DM, at Antigram, has a new post up about the Zizek debate. It’s good; the first part of it is about Western “hedonism” and debate over enjoyment, which I’ll try to address in a post following. The second part of it is about the relationship between politics, in the practical sense, and values, whether personal or collective.
The struggle between the Right and the Left is an asymmetric struggle. It is not true to say that we believe different things but share common assumptions: we do not share common assumptions. And principally, we do not share the assumption that the question: “What are your values?” bears witness to any political reality whatsoever…
In the end, “values” is not a Leftist category, for the simple reason that it is not a real category. There is no actual terrain upon which values battle, as there is no real stage upon which “civilizations” clash. Rather, concrete actors, take concrete decisions, for concrete reasons. These reasons may be economic, strategic, political or psychological, but “values” simply do not enter into the equation, except ex post facto as illusory means of concealment, then perhaps disseminated as psychological black ops. As Marx and Freud, and also Nietzsche taught us, “values” are generated [and] produced by material forces….The theater of values is a theater of shadows, and true Leftists should burn it to the ground.
Conservative political thinkers do foreground shadow theaters of values when they talk about “family values,” or when they speak out to endorse a return to values. The word may have acquired a taint, as, in a recent post, I argued that the word “radical” had.
Still, the references to Nietzsche and Freud don’t make sense here, and the idea of abandoning valuation is equally perplexing. Neither Nietzsche nor Freud were really materialists. Nietzsche was fond of describing judgments of the “muscles,” but he also spiritualized matter by holding onto a notion of the will. One has only to examine the ironies of his writings on priests. The asceticism of the priest may be contemptible, and founded on hypocritical claims about renunciation, but it is still a manifestation of the will-to-power. Nietzsche was not particularly concerned with fighting oppression, in part because of his belief in a hierarchy of wills.
Freud wasn’t a materialist either. To the end of his life, he held on to the notion of the drive, finally incarnate as Eros (desire) and Thanatos (death drive).
There are two points to make here. The first is that the conjunction of Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche, who are the perpetual “good guys” for contemporary philosophers (though the way things are going, we’ll have to add Saint Paul), don’t fit together all that easily. Every time the three are synthesized, a different, new philosophy emerges, whether that be the Frankfurt School, the work of Jacques Derrida, the work of Michel Foucault, or something else entirely. If a new philosophy doesn’t emerge, and we’re just making them standard-bearers for the revolution, we’ve ceased to read them with any sort of attention.
The second is that materialism should never become so naturalized that we begin to take its postulates for granted. It’s true that the free market is usually defended on purely economic grounds: private enterprise, as opposed to public ownership, is supposedly the most efficient way of producing wealth. It is also defended on ethical grounds. The strong form of the claim for laissez-faire capitalism is indifference towards inequality. What a person has, he has earned, and has a right to keep.
This is not less materialist than socialism. It is less compassionate. When “reasons” are substituted for “values,” it is as though the abstract, logical operations of reason could persuade us whether someone we have never met, have never even seen, should live or die.
It’s arguably less materialist as well. The claim that a person has earned something is a claim about the material conditions of production. If I claim to have earned wealth, I not only claim agency with regards to the conditions that made my wealth possible, I also presume the universality of such agency – wealth is readily available to those deserving of it. The fact that, to use a somewhat dated example, conservative arguments about welfare rely on claims about the laziness of welfare recipients who therefore become responsible for their own poverty is evidence that the lack of compassion always has a basis in an ideological representation of the conditions of production. It’s not simply a matter of willing compassion – the lack of compassion is sustained by ideological distortions of the material conditions.
If anything, will works in this example to maintain ideology. Once again, I think this comes down to differing readings of Nietzsche – will to power as a value vs. will to power as an allegory of truth capable of grounding a critique of ideology, i.e. a critique that recognizes what, in a discourse that claims truth, is in fact a product of will.
I find DM’s final sentence in the passage you quoted intriguing:
How do we get to this “should” in the context of a wholesale rejection of the language of values? Precisely because it follows necessarily from the preceding clause, which is a statement about the materiality of language: “the theater of values is a theater of shadows” – what else is there to do with a theater of shadows other than burn it to the ground? Indeed, in calling it a theater of shadows, one has already begun to burn, i.e. dematerialize, its material supports.
“What a person has, he has earned, and has a right to keep. This is not less materialist than socialism. It is less compassionate.”
I also contend that this is not a materialist position, for the reason that it relies upon an idealist concept of an autonomous person (falsely) abstracted from their social and historical circumstances. I subscribe to the basic tenets of (materialist) Marxist theory, I believe that wealth is socially produced, as indeed subjects are also socially produced. From this perspective, the idea that a “person” has “earned” wealth reveals itself as hopelessly idealist…
I’m confused by the definition of “materialist” at work here. Why are “will” or “drive” necessarily non-materialist concepts?
“Will” and “drive” are abstract, psychological phenomena. They have real effects, and they may have real causes, but they are nonetheless still not concrete.
I’m not arguing for or against the reality of such things. To an extent, I am persuaded by the writings of both Nietzsche and Freud. My point is simply that the Marxist rejection of Hegel, the Marxist critique of capital and commodity markets, and the rest of the Marxist edifice cannot work without a rigorous distinction between what is material, and what is not.
Adam – the “will to power” Nietzsche is not really the one I have in mind here. Rather, the “genealogy of morals” Nietzsche who argues that values are ultimately historically produced, through a confluence of forces. This, it strikes me, is a materialist thesis.
As for drive, the crucial point is that – encore – drive is very much located in the body, as opposed to values, which are posited as floating free somewhere out beyond the crystal spheres… I would wager Larval Subjects could give you a better defense of this proposition than me, though, if you can bring yourself to bury the hatchet with him over your ecumenical differences…
From this perspective, the idea that a “person” has “earned” wealth reveals itself as hopelessly idealist…
I agree with you, but I would also contend that revolutions and liberatory projects make a series of assumptions that will, at times, refer to subjects of necessity. Health care for all people at times means specific treatments for specific patients.
We tend to view interactions between animal species, and between animals and plants, according to the model of the ecosystem, rather than as anything resembling interaction among free subjects. Ecology is not subjectivist; at the same time, within ecosystems, we observe predation, hierarchical organization, exclusionary practices, and many forms of competition.
None of this makes us indignant; we don’t expect that fairness will obtain between species, or within a species group. The fact that we do expect certain material forms of equality among human beings suggests that, somewhere, a notion of right is coloring our materialism. This is absolutely reasonable, and justifies our dismissals of ecological or biological apologies for oppression.
Joe – There is more than one way to read Marx :-) In relation to this, for example:
There are readings of Marx that focus more on the historical question of how certain things come to be conceptualised or perceived or experienced or practiced as “material”. This sort of reading might reject the sort of hard ontological distinction suggested in your comment – or would at least regard such a distinction as something related to the particular historical practices of a certain kind of society. “Materialism”, in this reading, is itself something like a normative value – rather than some kind of natural substrate that could conceivably exist in some pure form, untainted by normative values…
Absolutely. When I referenced “a rigorous distinction between what is material, and what is not,” I was referencing something that certainly can, and should, be defined historically.
That said, we can’t help history along by defining whatever seems theoretically valuable as material.
This is a worthwhile project, but on its own, it’s not emancipatory or revolutionary. Daniel’s post was strongly informed by a leftist commitment to social change, something that I don’t see arising spontaneously from the work of observing changes in normative definitions of materiality.
Actually, I suspect Marx did view such a thing as emancipatory and revolutionary. Again, I realise it’s an odd reading, but it’s not an “academic” one, if that makes sense. Understanding the forms of perception and thought generated in and through our collective practices is a means of understanding the potential for emancipatory transformation. It provides a means of understanding targets for political practice, of grasping what normative ideals might resonate, and why, and of understanding what would actually need to be transformed, in order to realise particular ideals.
On their own, social and intellectual movements often aren’t emancipatory, either: part of the point of theoretical reflection is to make it more likely that movements would successfully be able to achieve emancipatory aims…
Again, this makes sense to me; my emphasis here is on the phrase “particular ideals.” In other words, the definitional analysis, which is indispensable to an effective social movement, isn’t identical with the particular goals to which that movement subscribes. In one of his earliest political poems, W. B. Yeats opposed the equitable re-distribution of property on the grounds that he didn’t want to see the aristocracy disappear; he had no argument with progressive claims about the reality of inequality, and yet he continued to believe that inequality was desirable. This, as far as I can tell, is the strong form of conservative materialism.
Joe – Sorry: I just realised that I may have needed to indicate that the sort of analysis I’m talking about operates at a higher level of abstraction that analyses of how particular things come to be classified as “material” or not – I’m not actually discussing where the boundaries of materiality are drawn, or how these boundaries shift within recent history. Marx has an argument that the category of “materialism” as such, even though it understands itself as a what is left behind after all social determinations have been stripped away, is itself a social category. He means this in a strong sense: “material nature” has a determinate social content – it’s not what’s left behind when social determinations have been removed, but is rather itself the distinctive social content of our time. For this reason, an analysis of how this comes to be the case – of how the possibility of materialism comes to be enacted socially – is actually something that casts light on the nature of capitalism in a fundamental sense. It’s for this reason that this kind of analysis links up with an interest in emancipatory transformation (although I realise the point would need quite a bit more development for me to substantiate this claim).
My last post crossed yours in the writing – apologies if it looks weird following on your comment. I’m not completely sure what you mean by “definitional analysis” – but my guess is that it’s what I refer to above as an analysis that focusses on where to draw the boundaries between what “counts” as a “material” or “nonmaterial” object: if so, I agree. At the more abstract level at which I had (unclearly) intended my first comment, though, there actually is a relationship between the determination of a movement’s ideals, and the analysis of the emergence of the category of “materialism” as such. (Again with the caveat that I realise there’s a large amount of “put up or shut up” that would be required from me, before I’d expect anyone to find this point particularly persuasive…)
Sorry, I didn’t check back on this thread for a long time. Anyway, there’s got to be a way to have a non-reductive materialism — maybe if we added the dialectic to it…. Hmmm….