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Monday, March 26, 2007

The State, religion, Enlightenment, reason

Religion Again and Material Infrastructures of Communication March 26, 2007 • Over the last couple of days an interesting discussion surrounding religion, Enlightenment, reason, and a host of other issues has been unfolding over at I Cite between me, Adam Kotsko, Anthony Paul Smith, Discard, N.Pepperell and a few others. I’ve been approaching the discussion from the perspective of religion as a material social reality, bracketing questions of whether or not it’s true, and how that reality might come to disappear within the social field. But the discussion has touched on a number of interesting issues surrounding history and the nature of reason and grounding that are worth, perhaps, taking a look at. As always the discussion has been heated, at points less than noble, but I would say that it’s been more productive than other discussions we’ve had in the past.
I’ve found myself inspired by a number of the themes in this discussion, which led me to write the rather underdeveloped post on populations today. I have a difficult time articulating clearly what I’m trying to get at in these meditations. Perhaps it could be summed up with the word “infrastructure”. Increasingly I’ve come to find myself dissatisfied with ideology critique and forms of political theory that search for the “right theory”. In this connection, I’ve begun to focus on the material dimension of how movements are formed and maintain themselves in time, and also how they pass away… That is, the material dimension of communication. Here I’m thinking about communications that circulate around the public sphere: Political pamplets, newpapers articles, public email exchanges, discussion lists, regular group meetings, blogs, certain repetitive phrases like “I’m an Oscar Myer weenie” that stick in ones head or “Gore said he invented the internet”, media stories, etc., etc. What has interested in me is not so much the content of these things, but the way they become formative of certain ways of conceiving the world and certain identities. I’ve tended to notice– with the help of N.Pepperell –that theorists coming out of the Frankfurt school and contemporary French political theory tend to suffer from a kind of sickness: Theoretical pessimism. Here I wonder whether this doesn’t arise from thinking about politics in abstraction and at the level of content, and ignoring the material dimension of how messages are produced and disseminated throughout the social sphere, how movements and groups are formed, and how institutions have successfully been short-circuited in the past, allowing for new institutions to be formed in their stead.
These thoughts have been on my mind for a long time… Since prior to the 2004 elections. But they also resonate with me personally having just witnessed such a transformation within my own neck of the woods. While I cannot go into details, here an utter transformation was made possible through public email exchanges that galvanized a group of people and which had the effect of leveraging a tremendous amount of pressure on higher management, demanding a significant degree of change. Here the form of communication– email –had a massive impact on what was and was not possible. Had the very same complaints been levelled in private to management in this organization, no change would have occured as the complaints would have been seen as 1) personal, and 2) as easily swept under the rug and ignored. It was the rendering public that allowed for a collectivization of identity that had to be recognized and responded to, lest the business explode. This was all made possible by mediums of communication, but also by forms of rhetoric that created a particular collective identity and that worked to transform concerns that might have been seen as personal into systemic problems requiring organizational change. As a result of this encounter, a new identity was formed that didn’t exist prior to this and that is now capable of things that it wasn’t before capable of.
When we treat any institution as a monolithic fact that cannot be changed, we are ignoring the manner in which this institution must perpetually reproduce itself through time through the agency of those that belong to the institution. We forget that the institution or form of social life is just as much produced by these agents as they are produced by them. We then resort to ideology critique and other forms of ingenious analysis, hoping to awaken these subjects from their attachment to the institution. What we don’t do is begin forming other institutions and subjectivities that get discourses on the table in a very public way– not academic, public, accessible –that force existing institutions to acknowledge them and into becoming through that very force. For a long time protests were able to do this but their messages are now too dilated by being filtered through media machines. More recently blogs have been very effective in doing this by getting information and certain themes out there to millions of people through linkages among blogs, raising money, organizing boycotts, and organizing letter writing campaigns that are very difficult for politicians and major media outlets to ignore. The impact of these media technologies on major media and politicians has been palpable and profound for anyone who has carefully followed how major stories have been broken and brought front and center in the last three or four years. This is transformation through viral infestation and contamination. I’m beginning to think there needs to be more concrete analysis, almost case studies like what Hallward is doing with his book on Haiti, or what Foucault did, or what Deleuze and Guattari allow us to theorize, and less abstract theorizing detached from context such as we find in Zizek, Ranciere, and Badiou. We need to look at those small skirmishes where profound change has been produced, and look at the mechanisms that allowed for the production of new identities, new institutions, and significant shifts in distributions of power.
The Withering Away of the State March 25, 2007 • 1 Comment The State can be conceived as a series of institutions, but also as a system of categories through which members are named and identified as belonging to particular social categories. In the latter case, the State functions to homogenize and minimize difference by transforming differences into mere noise that can be easily ignored. For instance, we come to talk of “Christians”, “The Enlightenment”, “Men”, “Women”, “Blacks”, “the United States”, etc., as if these groupings all had one monolithic and identical content. All we can think of here are instead tendencies that happen to be more or less dominant in a situation. The question then becomes that of a concrete praxis devoted to intensifying other tendences within a population.
Discussing the process of individuation or the movement from the virtual to the actual in the process of actualization, Deleuze writes,
A living being is not only defined genetically, by the dynamisms which determine its internal milieu, but also ecologically, by the external movements which provide over its distribution within an extensity. A kinetics of population adjoins, without resembling, the kinetics of the eg; a geographic process of isolation may be no less formative of species than internal genetic variations, and sometimes precedes the latter. Everything is even more complicated when we consider that the internal space is made up of multiple spaces which must be locally integrated and connected, and that this connection, which may be achieved in many ways, pushes the object or living being to its own limits, all in contact with the exterior; and that this relation with the exterior, and with other things and living beings, implies in turn connections and global integrations which differ in kind from the preceding. Everywhere a staging at several levels. (Difference and Repetition, 217)
Perhaps one of the central contributions of Darwinian evolution is the shift from thinking in terms of abstract species, to thinking in terms of individuals and populations, where individual difference precedes difference in the species, serving as its condition. Geography here becomes an individuating factor, where relations among different populations, environment, geographical isolation or accessibility, all figure into thinking about the emergence of molar aggregates. That is, the idea of a species functions as an abstraction that covers over all these dynamic relations, such that we must conceive species as only ever being dominant statistical aggregates that “leak around the edges” rather than as being unchanging and self-identical units.
A similar structure is at work at the level of the social. In some inspiring pages early in his A People’s History of the United States, Zinn makes some observations that resonate nicely with Deleuze’s remarks about populations and geography. There Zinn writes,
‘History is the memory of states,’ wrote Henry Kissinger in his first book, A World Restored, in which he proceeded to tell the history of nineteenth-century Europe from the viewpoint of the leaders of Austria and England, ignoring the millions who suffered from those statesmen’s policies. From his standpoint, the “peace” that Europe had before the French Revolution was “restored” by the diplomacy of a few national leaders. But for factory workers in England, farmers in France, colored people in Asia and Africa, women and children everwhere except in the upper classes, it was a world of conquest, violence, hunger, exploitation– a world not restored but disintigrated.
My viewpoint, in telling the history of the United States, is different: that we must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been. The history of any country, presented as the history of a family, conceals fierce conflicts of interests (sometimes exploding, most often repressed) between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners. (9-10)
Zinn’s sorting here is a bit too neat and dualistic (victims and victimizers), but the interest of this passage is the way in which it undermines the legitimacy of molar unities such as “nation” and “state”, instead allowing us to see dynamic and divergent populations pulsing beneath. The problem with these molar categories is that they suggest homogeneity and unity where there are none. Quoting Deleuze once again,
There is a crucial experience of difference and a corresponding experiment: every time we find ourselves confronted or bound by a limitation or an opposition, we should ask what such a situation presupposes. It presupposes a swarm of differences, a pluralism of free, wild or untamed difference; a properly differential and original space and time; all of which persists alongside the simplification of limitation and identity. Oppositions are roughly cut from a delicate milieu of overlapping perspectives, of communicating distances, divergences and disparities, of heterogeneous potentials and intensities. Nor is it primarily a question of dissolving tensions in the identical, but rather of distributing the disparities in a multiplicity. Limitations correspond to a simple first-order power– in a space with a single dimension and a single direction, where, as in Leibniz’s example of boats borne on a current, there may be collisions, but these collisions necessarily serve to limit and to equalise, but not to neutralise or to oppose. As for opposition, it represents in turn the second-order power, where it is as though things were spread out upon a flat surface, polarised in a single plane, and the synthesis itself took place only in a false depth… In any case, what is missing is the original, intensive depth which is the matrix of the entire space and the first affirmation of difference: here, that which only afterwards appears as linear limitation and flat opposition lives and simmers in the form of free differences. Everywhere, couples and polariteis presuppose bundles and networks, organised oppositions presuppose radiations in all directions. (DR, 50-51).
What Zinn approaches without quite reaching it are these free and untamed differences, these networks, populated by antagonisms where identity is a principle become, and where the identities and institutions that we see all about us and which we experience as being eternal and unchanging– such that we can scarcely imagine a different world –are riddled with antagonisms and ripe with potentialities for both passing-away and becoming something other. Such a way of thinking suggests a very different mode of analysis, but also a different form of praxis aimed at touching upon these networks rather than playing upon the surface oppositions. Above all it is a form of praxis geared towards producing populations. ~ by larvalsubjects on March 25, 2007.

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