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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Every time the three are synthesized, a different, new philosophy emerges

Beyond Values? DM, at Antigram, has a new post up about the Zizek debate. It’s good; the first part of it is about Western “hedonism” and debate over enjoyment, which I’ll try to address in a post following. The second part of it is about the relationship between politics, in the practical sense, and values, whether personal or collective. DM writes:
The struggle between the Right and the Left is an asymmetric struggle. It is not true to say that we believe different things but share common assumptions: we do not share common assumptions. And principally, we do not share the assumption that the question: “What are your values?” bears witness to any political reality whatsoever…
In the end, “values” is not a Leftist category, for the simple reason that it is not a real category. There is no actual terrain upon which values battle, as there is no real stage upon which “civilizations” clash. Rather, concrete actors, take concrete decisions, for concrete reasons. These reasons may be economic, strategic, political or psychological, but “values” simply do not enter into the equation, except ex post facto as illusory means of concealment, then perhaps disseminated as psychological black ops. As Marx and Freud, and also Nietzsche taught us, “values” are generated [and] produced by material forces….The theater of values is a theater of shadows, and true Leftists should burn it to the ground.
Conservative political thinkers do foreground shadow theaters of values when they talk about “family values,” or when they speak out to endorse a return to values. The word may have acquired a taint, as, in a recent post, I argued that the word “radical” had.
Still, the references to Nietzsche and Freud don’t make sense here, and the idea of abandoning valuation is equally perplexing. Neither Nietzsche nor Freud were really materialists. Nietzsche was fond of describing judgments of the “muscles,” but he also spiritualized matter by holding onto a notion of the will. One has only to examine the ironies of his writings on priests. The asceticism of the priest may be contemptible, and founded on hypocritical claims about renunciation, but it is still a manifestation of the will-to-power. Nietzsche was not particularly concerned with fighting oppression, in part because of his belief in a hierarchy of wills.
Freud wasn’t a materialist either. To the end of his life, he held on to the notion of the drive, finally incarnate as Eros (desire) and Thanatos (death drive).
There are two points to make here. The first is that the conjunction of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, who are the perpetual “good guys” for contemporary philosophers (though the way things are going, we’ll have to add Saint Paul), don’t fit together all that easily. Every time the three are synthesized, a different, new philosophy emerges, whether that be the Frankfurt School, the work of Jacques Derrida, the work of Michel Foucault, or something else entirely. If a new philosophy doesn’t emerge, and we’re just making them standard-bearers for the revolution, we’ve ceased to read them with any sort of attention.
The second is that materialism should never become so naturalized that we begin to take its postulates for granted. It’s true that the free market is usually defended on purely economic grounds: private enterprise, as opposed to public ownership, is supposedly the most efficient way of producing wealth. It is also defended on ethical grounds. The strong form of the claim for laissez-faire capitalism is indifference towards inequality. What a person has, he has earned, and has a right to keep.
This is not less materialist than socialism. It is less compassionate. When “reasons” are substituted for “values,” it is as though the abstract, logical operations of reason could persuade us whether someone we have never met, have never even seen, should live or die. Published in: Derrida Zizek Foucault Ethics & Morality Psychoanalysis Blogroll Philosophy Politics on at 12:46 pm Comments (1) The Kugelmass Episodes

In a somewhat related connection, others might be interested in tracking down Postone’s Time, Labor, and Social Domination: A Reinterpretation of Marx’s Critical Theory for an alternative perspective on these issues. This work was first suggested to me by N.Pepperell of Rough Theory, and is well worth a glance. One, among the numerious themes dealt with in this text, is the issue of Marxist criticism aiming not simply at distrubition, but at production as well. As Postone understands it, one of the central problems of traditional Marxism was the view that overturning capitalism entailed overturning a certain order of distribution, while leaving the mode of production intact. Postone contends that classical Marxists have tended to dehistoricize production, thereby failing to see how contemporary modes of production are historically contingent and therefore can be otherwise.

Put crudely as time does not permit me to elaborate at the moment, we are not simply “alienated” in a particular system of distribution, but are “alienated” by the very form of capitalist production. How does all this relate? When I hear calls to give up enjoyment such as they are issuing from Jodi Dean or Zizek, I hear the thesis that somehow social change should consist in rendering our living conditions even more intolerable than they currently are. Why is this a form of social transformation that anyone should desire?

To put it in crude and less than trendy-jargonistic terms, if social transformation does not lead to better work and living conditions, better, more equitable, more just, more satisfying, and more meaningful ways of relating to one another, more freedom to pursue our desires and cultivate ourselves, why should these forms of social transformation be desired at all?

I only have two objections to Antigram’s post. First, he doesn’t list Spinoza among the demystifiers of value at the end, when discussing Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx; and second I have to sign up for a Google account to post on his blog. Posted by larvalsubjects under Zizek , Uncategorized [7] Comments

larvalsubjects Says: May 11th, 2007 at 9:40 pm Joseph, perhaps you could say a bit more about this: To illustrate that the will-to-power, or the libidinal drive, is the origin of valuation is not the same as materialism, or else the word has no meaning.

I would say that it is materialist in the sense that it is situated in the body. I have no special attachments to Nietzsche, so I don’t have much to say about the will-to-power as a confluence of forces, but certainly libido is a materialist thesis. I think Israel expresses the materialist thesis common to Spinoza, Nietzsche, and Freud on affect well: “Spinoza’s technical term for emotion is ‘affect’ and in accordance with his stated principles he understands by ‘affect’ (affectus) ‘affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections” (Radical Enlightenment, 236).
In my view, Freud and Nietzsche can be seen as developing variants of this thesis, where ultimately it’s the brain that’s in question. I agree that Freud runs afoul later in his work with the new myth of eros and thanatos. Here I think Lacan picks up the ball, giving an account of thanatos as an emergent property that results from the infans encounter with language.

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