Don't be afraid to take a big step; you can't cross a chasm in two small jumps

Archive for February, 2010|Monthly archive page

Wendy Brown Interview

In Anti-capitalism, Communism, Interview, Marx on February 28, 2010 at 7:36 pm

A superb short interview with Wendy Brown appeared on the Broken Power Lines Blog yesterday. It’s incredibly dense with lots of ideas in such a short space. I recommend everyone to check it out. She talks about, among other things, why the left should mobilise under the signifier ‘democracy’ rather than ‘communism’; populism, the right and the Tea Party; education; a critique of Cosmopolitanism; Marx and Religion; and, also, an interesting characterisation of Neo-liberalism.

CPS:  You have argued … that neoliberalism does not simply promote economic policies but to quote you “disseminates market values into every sphere of human activity.”  What distinguishes your perspective here from the despair found in someone like Adorno?  What would it require to translate the despair that many people experience in very personal and de-politicized ways into a form of political mobilization?

Wendy Brown:  That is an interesting question because it assumes that neoliberalism produces despair.  I wish it did but I am not convinced that it does.  I think that the process that some of us have called neoliberalization actually seizes on something that is just a little to one side of despair that I might call something like a quotidian nihilism.   By quotidian, I mean it is a nihilism that is not lived as despair; it is a nihilism that is not lived as an occasion for deep anxiety or misery about the vanishing of meaning from the human world.  Instead, what neoliberalism is able to seize upon is the extent to which human beings experience a kind of directionlessness and pointlessness to life that neoliberalism in an odd way provides.  It tells you what you should do: you should understand yourself as a spec of human capital, which needs to appreciate its own value by making proper choices and investing in proper things. Those things can range from choice of a mate, to choice of an educational institution, to choice of a job, to choice of actual monetary investments – but neoliberalism without providing meaning provides direction. In a sad way it is seizing upon a certain directionlessness and meaninglessness in late modernity.  Again, I am talking mainly about the Euro-Atlantic world: without providing meaning, it provides direction.  So I think it is quite a different order of things from the one that Adorno was describing.

CPS:  [re.] the crisis within the humanities.  You were arguing against the way that there is such a specialization and jargonization of what we do – where it becomes hard to explain what we do to people outside of academia.  Do you think this kind of insulation within academia helps feed political ignorance and this divide?

Wendy Brown:  Sure, we’ve really lost the ability – and I am not blaming us as individuals – it is really part of a creation of niche industries everywhere in capitalism today. But, we’ve really lost the ability as social and cultural scholars – I want to say humanists but I am trying to get social scientists in there too – we’ve lost the ability to be able to talk about what we do and promulgate the knowledge we have in an everyday fashion.  I think that happens in the classroom and it is not even just a question of what is outside. More and more, for example, political science educates its undergraduates in the profession of political science, rather than in the study of politics. That means we are cranking out students who may know how to behave like professional political scientists but they don’t really know how to analyze political problems.

[on a future project on Marx and religion]

Wendy Brown:  … I’ve been working for a couple of years on something I hope to finish in the next year, which is a rethinking of Marx’s critique of religion.  What I am trying to do there is think about what is often treated as an early and relatively unimportant concern of Marx, one that he is presumed to have dropped once he moves on to full-blown materialism and study of political economy.  What I am doing is tracing the ways in which his engagement with Feuerbach and his critique of religion extends all the way through his work right up into Das Kapital.  One of the things that has allowed me to see is the ways in which Marx can contribute to understanding a contemporary problem of ours, which is this: why is it that at the very moment that capitalism seems finally to have painted all the colors of the globe and really has ascended as a global power – why is that moment coterminous with the resurgence of world religions?   Marx is often thought to not be able to help us think that problem at all because Marx is usually thought to be saying that capitalism secularizes and even abolishes religion and that religion is one of the casualties – in his sense, good casualties – of capitalism’s desacralization of the world.  I think that is a wrong reading.  I actually think Marx has a deep understanding of just how religious capital is and how much it requires and entails religion.  That is what the re-reading of Marx is for, and I hope that book will be done in another year, but we’ll see.

New Issue of the Zizek Studies Journal – Johnston and Vighi

In Anti-capitalism, Badiou, Johnston, Journals, Marx, Marxism, Zizek on February 24, 2010 at 9:31 pm

The latest issue of the International Journal of Zizek Studies hit the net today.  It is the first of an annual special ‘Zizek and Ideology’ edition edited by Cardiff University’s Centre for Ideology Critique and Zizek Studies.  It has some great contributions including, Jodi Dean’s on  Zizek and the Internet (I’m hoping this will feature in her new book Blog Theory) . And an excellent breif exchange between Adrian Johnston and Fabio Vighi regarding the former’s new book on Zizek and Badiou, The Cadence of Change.

Anyone familliar with Johnston’s work will know that it offers a formidanble (and encyclopedically argued) critical reading of both Badiou and Zizek. His most important contribution, and one that Zizek acknowledges in several places, is that we must carefully supplement the notion of Event (as used by both Zizek and Badiou) to overcome the common criticism hurled at it (i.e. by describing a transformation so radical that it creates it’s own presuppositions retroactively, the event/act can only result in political quietism and the naive belief that change can and will occur ex-nihilo ).

Johnston’s argues that to prepare the ground for the radical (truly) historical otherness which flares up all too briefly in an Evental situation, we need to develop a mode of pre-evental awareness (in time/politics).  Rigorously outlined in his latest book, this will ensure that we will engage in practical action in the meantime and yet still be ready for the big event when it “seems suddenly to present itself”.

Vighi’s critical retort to this is that, although insightful, it fails to break out from the specifically Badiouian/Zizekian problem that Johnston initially aims to overcome. By limiting his intervention to merely outlining a philosophical problem and daring not to apply it in the current conjecture, Johnston is only really, in effect, repeating the problem.  (i.e once again in a formal way Cadence of Change succumbs to an awkward quietism whilst awaiting  the miraculous intervention of an Event.)

In this way, Vighi rightly questions, to what extent does Johnston’s intervention, finely balanced as it is, “address the real problem” in Zizek’s and Badiou’s work? Even with Johnston’s important contribution to the debate, it he appears to remain “stuck in a somewhat fetishistic use of critical theory”.

Vighi asserts that the gap between theory and practice which Johnston attempts to bridge is in fact a false dichotomy. Thus, whilst theory is undoubtedly vital, it can only go so far. As he argues, “by definition, a political theory that does no include ‘seeds of the future’ by defying the material and ideological framework from which it speaks, cannot even dream to connect with empirical reality in the struggle for radical emancipation.”

What I really like about Vighi’s argument is that it unabashedly affirms a necessarily Marxist stance.  Indeed, the whole direction of his argument is along the lines of Marx’s statement regarding the  significance of ‘practical-critical’ activity. To once again state Marx’s oft-repeated eigth Thesis on Feurebach: “all mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”

Slavoj Zizek – Cardiff University, 3rd March

In Anti-capitalism, Lectures, Marxism, Zizek on February 23, 2010 at 3:42 am

First as Tragedy, then as Farce: Economic Crisis and Ideology Critique Today

Zizek is coming to The Centre for Ideology Critique and Zizek Studies at Cardiff University next week to give a public lecture on the explicitly ideological dimension of the economic crisis.  For those unfamiliar: in his latest book, First as Tragedy, then as Farce, Zizek argued that The financial meltdown signals that the fantasy of globalization and liberal-capitalist utopia is over. The blatant irrationality of a system that staggers punch-drunk from contradiction to crisis is once again plain for all to see: from the exorbitant amounts of purely speculative money thrown to the interests of capital to the job losses and increasingly expanding gap between rich and poor, Capitalism appears fundamentally corrupt to all.  Yet, nonetheless it remains standing and functioning (albeit for the interests of the few). Whilst we know Capitalism is inherently flawed, it still dictates political interests and individuals across the globe. In this sense, it remains the Real (in both the Lacanian and everyday sense) of our lives. How do we understand this gap? It’s in the Ideology, Stupid!

The Lecture is open to all, although you need to register! 19:00, Wednesday 3rd March 2010,  Julian Hodge Lecture Theatre, Colum Drive, Cardiff, CF10 3EU

For further details and registration (which is essential, i’ve been reliably informed) see here

The Frankfurt School – In Our Time, Radio 4

In Podcasts, The Frankfurt School on February 21, 2010 at 9:42 pm

Melvyn Bragg with Esther Leslie, Jonathan Ree and Raymond Geuss discuss the ideas and history of the Frankfurt School on In Our Time. Podcast Here

A Round-up: Nu-Bureacracy, Naomi Klein, Greece and University Cuts,

In Anti-capitalism, Lectures, Podcasts on February 20, 2010 at 2:00 pm

Nu-Bureacracy and Capitalism Podcast

Somebody has been kind enough to post a podcast of Fischer’s lecture at the Nu-beaurcracy and Capitalism event at Goldsmiths. Right here.

Naomi Klein on No Logo 10 Years on

The Guardian ran an extract from the introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of No Logo a few weeks ago. Klein talks about the powerful shifts in branding culture and how models of out-sourcing are increasingly being integrated into government.

Lenin’s Tomb on Greece and the Speculative on the Euro

Describing the hypocritical austerity measure being imposed on Greece, Lenin’s Tomb predicts that yet again it will be workers who will be hardest hit while the interests of Capital will, once again, benefit.

University Budget Cuts

The budget-cuts and ‘economising’ within universities have certainly started to become discernible this week.  And whilst they will undoubtedly be devastating, an opposition is gradually forming:  Leeds lecturers voted to strike against Job losses; A campaign began against the proposed budget cuts in the philosophy department at Kings;  UCL students have started a petition against the proposed redundancies for both teaching and administrative staff in the modern languages department, to name but three. Perhaps what is heartening is the national mainstream media attention this is getting: Just today, Willian Rees-Mogg wrote a very realistic assessment of the cuts in the Times today;  whilst the Guardian ran with a story about the sorry state of University buildings and facilities – a story anyone who has attended university in the last 5 years will certainly attest to.

David Harvey – Organising for the Anti-Capitalist Transition

In Anti-capitalism, Marxism, Zizek on February 7, 2010 at 2:37 pm

‘Of course this is utopian! But so what! We cannot afford not to be.’

A Fantastic piece drawing from David Harvey’s new book appeared online last week. If this is a taster of what’s to come in the ‘The Enigma of Capital‘  we can look forward to some incredibly interesting debate.  Perhaps the most important issue Harvey points to is the question of legitimacy which the ongoing crisis of Capitalism should raise. In the darkest days of the most recent crisis ‘the irrationality of capitalism’ was plain for all to see.  We need only consider the incredible amounts of money thrown at the crisis next to the continual and immense suffering of the poorest to view this quite unstomachable contradiction.

Harvey, however, suggests this question of legitimacy is a curious case. Curious, at least in the Sherlock Holmes sense, to the extent that it remains one rarely asked. Like Jameson, Zizek and, most recently, Mark Fischer, Harvey argues that within our ideological milieu the legitimacy of Capitalism as a system is seldom questioned.  It is a problem made all the more accute alongside Harvey’s prediction that if we continue with the current  ‘exit strategy’ ‘then almost certainly we will be in another mess within five years’.  Based on much of the theoretical work laid out in Limits to Capital, Harvey suggests that the mass devaluation that a crisis demands has been restricted by intervention with fictious money serving only to paper over the cracks. As he argues, ‘The faster we come out of this crisis and the less excess capital is destroyed now, the less room there will be for the revival of long-term active growth’

If this is the case then our fundamental task, as the title of the piece suggests, is Organising for an Anti-Capitalist Transition.  There is certainly a hint of Zizek in Harvey’s provocation that being Utopian, radical and taking risks is imperative (I was immediately reminded of Zizek’s notion that we need to invent a new mode of dreaming in times of deep crisis, as well as Adorno’s ‘the dreams do not dream’).  I think this element is all the more important when considering much of Harvey, nothing less than hugely impressive, theoretical work: when reading Limits to Capital, I have often been struck with the question of what, in practical terms, does this imply? Yes, Harvey always points to the contradictions within Capitalism, but does so on such a total global level that it often paralyses thinking through the consequences – in terms of concrete politcal action at least.  It seems like Harvey begins to address this here. He talks of a ‘co-revolutionary’ theory which rejects the notion that a singular “silver bullet” or particular event can lead to the change that we need.  Rather, change, he argues, will occur through dialectically co-evolving moments mediated by contradiction and conflict – the very mechanism that capitalism came to being through and has sustained itself by internalising.  Harvey suggests that this requires both a local and global level and his assertion that ‘there is no way that an anti-capitalist social order can be constructed without seizing state power’ indicates that we must not be afraid of finding some way of translating the particular and diverse into the united and universal.

In sum, it is an exemplary short analysis that asks that basic, but all too difficult question,  ‘What is to be done’. The traces and early drafts of possible paths, and further questions, provide much food for thought.  It is certainly a step towards linking his economic and geographical work to social and political theory and I think the most interesting questions will arise in this space.   Immediately there are issues addressed to, as well as points of convergence with the Badiou/Zizek bloc. However, and I feel more importantly, it also gravitates towards traditionally  ‘liberal’ groups:  Harvey adamantly declares the failure of NGOs and similarly ‘progressive’ organisations whilst challenging them to consider the same questions which he is addressing.  He also considers how any movement must integrate and work alongside ’emancipatory movements around questions of identity’ and particular interests.  By doing this Harvey is opening a space to enable a broad coalition and facilitate – at the very least – a debate between a myriad of individual and group interests centred around the issue of capitalism’s failings.  Indeed, it is this above all else which is most urgently needed today.

Slavoj Zizek ‘On the Idea of Communism’

In Communism, Lectures, Zizek on February 2, 2010 at 7:28 pm

Slavoj Zizek is back in the UK for his annual Birkbeck Lecture on Monday 1st March.  Rather fittingly, he is returning to assess  ‘the idea of Communism’ a year after the conference he organised last year. Rather unfittingly,  like the conference, Birkbeck is charging between £5-£10. Click Here for details and registration.

New Left Review – 50th Anniversary Edition

In Journals on February 2, 2010 at 4:31 pm

A celebratory 50th Anniversary Issue of New Left Review has just been released.  Despite all the problems in print media it is brilliant to see it going strong – and with contributions of outstanding quality.  Of particular note is the outstanding interview with Eric Hobsbawm.  He is erudite as ever with insights into several blind spots within our understanding of the seemingly unstoppable onward march of Capital.