Sunday, April 08, 2007

Some ramblings. Let us void out this nonsense and be healed!

I’ve just finished watching Adam Curtis’ “The Trap” (God bless Google video, a boon to non-TV owners!) and have been left slightly, well, let’s say very confused by its final episode, by the film maker’s inability, as far as I can make out, to identify precisely where the market economies he analyses have failed vis a vis Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive liberty. He vacillates, it seems, between suggesting that the disavowed conception of positive liberty must be reclaimed as a way of rescuing us from the titular Trap and the idea that the underlying problem is that the Neo–Con revolution is underscored by the black irony of its having ossified into the kind of rigidly positive conception that breeds the tyranny of the Market, to wit, there is but one conception of man, one path to the good society, the Leader as History’s midwife, ushering in the new age.

More than this, I don’t think that this particular conceptual couple serve Curtis’ case much, or at least are deployed too coherently here. Could it even be that the terms themselves are finally meaningless? I mean, theoretically comprehensible, but ultimately Cold War simplifications as reductive in their attempt to grasp the full complexity of the trade-offs between freedom and security, the public and private selves, the role of the state etc, at this stage of history as Game Theory and the economists’ logic of human motivation are? And if they are effectively Cold War propaganda tools developed in a bi-polar situation radically unlike the current world, why is Curtis using them here?

Besides, almost from the start it seems that this particularly opposition is insufficient outside theoretical models, too simplistic to work descriptively rather than proscriptively without expanding on its tenets. Under Blair (read: Neo-Conservatism), he would seem to suggest that we have a kind of structurally positivized Negative Liberty, a positive liberty that dare not speak its name, and is of course haunted by what it disavows. Is there a word that means that at their fullest expression all things devolve into their opposites? That the actors in pursuit of one idea or goal unwittingly bring into being precisely what they have been trying to avoid? Mobiulization, maybe? So if I understand Curtis, Blairism is unlike the outright Positive Positive liberty operative in say, the former USSR, by simply not being self-conscious. The final episode only seems to be dealing with Positive liberties, in fact seems to imply that there has only ever been Positive liberty, that it is in fact a purely Negative Liberty (and which by implication may be impossible) as such which has never existed, unless we are meant to assume that the period from World War Two up to Thatcher (which Curtis implies throughout is the state of grace from which we have fallen) was the period in which a genuine Negative liberty flourished, but it would seem that Curtis is himself being Mobiulized as it’s precisely this period of presumably heavy state planning and non-rationally motivated public servants, a belief in distinct classes and cultures rather than a simple mass of economically variegated consumers that should effectively be a period in which Positive liberty reigned. He argues that Neo-Cons are Negative liberty incarnate, but with Game Theory and their (repeatedly stressed) reductive models of human motivation, the belief in the transcendent powers of markets, they are well within Positive Liberty’s anti-pluralistic rubric, its the crux of the Neo-Con vision that there is only one type of human being and that human being is a rational, competitive pleasure seeker, what gives it the patina of positivity is that it allows (in fact requires) that people’s tastes may be various and so emphasises consumer choice. So what exactly is Curtis arguing for with regard to the need to reclaim Positive liberty and suggest that we must prove Berlin’s claims that it inevitably leads to tyranny wrong (without, rather conveniently, suggesting how)? What is needed? A genuinely Negativized Positive liberty, something closer to the rhetoric of the Blair government but the reverse of actually existing Blairism: a society in which a plurality of opinions and approaches are brought into play in pursuit of a consensual political vision or goal?

My impulse is to think that Curtis is poorly served by this distinction, and that it leads to the kinds of qualification made necessary above, as Berlin wasn’t really defining binary, oppositional concepts back in the Fifties, and that both Curtis on the Left and his adversaries on the Right are misapplying them and being lead into error ( and on the Right, dangerously so). They’re more akin to two variations on the same theme than two inimical ideas. What Berlin effectively argued for was the limiting of the power of the State, not its outright (or in our case, phantasmal) abolition. The State was unselfconsciously there, thirty years prior to its starting to be rolled back, and it is unlikely that Berlin was arguing at that stage for, y’know, privatisation of the NHS, it was the degree of coercion and intrusion into its citizens lives that was being argued against, a check on totalitarianism, not the absolute dominance of the market that was being advocated. Berlin’s Negative liberty was largely (looking back at this juncture) Positive Liberty liberalized, whereas precisely the problem with the more current conception seems to be the idea that they are polar opposites, and that from that idea a radically different world, for which a new set of concepts need to be developed, has been brought into being. Maybe Curtis should have been arguing for the inseparability of the two, their inextricable soldering together, something largely demonstrated by Blairism’s grim farce, the idea that there can be the pure Neo-Con Negative liberty as such, or perhaps the more pressing question: if the economists’ measure of man is too restrictive, what do we have to offer in its place?

Neither Curtis nor his interviewees have a concrete, positive definition. This skittishness over questions of human nature, of what Man is, is evident in The Trap, we simply know that the economist model of man is too limited, (though the economist will argue that other, more subjective factors such as the need for dignity, or love are non-quantifiable and so effectively meaningless, this is the best we can do) and we are supposed to intuit what man is ourselves by focusing on what’s absent from the Game Theory model. The problem with this negative conception, this vague corrective to the economists’ model is that it has no force as an idea, it’s properly Hauntological I would suppose, human nature, Man himself is (Iago style) what he is not, some spectral remainder that pharmacology is enlisted to exorcise. He is something other, something more than his self-conception or construction within capitalism will allow, this remainder, this surplus of moral/affective sensibility is what he spends his time trying to escape from and is haunted by ("what’s wrong with me!!!"). Much of the Left arguably fall into the same trap, we must get rid of that old humanistic shit about the good and the soul and love, concentrate on another kind of radical, post-human becoming. There is a fear on the Left that ascribing a nature to man opens the door to totalitarianism, taking roughly the same jumping off point, better to focus on man as an epiphenomona, some form of flotsam formed by the wash of social forces, the figure in the sand etc rather than anything fixed and concrete. Berlin is certainly relevant to the extent that his suspicions of the terroristic implications of Enlightenment rationalism were as deeply rooted as any good post-structuralists, any single answer as to what man is must promote repression as all alternatives are medicalized or purged in the pursuit of the true revolutionary consciousness etc. The result being of course that it’s the ideas of a bounded human nature itself that is anathema in some quarters (unless you’re Chomsky!), that it is at best naïve, at worst fascistic.

I wonder if this isn’t one of the many traps in itself. If we can’t impute an essence to man, if we can’t valorise any of those intangible, non-quantifiable, affective elements to life, idealism, altruism, empathy, compassion, the moral sense, less so, if we can’t create a positive vision of man that stands against or supersedes the current conception and insist on its political relevance then we may well also be trapped in the logic that says, well, yes, such factors are arguably important but they are so variable, so relative that all we can practically do is work on the basis of what we know and leave the rest in the domain of individual choices for the moment in the hope that their will eventually be a revolutionary “event” which somehow resolves everything. Nash himself may accept that Game theory is a narrow conception of human motivation,(there’s an excellent example early on of the ways in which Game theory simply didn’t work among a group of secretaries, in fact they all just chose to trust each other: presumably these secretaries had a shared social existence and wouldn’t want to fuck one another over irrespective of how much they benefited, it may have been rational calculation, a friend is a better investment than X, the social stigma of behaving badly versus the reward of the outcome etc, it may have been mere social contract, but equally possibly the idea of fucking your workmates over was simply painful, simply pinched the moral nerve in that ineffable way that hurting or exploiting someone else does) but he doesn’t say what comprises the fuller human motivation, nor what its political expression may be.

It’s interesting how this disavowed arena, the arena of idealism and compassionate action, the idea of man as more than rational consumer also haunts the Right. Fukayama crops up with a précis of his End of History thesis and of all of the architects of the new American Century it’s Fukuyama, who gave it its most substantial grounding, who seems most unhappy with his final formulations. It’s one of the great ironies of “The End of History” that ( Mobiulization Alert) by working through his theory Fukuyama comes to the melancholy conclusion that the world of equal recognition mediated through consumption does not provide fully for humanity. Implicit within Fukuyama’s final meditations on history’s end are the implications either that struggle itself is what man desires or that a higher stage of history, one perhaps more closely allied to Kojeve’s final conception of its end, in which “humanity,” whose exiled toil has been history as such, attains again the bliss of pre-Lapsarian animality and unselfconsciousness, is yet to come. Fukuyama knows that his attempts to graft Kojeve’s utopian vision onto this particular stage of history is an act of bad faith and this fact seeps through the gaps in the final chapters. Naturally, what lies behind the admission of a lacuna within both Nash and Fukuyama’s systems, the point at which their though founders and their volubility runs aground is that unutterable heresy: Socialism.

I think we can probably assert that the Utopian aspirations of the Right Hegelians ( to use Kojeve’s formulation) have demonstrably failed, an America saddled with a permanent underclass doesn’t look like a situation of equal recognition (even if “in law” there is a putative equality of rights) especially when the, presumed implicit, status needs are to be micromanaged by consumerism. Whether the Left Hegelians (HoHo!) are any more capable of coming up with a workable political theory that can inaugurate the next age is a point that Curtis doesn’t even approach.

I can’t help but think that within all this the green movement (about which I’ll be writing more, I suspect) has a vital role to play, what it proposes is something like the final resolution of the dialectic in truly Kojevian terms (if we need to pursue that strand of thought at all…..) the Utopian vision here is of man restored to his animality, his communality, within a radically decelerated, circadian conception of History, the aim is maintenance, ritual, a re-immersion in deep time, a regrounding of immanence rather than techno-eschatological orientation toward the future as pure good: the faster we get there the sooner it will all be (somehow) resolved! The “Third Revolution” proposes a different end to history, not Fukayama’s ostensible end in which fundamentally insecure, atomised individuals are so busy fighting to survive that any kind of progressive political involvement is occluded and in which the resultant stasis is passed off as a triumph, but in which a constant tending of the planet and a localised set of formal and informal networks are the process by which life is regulated, it proposes a radical decentering of the current sensibility, by which we might mean a return of what has been exiled, one in which the individual as supreme good is overthrown, the individual becomes an element within the wider set of vital and immediate concerns, those of planetary well-being for the benefit of all and which emphasises limitation, self-regulation and harmony, and would impose, politically, a levelling of access to goods through quotas. The return, in other words, of that sense of responsibility, that acknowledgement of the deep level on which, contra the Game Theorists, our own well-being is recognised as intractably entrained in the well- being of others. I don’t buy the “what can the individual do in the face of China’s industrialization” line here either: undertaking those dull, daily chores of recycling and not wasting water, of worrying about your carbon footprint etc are the first acts of reclamation, of preparation, a form of exercise, building up moral muscle for the fight to come, a training in sobriety and seriousness (note: this doesn’t mean humorlessness), an attempt to release the moral and affective dimensions of our lives from their cage, those aspects of ourselves without which we live half-lives, sophisticated ghosts, wandering lost through our piles of glittering junk.

What shall we do-what shall we think-what shall we say-?
Why, as the crocus does, on a March morning,
With just such shape and brightness; such fragility;
Such white and gold, and out of just such earth.
Or as the cloud does on the northeast wind-
Fluent and formless; or as the tree that withers.
What are we made of, strumpet, but of these?
Nothing. We are the sum of all these accidents-
Compounded all our days of idiot trifles,
-The this, the that, the other, and the next;
What x or y said, or old uncle thought;
Whether it rained or not, and at what hour;
Whether the pudding had two eggs or three,
And those we loved were ladies....
Were they ladies?And did they read the proper books,and simper
With proper persons, at the proper teas?
O Christ and God and all deciduous things
-Let us void out this nonsense and be healed.

Conrad Aiken: Preludes for Memnon


Luciano said...

Well... Well... This one is dense...
I must confess that I had to read it again and again to get what you meant – or what I think you meant.
You know, I’m just curious about political philosophy and could not discuss it theoretically, but as far as I know, the questions about Negative and Positive Liberties having a bi-polar aspect, or even being non-self-excluding concepts, have been leading to discussion for a long time.
But I’m really looking forward to seeing what you’re going to write about the green movement, since in my perception green parties are the “next” viable-left – not viable while softening and being progressively “instrumentalised” by the conservative power, but for being more suitable for times to come, as in my humble opinion the war of classes is part of a Jurassic activism. Anxiously waiting…

noel said...

Hmmm…so what is your suggested alternative? Doesn''t seem like you make it clear, maybe socialism or the green movement?

What Curtis misses, and what seems to me crucial is that without any direct control of our labour we can kiss goodbye to any solution to our current state of being.

Marx's concept of Alienation is the elephant in Curtis's room, and I don't know why people try and tie themselves in knots to deny what is obivious from history, that human beings 'nature' is to creatively labour on the planet and in so doing make themselves, I'd like to hear a coherent argument that says that is not true, seeing as it seems to me self-evident.