisher is really concerned with student behavior, their mental conditions, and the causes of those mental conditions. I do think that “social systemic causation” is a factor that can cause some form of mental or social dysfunction (21). I am not entirely sure this is always a problem. I also think that the environmental degradation from capitalist exploitation is causing chemical imbalances that lead to mental health problems. However, as a teacher, I know that those students who are more extreme, more histrionic, more willing to push back on my performance and more willing call out bullshit when they encounter it enhance my classes. And no, I am not saying that any of them have been diagnosed with mental differences (though some admittedly have). Nor am I arguing that I am able to effectively deal with every atypical student. That being said, I can’t help but wonder why I don’t ever have an extreme reaction when I walk into a McDonalds.

The World is a Flat Screen

While Daniel is trying to stir up rebellion with his Teaching Evaluation Strike, my response to Fisher is a bit more subdued. Even if his pop culture references are outdated, I thought this was a great little book with fresh insights. For example, the notion that capitalism has colonized our dreams by preemptively shaping our desires; that the old struggle between subversion and incorporation is over. Although Cobain and Nirvana have been overused as cultural examples, Fisher is right use it here: once Cobain realized that no amount of resistance would stop his music's absorption into the "mainstream," he chose the final form of resistance. Anytime I walk into a bar full of flat screens playing various football games, and the only chatter relates to the game, it reminds me two things: 1) Bradbury's visionary dystopian novel, Farenheit 451, and 2) Zizek's comment that it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. In fact, I think the final answer lies within that phrase. The recent series of environmental "near disasters" and financial "near crashes" has made our vision of the world's end is much more clear, though nobody wants to admit it. Perhaps something like a hurricane that wipes out New York, a tsunami that destroys California, a widespread water shortage, or hackers that penetrate the stock market and deplete everyone's net worth, will serve as the impetus for change. Fisher briefly mentions environmental dangers, but then he weirdly downplays it by saying the environment has become too politicized. Well, sir, if a mammoth hurricane takes out D.C., I think that might finally end the global warming debate. (Maybe a few Tea Party folks from Kansas and Kentucky would still cling to the "junk science" conspiracy theory.) Indeed, Fisher makes some great argument, particularly his claim that our mental health disorders are connected to the dysfunctionality of late capitalism. However, a problem like too much bureaucracy is not, by itself, powerful enough to change the system. There has always been some degree of bureaucracy and always will be. I prefer the "big bang" theory. The only question is how epic will the next disaster be?

Unicorns, Don Draper, and Capitalist Realism

Reading Fisher’s great little book this past week, I found myself returning again and again to examples more current than his references to Children of Men, Office Space (which I’d love to read along with A&H’s culture industry ideas to unpack the class dynamics of office workers and 90s gangster rap) and the hedonic depression of kids these days. I ended up thinking about a cartoon blog that “went viral” this past fall and Madmen.
            I’ll talk about Madmen first, because I think the issues that show focuses on are symptomatic of the “structure of disavowal” that is necessary to the mode of capitalist realism (11). Because of the historical complexity of the Madmen—it is set in the 60s but written and viewed in the past 7 years—the viewer can read the imprint of both eras on the shows events and structure. To a superficial reading (Jameson’s first horizon?), we see a representation of the business world of the 60s; a world of chainsmoking, hard-drinking, racism, and sexism. In fact, the first episode of the show is famously heavy-handed in its foregrounding of the historical gap between then and now. Of course, this gap is itself the knowing ironic distance (2nd horizon?) which allows the show to unfold as a seeming critique of the era, while also embracing its sexy, powerful, sleek instantiations of desire. We judge Don, Joan, Peggy, and Betty, but we still want to be them on some level. We are given the capitalist realism narrative that embraces both a possibility of glamorous individual achievement even within a something as bureaucratic and immaterial as the production of advertisements (literally the production of desire as a commodity) while simultaneously patting ourselves on the back for our wise disassociation with that type of control society—we know better but we do it anyway (3rd horizon?). This Zizekian ideological dilemma is a theme for the shows many sexual encounters; and what is Don’s moral squishiness or Peggy’s near breakdowns if not mental reactions to the contradictory pressures of their capitalist situation?
            While I won’t go much into here, I also think the show is perhaps our best narrative of work in a post-Fordist economy. We see the experiential phenomena of merger tactics, communicative and collaborative production (and the questions of intellectual ownership that arise from it), the despair and mendacity that are symptoms of the this effort to constantly capture oneself for capital, the dissolving of boundaries between work and home, and the impossible contradictory pressures put on the family arrangement. Don and Peggy fill the roles that Fisher defends of “artists and media professionals” who can present the public’s desire to itself (as Peggy describes when trying to hire an avant garde photographer who won’t be bought). But that’s for another project.

            The other example I thought of was the post “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy” on the blog waitbutwhy. I loathe this comic.
            The reason I loathe this post is that it performs exactly the ideological operation that Fisher describes when he talks about “reflexive impotence” (21).  If you haven’t seen it, the comic is an intentionally amateurish MSPaint stick-figure and clipart cartoon which purports to explain why people born between 1970 and 1990 are unhappy: because we don’t have shiny unicorn careers at 25. Aside from its reductive formula for happiness (reality minus expectations =happiness—in other words, happiness is entirely about desiring less then you own/consume) and broad brush abstractions (vanishing, really) of labor, this comic has the insidious effect of pathologizing dissatisfaction and atomizing responsibility while presupposing a static economic mode of production over the past 50 years.
            But what I find really interesting about the comic is its performance of Zizek’s “the big Other”—the naïve imaginary subject of the sort that was convinced that believes propaganda. This big Other is used to foster the sort of reflexive impotence that shuts down political subjectivity and organization—it precludes alternatives. In this unicorn blog the author locates the source of social anxiety about achievement in social media: tidy and successful personalities that we are incentivized to provide online to maintain social capital, but which serve the additional function of undermining our own self confidence, the very platform for the dissemination of this propaganda. In the comic, the “big Other” is presumably the audience for this comic: those who read it and say, “Yes, that’s me!” and begin to punish themselves for their overactive ambition and bring a dose of “realism” to their lives. It is what we mean when we speak of Facebook as if it were a subject: I have to tell Facebook. Unlike the former socialist states of Eastern Europe and as Fisher points out, Capital (“the ultimate cause that is not a subject) is so good at this game that many of my friends fell into this category, eagerly reposting this drivel and blaming themselves for unemployment, underemployment, and being shut out of access to capital. wtf?
            Maybe the problem is what Fisher describes when he talks about a lack of a collective consciousness (akin to H&N’s modally opposite hope in the multitude). This comic does perform a sort of suspicion of grand narratives (you’re not special)—it blames all the individual subjects and not a public sphere or systemic injustice, despite data showing real stagnation in wages, political power, and opportunity for a majority of the population (like this). To overcome it, we need an action akin to Fishers suggestion to resist auditing (teaching evaluation strike, anyone?) which in turn requires organization. Hopefully we’re all creating a tiny tear in the fabric of capital with this class and blog. And NOT buying into that comic.


Waste Labor and Collective

            I’m torn with the Watkins reading. On one hand, his notion of “waste labor” as a result of competition (and as a distinct modernization of Marx’s reserve army) seems to hit the nail on the head. On the other hand, I wonder if Watkins is too idealistic in terms of the collective.
Waste labor fits with the issues that seem to elude those that wag their fingers at today’s youth and call them entitled for wanting jobs after graduation college, after having fed them the story of how going to college results in better, more lucrative career opportunities (or, as Watkins puts it, the “parents or the media mantra to ‘get a degree’” (75)). These are the same people that, “back then,” could put themselves through college working part-time as a dishwasher but, ironically, “could never get into Middlebury now” (both actual quotes from acquaintances). Granted, blaming the time is low-hanging fruit, but waste labor seems like such a successful neologism when you compare my grandmother’s idea of finding a job—literally walking into a business and saying you’d like a job (or better yet, like the fabled success of STEM majors today, companies would even try to recruit you!)—versus the modern application process of submitting the same online form that hundreds are filling out as well and never hearing a reply. In pointing out the contrast to a reserve army, Watkins is additionally astute to point out the skill and labor expectations of this waste labor (89), and goes as far as to deftly imply the comparison to minor league baseball by introducing the idea in the chapter “We’re Going to the Show” (15). Finally, I agree that this notion could be considered a result of hyperindividualism and class, though I’m unsure how much of it is correlation versus causation.
Like H&N, Watkins appears to believe in a similar inherent “gravediggers” conflict within their understanding of key concepts. For H&N, it is the biopolitical opportunities of the multitude against capital (created by capital itself); for Watkins it is that “Class processes may impose the impossible burdens of managing the formation of labor forces, but in so doing they also introduce into the humanities the potential for collective organization in a way that has not existed on such a scale before” (114). Watkins does introduce the “[un]happy vision” of English departments becoming “much smaller, in order to offer an upmarket luxury good” (117), which I think is more realistic and imminent than a large scale influx of lost youth deciding to read Willa Cather. It seems that down the line—from Marx, to H&N, to Watkins—their diagnosis is sound, but the prescription seems too far fetched to be attainable because it hinges on such a large scale movement of actual human beings. Am I just too pessimistic (or misanthropic) to be a true Marxist?

(related clip)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

But I won't throw the baby out with the bathwater, the three horizons out with one problematic line.
 So, after mentioning it last class, I realized that my blog post didn't show up...better late than never. (I hope)

From the opening lines of The Political Unconscious, Jameson abjures us to “Always Historicize!”. . .and spends a good amount of time and energy explaining how this might be accomplished. Specifically, we might move past Althussarian critiques of totality which hinge on the general autonomy of the various “spheres” of social life. Instead, we must see the interrelatedness of these spheres.

Jameson posits a hermeneutic that allows us to unpack a given artifact or phenomenon. The first horizon is essentially political,  approaching the text as a symbolic act (see Kenneth Burke). The second horizon situates the text in regard to the class struggle that produced it. The third, and by far the most sweeping, pushes the analyst to understand the artifact as a production of a confluence of modes of production, emergent and residual.

While perhaps useful in theory, some of Jameson’s comments prove a bit problematic, specifically in regard to the divide between feminism and Marxism. Jameson notes explicitly that these horizons can be used to “short circuit” this debate in regard to the primacy of gender or class. He argues that sexism is “the sedimentation and the virulent survival of forms of alienation specific to the oldest mode of production of human history, with its division of labor between men and women” (p. 85). Because socialist revolution will do away with alienated modes of production, there is no conflict. I believe such argument glosses over significant bodies of work that context this point, transferring contemporary gender relations to non-capitalist (or even non-class?) societies. Such claims push me to question the place Jameson considers sexism to have within capitalism—with others (Ahmed) noting that Jameson tends to dismiss marginalized voices throughout his work--I am a bit afraid he might write it out altogether. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Jameson, the Symbolic, & the Real

Since a lot of people seem to have touched on Hardt and Negri, I'll go in a different direction. I found myself thinking of Agamben at different moments while reading for this week. 

I think I may have mentioned this before, and I don't know why I'm apparently hung up on it, but Agamben's cyclical terror/rhetoric (real/symbolic) binary comes to my mind again here. It seems similar to Jameson's cyclical characterization of the stages of capitalism, and Agamben's evaluation of the postmodern shift in focus from content to form seems to resonate with Jameson's emphasis on how postmodernism has shifted away from the strategies of content interpretation. The way in which the sort of möbius-strip relationship between the real and the symbolic seems focused on synthesizing itself while failing to do so for Agamben coincides with Jameson’s apparent interest in unsynthesizable binaries.    

Agambenian types of ideas seem to emerge at different points. In "Towards Dialectical Criticism," these ideas resonate in a quote that Jameson works with: "In literature and art there was a crisis similar to that which occurred in morals after the Reign of Terror ... Their attention was entirely engrossed in ... forms" (316). His comparison of working with texts to that of clearing away the extraneous material in the cutting of a statue also brings form to mind. In “On Interpretation,” he mentions that “it would be desirable for those who celebrate the discovery of the Symbolic to reflect on the historical conditions of possibility of this new ... modern ... sense of the linguistic, semiotic, textual construction of reality” (63). Then, the way that the "real world" seems to have become overrun with culture, seems to have flipped the real into its opposite ("Finance Capital" 265). More pointedly, in "Historicism in The Shining," he writes of the pastiche as "confusing content with form" (84). These are, of course, just a few examples. And this notion of "pastiche" can be found in Agamben's writing on culture and history (and the community?), I believe. 

So I'm wondering where these connections might be coming from or what they may mean.

Another part that I found interesting was Jameson’s reference to Burke’s point that “a symbolic act is on the one hand affirmed as a genuine act, albeit on the symbolic level, while on the other it is registered as an act which is ‘merely’ symbolic, its resolutions imaginary ones that leave the real untouched”—because it puts so well the way that literary dreams tend to be treated in hermeneutic operations.

Capital and Culture

Jameson’s link between the phoenix like cycle of capitalism (“During its cycles capital exhausts its returns in the new national and international capitalist zone and seeks to die and be reborn in some ‘higher’ incarnation, a vaster and immeasurably more productive one . . . implantation . . . productive development, and its financial or speculative final state” 251) and culture in “Culture and Financial Capital” seems, in all respects, quite helpful. Jameson is right to look to the fragmentized postmodern culture industry as relative to the stage of capitalism US has been in over the past century. I also, like others, the link that this ‘final stage’ provides for connecting Jameson to H&N. All of the authors identify the current economic reality to be a different – a new – level of Capitalism that is visible via culture and shaping that culture. While H&N present the possibility that the intensity of globalization of the biopolitical will, essentially, lift the global economy out of capitalism. Jameson seems more interested in the process by which that will occur.

            The looming presence in this particular text that relates to this process is, I think, the power of “crashes” or capital “crisis.” While the Phoenix metaphor implies rebirth, the phoenix/ capital does need to ‘die’ in order for this restoration to occur. That capital’s stages mark it pending implosion I wonder this apocalyptic financial tumble will bring about for culture. Given our current fusion ( a fusion that Jameson acknowledges) of technology, economy, labor and culture- how will the culture mitigate the crash? This thought leads Jameson to suggest that “any comprehensive new theory of finance capitalism will need to reach out into the expanded realm of cultural production to map its effects; indeed, mass cultural production and consumption itself – at once with globalization and the new information technology – are as profoundly economic as the other productive areas of late capitalism and as fully a part of the latter’s generalized commodity system” (252).        While H&N take up this issue to discuss the culture of capital, Jameson seems to insist upon also looking at the capital of culture.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Thank you Mr. Negri.


As they used to say in the early years of MTV’s Real World:  “What happens when you stop being polite, and start getting real?”  In law school, my teachers taught me to apply the law to the facts. Don’t get too fancy, just find the established rule of law on your subject, then apply the holding and reasoning of those cases to your fact pattern. I’m getting tired of reading theorists that make no attempt to tie their theories to current factual problems, which amounts to intellectual masturbation, quite honestly. That’s why I applaud Mr. Negri. First, I admire his prose style, which can change from direct (“We need new theories for the new reality”) to elegantly ironic: “Strangely, however, after beginning to walk ahead of Marx in this way, we have the haunting suspicion he was already there.” 

More importantly, I admire his application of Marx’s method of historical materialism to the current economy. Let’s focus on his third phase, antagonism or exploitation. Consider how he deftly, but roundly, explains that Marx’s definition of exploitation (the amount of surplus labor time beyond that needed to produce wage value) is outdated. And notice that his new definition – “private appropriation of the public common” – is both expansive and yet well-tailored to his other writings.

Footnote: My only criticism would be that his example, “profits of financial capital,” is too broad. To me, there’s a difference between an individual buying stock, and a hedge fund trader short-selling the stock, or putting large bets on daily foreign currency values. The former is a financially responsible act, while the latter is pure exploitation.





Later Capitalism?

This week I found myself reading Jameson in conversation with Hardt and Negri.  In many ways it seems that while late/finance capitalism/post-modernity is argued to be the last stage of capitalism, the information economy seems to be a next stage.  
For example,  the information economy helps make the move from M-C-M to M-M’ more pronounced.  The only commodity many companies need to profit is the information or attention of consumers.  My idle attention clicking on facebook quizzes provides buzzfeed with a unique mass  of demographic information that they can then sell.  If you invest in information gathering mechanisms, (often a minimal investment) you can profit with little to no effort.
Finally,  Jameson notes that “We have often been told, however, that we now inhabit the synchronic rather than the diachronic, and I think it is at least empirically arguable that our daily life, our psychic experience, our cultural languages, are today dominated by categories of space rather than by categories of time, as in the preceding period of high modernism.”  However,  in the information economy, not only has time become irrelevant (micro traders are actually able to sell stocks before they finish buying them to make a profit on the surge in sales they caused  -- all without the risk of ever owning the stock), but in digital environments space is rendered largely meaningless.  As more commodities and business become digital, economic exchanges become entirely unbounded by space and time, meaning it is only information or affect that has any meaningful value (rather than labor time – which includes the time to move across goods across space). 

What all of these seem to suggest to me is that we are entering some phase of capitalism after late/finance capitalism.  As the example of the micro trades shows, even the residuals of finance capital are moving to logics of speed and information exchange.  While this can be construed as good, as the information economy has more space for the resistance to capitalism (as affect can never be fully commoditized), it also seems troubling if one believes that the moments to break capitalism are at moments of flux and transition (Clover).  It seems we may have missed the moment of transition from finance capital (US economic hegemony) to information capital (a more global and decentered market) and thus may missed a moment for greater opportunity of revolution.

Reply to Chandler that was too long for a comment

So cool, Chandler! Those shipping maps, wow. And I've been reading James Scott's Seeing Like a State this semester as well, for another class.

I think your question about the political side of political-economy is right on target in that you're calling out the practical political questions, but maybe there is another way to resolve the question of "state" vs. "economy".  I'll see if I can lay out how I am trying to think my way to a resolution.

As I was reading Jameson's "On Interpretation" I very much appreciated his point that we needed to rethink our conception of causality in reading and claiming priority of any sort for "literary texts" or "literary studies". Jameson, in doing this, draws on Althusser. Jameson's purpose is to create an "immanent or antitranscendent hermeneutic model" (23) that will help us "reassert the specificity of the political content of everday life and of individual fantasy-experience an to reclaim it from...reduction to the merely subjective (22). In his reading of Althusser, then, he claims that the three types of causality described are mechanistic, expressive, and structural. I'll try to apply these to the DH site you linked, and my reading of Scott.

The DH lecturer's insights into these maps as data (pretty new word and concept, I think) that can be "seen" by a state is certainly true. But it might not be the right question to ask. He describes how the 19th C. routes describe commercially driven boats, not state driven ones. And he also describes how the state prefers certain datum over others (the exotic whaling voyages over the routine coastal patrols). Then he goes on to show the data from a centralized state (USSR) that is imposed grids--ala Versailles gardens or Nebraska's township and range. Finally he has the drifting records--responsive and invisible--immanent and unescapable power. I think this represents the mechanistic view of interpretation. Data is caused by a system. At the same time, there are hints of the more "expressive" model: these maps can--as pieces of a whole--stand for and symbolize the essence of that whole: commercial, centralized, passive and permeating.

What I want to take from Marx (and apply to Jameson's invocation of a need to be careful about how we view causality) is the more structural reading: that the "state" is nothing more than an arm of capital's/the dominant class's power as is visible in its effects. State-ism is just capitalism turning knowledge and lived experience into something more abstract and therefore legible. The whole system of biopower that is late capitalism and immaterial labor is founded on living labor being abstracted, alienated, and reified into concepts like "state" vs. "economy" and "work" vs. "life" (as in work-life balance, a slick feel good way of upping production).

So, I guess what I want to say is that although I want to keep the political in the forefront, I want to do it without worrying too much about theories of "the state" or "state power". Politics is important, the state does scary things, but so are corporations and finance, and they do much more insidious and invisible things with the codes of the ultimate symbol: money. Splitting too many hairs on the source of the power might be less productive than other work. I think that politics (and interpretation) are and remain important on the level of the individual. It is there that the conditions of possibility for types of lives--the "dialogical" and "antagonistic" possibilities--are exposed.

Maybe I'm just trying to defend my own projects, and legitimate my own political choices, but it seems to me that the if new modes of production are to emerge, they won't be caused (directly, maybe antagonistically) by states but rather more organically. Maybe it will come from the living labor of humans interacting with ecologies and dynamically adapting to one another and using dynamic adaptive of meaning (like the Osage or other noncapitalist cultures)--not in the states that seek to control them and turn them into easily legible monocultures--data. Still, understanding the methods of control might be important in order to resist them and articulate the reasons for doing so. If I can go way out on a limb and prognosticate: the cause that is immanent with its effects and precipitates any revolution won't be datapoints--it will be lives and life-stories linked to the totalities of meaningful worlds; what Hubert Dreyfus calls, "What computers (still) can't do".

Man, those maps are cool! I'm on the fence about the Kool-Aid.

Jameson, DH, and the State

I was struck by many things in “Towards Dialectical Criticsm,” but particularly by Jameson’s conception of interpretation. Personally, I couldn’t help but compare elements in this chapter to their understanding in another great interaction with literary criticism: our own Stephan Ramsay’s essay “Algorithmic Criticism.”   

For me, the tl;dr for Ramsay’s article is that despite there being a clear distinction between the analysis given by “anecdotal” information of the “paper and pen” humanist and the algorithmic information gathered through computational means, the observance of patterns and “the irreducible tendency of the computer toward enumeration, measurement, and verification – are fully compatible with the goals” of typical humanist criticism. Additionally, regardless of basis for methodology,  any “critic who endeavors to put forth a ‘reading,’ puts forth not the text, but a new text in which the data has been paraphrased, elaborated, selected, truncated, and transduced.” I recalled this article when reading Jameson’s critique of interpretation, where he says:

“What we have called interpretation is therefore a misnomer: content does not need to be treated or interpreted, precisely because it is essentially and immediately meaningful in itself…Content is already concrete, in that it is essentially social and historical experience, and we may say of our own interpretive or hermeneutic work what the sculptor said of his stone, that it sufficed to remove all extraneous portions for the statue to appear, already latent in the marble block. Thus the process of criticism is not so much an interpretation of content as it is a revealing of it, a laying bare, a restoration of the original message, the original experience, beneath the distortions of the various kinds of censorship that have been at work upon it; and this revelation takes the form of an explanation of why the content was so distorted and is thus inseparable from a description of the mechanisms of this censorship itself” (Marxism and Form 403-404)

This idea of transferring focus from content to the notion of “censorship” is an interesting one, especially given the connotation that is attributed to censorship –mainly, state interference. This brought to mind Benjamin Schmidt’s presentation a week or so ago at the DH Forum, where he described maps of whaling voyages as representations of states.

He closed by saying that all data that is viewed at a similar macro scale will depict state mechanisms. Afterward, when I turned and asked Ramsay what he thought, he replied, “He’s absolutely right; it’s all stateism.”
In a similar aspect as Jameson’s dialectical criticism, Ramsay suggests algorithmic criticism “endeavors to expose the bare empirical facts of a text,” and I agree with both stances. One of the temptations of computational text analysis is the attempted movement to a more objective interpretation of texts that finds its foundation in empirical data, instead of anecdotal. But what if the result of a “laying bare” of a text’s content results not in a more nuanced understanding of the object in terms of either its sociohistorical context or its more objectively based patterns, but, as Schmidt puts it, a Foucauldian realization that the object is nothing more than “the invisibility of state power?”

I guess a less convoluted question would be: Jameson’s understanding of the interconnectedness between culture, capital, and society seems to be well established and coherent…but where is the state? In a similar way as H&N, Jameson gives us a glimpse of a “multinational network” that is past imperialism in Postmodernism, where “the nation-state itself has ceased to play a central functional and formal role” because capital has “expanded beyond [the city-state and nation-state], leaving them behind as ruined and archaic remains of earlier stages in the development of this mode of production” (412). I suppose then, that a mention of the state by Jameson must be made through the lens of production or the capitalistic mode, but I wonder if that’s diminishing the role of the state too much in his overall analysis.
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed Jameson, and I hope to read through more of his work with added care as I’m sure he has proved me wrong somewhere. 


Also, I realize I listed a lot of readings for tomorrow; but as I said at the beginning of the semester, and reiterated subsequently, I did not assume anyone would actually read all of these texts. As long as you will have read some for tomorrow that's fine. The "Pomo" essay is his most famous; the "Finance" essay is one that most directly might connect with some of the materials we've read throughout the semester.

Final class meeting

Hello everyone,
for the final class meeting we'll do only Fisher's Capitalist Realism, which is a short read. Also: please remember that your final project is due 5/5, via email (I'll be out of town, traveling with my parents, but I'll check email). Remember that this is a hard deadline; I do not give an "incomplete."

Tomorrow: we'll start with the section on Marx from Multitude. After a quick break we'll then move to Jameson, starting with Kim and Jamie's presentation. If we have time afterwards we can talk more about Freddie; if not we'll can continue with him at our last meeting.


Monday, April 14, 2014

The Feminization of Work

Although Hardt and Negri’s section on the “feminization” of work is only part of their larger argument, it deserves a decent amount of attention given today’s politics and the place of women in the workforce.
I disagree with H&N’s smaller point that the “last two or three decades” have witnessed an increased presence of women in the workforce. Rather, I would argue, women’s work has become increasingly more visible. In some senses H&N’s would agree – they rightly point to women’s domestic labor as something that has always been seen as something the women naturally do, rather than being respected as work. Yet, they fail in this selection to look at women’s labor practices before 1900. If they were to do so, they would find that women have been working at low level jobs as long as there have been such a thing. Even in the cottage industry and the early whispers of Capital, women’s work balanced domestic tasks with production tasks.
 It is not a new phenomenon that women are present and effective in the workforce. They always have been. Rather, we are now seeing their presence, and feeling the effects that characterize this “feminization”: “Part-time and informal employment, irregular hours, and multiple jobs” (133). Women have always worked in these conditions. At least, I can say with confidence, sense the 1500s.
H&N acknowledge too the “bitter irony” that “feminization” has not brought about gender equality in the work place. It some ways, I think that it has in that the men are now being treated as poorly as the women workers have always been. Women are still paid less, on average, for these similarly crummy jobs.
That this process of becoming biopolitical is evident on the “feminization” alone points to the gender bias built into this system. H&N deal with inherent problem by redirecting “feminization” as “labor becoming biopolitical . . . emphasiz[ing] the increased blurred boundaries between labor and life, and between production and reproduction” (134). They hope to fold in the “feminization” into the biopolitical in order not to confuse or misdirect the readers attention from the greater events of biopolitic.
But if we expand our historical lens and see the “feminization” not as modern phenomenon, but as a historical constant experiencing resurgences throughout the centuries, does it earn a different place in H&N’s model?


Hello everyone,
just a brief reminder that we'll return to Anti-Oedipus for a little while before then moving on to H&N.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Hardt and Negri: Gramsci 2.0?

After reading through all the assorted texts for this week, I find myself drawing many parallels between the theories of Hardt and Negri and those of Gramsci.   In many ways, it seems that H&N’s project is largely an update of Gramsci responding to neo-liberalism and information abundance. 

Initially, the notion of biopolitics being created by the real subsumption of labor seems to mirror Gramsci’s move to look at more than pure material oppression.  Gramsci noted hegemony regulated behavior well outside the economic to maintain capitalism. Subalterns were also given piecemeal victories to regulate their behavior under the guise of progress.   In this way, it seems there was already a gesture towards the logic of capitalism engulfing all aspects of life in Gramsci.    While biopolitics adds nuance to the disciplining power of these hegemonic forces, and further expands understandings of their ability to be created by more than just dominant forces, both groups of texts seem to point towards the need to theorize the role capitalism plays in regulating our lives beyond traditional locations of productive action.

Additionally, the notion of multitude seems largely reminiscent of expansive hegemony.  While multitude would be constructed of an amalgamation of individual subjects rather than a combination of subaltern classes, both are constructed by the unification of divergent alienated interests around the common opposition to the oppression of hegemonic values that perpetuate the dominance of capitalism.  The explanation to the tensions created by immigrant economics in Commonwealth 134 highlights how dominant forces play divergent interests off of each other to maintain complicity in the status quo.  It is only when divided groups understand the unity of their interest (the commons) that they can become to operate as a collective of interests.  Additionally, as multitude is something that is constructed, it represents a counter hegemonic force to replace dominant structures – directly paralleling expansive hegemony.

Another prominent parallel is the necessity of the organic intellectual(s).   H&N further note that multitude must be created by cooperative interactions within the common (Commonwealth 175).  To me this seems reminiscent of organic intellectuals, theorizing the nature and direction of expansive hegemony based on their lived experience of subalternity (labor).   While the fact that networked society has deterotorilized labor, it stands to reason that a single organic intellectual in a single place would no longer be sufficient to theorize and mobilize resistance.

It may be because I saw these parallels that I do not share Nicole’s concern with the grouping of such a wide range of professions under the same label of “immaterial labor.”  Yes, the experiences of different professions (and even unpaid forms) of immaterial labor result in vastly different lived experiences, but H&N are not saying they experience capitalism at all in the same way nor that they are multitude in their current state. Rather the label seems mostly to help explain the new dominant logic of capitalism that has come to define all modes of production, be they agricultural, industrial, or informational.  Because this is the dominant mode of capitalism, it is the entry point where the theorization of the “common” between laborers across these industries can be found.  Only by recognizing that there is something common across all exploited classes can expansive hegemony/multitude be constructed in a way that can genuinely challenge capitalism in crisis.

Some concepts in Hardt & Negri

First off: why can’t everyone write like this? I mean, sure—Marx was systematic, and Benjamin was delightfully quirky, and Adorno was elegantly dialectic, and Deleuze and Guattari were overflowing and unrestrained…but there is a certain measure of power in some nice clean prose.

Secondly, following up on Szeman’s interest in the dynamic relationship between abstract ideas and real existing stuff, and its intersections with power. I’m going to try to just lay out how H&N use some major Marxian terms/concepts and how they use inflections of the original to go “beyond Marx” only to find him there haunting everything:

The category of labor is undeniably important to understand the dynamics of our lived world. We should understand the historical (and I presume ecological, but more about that below) situation of lived human experience as resting fundamentally on labor as humanity’s foundational action in the world (purely side note, this has resonance with my understanding of Heideggerian “world” and “Dasein” as well). So, that pre-systemized, primary category is “living labor”, which the technology/force of capital then captures as “labor power” to create the type of surplus value we usually think of as money—the “monetary ontology” of our modern Chicago School reality. However, because “living labor” is exactly an overflowing and Dionysian bios, it twists away from capital—and in an effort to keep capturing it, capital invents/uses biopower to socially control humans. This is the whole Foucault disciplinarity bit, and its linked to the hegemony of the emergent form of production called “immaterial labor”—the work that produces social life itself, (even as it can be exploited, like we are being exploited by the likes of Archer Daniel’s Midland, who kind of bankrolls UNL because taxes don’t cut it and football dollars probably go back to football coaches/that giant building that has very little to do with knowledge).

But, according to H&N, “a theory of labor and value today must be based on the common” (Multitude 148). Furthermore, exploitation must be rethought as expropriation of the commons—the most insidious form of biopower and the greatest threat to common wealth is precisely enclosure and the cultural forms which enable it and arise from it: the privatization and subjection to the market of everything. This is the same force which is trying to collapse both space and time to make everything equally accessible to the market at all times: just-in-time delivery of goods that you can order anywhere with your smart phone and then tweet/instagram photos of yourself that prove the affective quality of life affirmed and realized by that purchase.

As Szeman pointed out, it’s all possible because of a certain type of “dead labor”: oil.  And probably only because of oil. Oil is the base of our whole superstructure: jets, football teams, “cheap” food, plastic. Those 500 “energy slaves”. This was my question for McCloskey that she twisted around and didn’t answer.

So, to return to my point about our ecological situation: if we agree that expropriation of the commons is indeed exploitation—and the oil economy is nothing if not an expropriation of the commons across time and space—then we are faced with deciding who all has a stake in the commons. And clearly, to me, drawing the borders at humanity is only slightly better than drawing the borders at the “Anglo race” (like a victorian), or the bourgeoisie like a good capitalist. Not least because diversity of life seems to be a source of value of all sorts, just like living labor—food, fiber, shelter, medicine, etc. It seems to me that any “revolutionary accounting,” if such a thing is indeed possible, would take into account a much wider common wealth, one that would encompass the whole bios—including the zoe and the botane too. It is, after all, in this or “world” that the positive externalities are to be found: “the artificial common, or really, the common that blurs distinction between nature and culture.” (Commonwealth 139). And I haven’t even touched on antagonism or class.

While Hardt and Negri are fairly upbeat, Szeman expressed his doubts about our ability to cause any sort of change in consciousness beyond more carefully analyzing the system before us, or do to more than create models that explain the forces at work today. While I appreciate his skepticism toward speculation, I’m also just optimistic enough to think that we can find “new” concepts to understand our present in study of the past, of other cultures, and our own literature. Concepts that might be able to adjust our subjectivity, our community, or our concepts themselves enough that the possibility of revolution still exists. But then, maybe that’s utopian—and maybe that’s why we need utopias.