Against Spectacle

k-punk on the G20 protest and the response to the economic ‘crisis’. This follows up on similar analyses from Savonarola, Owen Hatherley (and another), and an earlier k-punk post.

The key issue is how to break out of the logic of protest-as-petition — pleading with the state to be nice, to play the role of the benevolent protector, when in anything like its current form it is structurally incapable of doing so. The response has to be twofold: directed at the level of the political subject and the institutions which it can shape and be shaped by.

Firstly, we need to bury the politics of ressentiment once and for all. It is fatal for all political action to remain an extension of an identity struggle, of simply standing up to be counted, earning the right to say ‘At least I did something‘. This type of politics — as a struggle for recognition, both cultural and institutional — has an important but nonetheless narrow role, and its heyday has long passed. It cannot serve as a paradigm for effective political action any longer. That it still does, with its remnants lingering on in the anticapitalist movement, can be easily explained: it is deeply psychologically satisfying. But it is becoming ever more clear — just think to the actual effect of the huge Iraq war protests — that it needs to be supplanted or supplemented by something different. What is needed is a mode of radicalisation, getting people interested and engaged in political action, but which moves away from a narcissistic model which privileges the authenticity of one’s feelings rather than the long-term impact of one’s behaviour. In short, more hard-headed austerity and less of the carnivalesque would not go amiss. And not for asceticism’s sake, but because it will be more likely to work.

Secondly, a new economism is needed, returning to the sphere of production as the site of struggle. With a moribund political climate (even in these interesting times), this is where capital can be challenged most effectively. David Harvey is right to call for a ‘socialisation of surplus’ — though this ought to be not just at a governmental level (e.g. progressive tax and spending policies) but at the local level. The aspiration would be for workers — both material and immaterial — to have far more control over the products of their labour. But initially it is the conditions of labour which are more readily influenced. Traditionally, of course, this has revolved around matters of pay, hours and especially in cases like industry, safety. However, k-punk correctly centres upon opposition to managerialism as the new great front. I think we should see this as bound up with the demand for worker autonomy — to be free from interfering micro-management and the panoptican-nature of modern working practices. Driving back these sorts of changes is crucial and not just because they are depressing enough in themselves. For, control over the workplace is a crucial part of the socialisation of its products. So too, Michael Albert (parecon aside) is quite right to stress that workplace control, as a platform for creating progressive institutions, is a crucial step towards normalising and reproducing radical ideas in society as a whole.

Spinozist Joy and the Materialism of Public Space

A very welcome return of k-punk to political-philosophical analysis to be found in a blistering post here. He weaves together a discussion of affect and paternalism with reference to Supernanny and the role of the BBC, going on to bring a Spinozistic materialism to bear on the problem of the failure of late capitalism (with much more besides). Not to be missed!

Richard Rorty

As many of you will already have heard, Richard Rorty died on Friday. My philosophical relation to Rorty has been a complex one, perhaps more suited to a psychoanalytical explanation than a purely philosophical one. He was the first contemporary philosopher to really capture my interest; in my first-year as an undergraduate I remember being very impressed with the his short piece on Derrida, ‘Philosophy as a kind of writing’. Going on to investigate his work on epistemology, I found that he managed to articulate the substantial unease that I was experiencing about the general orientation of analytic philosophy. His call for philosophy to disentangle itself from its fundamentally epistemological problematics, now transposed into a preoccupation with reference-centred philosophy of language, was one that struck a real chord with me. Rorty’s anti-representationalist project became my project too for quite a while.

My undergraduate dissertation — in some ways still perhaps the best piece of philosophical writing that I have produced — defended this anti-representaionalism. At the same time however, it contained the seeds of my break with Rorty’s approach, then expressed as a rejection of his ‘ethnocentrism’ (a label that, in typically Rortian fashion, he applied to his own position with no sense of embarrassment). In addition to this, after being on most issues an eager follower of Rorty, I began to become more concerned about the relations of his firmly liberal political stance (something that I had never been at all sympathetic to) to his (anti-)epistemological thoughts; something that has only deepened since. So too, while writing my dissertation I attended a wonderful series of classes on both Wittgenstein’s early and late work, engagement with which was something that forced me to confront the fact that Rorty’s historical work on figures like Wittgenstein was deeply problematic. These factors acted as causes and then catalysts to the process of disentangling my thought from Rorty’s.

Having said this, Rorty has left a deep impression on me. In the same way that it was no surprise to me to learn that Jodi was once a Habermasian and Sinthome a Heideggerian, the (dialectically) negative effects of Rorty on me are, at least in my eyes, quite pronounced. Yet there are also more direct continuities, whereby I can plot a route from Rorty’s work on epistemology, through Wittgenstein’s discussions of rule-following, then themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology, to my current preoccupations (again, this progression might only make sense to me, and is something I will probably get around to writing about at some point).

Usually, the strange effects of obiturial writing tend to preclude sharp critical engagement. (I am reminded, albeit a little elliptically, of k-punk’s comments on coverage of the London bombings: “as if solemn moralising rather than political analysis were what is called for.”) Rather, it is precisely at this point that our narratives must be least fondly sentimental and least boorishly reactive. In this spirit, I want to briefly point to some of those features of Rorty’s work that I think are especially commendable as well as some of those that I think ought to resisted.

One of the strategic moves deployed in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature that is particularly important is the fundamental distinction made between causal relations and normative relations. Shadowing Kant’s insistence upon distinguishing questions of right (quid juris) from questions of fact, Rorty takes a confusion of the causal and normative to be a fundamental problem with Lockean proto-epistemology. In short, an explanation of the causal process by which one comes to adopt a belief is insufficient to answer the question of whether one is warranted to hold this belief. Yet, Rorty thinks Kant errs by shifting focus to synthetic components of judgement — those of given intuitions and contrasting imposed concepts — which gets him embroiled in what, for Rorty, is the hopeless representationalist question of the relation between mind and world. With no Archimedean standpoint to examine this relation, Rorty rejects the idea that accounts of this kind are able to do any explanatory work. Instead, Rorty substitutes a conception of knowledge as a relation between persons and propositions, the conceptual configuration of propositions allowing them to stand in the inferential relations purportedly required for them to be normative relata.

In later work, this becomes articulated via the Davidsonian slogan, “Only a belief can justify another belief.” This is an implicit recapitulation of the earlier insistence that a causal relation cannot do the work of a normative one: that is, an extra-vocabulary relation, whereby bits of the world cause a belief, cannot substitute for an intra-vocabulary relation, whereby a belief can rationally support another by acting as a reason for it–something the mere occurence of a sensation (experience, intuition) alledgedly cannot do on its own. Of course, our beliefs are not hermetically sealed of from the world since they are produced in our interaction with the environment, but for Rorty this causal tie cannot be used to piggyback the normative, and therefore propositional, ties implicit in the question of whether a proposition accurately represents (is adequate to, gets ‘correct’, etc.) some segment of the world.

I find this line of thought both seductive and suggestive, if ultimately unsustainable (McDowell’s Mind and World tackling it head on, and in my view with some success). More than that though, in its strategic approach and narrativisation of the history of philosophy, I consider it to be a model of philosophical argumentation. It is an example of Rorty at his best, subtly rethinking received philosophical wisdom, and going on to challenge it in such a way that provides a basis for interesting new metaphilosophical thoughts, such as his suggestion for a sociological criterion for warrant as part of a naturalised account of knowledge.

These admirable qualities — amongst which we might group his boldness and ability to paint inventive broad-brushstroke narratives — are, however, often the same ones that led him astray in other respects. Rorty has, often unfairly, been chastised as a sloppy thinker, unconcerned with ‘serious’ argumentation, especially in his later years. One defence against this is to point to his avowed theoretical quietism. In fact, he went on to embrace the ‘sophist’ label (as ever, it seems with some sense of irony), with the recently published fourth volume of his selected papers being called ‘Philosophy as Cultural Politics’ (hear the distant shrieks of horror from Badiou!). Yet, his willingness (and even glee) at biting bullets on these issues is ultimately unsustainable.

One example, of course, is his defence of an achingly stodgy liberalism ‘without metaphysical foundations’. To call his political position complacent barely scratches the surface. It manages to combine some of the more unsalubrious features of identarian politics with a breezy confidence in the purportedly essentially progressive tendencies of American democracy. (Having said this, his more recent journalistic pieces have been rather more pessimistic though.) His ethnocentrism, which he uses to ward away metaphysical (or rather ‘metaphysical’) grounds for liberalism, is a refusal of Politics as such; that is, as a universal project, not mired in the contingent calls of identities and the community (‘Community’ effectively acting as the very tertium quid for Rorty that he decries everywhere else). The problems that become visible here allow us to spot the red thread running through most of Rorty’s work that, when pulled, unravels most of his positive project. It is the iron cage imposed by his conception of cultural contexts that restrains Rorty, his ultimately being a failed attempt to rethink the need for immanence in determining a normative stance. Yet, the territory that he does manage to chart remains fertile ground. And given the adventurousness and stridency of the set of positions that he staked out, I am confident of one thing: if Rorty had not already have existed then someone would eventually have had to invent him.

Rorty Resources

Secondary literature

For those new to Rorty who want a brief overview of his work, Bjørn Ramberg’s SEP encyclopedia article is excellent. The volume Rorty and his Critics is superb, including critical articles by Habermas, McDowell, Davidson and Putnam, amongst others, as well as responses by Rorty. It also includes Brandom’s article, ‘Vocabularies of Pragmatism: Synthesising Naturalism and Historicism’, which is the best presentation of Rorty’s project that I have come across.

Recommended work by Rorty

The introduction to Consequences of Pragmatism is available online here. Obviously, Rorty’s magnum opus, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, is to be recommended, primarily for Part II and within that particularly chapters 3 and 4. Some recommended papers: ‘The World Well Lost’ and ‘Nineteenth Century Idealism and Twentieth Century Textualism’ in Consequences of Pragmatism; ‘Solidarity or Objectivity?’ and ‘Pragmatism, Davidson and Truth’ in Objectivity, Relativism and Truth: Philosophical Papers, Volume 1; ‘Hilary Putnam and the Relativist Menace’ in Truth and Progress: Philosophical Papers, Volume 3.

Emotivism and Capitalism Revisited: Discourse on Method

My last post, in which I posit some sort of relation between capitalism and MacIntyre’s ’emotivist self’, was intended as little more than a placeholder for that indistinct thought. I am indebted to the ever-perceptive N Pepperell who, in the comments to it, correctly locates a certain methodological ambiguity in the analysis. This ambiguity is at the heart of at least one of the reasons why the post is rather unsatisfactory. For, as NP points out, on the one hand I engage in a ‘functionalist’ task, pointing to capital as a beneficiary of a certain emotivist form of subjectivity, while also identifying a more straightforward ‘structural’ homology between an emotivist form of subjectivity and the liberal-individualist form of subjectivity that capitalism ideologically posits and practically engenders. I want to take this opportunity to expand on these insightful comments–ones which I will draw on heavily in what follows.

It is a familiar trope of critical discourse to ask of the object of analysis whether–and if so, which–interests are served by that object. Thus, in my post, I ask of the formation of emotivist subjectivity what ends it helps achieve, suggesting that it reinforces a certain [quasi-]utilitarian logic that smoothes the operations of the social form of capitalism. We can consider this form of critique in more detail, examining the problems that it tends to get entangled in with respect to the legitimacy of the standpoint it presupposes as well as going on to point to some systematic blindspots it can encourage. These are distilled in the essence-appearance distinction it tempts us to adopt–at least, insofar as essence and appearance remain dichotomous here. The critique will often be articulated something like this: ‘Although x seems innocent, it is really exploitative/patriarchal/racist.’ This is a common sort of ideological unveiling whereby the theorist seeks to penetrate to the core of the object of analysis to reveal its essential workings as against its deceptive semblance.

Often problematic features of such analyses can be traced back to their reliance on certain–commonly tacit–assumptions with respect to a dualism of subject and object. These problems centre around the failure of the analysis to treat subject and object as items individuated within a unitary field (or ‘situation’) and thus leads to us seeing them as separated by a gulf that problematises their relation. This can occlude two important issues.

Firstly, under this dualist assumption, the critical theorist can become fixated on the attempt to uncover the object of analysis as it is in-itself. Their conception of their task thus becomes to determine whether their object really is as it appears to be–say, whether capitalist relations of production really are just, as it has seemed to many economists. This ‘functionalist’ model, which merely compares functional essence with appearance, is rather limited though. The deeper and often more interesting question is that given that sometimes there is a mismatch between essence and appearance–that something appears innocuous/pernicious when it is not–why does it take that specific appearance? For example, why has it (or alternatively, must it have) appeared to so many economists that capitalism is not exploitative but paradigmatic of just distribution? Ultimately we must ask how semblance can arise at all (for as Hegel recognised, it is this that is the real mystery!)? Fully answering these sorts of question, I believe, requires us to reject a dualistic opposition between subject and object, instead embracing a categorical framework that treats subjectivity as situated within and in some sense contiguous with the material world. This would provide a fuller set of resources for explaining the complex interplay between the subject and those material and intersubjective forces that shape its orientation towards the world.

The second issue relates to the situatedness of the critical theorist themself. For the functional analysis that reduces the object of critique to an essence (its functional role with respect to the interests of certain actors and systems) distinguished from mere appearance (those qualitative features subjects apprehend) we are left with a further question. That question is: given that the object does not make itself manifest immediately as it is, how does the theorist come to discover its essential nature? If the relation between subject and object is one in which the object appears to the subject as something other than it essentially is then it seems that the theorist must somehow stand outside the context of the subject-object relation–occupying some transcendent standpoint–if they are to discern the true function of the object (e.g. what interests it serves). Reformulated outside of the assumptions of a subject-object dualism, we can rehabilitate such a question in much more finessed terms, supplementing the crude essence-appearance model with an analysis of the whole field in which subject and object are situated within that explains how the critical methodology employed by the subject becomes available to them but not to others who remain misled. (Relevant here are Sinthome’s characteristically excellent discussions of ‘transcendental stupidity’; for the difficulties of successful normative appraisal of the object of critique are rarely ones of deductive errors or lack of empirical data.)

Returning now to the content of my previous post, the ‘functional’ question appears somewhat tangential to the more structural concerns which centred on emotivist and liberal-individualist forms of subjectivity. Worse, insofar as it encourages a crude essence-appearance dichotomy then it abstracts away from what NP calls the ‘qualitative form’ of these subjectivities, subsumtively reducing their features through analysis into mere instruments of the overriding function. Preferable to the functionalist strategy, suggests NP, is one that pursues the thought that: “something about the collective practice of capitalism involves, or renders more likely, or suggests the possibility, or similar, for the practice and concept of an emotivist self.” This was my central thought that was clouded by my clumsy articulation of the issue. One potential caveat is the possible implication that there is a uni-directional relation of influence: that it is merely capitalism that creates a suitable context for an emotivist subjectivity. Rather (assuming MacIntyre’s thesis holds, etc.) the two forms of subjectivity–liberal-individualism and emotivism–would seem to be interpenetrative, or at least mutually reinforcing.

The relation between the two forms of subjectivity could be hypothesised as follows. Capitalist social practice encourages an unreflective, instrumental and pleonexic mode of engagement with the world, constituting an enculturation that privileges certain forms of perception. This provides a climate amenable for the emotivist self which substantially shares these perceptual tendencies and forms. The form of emotivist subjectivity itself informs a practice of moral reasoning that also forges these forms of perception, which in turn nurtures the liberal-individual form of subjectivity that conceives the world according to real-abstract capitalist concepts. Thus, through a joint Bildung, the modern individual would acquire a second nature in which their instinctive mode of relating to the world becomes a dual emotivist-liberal one. Other modes of worldly engagement are by no means ruled out but rather marginalised. The combined ‘direction of flow’ of these two modes of engagement would, as it were, cut channels into the subjective landscape that create a path of least resistance that privileges and naturalises certain values and behaviours. Moral traditions with some sort of hard moral kernel would then come to seem alien–their critical norms as unwelcome impositions on the ‘obvious’ order of things.

amo, amas, emote

Consider Alisdair MacIntyre’s thesis, set out in the opening chapters to After Virtue, that modernity has nurtured an ’emotivist self’. This self would be one that lacks the resources required to engage in collective moral reflection, its engagement with ‘moral debates’ effectively being a mere incantation of private predilections — a matter of asserting its brute, unquestionable ‘values’. The sort of argumentative impasses that MacIntyre is gesturing towards ought to be familiar ones. To give what I find to be a particularly infuriating example, think of rights-discourse in the media, such as when someone will assert criminal suspects’ rights to a robust and fair legal procedure and then is met by claims on behalf of the rights of victims of crime. There is still a tacit appeal to an impersonal standard for resolving the dispute here (i.e. the existence of certain rights) but nonetheless there is usually an insufficient framework for rational discussion, with appeals to conflicting principles whose only grounding seems to be derived from the conviction that their proponents invest in them. How often does a fruitful exchange occur in these circumstances, let alone a reasonably settled consensus? MacIntyre’s ultimate project is to try and rehabilitate a form of Aristotelianism (what, in fact, turns out to be a neo-Thomisim) that he thinks gives us resources to avoid moral arguments degenerating into such dead-ends, of being little more than appeals to nebulous intuitions; but I won’t go into that here.

Assuming that MacIntyre’s historical position is defensible, that as moderns we do find ourselves in the situation he describes, what has led us here? MacIntyre thinks that certain Enlightenment philosophical assumptions — even if not always, or even predominantly, bound up with academic philosophy — have distorted our conceptions of ourselves and our role as moral reasoners. I want to suggest another explanation of this phenomena (perhaps not even a conflicting one, per se) with reference to the wider structural effects of the cultivation in us of a moral self-conception in implicitly emotivist terms.

Asking a simple question, who or what benefits from such an emotivist self? One obvious answer: capital. At a superficial level, such a self — one that conceives of its moral identity simply in terms of a set of preferences, or is at least embedded in a system that treats it that way — has a similarity to liberal-democratic conceptions of the individual. This is ethics as consumer choice, as contiguous with any other desires or inclinations that we happen to have and to be maximised no differently. Our job is merely to be self-interested agents employing instrumental rationality to satisfy desires that are not intrinsically privileged; we just happen to care about moral preferences and that’s the only reason why we ought to pay any attention to morality.

Conceiving ourselves as moral agents in this merely emotivist way is congenial to the interests of capital in a number of ways. Not only does it buttress a liberal-democratic conception of personhood (liberalism being the handmaiden of capitalism, as we know), it weakens the foundations of practices that can act as sites of resistance to capital. Someone who treats their own moral dispositions as no more than emotional preferences, or else a social system that functionally reduces them to mere preferences, strips the moral realm of its distinctive importance. Moral considerations can then be bargained away, assigned a quantitive value alongside any other outcome that we find satisfying. What are arguably broadly morally centred traditions and institutions (Marxism, Christianity, etc.) lose their autonomy. That is, they become integrated with, and subsumed under, a utilitarian logic that can only acknowledge their importance insofar as they promote the fulfilment of existing desires — desires that are predominantly unquestionable, uncriticisable ones. The necessary standpoint for critique is squeezed out, and we are left with agents whose mercenary pursuit of their own interests could not come to be legitimately opposed. The result? Homo economicus reigns.