Studying Geophilosophy

The following is the result of a close reading of ’Of the Refrain’, a middle chapter from Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. It is in this chapter that I believe the most thorough and detailed terminological outline of what they call Geophilosophy is given. The basic project is to draw a diagram that allows for a better understanding of the relationships between geophilosophical terms. I will mostly let the quotes to the heavy lifting. There is inevitably a process of selection in determining which quotes stand out as useful for the task and the copious marks I left on the pages of ATP hopefully brought the key passages forth. I believe this diagram stands up to the text, but it is the result of a singular reading.

After a series of chapters on language and linguistics, where the symbol, sign, signification and the ‘body without organs’ have been elucidated, territorialization comes into play along with the process of deterritorialization and reterritorialization on the surface of the earth. Rhythm and the wave-nature of existence integrates with the territory-making impulse, which produces assemblages of lived bodies in a complex process of motion with respect to their surroundings. Both the rhythm and the territory are like conditions from which social forms may develop and interact with each other: the geographic landscape is brought into consideration in an abstract way that identifies the background of artistic expressions, modes of thinking, and philosophical commonalities in their emergence – their coming-into-being. Geophilosophy is their attempt to dig into the conditions on the earth required for forming societies/assemblages and the complex processes they undergo, as well as the character of the their motifs and manners. What comes out of this study is a diagram that I believe is very helpful to understanding the importance of Geophilosophy for any project involving assembled masses of people.

In this story we begin in the middle, as Deleuze has always been fond of saying. Though the chapter must begin with an opening sentence, there is never any pure beginning free of forces that contort and influence one in this or that way. That said, D & G are describing a process in the form of a writing exercise as they are well aware, and this process, this story if you will, begins in the middle with the milieu. We actually begin with a little scene of a boy lost in the woods. With chaos creeping all around him, he sings a song for the sake of comfort and establishes what little order he can out of the chaos. In the beginning it seems there is only chaos and the rhythm of the song, maybe hummed or whistled or skipped to, to protect oneself from it.

“From chaos, Milieus and Rhythms are born. This is the concern of very ancient cosmogenies. Chaos is not without it sown directional components, which are its own ecstasies… Every milieu is vibratory, in other words, a block of space-time constituted by the periodic repetition of the component. Thus the living thing has the exterior milieu of materials, an interior milieu of composing elements and composed substances, an intermediary milieu of membranes and limits, and an annexed milieu of energy sources and actions-repetitions. Every milieu is coded, a code being defined by periodic repetition; but each code is in a perpetual state of transcoding or transduction… The notion of the milieu is not unitary… The milieus are open to chaos, which threatens them with exhaustion or intrusion. Rhythm is the milieus’ answer to chaos… Chaos is not the opposite of rhythm, but the milieu of all milieus. There is rhythm whenever there is transcoded passage form one milieu to another, a communication of milieus, coordination between heterogenous space-times.” (p.313)

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“Meter, whether regular or not, assumes a coded form whose unit of measure may vary, but in a noncommunicating milieu, whereas rhythm is the Unequal or the Incommensurable that is always undergoing transcoding. Meter is dogmatic, but rhythm is critical; it ties itself together in passing from one milieu to another… It changes direction.” (p.313)

Territory is introduced as an act, the process of territorialization affecting milieus by settling them, at least for a moment.

“The territory is in fact an act that affects milieus and rhythms, that “territorializes” them… There is territory precisely when milieu components cease to be directional, becoming dimensional instead, when they cease to be functional to become expressive. What defines the territory is the emergence of matters of expression (qualities)… It becomes expressive on the other hand, when it acquires a temporal constancy and a spatial range that make it a territorial, or rather territorializing, mark: a signature…
Territorialization is an act of rhythm that has become qualitative. The mark of a territory is dimensional, but it is not meter, it is a rhythm. It retains the most general characteristic of rhythm, which is to be inscribed on a different plane than that of its actions.” (p.314-315)

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“What we wish to say is that there is a self-movement of expressive qualities. Expressiveness is not reducible to the immediate effects of an impulse triggering an action in a milieu: effects of that kind are subjective impressions or emotions rather than expressions…
In effect, expressive qualities or matters of expression enter shifting relations with one another that “express” the relation of the territory they draw to the interior milieu of impulses and exterior milieu of circumstances*. To express is not to depend upon; there is an autonomy of expression.” (p.317)

Every matter of expression is necessarily linked with a territory – the taking on of a territorial aspect of matter that then gains/makes an expression.

“The territory is first of all the critical distance between two beings of the same species: Mark your distance. What is mine is first of all my distance; I possess only distances. Don’t anybody touch me, I growl if anyone enters my territory, I put up placards. Critical distance is a relation based on meters of expression. It is a question of keeping at a distance the forces of chaos knocking at the door. Mannerism: the ethos is both abode and manner, homeland and style” (p. 319-320)

So, we have a relationship with milieu and territory… Now we get to an explicit appearance of the earth. After all, this is all about geophilosophy:

“… The territory groups all the forces of the different milieus together in a single sheaf constituted by the forces of the earth. The attribution of all the diffuse forces of the earth as receptacle or base takes place only at the deepest level of each territory… Moreover, although I extension the territory separates the interior forces of the earth from the exterior forces of chaos, the same does not occur in “intension,” in the dimension of depth, where the two types of forced clasp and are wed in a battle whose only criterion and stakes is the earth. There is always a place, a tree or grove, in the territory where all the forces come together in a hand-to-hand combat of energies. The earth is this close embrace.” (p.321)

Pause and let that sink in. After gaining dimension and losing direction (and expression over function) they posit a depth that is irreducible to graphic dimension, a special “intension” counter-posed to extension. I take extension to be continuous with the notion of the “external world” and the bare, objective world we subjects (with our new mind-space) contemplate or inquire into. The separation that extension makes between earth and chaos must be a direct result of the sectioning off of the ground in territorialization and the displacement of chaos into those “non-secured areas out there”. The earth as ground was the ground of chaos – chaos and panic were everywhere to be found on the earth – before the staking of one’s territory, before a domestication of extension. Or perhaps the earth is only constituted as this intense center located in at the very core of the territory upon the phenomenon of territorialization. Conntinuing on:

“This intense center is simultaneously inside the territory and outside several territories that converge on it at the end of an immense pilgrimage (hence the ambiguities of the “natal”). Inside or out, the territory is linked to this intense center, which is like the unknown homeland, terrestrial source of all forces friendly and hostile, where everything is decided.” (p.321)

Let it sink in even farther. The depth of intension is why the Earth should be placed below, but this is not a vertical downward. This demonstrates the limits of diagraming this idea of the earth in “intension” – a place that is at once the scene of battle, convergence, and decision. This is one of the great passages of Deleuze and Guattari’s writing that has kept me hung up for a number of months now. It is over fast and they move farther on down the diagram briskly, but what a claim! The intense place where all things are decided, the coming together of forces hostile and in serious deliberation: Earth. And there’s is a Geophilosophy.

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“We always come back to this “moment”: the becoming-expressive of rhythm, the emergence of expressive proper qualities, the formation of matters of expression that develop into motifs and counterpoints. We therefore need a notion, even an apparently negative one, that can grasp this fictional or raw moment. The essential thing is the disjunction noticeable between the code and the territory…. It is because there is a disjunction between the territory and the code that the territory can indirectly induce new species.” (p.322) [my emphasis]

What is this necessary notion that appears negative, fictional, and raw? It is a tenuous motion that plays on the boundaries between margin and center. It does not change the coding of a species or alter the genes in a mutation, but it does change bodies with respect to their environment or territory. The fictional moment considered here is not a genetic mutation or deviancy from a norm, it is act of “differentiating” that the variations in territory prepares the way for the act of decoding.

“Biologists have stressed the importance of these determined margins, which are not to be confused with mutations, in other words, changes internal to the code: here, it is a question of duplicated genes or extra chromosomes that are not inside the genetic code, are free of function, and offer a free matter for variation.” (p.322)

The necessities of a sustaining life, the nourishment of the gene with its structurally sound code that only replicates or mutates, are not under examination but the expressions of the outer layers. With that base level of stable coding, the variations of the rest of the body in conjunction with its surrounding environment take on much more interesting and territorially specific traits.

What isn’t being mentioned here but is lurking like a giant elephant in the room is evolution. D & G are trying to emphasize the propensity for species to change, differentiate, and adapt to their environment without a “natural selection” as the operative concept but instead a transformative creation in concert with its territory and irreducible to mutation. The genes are kept the same, while the species morph into something else to fit with the critical distances included with the terrain features. “It is less a question of evolution than of passage, bridges and tunnels.” (p.322)

Assemblage.

“The territory itself is a place of passage. The territory is the first assemblage, the first thing to constitute an assemblage; the assemblage is fundamentally territorial. But how could it not already be in the process of passing into something else, into other assemblages?” (p.323)

“The first question to be asked is what holds these territorializing marks, territorial motifs, and territorialized functions together in the same intra-assemblage. This is a question of consistency*: the “holding together” of heterogenous elements…
But another question seems to interrupt or cut across the first one. For in many cases, a territorialized, assembled function acquires enough independence to constitute a new assemblage, one that is more or less deterritorialized, en route to deterritorialization. There is no need to effectively leave the territory to go this route; but what just a minute ago was a constituted function in the assemblage has become the constituting element of another assemblage, the element of passage to another assemblage.” (p.324)

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Cosmos:

“It is no longer adequate to say that there is interassemblage, passage from a territorializes assemblage to another type of assemblage; rather, we should say that one leaves all assemblages behind, that one exceeds the capacities of any possible assemblage, entering another plane. In effect, there is no longer a milieu movement or a rhythm, nor a territorialized or territorializing movement or rhythm; there is something of the Cosmos in these more ample movements. The localization mechanisms are still extremely precise, but the localization has become cosmic. They are no longer territorializes forces bundled together as forces of the earth; they are the liberated or regained forces of a deterritorialized cosmos.” (p.326)

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“This being the case, in considering the system as a whole we should speak less of automatism of a higher center than of coordination between centers, and of the cellular groupings or molecular populations that perform these couplings: there is no form of correct structure imposed from without or above but rather an articulation from within, as if oscillating molecules, oscillators, passed from one heterogeneous center to another, if only for the purpose of assuring the dominance of one among them. This obviously excludes any linear relation from one center to another, in favor of packets of relations steered by molecules: the interaction or coordination may be positive or negative (release or inhibition), but it is never direct, as in a linear relation or chemical reaction; it always occurs between molecules with at least two heads, and each center taken separately.” (p.328)

“Consolidation is not content to come after; it is creative. The fact is that the beginning always begins in-between, intermezzo. Consistency is the same as consolidation, it is the act that produces consolidated aggregates, of succession as well as of coexistence, be means of the three factors just mentioned: intercalated elements, intervals, and articulations of superposition.” (p.329)

“Consistency necessarily occurs between heterogeneities, not because it is the birth of differentiation, but because heterogeneities that were once content to coexist or succeed one another become bound up with one another through the “consolidation” of their coexistence and succession…
What we term machinic* is precisely the synthesis of heterogeneities as such. Inasmuch as these heterogeneities are matters of expression*, we say their synthesis itself, their consistency or capture, forms a properly machinic “statement” or “enunciation.”” (p.330-331)

Assemblage is not to be confused with machine: “That in fact is the distinction we would like to propose between machine and assemblage: a machine is like a set of cutting edges that insert themselves into the assemblage undergoing deterritorialization, and draw variations and mutations of it.” (p.333)

The Natal:

“The natal is the innate, but decoded; and it is the acquired, but territorialized. The natal is new figure assumed by the innate and the acquired in the territorial assemblage. The affect proper to the natal is the lied: to be forever lost, or refound, or aspiring to the unknown homeland. In the natal, the innate tends to be displaced…” (p.332)

The natal stretches from what happens in the intra-assemblage all the way to the center that has been projected outside; it cuts across all the interassemblages and reaches all the way to the gates of the Cosmos.”

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Black Hole:

“Thus the black hole is a machine effect in assemblages and has a complex relation to their effects. It may be necessary for the release of innovative processes that they first fall into a catastrophic black hole: stases of inhibition are associated with the release of crossroads of behavior. On the other hand, when black holes resonate together or inhibitions conjugate and echo each other, instead of an opening onto consistency, we see a closure of the assemblage, as though it were deterritorialized in the void: young chaffinches. *Machines are always singular keys that open or close an assemblage, a territory*.” (p.334)

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Life and Matter. Stratum and (de)stratification.

“The very words, “matters of expression,” imply that expression has a primary relation to matter. As matters of expression take on consistency they constitute semiotic* systems, but the *semiotic components are inseparable from *material components and are in exceptionally close contact with molecular levels. The whole question is thus whether or not the molar-molecular relation assumes a new figure here. If general, it has been possible to distinguish “molar-molecular” combinations that vary greatly depending on the direction followed. First, individual atoms can enter into probabilistic or statistical accumulations that tend to efface their individuality; this already happens on the level of the molecule, and then again in the molar aggregate… Second, it is clear that the distinction to be made is not between the individual and the statistical. In fact, it is always a question of populations; statistics concerns individual phenomena, and antistatistical individuality operates only in relation to molecular populations… Third, the intramolecular internal forces that give an aggregate its molar form can be of two types: they are either covalent, arborescent, mechanical, linear, localizable relations subject to chemical conditions of action and reaction or to linked reactions, or they are indirect, noncovalent, machinic and nonmechanical, superlinear, or nonlocalizable bonds operating by stereospecific discernment* or discrimination*, rather than by linkage.
… it is, in effect, a distinction between matter and life, or rather, since there is only one matter, between two states, two tendencies of atomic matter… Stating the distinction in the most general way, we could say that it is between stratified systems or systems of stratification on the one hand, and consistent, self-consistent aggregates on the other. But the point is that consistency, far from being restricted to complex life forms, fully pertains even to the most elementary atoms and particles.”

“There is a coded system of stratification whenever, horizontally, there are linear causalities between elements; and, vertically, hierarchies of order between groupings; and, holding it all together in depth, a succession of framing forms, each of which informs a substance and in turn serves as a substance for another form. These causalities, hierarchies, and framings constitute a stratum, as well as the passage from one stratum to another, and the stratified combinations of the molecular and the molar…
If we ask ourselves where life fits into this distinction, we see that it undoubtedly implies a gain in consistency, in other words, a surplus value (surplus value of destratification). …both at once: a particularly complex system of stratification and an aggregate of consistency that disrupts orders, forms, and substances. As we have seen, the loving thing performs a transcoding of milieus that can be considered both to constitute a stratum and to effect reverse causalities and transversally of destratification.” (p.335-336)

Summary.

“We have gone from stratified milieus to territorial assemblages and simultaneously, from the forces of chaos, as broken down, coded, transcoded by the milieus, to the forces of the earth, as gathered into the assemblages. Then we went from territorial assemblages to interassemblages, to opening of assemblages along lines of deterritorialization; and simultaneously, the same from the in gathered forces of the earth to the deterritorialized, or rather deterritorializing, Cosmos.” (p.337)

By the geophilosophical process laid out in ’Of the Refrain’ we have been taken through Chaos, Earth, and Cosmos as resting places of a sort, or as concepts representative of certain limits reached in the flow of matter. Chaos is the scary prospect that must be warded off with the proper comforting rhythm. The empty disorder that one reaches when contemplation approaches chaos is the result of the totalizing “milieu of all milieus”. Earth is a depth that is irreducible to dimension, an “intension” that gathers all of the forces in a single place. The intensity of the moment or the event (so often expressed to qualify a particularly momentous past experience) is “the close embrace” of the Earth in its act of drawing forces and bodies together at the heart of the territory. Cosmos represents the perpetual motion of an assemblage undergoing deterritorialization, not yet closed upon inside the inescapable black hole. Opening onto the Cosmos is to remain in motion – even if just in expressive semiotic/aesthetic way – as a both stratified system of horizontal causalities, vertical hierarchies, and framing forms holding it together, and a destratifying action of passing. A nomadic machine on the move, but towards what? The Cosmos… still not there yet.

This becomes a bit easier when in the next part of the chapter, D & G fit these three different motifs into loose art history categories: Classical, Romantic, and Modern (for lack of a better term). This will be dealt with later. We have still not yet explained what they mean by ‘Refrain’.

Cleaned up a bit for the finale:

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Ian Hacking’s Historical Ontology as a Realist Puralism

There has been a stimulating discussion about pluralism from a number of bloggers recently. A pretty comprehensive list was compiled on Critical Animal here: The Pluralism Wars and there will surely be more to come. It seems a call from Levi Bryant was heeded by a number of bloggers, and the question of where pluralism fits with realism is a worthy enough question considering the existential threat that we all really face and the spectacular plurality of beliefs, opinions, and political factions out there spinning their tales. The whole thing has been very cordial, a far cry from how heated things use to get two years ago. I have no evidence or data to support this claim, but I still firmly believe that the big occupy rupture spiked people’s expressiveness – for good or ill of the conversation. It is when in the middle of an event, when a well argued speech or article might change the course of the assemblage and have a dramatic effect on people’s actions in concert that we bring out the big guns. It is when the “we need to calmly discuss this and carefully understand” becomes “we need to do this right Now!”.

There are many mentions of Latour, Whitehead, Stengers, and James, with James being the only philosopher I really have any decent grasp on. Stengers it seems has shunt tolerance, and cosmopolitics is no “let’s all get along” world peace plea. Latour as well talked extensively about war and its ecological shape with Gaia as a political actor (or maybe just entity). Anyways, when it comes to ontology and pluralism I thought I’d add my two cents while revisiting an old philosopher (he’s actually still alive) by the name of Ian Hacking. I was lucky enough to have Hacking as a professor in a senior seminar back at UC Santa Cruz in 2009. He was both challenging and friendly, opening us up to some of the more radical and intricate subjects in analytic philosophy at a time when we pined for the revolutionary philosophers of power, force, and deconstruction.

Hacking takes from Foucault’s genealogical work a historical dimension to truth and extracts it for analytical purposes. The method of looking back to history to understand the present is one that seeks not to solve a problem and give a definite answer as in a political decision, but situate oneself with a useful framing of the problem. The question is altered from “what is this being?” or “is being multiple or singular?” but “what process led to this or that being?” or “what effects does the naming of this being have?”. It is a fundamentally different question that places beings inside a continuum, a continuum that does not muse on the ontology by itself but rather changes in behavior, the disturbances brought on by beings, labels, names, and identities in their sites. To investigate how something came to be a thing at all, the coming-into-being of a being historically, does not get lost in whether beings are of a material quality or socially constructed. Hacking side steps these problems and asks a different one in a pragmatic way that skips right past pragmatist philosophy. He actually does research on child development, trauma, statistics, probability, and how naming – bringing a being into existence as a linguistic entity – is not just a description/explanation of a thing but effects it in a value-ridden way.

“This act of naming and labeling is far from arbitrary and it has powerful consequences for the actions one might take.” Declaring a being takes an utterance, an actor in a site or context that is far from impartial. Hacking invokes history as providing the inextricable place from which to situate beings: meaning that beings cannot be without their place. Far from an anti-realist, he says “I think of myself as a “dynamic nominalist” interested in how our practices of naming interact with the things that we name – but I could equally be called a dialectical realist, preoccupied by the interaction between what there is (and what comes into being) and our conception of it.”

(p.2)
A marked separation is held in Hacking where a thing has being on its own, aside from language and the names we give it; yet our naming and descriptions of these things are never neutral. The distinction {language – reality} is kept to avoid straw-man relativism, but there interplay is complex given the linguistic character of ‘being’. Being is in an unavoidable sense just a word. But when a thing is allowed to be called a being – it is granted access to being, gains currency, or becomes normalized – it takes on a material significance in the organization of matter.

The “linguistic turn” is closely studied by analytic philosophers and has something vital to say about a pluralist ontology: affirming the multiple over the single (as the paradoxical title of James’ A Pluralistic Universe embodies) does not rid us of a duality between word and world. ‘Worlds of discourse’ and the ‘hermeneutic circle’ that ensure that meaning must come from a place or context where other meanings bump into it and always have. We can be realists and hold the seemingly dualistic notion of words and things apart. I am not a realist, but that will have to be developed at another time (hint: think parallelism from Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy). On questions of ontology, this separation of language and real things (bodies and flesh if you will) is a major problem for any flat ontology that attempts to make objects all equally real (that is possibly oversimplified).

“In fact, “ontology” turns out to be perfect, for we are concerned with two types of being: on the one hand, Aristotelian universals – trauma or child development – and on the other hand, the particulars that fall under them – this psychic pain or that developing child. The universal is not timeless but historical, and it and its instances, the children or the victims of trauma, are formed and changed as the universal emerges. I have called this process dynamic nominalism, because it so strongly connects what comes into existence with the historical dynamics of naming and the subsequent use of name.”

(p.26)
To exacerbate the difference, a totally fictional being (a deity, a spirit) does not exist in material-reality. But problems sprout up immediately: the name “material-reality” has being in conjuring a linguistic entity and expressing it in discourse. The thing must have a site in language, in history. We can keep the distinction {reality – fiction} while paying attention to the way fiction alters reality in the perpetual act of naming and to the way reality asserts itself on the decision of naming a thing, or bringing something to being. Intertwinings abound, but this does not collapse the distinction.

For the purposes of philosophical inquiry and ontology as a subject within it, history works to situate beings in such a way as to enable deep analysis along with ethical implications for the present. Things neither completely lose their realness nor remain at a intangible distance from our (mostly language driven here) action through his being-altering nominalism. Both the linguistic operation and the real thing are kept apart even though his interests lie in the effects of the latter on the former. Those things exist separately, but new things come into existence that have a major influence on how we live, teach our children, deal justice, stereotype, and normalize certain behaviors over others.

“At its boldest, historical ontology would show how to understand, act out, and resolve present problems, even when in so doing it generated new ones. At its more modest it is conceptual analysis, analyzing our concepts, but not in the timeless way for which I was educated as an undergraduate, in the finest tradition of philosophical analysis. That is because the concepts have their being in historical sites. The logical relations among them were formed in time, and they cannot be perceived correctly unless their temporal dimensions are kept in view. This dedication to analysis makes use of the past, but it is not history.”

(p.25)
Problematization is the edge here. Taking concepts in there sites (his mantra is “a concept is a word in its sites”) takes a look at the big picture from a suspended moral position. One can begin with the aim of generating a positive good with one’s work, but also forgo value-judgments in that work. To frame the problem and broaden one’s perspective is one way of philosophizing: to look at the historical site, the processes leading up to it, and the series of effects that it has taken on bodies. The distinction {figure – ground} is also kept here, even if the ground is not-so solid. A better distinction would be {thing – place}, usually in the form of named-being and history in Hacking. Problematizing makes us sharper as well as more humble theorists by paying attention to the place/site at which we fashion our concepts, making them more potent tools for critical theorists. A good example of this is Colin Koopman’s nascent project of Infopolitcs:

Writing on Foucault, Hacking draws a distinction between two attitudes and shows how one can operate under one and exclude the other, but switch at a later time. One can be “intrinsically moral” and/or “extrinsically meta-moral” in one’s endeavors. Foucault’s histories were extrinsically meta-moral because they began from a problem in the present and went on to explore the emergence of that problem rather than propose a quick fix. There was a demand to know what he valued, what Foucault thought was right since he was a popular public intellectual with a wide reaching audience, but his project sought to get us to ask the right questions and understand how we got where we are in order for right action to develop on its own rather than prescribe it in theory.

“It is also extrinsically meta-moral. By this I mean it can be used to reflect on evaluation itself. The reflection can be done only by taking a look into the origin of our idea… But it is a social rather than personal formation of the concept. It involves history. The application is to our present pressing problems. The history is history of the present, how our present conceptions were made, how the conditions for their formation constrain our present ways of thinking. The whole is the analysis of concepts. For me that means philosophical analysis.”

(p.70)
This emphasis on history and process in concepts is clearly meant to bring the radical contingency of concepts into the fore. Universals exist in social arrangements, hermeneutic circles, and historical sites but in a constrained way. This constraint is a direct result of taking the meta-moral long-view and, in the same way that pluralism tends to promote harmony and respect for the other, the historical-contingency outlook does discourage an imperialistic “my way is the only way” mentality. We can turn around and take the intrinsically moral stance however and act in the present, which would be made better equipped by understanding the site (historically/genealogically/geographically) more clearly, having switched perspectives to the long-view in the past.

Suddenly the fire comes back. We throw around universals and make assertive claims to correctness in the present. An ethical urgency returns and the immediacy of the situation bears down on us so that we are making claims with the weight of the universal behind them. This weighty force can actually be increased by our prior change in perspective.

Just to bring it home: a climate scientist is wrapped up in a schizophrenic situation where they must be objective and take that distant world-view as a requirement for their job. The skeptical, impartial-as-can-be attitude has been ingrained in scientific training in a long history of refinement and revolution. To then take one’s findings and speak out in a present political situation is to make a qualitative leap from the extrinsically meta-moral researcher to the intrinsically moral lobbyist or expert. One can be on one side at one time and then on the other side in an other time. The trick is to be able to identify when you are being the broad and skeptical experimenter and when you are the policy-driven politico. The ability to switch up perspectives and see the world from a plurality of angles means that the universal one must be included with them. It is a matter of selection between site-determined stances and not the demand to hold them all available discreetly that would characterize an ethical pluralism.

Hacking’s style is of the analytic flavor – contrary to my own. The obsession with systematic logic and propositions turned me off at an early age. But his conclusions have much to offer across the divide. It is an exercise in switching one’s perspective, becoming more interesting and creative (in the Nietzschean sense of giving style to one’s character) that allows thinkers and philosophers to build bridges and make leaps between the divides that plague effective policy and scientistic authority.

I’ll end with a quote out of Hacking’s chapter where he most analytically and summarily treats language and realism called ‘Anarcho-Rationalism’:

“1)There are different styles of reasoning. Many of these are discernible in our own history. They emerge at definite points and have distinct trajectories of maturation. Some die out, others are still going strong.
2)Propositions of the sort that necessarily require reason to be substantiated have a positivity, a being true-or-false, only in consequence of the styles of reasoning in which they occur.
3)Hence, many categories of possibility, of what may be true or false, are contingent upon historical events, namely the development of certain styles of reasoning.
4)It may then be inferred that there are other categories than have emerged in our tradition.
5)We cannot reason as to whether alternative systems of reasoning are better or worse than ours, because the propositions to which we reason get their sense only from the method of reasoning employed. The propositions have no existence independent of the ways of reasoning towards them.”

(p.175)
And then to really finish:

“Anarcho-rationalism is tolerance for other people combined with the discipline of one’s own standards of truth and reason.”

(p.177)
All quotes are from Historical Ontology (Harvard, 2002)

Endnotes, Marxism, Race, and Vampires

I was able to attend a talk given by Chris Chen of Endnotes, a Marxist collective of writers sorting out the problems of a post 1968 anti-Capitalist resistance. Their collective focus is on ‘communization’ and emphasizes the communal aspects of contemporary life that help bring about the revolution vs. projecting visions of future social formations after that great big event. I was a little surprised to hear Chen immediately mention Mark Fisher’s recent piece Exiting the Vampire’s Castle when he began. It seems this has been the talk of the (leftist) town. I wrote my own scattered response in Dodging Vampires, and this talk gave me an opportunity to further my inquiry into leftist discourse, identity politics, and neo-anarchism (so defined by Fisher).

As it turns out, there has been quite an uproar over Exiting the Vampires’ Castle. Much has been blogged, debated, and spoken about the issue of class and identity, but little has been settled. Fisher rues the resentment plaguing ‘the left’ and wants a re-unification around class post-identity politics. Other writers have criticized Fisher for conflating class with identity and merely pushing back against feminist and race theories without offering anything substantial (by way of critiquing capitalism) of his own. There is quite a bit more nuance to this debate; the cracks in this recent episode reach across a broad swath of anti-capitalist organizing and other (non)activism. Here is a good rebuttal and aggregate of others from across the web by Andrea Mitropoulos: B-grade Politics.

Finding a resolved position on this matter seems of the utmost importance at this moment when so much is at stake and yet so many black holes to fall into. Positioning is perhaps not the best wording here: the problem could be incorrectly and disadvantageously proposed, meaning effectively dealing with the problem would be more a question of tact instead of posturing. It is incredibly important to not allow for an unnecessarily divisive presentation force people to choose sides for and against – we should not fall into being pro- or anti-Fisher. Moreover, the urgency and worry that the task brings with it (how pervasive US spying has become, the collapse of the ecosystems, etc.) can inflict a paranoia that seems to demand a quick response. The cause of our fractured or vicious interactions with each other cannot be so clearly pinned on identitarians, the internet, or “brocialists” from the outset (even though that’s the best neologism I’ve seen lately). Avoiding taking up the effort of blaming and the affect of spite carried along with it is a positive takeaway from the Fisher piece, but it was unnecessarily divisive. He intended it to be so, as he admitted right at the beginning of this DietSoap Podcast: The Joy Beyond Identity.

While I hear Fisher’s reaction (and it does come off as reactive) to the tone of discourse on social media (twitter is apparently the big community of leftist intellectualizing) loud and clear, I’ve decided that he is mostly lashing out in the wrong direction and from a confused position. The notion of class that he is trying to resuscitate is one that he is positioning against other categories neatly tied together under the banner of ‘identity politics’. Exhausted and deflated by the anger and spite coming from twitter, Fisher rounds up all of the bad conscience and resántimént, labels them Vampires, and places them in a Castle: a place which is also a “libidinal-discursive formation”. An excellent critique of his use of the libidinal-discursive comes from Arran James: Damn These Vampires. Namely, Fisher doesn’t answer where the Vampires’ Castle is and if you follow his line of reasoning, Fisher himself belongs there too (but where?). I don’t see how Fisher has helped solve the problem of moral identitarianism by calling a group of people out, when this lashing out is precisely what he wants to stop. Going along with Fisher, the moral resentment moves into an already hurting theatre of radical politics, but he brings himself along with it by targeting others and offering nothing proactive.

Chris Chen’s article is on Race and Class in a revolutionary political context and hooks up with Fisher’s piece in both agreement and disagreement [The Limit Points of Capitalist Equality: Towards an Abolitionist Antiracism]. However, it does so in a particular way that I do not follow: both maintain an attachment to a left tradition that is Class-based. Chen acknowledged in his talk that Fisher’s piece is behind the times and doesn’t understand the various ways that gender, race, and privilege carve out and fix us into social people, their individuating process that account for a great deal of what makes us who we are. The abstraction of “Race” (he uses the quotes throughout the essay to denaturalize it) is one that is only made necessary in capitalist societies and a project of class-based emancipation would be mutually beneficial for both the overtly anti-capitalists and the racial justice proponents alike. The abolition of race by (re)integration into a class force is seductive, but is this not another version of Fisher’s aging wish for an accelerating, high-tech infused class party that would topple the capitalist state and bring about socialism?  This is still an open question for me.

The big takeaway from Chen is that the category “Race” would be abolished if the reintroduction of class (the working class I presume) into the political equation gained enough traction to beat back the Capitalists.  I wonder if this move truly forward looking itself, or just another reintroduction of old categories in order to gain more subjects: to reinvigorate the proletariat.

Endnotes tries not to present categories or provide escape routes from the entanglements resulting from the activity of theorizing from radical left. They emphasis limits to received categories and highlight contradictions which point to something else (an outside if you will) that itself remains unnamed. They write from a decidedly Marxist perspective but forgo the futurist positing of a resolution or synthesis. The agents of change or the revolutionary subject are supposedly determined not a priori but in the context of the struggle itself. The intertwining of theory and praxis and the limitations of textual exercises are well understood, meaning they will not provide an answer to the questions of movement building or a light at the end of the tunnel; the way forward comes from participant already engaged in the act and not from the outside.  They bring us to the limits with critique and analysis of contradictions, but at least attempt to leave the break through to the other side up to the actors (not the theorizers/writers).

Here is a critique of Endnotes I was shown by @FutureOnFire [Endnotes: A Romantic Critique? ].  Sometime in the coming weeks I will try to take a close look at Endnotes #3 and understand what the project of Communization provides for us as analysis, keeping in mind the context of the current problems surrounding identity and class in the greater anti-capitalist movement.

Debt and Moral Grounding: Beginning David Graeber’s Debt

To come to a better understanding of debt and the role it plays on our lives individually, socially, and on a global level we are going to need some help. While at one time the function of a particular logic of indebtedness might have been fully apparent to those who suffered as a result of it, we can’t seem to get a collective grip on debt at present time. A purely economic formulation of how debt functions risks freezing time and giving us only a small slice of the effects that debt takes on people. Economic theories tend to ignore the history of money as it was used in diverse societies and opt for a static, state-of-nature (or similarly ahistorical) account of money, credit, and debt.

To speak or write of a single thing called debt means that there is a common thread extended through most human societies that can be isolated apart from other aspects of a society, though its impact will be transfigured and interpreted in a spectacularly wide range ways depending on geography, cultural heritage, and everything that makes cultures unique. Extracting this thing (which is more properly a logic doing work on its own) called debt from its context is necessary for theorizing it, but this does not mean that one can theorize in the obscurity of a few models, graphs, and esoteric phrases meant to be understood by a select few and mediated by them to the greater public. Economic theory has moved towards specialization and has enormous influence on the actions of representatives taken (supposedly) on behalf of whole societies, but could the discipline of money, markets, trade, labor, and production have really forgotten the most basic element of living in a social arrangement?

There are more prescient economists who are sensitive to a greater array of history than the European story since the Enlightenment era thinkers began musing on human nature and political economy in books printed by a press for wide distribution. More historical information is required though when an entire discipline is rife with political clout, and an anthropologist with an eye towards what is wrong with economics can supply this research. David Graeber brings together an extremely diverse selection of ethnographic research into one book meant to critically assess our knowledge of money – what it is and does to people. He posits many working hypotheses of his own beyond the critical function of dispelling mainstream arguments and even writes a chapter titled: ’A Brief Treatise on the Moral Grounds of Economic Relations’, which I will eventually go over. The book is a kind of grand narrative of the humanistic kind that takes a huge supply of historical records and seeks a link that will bind humans in common. The notion of a “baseline communism” is one that has stuck in my memory as the crux of his ethical position. Morality and money, the effects that the later has on shaping discourse on the former throughout the course of history, are detailed very well, but the authors own morality must be remembered in the stack of historical evidence that Graeber has compiled for us. Lest we allow the mistake of obscurity that befalls economists wearing blinders in regards to the great variety in history, we must not let Graeber’s moral sentiments or, perhaps, ideology* obscure our understanding of debt.

Graeber is quite the crafty storyteller, and ’Debt’ is real page turner. His stated goal is neither to give a purely objective account of debt in human societies nor tell an entertaining story, but he does weave high theorizing in with anecdotes, folk tales, verified documents and artifacts. The first chapter is called ’On the Experience of Moral Confusion’ and muses on how one could justify horrendous macro-economic policies that do severe damage to people under the rubric of debt repayment. It is a sincere and far reaching question to ask: Why do people insist that debtors must repay their debts to creditors as a moral imperative, no matter the physical suffering?

“If one looks at the history of debt, then, what one discovers first of all is profound moral confusion. It is most obvious manifestation is that most everywhere, one finds that the majority of human beings hold simultaneously that (1) paying back money one has borrowed is a simple matter of morality, and (2) anyone in the habit of lending money is evil.” (p.8)

Before getting into the chapters read and discussed by the Politics of Debt group, it is important to note that two separate works are in operation in this book and perhaps deliberately: 1) the historical work of discovering old social customs, recording dates as precisely as possible, supplying evidence to make a case about an actual occurrence, etc. and 2) a moral appeal to humanity that values one action/reaction to another across every human. The diversity in human culture and the range of diverging values they take on in response to ethical dilemmas is on full display (perhaps even better than it has ever been presented to me) but that universal humanist morality can creep into even tightly evidence-based arguments unawares – especially in the hands of a masterful storyteller.

So I will proceed with caution, keeping a close eye on the moral confusion that might arise from reading such a sweeping history itself; on the other hand, an oversimplified clarity could be misleading. The trick is in absorbing the insights that a politically active anthropologist can provide, while keeping the humanist morality separate.

The first few chapters of the book are dedicated to setting the scene with the received schools of economic theory and then demonstrating how easily their axioms and starting assumptions become flatly wrong. The myth of barter assumes that all societies function like the one in which classical economic theory developed: dominated by exchange. Treated like a collection of individuals all alone in their rational decision making power making deals with other similarly isolated individuals, classical economics extends its own social context into those other societies not yet “fully developed”. Economics needed a myth to show why the discipline itself is necessary for making business more efficient and resources better allocated throughout society. The myth that money emerged to simplify transactions already taking place but without the efficiency of money posits a negative of the ideal that economics strives for, equilibrium and efficiency, but does not remove the individualism. The goal of the classical economist here is to understand the origins of “the economy” and in so doing the reason why money exists (supposedly to help facilitate trade). But these moneyless societies did not trade in the way assumed by the economics textbooks – the theory is “exporting” its own social norms into the “old ancient” societies under its study. It is a “classic” example of begging the question: many other cultures didn’t need money and didn’t trade like modern European cultures, from which economics as a field of study, did. Mainstream economists ignore the role of debt and loose agreements among neighbors in a common social setting, to say nothing of the variety in ways different cultures handled indebtedness.

The goal of economists’ adventures in creating fictional scenarios of other, primal peoples before their own time is to explain what money is and how it came to exist. Graeber demonstrates how a theory of money must account for debt:

“The difference between a debt and an obligation is that a debt can be precisely quantified. This requires money… money and debt appear on the scene at exactly the same time.” (p.21)

So debt is bound up with money in that both can be measured and subjected to cold calculation in Graeber’s theory. But debt can exist as a social relation without hard cash or coinage.

“We did not begin with barter, discover money, and then eventually develop credit systems. It happened precisely the other way around. What we now call virtual money came first. Coinage came much later, and their use spread unevenly, never completely replacing credit systems.” (p.40)

So is all money simply debt? Does the IOU credit system, whereby people loan to each other without necessarily establishing precise numerical rules for repayment, always underpin money? The idea of debt-free money will come up later on, but Graeber explicitly states that debts incurred within a society predate money. People have gotten along just fine without a substantial unit of measure to give each other for favors; but when that standard currency comes into play, it is as a form of debt. This is undoubtedly true in a fiat system, where money is created “out of thin air” and so a debt is charged from the bank or entity that put the cash into existence. Currencies pegged to a supply of some material like gold or silver are different: their value is tied to something tangible and not based on a promise. A debt on the other hand involves a transaction whose completion has not yet occurred. There is a time lapse in-between the moment a debt is declared and understood by both parties and when the debt is eliminated by repayment, assuming that all debts could in fact be payed off (they all can’t).

Graeber does think that money comes into being as a kind of debt: the preexisting debt is “monetized” or unitized into a universally recognized store of value. Money obviously involves exchanges and transactions between individuals as a condition for the possibility of the establishment of its value. Money is something exchanged on the spot, bringing the relationship to an equilibrium state and allowing both individuals to walk away. “A debt”, he says, “is just an exchange that has not been brought to a completion” (p.121). Money then becomes a way to resolve the situation of debt. So far so good.

But in beginning the “treatise” chapter he says: “To tell the history of debt, then, is also necessarily to reconstruct how the language of the marketplace has come to to pervade every aspect of human life – even to provide the terminology for the moral and religious voices ostensibly raised against it.” (p.89). We do not need to follow him along with the story of the history of debt in order to understand the logic of debt – this can be done much more quickly and without all of the anecdotes, jokes, and spiritual manifestations. Nor do we need to create new categories that explain the effects of the moral confusion that debt instills. But Graeber does: recurring themes in human societies are given to help us chart the complicated intertwining paths that debt sets us out on. A historical focus prevents the abuses of abstraction found in classical and neoclassical economics, but Graeber is going even farther. Three different forces are contrived and put to work in communities that switch between each other in terms of their role in guiding our behavior: Communism, Hierarchy, and Exchange. He writes that “Much as in the case of the great religions, the logic of the marketplace has insinuated itself even into the thinking of those who are most explicitly opposed to it. As a result, I am going to have to start over here, *to create a new theory pretty much from scratch.*” (p.90). (my emphasis) To find a conception of debt untainted by the market, a new theory is going to be devised. But Graeber is going for something very grand here in a pure conception of debt (i.e. one that cuts through the moral fiber that holds up all cultures and escapes the Capitalist terminology of our current era). We could very well say that indebtedness is simply an uncompleted exchange during which all sorts of strange and pernicious things can happen (usually involving money) but also a necessary component of society, but then we would only get the rule, the logic of debt and not all of those negative effects. Since he wants to correct and detect those misuses of the logic of debt and he has a wealth of data on so many different societies at his disposal, we get terms that will hold for the entirety of human history. This, however, opens him up to criticism for mixing copious amounts of research with a normative standard he perceives to be at the ground of each and every society under consideration.

Not that this vast store of information does not belong in an understanding of debt; it can indeed correct many false assumptions about how debt functions in society – as it does with the majority of modern economic thought. But the big risk is in mixing novel terminology with these details of societies and producing something new and creative with what sounds scientific, or totally evidence based. This is a much bigger issue that goes farther than Graeber: just how scientific is economics? anthropology? To the extent that they gather evidence, hold experiments, make predictions, and much more, science is at work. But we will not understand debt in this scientific way if economic relations require a moral ground, as the title of chapter five implies. The issue is whether debt as a logic can be amoral, and whether Graeber is infusing his history with a morality of his own. Strange things are indeed happening when debt is attempted to be comprehended in a logical fashion. Whether debt logic is extractible from its moral underpinnings, or whether morality follows debt in all cases.

So we are not given a statement of what debt is* until we are treated with a trinity of notions that imminently constitute society: Communism, Hierarchy, and Exchange. The categorization is helpful for conceptualizing debt and it gives us a way to frame separate cultures in a way that links them together in a web of debt. The utility of this trinity, its use-value if you will, for understanding debt is why I will follow Graeber’s story, but it must be remarked that it is precisely here that – in setting forth his own “moral grounds” for economics – that there is room for critique.

Communism is here not a revolutionary utopian or scientific program at the end of a progressivist vision of history, but the bedrock of human social relations. The minimal sense of “from each according to there abilities, to each according to their needs” is often repeated as the principal slogan of communism and the glue of society. I’m wary of this move: the phrase came about in the context of a Marxist revolutionary theory that posits history as a science and leading to a great evental, social whole. The reversal of Communism back into not the high theory (which incessantly demands revolutionary practice as an entrance fee to its discourse) from which it came but each and every society at its base just doesn’t smell right. Why the -ism? Graeber is attacking classical economics and its pursuing individualism (which binds people into contractual, one-to-one relationships with other individuals) very well, but I wonder if this appeal to baseline communism is merely the other side of the “coin”. It is hard for me to believe that a theory that came out of the same debates as the classical school, and is similarly triumphal in their progressive analysis of history could come to embody *all societies.

“In fact, “communism” is not some magical utopia, and neither does it have anything to do with ownership of the means of production. It is something that exists right now – that exists, to some degree, in any human society, although there has never been one in which *everything has been organized that way and it would be difficult to imagine how there would be…
But all social systems, even economic systems like capitalism, have always been built on top of a bedrock of actually-existing communism” (p.95)

It is this baseline communism that will be thwarted by the debt malfeasance of the violent and parasitic members of the commune hoarding cash. The creeping threats of exchange and hierarchy are what invade the commune, subsuming it their own separate logic. The three phenomena coexist in every society but not harmoniously, seeing as it is the functional and integrated form of communism that is the least responsible for intra-societal violence and slavery.

Exchange is responsible for the drift that pushes people away from each other and puts them in a dual state of equality and separation. When one is engaged in exchange, possession of things and commodities, competition, and gift giving can take place.

“In exchange, the objects being traded are seen as equivalent. Therefore, by implication, so are the people: at least, at the moment when gift is met with counter-gift, or money changes hands; when there is no further debt or obligation and each of the two parties is equally free to walk away.” (p.108)

When two people are isolated and yet on the same level (without one being higher or lower than the other) sharing takes on a different dimension (or dimensionality if you will) that allows a measuring of one by the other. So if that same level is to be occupied by both, an equalization must occur so that they do not fall into contestation. But this happens all of the time, and the art of gift giving is a way to politely exchange without breaking out into offensive battle. Exchange keeps people on the same playing field, resulting in entertaining games but also impersonal, commercial transactions where the parties can cancel out the relationship and forget the affair. The debts we have with each other are then a way to bring each other together while equal exchange implies separation.

Hierarchy is the outright rejection of equivalence. The vertical levels are well understood, the contests and games become lording over each other. Hierarchies are stabilized relationships where one is considered better than the other, higher and rightfully so. A justification of one’s status as greater and more revered are assumed: “The moment we recognize someone as a different *sort of person, above or below us, then the ordinary rules of reciprocity are set aside.” (p.111). Kings and royalty, aristocrats, the caste system – you get the picture. Interestingly enough though, Graeber asserts “that the logic of identity is, always and everywhere, entangled with the logic of hierarchy.” The custom and essence of a person, their social role and their inner most being, are a result of sedimentation into hierarchies: “…a certain action, repeated, becomes customary; as a result, it comes to define the actor’s essential nature.” So a persons nature is inextricably linked to their customary role as it has become crystallized into a universally acknowledged quality of that person by everyone else. Essentialism: gone. But what remains is a social core: baseline communism is a “quality” of all social arrangements and is indestructible.

Graeber has done a fine job of critiquing the self-promoting fantasies of (neo)classical economists and their reliance on exchange-based understandings of morality as equality, of Justice as reciprocity. Debt similarly falls into this camp of exchanging things between two parties who are on the same plane and must. By the time he finally gets around to asking “What, then, is debt?” On page 120, it is already firmly placed into the sphere of exchange and not a part of the logic of baseline communism or hierarchy.

“A debt, then, is just an exchange that has not been brought to a completion.
It follows that debt is strictly a creature of reciprocity and has little to do with other sorts of morality (communism, with its needs and abilities; hierarchy, with its customs and qualities). True, if we were really determined, we could argue (as some people do) that communism is a condition of permanent mutual indebtedness, or that hierarchy is constructed out of unplayable debts. But isn’t this just the same old story, starting from the assumption that all human interactions must be, by definition, forms of exchange, and then performing whatever mental somersaults are required to prove it?…
Debt is what happens in between: when two parties cannot yet walk away from each other, because they are not yet equal. But it is carried out in the shadow of eventual equality.” (p.121-122)

So debt is a relation between separate individuals who are equal in theory but not-yet. During this present, this not-yet, hierarchy solidifies.

Critiquing the reciprocal notion of Justice and the tendency to view society, the economy, and the marketplace as a place of equilibrium where things balance out is Graeber’s starting point, and he quickly shows (well, relative to the rest of the book) that it is unreliable as a ethical and economic tool. Given the enormous historical data and factual evidence he presents, it is hard to argue with him that human relations involve far more – including common decency and clear customary boundaries. But doesn’t communism take the privileged position in his triangle, on the bottom, maybe, but resting firmly on a secure ground of the baseline? Triangles need to be in perfect balance themselves if they are to rest one point on a surface, the slightest tilt will make one side fall to the ground and rest much more easily… This issue of origins in value and morality will come up when Nietzsche, Lazzarato, and Wortham come into play, and chapter four, Cruelty and Redemption, looks at On the Genealogy of Morals. The topic of origins is tricky.

Having dispelled equality and reciprocity as standards of economies and ethics, we still are in a study of debt; and in debt, we are in an exchange model that presuppose this one-to-one symmetrical relationship – at least in sometime, the not-yet. To further understand the logic and politics of debt, and without an possibly anthropocentric communism at its base, even more help will be required. Scanning through the internet, the best full critique of Graeber’s book I’ve seen so far is this one from Jacobin Magazine by Mike Beggs: Debt: The First 500 pages. Here is a taste of things to come from that article:

The mint can print any numbers on its bills and coins, but cannot decide what those numbers refer to. That is determined by countless price-setting decisions by mainly private firms, reacting strategically to the structure of costs and demand they face, in competition with other firms. Graeber interprets Aristotle as saying that all money is merely “a social convention,” like “worthless bronze coins that we agree to treat as if they were worth a certain amount.” Money is, of course, a social phenomenon. What else would it be? But to call its value a social convention seems to misrepresent the processes by which this value is established in an economy like ours – not by general agreement or political will, but as the outcome of countless interlocking strategies in a vast, decentralized, competitive system.

I will remain on the topic of values, ethics, and origins for a few more posts before the issue of money, monetary policy, and contemporary heterodox economics enters the stage. But just to conclude, and since this is the topic of the Politics of Debt class at the time, here is another pertinent quote from the Jacobin Magazine article:

“…unlike Graeber’s critique, not much of monetary theory itself rests on the historical origins of money. Economics deals with the operation of a system. It attempts to explain the system’s stability, how the parts function together, and why dysfunctions develop. The origins of the parts may say little about their present shape or roles within the system. Modern monetary economics has been concerned above all else with explaining the value of money, and the conditions of its stability or instability. This is a problem that concerns the role of money in organizing exchange via prices. The imaginary barter economy without money but somehow still with a highly developed division of labor is a counterfactual, a tool of abstraction, which in fact the textbooks are often careful not to describe as actual history.

As for arguments that money is essentially about debt, or essentially a creature of the state: this is to make the mistake of reducing something involved in a complicated set of relationships to one or two of its moments. Economics has generally met the challenges of credit and state theories of money not with fear or incomprehension, but with indifference: if credit or the state is the answer to the riddle of money, the wrong question may have been posed.”

Politics of Debt Intro

For the past nine months I’ve participated in a reading group called Politics of Debt organized with the Bay Area Public School in California. The platform is a website (thepublicschool.org) in which anyone can propose an idea for a class and then display it on the site, which will then become a class when enough interest has been generated and the logistics has all been ironed out. It’s a very open and accessible method for organizing classes that fit in with the zeitgeist and after only 18 months or so in the Bay Area, there are a range of classes and a rented-out room in downtown Oakland for scheduling meeting times. I figured that I would try my hand at making a class considering there were so many ideas swirling around in my mind at the time and some structure would definitely help provide some endurance. Grabbing some people together and sticking them in a room for two hours every two weeks goes a long way for adding continuity to an idea that might not get enough play in an academic setting. Classes tend to be more of a collaborative effort and less an instructional exercise of one expert speaking to an audience, giving them a kind of headless seminar feeling pulling in participants thought more seamlessly.

Of the topics churning around in vaguely patterned motions that I wanted to discuss in these class meetings was the an idea that came out of a focus group of Occupy Wall Streeters in debt and a debt strike. Debt was billed as “the tie that binds the 99%” and lumped various fronts that groups had undertaken together separate projects like the student debt refusal campaign, occupy theory, and others. Strike Debt came in as an organization bearing a great deal of momentum from people’s gathering into a critical mass with a critical edge that targeted the greed of Wall Street and their corruption of American politics. It was exciting in the beginning, with debtors assemblies and the possibility of a great strike that would hit the parasitic financiers right where it hurts buzzing. But this was unfamiliar territory for me, uncharted ground, and it seemed like the perfect topic for a study group, seeing as the interest level was so high. So two things came together for me in the aftermath of sustained public demonstrations and a critically offensive theory merged with practice in the form of a reading group and possible strategy session: a free public school and a popular debt refusal.

The group has done very well over the months and remains regularly attended in a biweekly format. It has gone from a theoretical-humanistic origin in David Graeber’s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years to a narrower analysis of contemporary economic theory and monetary reform; specifically, what does it mean to have debt-free money and just how influential are banks on economies? The reading/watching list has gone in this order, and there is (always) plenty more to read:

Debt: The First 5,000 Years – David Graeber.
The Violence of Financial Capitalism – Christian Marazzi.
The Makings of an Indebted Man – Maurizio Lazzarto.
’Time of Debt’ – an article by Simon Morgan Wortham.
Web of Debt – Ellen Brown.
’97% Owned’ – a video by Positive Money.
The Secret of Oz – documentary film by Bill Still.
Occupy Finance – The Occupy Finance Collective.
Real World Economics Review #64.
Modern Monetary Theory vs. Austrian School of Economics – Warren Mosler and Robert Murphy.
The Keen vs. Krugman Debate – Steve Keen and Paul Krugman.

Looking ahead,

The Bubble and Beyond – Michael Hudson.
“New Currency Theory”
The End of Growth – Richard Heinberg.
Griftopia – Matt Taibbi.

All are welcome to join for a single meeting or the long haul. The web page for the class can be found here: [Politics of Debt]. I will be writing summaries and a critical analysis of the texts in a reflective manner and post them on this blog page. These will be personal interpretations and conclusions formulated in my reading of these texts and viewings of these videos and not necessarily reflect or even touch on the debates had in class. Comment freely: this is a hotly contested subject for economists, historians, religious scholars, and (hopefully more so now) philosophers.

Dodging Vampires

Mark Fisher has done radicals a service by writing this thoughtful piece: Exiting the Vampire Castle.

He begins with a blunt statement and fuses the personal with the political in a way that is honest and engaging. Recounting a horrifying experience with twitter and a cheerful one at a rally headlined by a mainstream leftist political figure, we are introduced to his thought process in an emotional-affective way that is bound to evoke memories of events and heated conversations the reader has more than likely had themselves. The visceral reaction to his main enemy in the piece is fear: the “moralizing left” labels and dismisses its selected opponents in an outrage that he sees as counterproductive to the left’s own goals. Before getting into the analysis and appraisal of ‘the left’, morality, identity politics, and class, I’d first like to note the importance of mixing affects with the greater political game of positioning, aligning, and advising from an academic. He does a good job of making the reader feel the affect permeating the social field – the desperation, disdain, and dejection afflicting anti-capitalists searching for a way to combat this beast. More importantly than tightly argued essay is the proactive or inactive feeling that comes off of it upon reading (when the value of taking action is considered above guiding one on a given path) and is all-too-often ignored in political writing. Being sincere about how another’s words and deeds affect oneself produces an air of openness that is only challenging to negative attitudes. It is easy to get lost in a web of criticisms and forget the more important task of radical organizing and alliance building. This kind of criticism aimed at other anti-capitalists can get sour fast and is probably the least “critical” action one can engage in if done in the spirit of resentment (snide moralizing vs. constructive dialogue).

What Fisher gets right is the harmful and de-spiriting sentiments that comes from the aptly termed ‘moral left’. The twitterstorms that railed against certain figures on the left came off on him as a crowd-sourced-bullying that kept him from participating. I don’t even know what the content of these twitterstorms were about but I believe him when he says the effects were silencing and depressing. An angry outburst can be uplifting and even empowering – when the right target is picked out. And there ain’t nothing wrong with catharsis. It is when the expression reeks of resentiment that the alarm bells should go off. When internalized hatred festers and grows without a means to overcome the obstacle in its way or create something new, we get resentiment. At its worst, resentiment fetishizes its weak position and drags everything around down in a spiral of self-destruction. This is perhaps the biggest lesson to learn from reading Nietzsche.

Though a reclusive philosopher relentlessly attacking every facet of European culture and not strictly a revolutionary anti-capitalist himself, Nietzsche’s emphasis on health, vitality, strength of will has enraptured rebels since his death. His confrontational stance towards morality and all that hinders the growth of the body – its ability to act and achieve ever greater feats – has spurred scholars, youths, artists, and free-thinkers to dig deeper into the forces at work beyond symbolic attachments and fixed identities. One could say he went much farther than the revolutionaries of his time in uprooting the foundational values of colonial empire, remaining a source to draw one’s theoretical arsenal from. Emma Goldman found much to like about Nietzsche, despite his crude misogyny.

In present political games, positionings, and movements, the affective/vital is far too neglected. The general tone and comportment of individuals is not only telling of their own state but a larger collective sentiment based on the limits of their ability to act (as artificial or illusory as those limits may be). As a body not of individuals but masses, forces – ‘the movement’, however defined – the expressions that pop up in large part reflect the environment that conditions it. The ruthless bickering that often passes for legitimate critique is little more a distressed outcry of impotence. It is when this distress loops backward into the body that we get the resentment Nietzsche so despised. The church perfected these techniques of internal repression like the confessional and in so doing created new values that ensnared whole peoples under their control. Good and bad becomes good and evil, whole worlds of pure goodness and pure evil were created that “infinitized” our affections and locked people inside their minds. As Foucault has elucidated in his history of sexuality series, practices, techniques, disciplines, and regiments ingrained in social rearing all accompanied these ideas. The question now becomes: “what are the techniques that instill a biting negativity in us?”

Fisher gives us an image to play with here that sticks out: the Vampires’ Castle. Sucking the life out of its subjects and enslaving them apathetic dejection, the Vampire stalls an active body and weighs it down with imperatives to “break free”, “be yourself”, and “go forth.” The rebelious individual, who believes in freedom and maintains a supposedly self-styled edginess, is the real victim of the Vampire. While never so easily identifiable, Vampires trap bodies inside a soul with purportedly profound critiques meant to help but stifle directed action. Vampires could be media advertisers, reactive critics merely latching onto a project to foreclose on its potential for emancipation, or any other nay-sayers draining the force from a movement. An amalgam of the “priest”, the “academic-pedant”, and the “hipster”, the vampire latches onto what is politically new and intriguing only to tie it up nicely, put a stamp on it, then toss it away. They discourage curiosity infused excitement. Now it seems they have a castle.

The problem that the Vampires’ Castle was set up to solve is this: how do you hold immense wealth and power while also appearing as a victim, marginal and oppositional? The solution was already there – in the Christian Church. So the VC has recourse to all the infernal strategies, dark pathologies and psychological torture instruments Christianity invented, and which Nietzsche described in The Genealogy of Morals. This priesthood of bad conscience, this nest of pious guilt-mongers, is exactly what Nietzsche predicted when he said that something worse than Christianity was already on the way. Now, here it is …

One can imagine a gothic cathedral towering like a mountain over surrounding neighborhoods… only covered with brightly lit billboards urging subjects to consume. That last bit is a projection of my own gripes (for a funny take on the media parasites blocking collective action that is definitely not resentful, check out Lee Camp’s rant).

Criticism has a very pointed power behind it that can be used positively or negatively. Constructive critique comes off as strategic, whereas negative critique condemns makes people feel awful for even giving it a go. A collaboration of the kind Fisher desires in a Left, based on class unity and solidarity, demands analysis/commentary that carries an affect of provocation *in the right direction*. This positive/negative qualification of critique is a fine line to straddle, but when anti-capitalists are putting each other down from their computer chairs and no current projects are suggested, something is wrong. Of course, there are irresolvable differences of the kind typified in the Communist/Anarchist debate about state power and the ethics of resistance. But these ideological differences are exasperated when rebels handle their dismay over being weak compared to the Neoliberal apologists for Capital by saving their vicious attacks for each other. This anger without a place to go, circling its way back from where it came, prevents alliances against a more powerful foe. One can learn from Foucault’s practice of not engaging in polemics: Polemics, Politics, and Problematization.

How does all of this affective-based criticism vs. the Vampires’ Castle relate to identity politics? The worry is that focusing on identity, establishing a safe ground in one’s identity from which to launch criticism, feeds right into the logic employed by the Vampires’ Castle and we are left with disparate camps clearly marked by race, gender, or privilege fighting with each other (passive-aggressively) instead of taking on the Capitalists in a joint collaboration. Many would argue that the left needs a clear-cut identity and everyone needs to get on board to actually overthrow Capitalism and save us from the terror that is neoliberalism. Much of leftist discourse is relegated to this question of “who are we?” plus “look how awful conservatives are!”. Fisher argues for class as being the rallying cry which will unite and challenge the capitalist system most effectively, but (as I will eventually argue) class can fall into similar problems of identification. Also, the top-down hierarchy of unions, which the working class people traditionally look to for organization, fails to tap into the potential energy of the social field. I understand the benefits that can come from a mix of horizontal and vertical like the kind Fisher found in the assembly kicked off by Owen Jones: this is perhaps an example of the rhizomatic alliance making that would be constructive. Unions, however, for the longest time have subverted popular rage to the benefit of only their membership. Such exclusivity occurs when groups crystallize and encode subjects – again, not necessarily a negative thing. This is the larger issue of identity based organizing and even, simply, discourse.

A black person in America does not have to demonstrate to anyone the effects of living in a racist society and the oppression that they feel on their body. That it is lived and felt is enough to warrant outrage and action. Organizing around this common experience of being harassed, over-policed, under-payed and excluded is of an immediate necessity and a matter of empowerment. The positive benefits of organizing based on race are clear. The same goes for gender and anyone else feeling the effects of the most comprehensive imperial force the planet has yet seen. The only problem as I see it is when identities and the organizations representing those identities get in the way of an even further empowerment in-between these assemblages. Not knowing when to welcome and share resources and strategies is a hindrance. Organization only based on common affects excludes a great swath of people that would like to chip in. Those without that shared feeling still have something to offer. When these people arrive, one slip can tip the delicate scales of a conversation on identity slightly in the wrong direction and have disastrous consequences for personal and collective relationships.

The interaction between identities would ideally pivot around the kinds of help individuals and collectives could offer each other. The principal of mutual aid can be a guiding light here. When a preexisting organization cannot accommodate a different identity than its own, help can still be offered and support can still be given. It is a matter of what we can do for each other. This is diametrically opposed to using one’s status as an assault on another’s. The degree of oppression, the amount of privilege, should be a way to inform each other on what each other can do in the greater struggle against capitalism and imperialism. Checking one’s status (and another’s) is undoubtedly useful in gathering the best from each identity and swiftly casting off the Vampires sucking out our capabilities with the bite of guilt. One can retain their identity in whatever amount of privilege it has or oppression it faces so long as a common enemy (to come along side-by-side with the common affect) to connect with others: the Capitalist, the Imperialist. We now have a shared feeling, the common affect, on one hand, and the mutual support, the common enemy, on the other.

The big problem is not so much the ground-up organizing around identity, but the entrapments of continual privilege discourse.

For more on these issues and some of the dead ends of privilege politics, see The Problem with Privilege by Andrea Smith.

Here the problem is put very well: announcing one’s privilege just doesn’t help. A person reflecting on their status as privileged performs the same logic of the colonist they seek to be rid of. It turns the white person into a confessing subject in front of the brown (in this case) people, encasing them in their identities. To be sure, acknowledging one’s privilege has led to greater and more considerate engagement; then it is time to get on with the project together, or else wander off in reflections of “who am I really?” The privilege discourse helps set the scene and should stop there before it gets into elaborate confessionals. The confessional is the technique that helped Christian empires conquer the Earth and it will continue to conquer-by-division if it is all we have to talk about.

A perfect example of pluralism of identity in politics is found in this study done by James Owens Occupy Wall St.’s Precarious Pluralism. He found that there has been a divide between predominantly white and affluent (that is, secure) activists and poorer people of color in the focus organization. It is the white affluent activists that attempt to build mass protests and build large-scale actions while poorer people organize around single-issue campaigns. Clearly there are narrower issues that affect poor communities much more directly, making it easier to come together around a shared experience of anger. The affluent turn to their more established organizations and networking capabilities to build something big. These are differences observed for the sake of bringing to light the powers and abilities of separate groups rather than set one against the other in combative opposition.

The study was not done randomly and only selected a few groups and projects from New York City, so the results can hardly be universal. But the gist of the report is proactive: with a plurality of identities out there in the observed world, who is doing what? And, how can each compliment the other? Differences in identity can be respected if identity based organizing is a necessity and our contrasting powers can be mutually exchanged. This is something like the spirit of mutual aid and pluralism wedded together.

Another case in point is the Stuart Brand interview that went viral: http://youtu.be/3YR4CseY9pk.

Mark Fisher again nails the ridiculousness of the responses on the left to Brand’s exciting call for a revolution on a mainstream television program. He was passionate, articulate, and matched his suited host word for word beautifully. Yet, what kind of a reaction do we get from leftists? Brand’s “branding” as a misogynist or a power-grabbing leader of a revolution – like he was Lenin or something. A call for a revolution that makes its way into a mainstream audience is something to cherish – but anti-capitalists sure do love to replay old historical narratives. A leak in the spectacle allows people from outside the milieu an opportunity to speak about a politics beyond the canned, lose-lose party politics that is force-fed down our throats by the corporate media. Yeah, he works for MTV. Yeah, he’s a celebrity. Yeah, he’s talking about a revolution. Is this an opportunity to speak openly about radical alternatives to politics-as-usual or drown ourselves in the same old ironical half-critiques? This is an opportunity, so use it wisely. The “not-my-leader” and “rich-white-man privilege” refrains have their time and place and are not catch-alls.

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But things get even more interesting. Further on down the piece, Mark Fisher goes after what he terms the “neo-anarchist position”. With some quick psychologizing, neo-anarchists are pegged as “depressed” and “overwhelmingly young”. They do little more than online commenting, protesting, and occupying instead of the tough labor organizing work that “real anarchists” do. Neo-anarchists are without the grit that labor organizers have to get their hands dirty in the mainstream and prefer to be dismissive and ironic. But the weakness of this characterization is obvious: if neo-anarchists aren’t doing the proper work for the coming revolution, it is because they are young and inexperienced. Nobody has taught them how to “organize the prols” like the great figures of the past – “kids these days… Am I right?” As my old anarcho-hippie friend always tells me, there is no institutional memory with radicals and it hurts. Every generation needs to relearn street politics and basic organizing skills while the cops are ten steps ahead each time. Perhaps if unions and other labor organizations had found a way to pass on their wisdom, we wouldn’t have these problems to begin with. I suspect that Fisher is fishing for help from a young and energized audience to breath some life into labor organizations that have done little more than contract after the Reagan/Thatcher assault. He could just only have access to this new anarchist milieu via the internet himself… But I also suspect that the centralized union structure prevents such adaptability. If more community outreach had been sought out instead of clutching to what waning power the unions had, there could at least be a thin network to link generations of activists together.

The problem does not lie with the recently politicized, online youth. In America, the left has done very little to combat neoliberalism in recent history and now is fully consumed by it. Anyone who does not tow the party line is “left” aside if they aren’t going to garner any votes. Outside of party politics, radical labor organizations have done even worse at recruiting young people and staying up on the latest cultural shifts. It is those with knowledge and experience who have the onus to pass that on to the bright-eyed “fuck the system” youngsters. This lack of networks and meshworks has got radicals wondering why they are even identifying with the left at all anymore. I just pulled this essay from an online search and it is at the least tight and coherent: Post-Left Anarchy. I’ve never even read Bob Black, but if alliances are going to be salvaged between these divergences, we’re going to have to do better than just telling kids to read Marx.

My concern and critique of Fisher and Brand is the adherence to a politics that squarely places class in the center of the struggle, and ‘the left’ as the explicit milieu from which to build that class unity upon (moving towards the center, in a strictly visual sense). Instead of looking to rebuild that good-old proletarian army, I think the greater emphasis should be on milieus and a more diffuse blending of the many, diverse identities already in existence. The more interesting and empowering theoretical work comes from going over and beyond class as the standard of analysis. Something new emerges when the right place is taken and the willing players enter. The kind of enjoyment and indisputable positivity of gathering in the pleasure of each other’s company is the common affect that occupy channeled into a potent force. It was spontaneous (with do respect to the early organizers’ choices), had revolutionary potential, and was both local and global. Hell, if you didn’t like the name just call it something else in your city (Occupy Oakland almost switched to ‘Decolonize Oakland’). The greater point I’m trying to make here is the act of commoning in public is what must be fought for rather than who is going to be the revolutionary agent.

Fisher writes: “The Vampires’ Castle was born the moment when the struggle not to be defined by identitarian categories became the quest to have ‘identities’ recognised by a bourgeois big Other.” What better example of the former do we have recently than the people who came out and occupied their city centers and refused to make demands or take a single message? What stronger force can we reasonably expect in the present/near future than when we retook public space for a short time, and built something so big and so fast that the White House ordered they all be cleared at once out of fear of their own people? Every mayor of an occupied city (that’s all the big ones) was summoned by the Capitol to conference call, and all of the camps were cleared in less than a week. [link]

Unity has never really been my thing. Gathering the masses into a single force inevitably means there will be a representation of the mass to an other. It comes from above rather than as an event. The argument always seems to pivot around who will ‘represent the working class’ and gets consumed by squabbling. Or worse, allegiances solidify and back-stabbing occurs. Even if we got beyond that stage, the NSA would be so quickly on top of this grand union it would be over before it started. The power imbalances are so staggering now and the American military so ruthless in pursuing any dissent that any working class organization seeking a revolution would be rendered impotent or broken up immediately. Neither of these option is the obvious favorite, but nothing else is either.

Fisher gave a great critique of the traps of identity politics but then reintroduces his own familiar one: class. Am I missing something here, or is this not an identity itself? Why make a fuss over identity politics only to harken back to times “when the working class was the working class” and the lines were clearly drawn between proletariat, bourgeoisie, and capitalist?

The thing about milieus is that they are malleable, adaptable, and will not go away – so long as there is any shred of human sociability left in culture. Sure, they aren’t all radical nor impervious to infiltration, but a careful attunement towards milieus accounts for the ebb and flow of social movements. Together with existing networks and alliance making, a powerful machine can be built in the likes of the occupy movement without the central bureaucracy and the threat of corruption. Occupy might not reemerge step for step with how it occurred in late 2011/early 2012, but I believe that the blueprint is there. A bigger, tighter activist network plus a growing population of the poor won’t lay dormant for long.

The performance of gathering in public, of assembling in public space and occupying the commons can happen in a powerful way while simultaneously remaining diffuse. This is an instance of a Deleuzian multiplicity: to be a force of destratification while not losing consistency. Everything linguistic about the Occupy movement can be reworked: the important thing is the common affect of a public assembly, what the spirit (minimally) of the 1st Amendment is all about. It’s all about the Common Notion.

For more on Mark Fisher’s politics, check out his article on Accelerationism. Then check out anarchist without content’s critique of Accelerationsim (how’s that for a Neo-Anarchist blogger’s name).

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