Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Friday, December 21, 2018

The fetishism of positions

“OK, but what do you believe? Do you think abortion should be illegal?”
“Do you think a trans person is the gender they say they are?”
“Do you think Israel should get out of the West Bank and Gaza?”
“Should pro athletes be able to kneel during the national anthem?”
“Doesn’t everyone have a right to health care?”
“Of course immigration should be done legally or not at all, right?”
“Do you or don’t you agree that there is such a thing as White Privilege?”
“Should public school curriculum be multicultural?”
“So what are the limits on free speech?”
“Come on, what would you do with a terrorist in a ticking time-bomb scenario?”
“Are you a Marxist? A Libertarian? Do you even care?”
“Wait – who are you going to vote for? -- You're voting, right?”

Policy questions, foundational questions, questions of the moment, “purely theoretical” questions…. But always the insistence, OK, but after all the weighing-the-options, what do you think? “What is your position on ----?”

Of course anyone can be the target of such interrogation, but I am going to consider the case of the philosopher. There are at least three (or four) ways that this question, this making-it-personal, arises. There’s an aggressive mode, an “OK, wise guy, if you’re so smart, you tell us how it oughta be done. What do you even want, anyway?” At worst, this is a mode of revenge for making us think off of our own beaten track. It’s an attempt to change the subject, or even to turn the tables; to impose a shift from the implicit questioning that happens in thinking-out-loud, to an explicit demand for some kind of “actionable proposal.” It really means “put up or shut up,” or sometimes just “shut up.” It’s a shaming mode: you and your armchair, your ivory tower. Get your hands dirty! It can also be a demand to “stop hiding,” quite dancing around behind “suppose” and “what-if;” in other words: Come out and fight if you dare.

There is also an abdicating mode; a mode that says, OK, Yes, I understand the options, but what has your imprimatur? Yes, there’s this way or this way to think about it, you can be a utilitarian or a communitarian, you can say some things are right or wrong no matter what; you can think there are tragic choices or that the idea of tragedy always serves the status quo. And on the ground, you can show how question after question can be asked in multiple ways. But after all of this “teaching the controversy,” aren’t you afraid you’ve legitimated the wrong thing with implying a false equivalence? Mightn’t you be dignifying some options just by giving them airplay at all? Don’t let me make the wrong choice! In other words, Tell me what to think; or even, what to want.

Sometimes there's an unstable hybrid mode that says: Please tell me you don't think this wrong thing.

These modes fetishize positions. They are not, of course, usually put forward in the stark and, admittedly, caricaturized forms I have sketched. Moreover, each of them is right about something, whether it knows it or not. The aggressive mode senses that philosophy is indeed “hedging,” in a sense. It thinks that by naming this “elephant in the room,” it can render the philosopher nonplussed – a breach of decorum! – and that this will save it, or at least buy some time. Sometimes, as rhetoric goes, it works.

The abdicating mode, too, sees something true: there is a real risk involved. One may well be, as Levinas says in the very first sentence of Totality and Infinity, "duped by morality."

The aggressive mode casts the philosopher as having no skin in the game, or as playing for hidden stakes – a different sort of “skin,” and not the kind everyone else has in the game. On the other hand, the abdicating mode sees “stakes” very clearly, and is panicked by them.

I say that these wrong modes fetishize position because they imagine that if the philosopher will just “state clearly” their position on such-and-such, something will have happened And they know what will have happened: the philosopher will be knocked off their high-horse; or the student will have been given a hand up. In the case of the hybrid, the fear may be that the student will be pulled down, though usually the conscious worry is that they "won't be able to respect" the philosopher any more.

The philosopher cannot answer any of these modes, because the philosopher knows that nothing will have happened if they answer. (Of course, plenty of teachers, and plenty of thinkers, do answer; they too can be prone to alienation and fetishizing. None of us is immune to to this.) Or, perhaps, they can and do answer, and they know that nothing has happened – because under the circumstances imposed by the assumption, nothing can happen. OK, you know that there are many, many people, doubtless very intelligent, who think such-&-such, as well as many others, equally intelligent, who think the opposite, and half a hundred shades in between. I have now told you my own intelligent opinion; now you have one more grain of doxa to add to one pile or another on the various scales. Or again: You are quite right: I have a different game to play in addition to the game about policy or about foundational principles. You challenge me to make a move about policy, or foundational principles. Here is my move. Now, what does that tell you about this other game?

The last mode of asking this question is personal. It just wants to know the philosopher as a fellow, as a comrade. It is not worried about getting the answer “right,” though it may well think there is or could be a right answer, and that this rightness is not a point of indifference. But what it is after is something like intimacy, or shall we say, encounter. Beyond all critiquable motives, beyond all “conservatism” or following-the-question-wherever, there remains the naïve and pre-legitimate (pre- because it comes before any criteria of legitimation) desire to know, Who are you? (Are you indeed “just asking questions?” Are you enjoying some subtle frisson that comes with provocation – and doing so under cover? Do you have a wish, a hope, of your own?) And this question arises in part because one is finding ones own way, and wants – hopes for – what? Guidance? Collaboration? Provocation? Company?

This mode sees the philosopher as pretty much the opposite of a troll. A troll is someone who is just fucking with you; they have no interest in you, only in your reactions; but in order to get your reactions, they must seem to have an interest in the subject at hand. In a certain sense (and put perhaps hyperbolically), the philosopher has an interest solely in you; the subject at hand is always the medium. And this in turn means that this third mode, this personal mode, itself begins already to take on this anti-trolling stance, by which one cares provisionally about the questions as they come up, but really these are all occasions for hanging out. This, by the way, is called friendship. It is not as casual as it sounds.

In the previous two posts I laid out a long double list of “positions.” They really have very little philosophical interest in themselves; they are meant only to be a lot of cumulative evidence for why I do not feel well-placed as either a “Progressive” or a “Conservative,” and that, after all, is a matter that really need only concern me – if anyone. But since I am not really all that atypical, I assume that there must be dozens, nay thousands, of ways in which someone could realistically be a halfway-thoughtful, semi-engaged political participant and not fit with the "political binary" of contemporary American lingua franca.

More or less missing from all of those lists were any extensive rationale. What I was presenting wasn’t a political theory; it was just a jumbled pile of stances, more or less raw, more or less without justification. This was partly from necessity -- I needed to provide a big-enough panorama to make the point I wanted to make: to wit, that it is possible (because it is a fait accompli) to maintain a number of positions that are at least prima facie at odds with the left-right spectrum. This is not a very revolutionary claim, of course. But it does press us towards an interesting question. Why, if someone like me is obviously possible, and on the assumption that I am not a freakish outlier (hmmm...), is the popular account of the "political spectrum" so pervasive? Has "the wisdom of crowds" just found the optimal way of sorting positions into a two-big-baskets setup? Or are there perhaps other interests that are served by the system that leaves so many other permutations out of consideration?

In the first edition of Capital, Marx uses a phrase which Zizek later appropriates as a brief definition of ideology: They do not know it, but they are doing it. True to form, Zizek cannot help but reverse this into “They know it very well, yet they do it.” Marx does not actually use the word ideology here – a word that by now has arguably become so overdetermined as to be useless, if only there was another (because those overdeterminations are part of the use), but the phrase is still a good brief pointer to this tangle of overdeterminations. In any case, in later editions, Marx considerably revised this chapter, but he kept the phrase – more or less. It is now, “We are unaware of this, but we do it,” and he is referring to the way we allow human relationships to be mediated by things. Soon thereafter comes the famous discussion of the fetishizing of commodities. I’m going to allow myself a gloss from the unlikely source Wallace Shawn, whose play The Fever I staged a bit over a year ago:
People say that about every thing that it has a certain value. This is worth that. This coat, this sweater, this cup of coffee: each thing worth some quantity of money, or some number of other things—one coat, worth three sweaters, or so much money—as if that coat, suddenly appearing on the earth, contained somewhere inside itself an amount of value, like an inner soul, as if the coat were a fetish, a physical object that contains a living spirit. But what really determines the value of a coat? The coat’s price comes from its history, the history of all the people involved in making it and selling it and all the particular relationships they had. And if we buy the coat, we, too, form relationships with all those people, and yet we hide those relationships from our own awareness by pretending we live in a world where coats have no history but just fall down from heaven with prices marked inside. “I like this coat,” we say, “It’s not expensive,” as if that were a fact about the coat and not the end of a story about all the people who made it and sold it.
Because the interpretation of Marx is fraught with difficulty, Shawn may not get Marx right in every respect; but I think he grasps the essence, which is brought out in a footnote Marx appends to the very phrase I mentioned before: We do not know it, but we do it. The footnote is to Galiani’s treatise On Money, and says:
When, therefore, Galiani says: Value is a relation between persons – “La Ricchezza e una ragione tra due persone,” – he ought to have added: a relation between persons expressed as a relation between things.
Positions get lumped into more or less ready-made ensembles precisely because positions are fetishized; in exactly the way Marx spoke of the fetishism of commodities. It is not a coincidence; this fetishizing of positions occurs because “positions” come to us as commodities. A pre-given position is a relation between persons expressed as a relation between things expressed as a relation between persons. It looks like two people having a conversation, and so it is, or would be, but the conversation cannot happen, because the people involved have given over their interaction to the mediation of things: readymade notional ensembles.

A dozen objections arise at this point. What? am I imagining some unfiltered, unimpeded "encounter" that would happen if only those pesky "positions" didn't interfere? Where is this golden age supposed to have occurred? How naive! Didn't I ever read Derrida? Wittgenstein? Nietzsche?

As it happens, I do think philosophy involves a sort of naïveté; but let's come back to that. It could also be objected: I said earlier that philosophy was interested in “you,” and that every “subject matter” was just an occasion or even a medium; what, then, is the difference between this, and the ideological deformation I am criticizing now? Part of the difference is in that phrase of Marx’s – they do not know it but they are doing it; for Socrates is to be taken at his word when he says that the difference between him and his fellow Athenians is that he knows that he does not know. Zizek’s inversion of Marx (“they know very well, and yet…”) rightly heightens the tension, because under late capitalism, irony – made into a mode of style and in some sense collapsed into style itself – has become a commodity like all others, and indeed the very mark of the self-knowing commodity – because in this setting, the ultimate commodity, the ur-commodity, is style.

But irony is only necessary, not sufficient, for philosophy. There is also a kind of earnestness, or what I referred to above as naïveté. "In all their actions men do in fact aim at what they think good," Aristotle says at the beginning of the Politics, and this what they think is where they – and we – start, though we may have grounds to revise this later. Philosophy is saved from meta- and hyper-ironism by this naïveté, which however is different from the insistence of either the aggressive or the abdicatory demand for “positions” because that demand wants those positions as an end, an answer, whereas philosophy starts there – and that is where the labor of building a position finds its raw material.

If the fetishizing of the commodity is a forgetting of and repression of the labor involved in making it, we forget, too, the labor involved in the making of a position. Philosophy reminds us and says: you want to understand? Roll up your sleeves. But the point is not to "make" a position. Positions have their meaning in the context of life. The examined life entails an examined politics (which means, also: law, civics, economics, education, culture...); and there is of course no politics without policies. Whether, in any given context, there are particular policies entailed by philosophy per se, is – like so many issues – another question. But I am dubious – if you really want to know what I think.

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