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Beyond the Blank Slate

July 26, 2011

This post started as a reply to Carl’s comment below, but grew a bit cancerous, so I’ve transposed it into a post of its own…


Hey Carl – thanks for these – I’m probably more on board with the Durkheim than with the Sorel, although you’ve reminded me that I should put up something about the notion of “cleansing” violence, and about related conceptions of revolution as the instantiation of a New Man or New Society… I’m after something more evolutionary – in the biological science sense: the notion that the future we make descends from our past, but it’s a descent with modification. This doesn’t mean the change can’t be quite dramatic in character, but it does mean we’re never in the position of working from – or creating – a historical blank slate. Revolution within this framework is a hack of history, in the same sense in which Francis Crick reportedly claimed that “God is a hacker, not an engineer” – working with the modification of what exists, opportunistically tweaking what’s currently there, rather than creating from scratch via some sort of blueprint model.

Sorel’s reflections, to me, long for a blank slate. I suspect this is also part of the appeal of more recent theorists like Badiou. There’s a relation between this kind of theory, I think, and unscientific (comfortably scientific?) desires for a firm and incontrovertable ontological foundation for revolutionary practice: both are oriented to a transcendent foundation – one believes it can know what that foundation is; the other believes such a foundation isn’t accessible – at least not to thought – and then concludes that action can therefore be driven by nothing other than myth.

I’m after something more Benjaminian – in the sense Benjamin uses in his reflections on the Concept of History, where he speaks about the remarkable lack of selfishness present generations have toward the future, and suggests that what motivates us are our present desires:

‘One of the most remarkable characteristics of human nature,’ writes Lotze, ‘is, alongside so much selfishness in specific instances, the freedom from envy which the present displays toward the future.’ Reflection shows us that our image of happiness is thoroughly colored by the time to which the course of our own existence has assigned us. The kind of happiness that could arouse envy in us exists only in the air we have breathed, among people we could have talked to, women who could have given themselves to us. In other words, our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. The same applies to our view of the past, which is the concern of history. The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of that.

I think we can explore those present desires scientifically – in the tentative, exploratory sense I’m trying to use for science here – the sense reflected in the Durkheim quote you’ve used. One of the things I think Marx is particularly good at, is looking at the practical bases of our desires – tracing desires back to things we actually do, and therefore pulling them down from the aether of disembodied desires, and back into the microfoundations of everyday practices through which we suggest to one another that particular things are possible in the real world. In this way, Marx begins to make the “scientific” case that particular desires are not in fact utopian – that there are significant dimensions of our collective experience that suggest the possibility to realise these desires in concrete, realistic, institutional forms.

There’s still a level of uncertainty around the whole enterprise, because of course the aspects of our current experience that suggest certain possibilities are offset by countervailing aspects of our social practices – there’s still a gamble involved in trying to work out what it would mean to institutionalise certain possibilities in new forms. But this is nothing like the sort of abstract, roll-the-dice, gamble implied in conceptions of the revolution as the Great Blank Slate, the revolt of Will Against History, etc. Marx’s method is intended to provide the resources for something much more concrete – to give us a sense of the aspects of our history that seem to be inviting specific emancipatory hacks.

And it’s providing these resources in a context where the question of whether to have a revolution has been settled: capitalism itself already figures as a revolutionary force – overturning traditional forms of life, and then deposing the post-traditional forms themselves in turn, tossing human and animal populations around the globe in unprecedented numbers, unpending cultures and languages and governmental forms, endlessly altering the fabric of everyday life. Marx believes this experience habituates us to planning for revolution – he thinks we already do this, all the time – just generally to non-emancipatory ends. Marx is trying to get us to hack this existing revolutionary process for emancipatory purposes – he’s trying to suggest the possibility for splicing into our historical inheritance some specific institutional transformations whose implications, while not completely predictable in advance, are nevertheless at least partially and tentatively knowable from a thorough exploration in the laboratory that is our existing society and history.

On the one hand, Capital is a work that heavily thematises unintended consequences – the introduction of a market for labour-power figures in Marx’s narrative as one of these, as does the accidental enactment of a kind of disembodied equality for labour values, as does the development of technology and the growth of scientific knowledge, and so on. So the possibility is constantly on the table that our practices, our innovations, will have unintended consequences, will generate unpredicted – and yet retrospectively comprehensible – impacts that could fundamentally change the historical game.

On the other hand, Capital is informed strongly by this sense that one of these accidental and unanticipated consequences of our past historical practice is that we have primed ourselves to become aware of the possibility of deliberately hacking history to achieve specific human goals. We may do this now to shore up the pieces left after a major crisis, to try to glue back together what was just smashed – but Marx suggests that only a slightly different selection from the diversity of existing practice is required to think we might apply similar energies to a more emancipatory end.

So Capital systematically maps the genome of capitalist production, trying to document the internal practical variability that already exists within this peculiar species of material reproduction, in order to try to make the case that this internal variability is already sufficiently diverse and contradictory to enable us to select from within it the building blocks of a very different form of social life. It’s a vision of revolution that doesn’t require that we be godlike, all-powerful, or all-knowing – a vision that acknowledges the groping, uncertain, largely accidental character of human history. And yet also holds out the possibility for creating some quite new – not by wiping clean the historical slate, but by adapting creatively to our current surroundings, by applying a slightly different sort of selective pressure, which will enable us to appropriate a different subset of existing practical potentials, and thus speciate a new form of social life…

I’ve probably pushed the evolutionary metaphor a bit farther here than I really want to take it… 🙂 I’m experimenting with ways of communicating what I’m trying to get across, so take the specific imagery with more than a small grain of salt…

But the blank slate conception of revolution is one of my targets – one of the historical ruts that seems, to me, to crop up recurrently in particular kinds of political and social theory – a rut that I don’t think is productive of good thinking about possible concrete social institutions, a rut that seems more likely, to me, to be productive of massacres than emancipatory institutions.

My argument would be that, in spite of superficial appearances, the blank slate approach – whether expressed in abstract notions of cleansing violence or in some other eschatological standpoint – is precisely not motivated by an attempt to be more aware of the boundaries of our current understanding. The motivation is rather a sort of magical belief that those boundaries can be smashed, once and for all, by some action we can take now, or by some sort of historical rapture that will magick up the worthy if they await its coming faithfully enough. These approaches may agree that we can’t think our way past the limits of our current understanding – but they haven’t given up on the notion that there is some sort of action within our control that can shatter the barrier between ourselves and some sort of absolute.

I think that Marx is after something radically different. He’s after an approach that allows us to acknowledge that our actions might have unpredictable consequences – to hold that we are in no position to dictate the end point and culmination of all social development – to maintain that future generations will have their own ideas about the sort of society they want to live in: we can do all this – refusing to write recipes for the cookshops of the future – and yet we can still put forward actual concrete proposals for the global institutional structures we’d like to see, as alternatives to the ones we have right now. And we can ground this analysis in actual analysis of the implications and possibilities suggested by actual empirical things, that we can experience now or have experienced in the recorded past. And we can therefore base political proposals on a kind of concrete, non-utopian foundation – that carries with itself the realisation that it, too, is still groping forward, limited in its ability to foretell consequences that will no doubt be transparently clear and sensible to those who come after, but that is nevertheless mining as well as it can the insights available within our own time.

At least, that’s the general idea…

  1. Nate permalink

    hi Nicole,
    Congrats on submitting your thesis, and on the new blog. It’s a nice gesture, a sort of springboard from one phase to another, and I look forward to reading more. I’ve read all the posts on the new blog and as usual there’s more than I can respond to. I just want to say for now, I’m struck by your use of images to think. I really connect with that, I have a similar sort of intellectual (meta-intellectual?) approach, of using metaphors to play with ways to organize information and projects. Personally I always find it really uncomfortable when I don’t have such a thing for a project I’m working on. I also find several of the particular metaphors you use very compelling and thought provoking.
    As an aside, on Benjamin, I don’t know if you’ve seen it but Christopher Tomlins recently published a very good (and verrrry long) book called Freedom Bound. It’s a history of colonization and labor law in early British N America. It’s informed pretty heavily by Benjamin. He uses a metaphor of braiding different threads which I quite like and have been playing with in my head to describe how various lines I’m working on relate to each other – threads braiding into ropes, and ropes tying into knots.
    take care,
    ps- your post on ‘the new dialectic’ is fantastic, by the way.

  2. Hey Nate – thanks for this, and good to see you around 🙂 I haven’t had a chance to read the Tomlins (or so much else…). I’m planning on hitting literature in this area in a big way when I finally have a chance to move on to the second book, where I’m hoping to deal much more with capitalism as a contradictory global system, with hugely divergent trends playing out on the ground, without a specific trend being “more capitalist” than others…

    I want to write more on the themes of the new dialectic post at some point soon – the really frustrating thing, for me, is that I sort of started out wanting to point out the limitations of this general body of theory, but then I couldn’t say everything I wanted to say in the thesis, because I ended up running out of words (and this was in spite of being pretty liberal with word count as it was – I think my thesis was at something like 150% of our maximum word limit… Fortunately for me, they had just introduced the capacity to print the thesis double-sided – which meant that my overlong document passed the eyeball test of the folks who have to accept it and shop it out for examination… Admittedly, if I had cut out every quotation to Marx, it probably would have been spot on, so I suppose I wrote the right number of my own words… ;-P)

    But I had started out wanting to say something schematic about the architectonic of the first volume of Capital. Then I realised that wasn’t going to fit, if I wanted to provide any sense of how I was reading the text to come up with that architectonic read… So I thought maybe I could at least get through chapter 10, which would have given me enough to show how the text begins to kick back hard on the perspectives presented in the opening chapters… But even that ended up being way too long… So I ended up having to cut the argument off at chapter 6 – which basically meant that the thesis covered exactly the same terrain that the new dialectical readings themselves tend to dwell on…

    Now, this isn’t strictly true, since I bring in passages periodically from all through the text to explain why I’m reading earlier passages the way I am, so I’m at least hinting at a reading of the whole. But the narrative focus of the thesis is going to be on these same chapters that I’m claiming other people are misinterpreting, where the nature of the misinterpretation has a lot to do with the inability to situate these chapters in a detailed way in relation to the text as a whole…

    And this same problem is going to carry through to the first book… So one of the things I’m currently trying to work out is, given that I just can’t cover enough terrain, while doing a detailed reading that illustrates an approach to the text, and tries to make the text easier for other people to read – given that I’m not really going to be able to escape focusing on these same chapters – how can I make clearer that I’m not doing these because I regard these chapters as some sort of privileged Rosetta Stone to the remainder of the book, but rather the reverse: the remainder of the book lets us know that these chapters just can’t mean a lot of the things that they are taken to mean, or even that they seem to be explicitly saying, if you read them paragraph by paragraph, without some sense of where the whole argument is headed…

    I’m still not sure how best to do this… Basically, I want to communicate that the book’s ending is its actual, practical starting point. So, colonialism, the world system, a set of social relations whose characteristics profoundly contradict even the pessimistic presentation of “doubly free” labour earlier in the text: these are the starting point. The puzzle, for Marx, is how, given this practical starting point, you end up with the sorts of bizarre “apotheoses” he describes at the beginning of the text. What lets people think that, given the world system we have today? For Marx, the answer in part is that people focus on very small portions of available social experience, looking out on our collective experience from a series of very blinkered perspectives. He tries to make sense of why we get the particular kinds of blinkered perspectives that we do – tries to show how these perspectives are “socially valid” – how they work, more or less, if you look in this direction over here, and squint just so, and don’t turn your head too much to the left or the right… So he gives an account of the perspectives he’s criticising, but this account condemns them for how very little they can understand – or even see.

    Personally, while all this is in its own way very impressive, I’d have preferred he just started off with the world system, and written the whole thing in the right order… A whole lot more people read the opening chapter – and then get stuck on the flypaper of the fetish passage – than make their way through to end. And even those who do make it through to the end, often have their sense of what the text is about shaped fundamentally by the opening chapters… I actually do think the opening chapters do a lot of work, and there’s lots that can be drawn out of them… But the way they channel perception of what the text is trying to do… that’s done real damage…

    The question for me in the first book is how to explicate in some detail what sort of argument is being made in these early chapters, without just replicating the damage one more time…

  3. NP, as usual I agree completely with you here on the blank slate / apocalyptic image of revolution and the gamble of change. I got into Gramsci in part because that wasn’t his image. I’d just say, and you know this, and Marx knew this, that even when systems are complex and contradictory, they have a dynamic balance and momentum that makes selecting out and reweighting particular elements and relationships (or threads) a very tricky business. But that’s the business we’re in.

    The image I’m currently working with is Calder mobiles (Dad and I just wrote a paper on the pedagogy of complexity, actually based on an old post at DV). They’re pretty good for seeing what happens when you try to reduce the system to one element, one moment, one relationship, one energy state and so on, and when you try to change the whole by monkeying with the parts.

  4. Sorry. I really sort of go back and forth between pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

  5. This is great 🙂

    I really sort of go back and forth between pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

    I guess my impulse is to try to maintain an appropriate caution about whether what we do, is going to achieve the results we’re aiming for, balanced by the notion that we’re already doing quite dramatic things – making dramatic changes, transforming institutions in quite radical ways – as part of the normal course of things.

    So the issue then becomes, if we’re going to do this anyway – if we’re going to effect these sorts of large-scale transformations – we can both contest the goals that normally inform the transformations we’re engaging in now (and particularly the sort of passive discourse associated with goals of compliance to “market forces”), and we can also try to mine our historical experiences, including our present-day history, for some sense of what might happen if we pull x lever, or push y button.

    It’s one thing to say that unexpected things can happen, and our analysis might not be as good as we thought – it’s another thing to blunder around oblivious to perfectly obvious and predictable consequences that we didn’t bother to inform ourselves about in advance (I’m thinking here, among other things, of the surreal sorts of testimony that followed the global financial crisis – the deer-in-the-headlights recognition that faith in markets had been, in a quite literal sense, faith, which had then led to long-term dismissals of people who were in fact mobilising empirical and historical experience to develop a sense of what was likely to happen…).

    There’s also an element, for me – and here I’m associating well away from your comments – where some forms of theory seem a bit reluctant to say that the real issue is basically one of hard power: there’s a lot of theoretical exploration that sometimes feels to me as if it’s looking for a deep, profound reason we haven’t achieved more emancipatory outcomes, when a much simpler explanation – of a “look who holds the guns and the money” sort – is probably all that’s needed. That’s a depressing conclusion – but less depressing than theorising various ways that Being itself conspires against us… I think a lot of theory gives a bit too much credit to Being – whether by claiming its for or against us in some foundational way – when the problem is more properly political in an everyday sense: people need to be persuaded and mobilised, resources need to be gathered, analyses need to be done, goals need to be set, etc.

    Sorry if this is wandering well off topic – coming down with a cold here, so not the clearest…

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