Month: February 2010

Sebastian Rand on Malabou

I’m lifting this from the comments, though you should read the whole entry. Also, note that Levi Bryant also has a comment there that gets to some of the worries–ones that I shared when reading What should we do with Our Brains?–that Sebastian addresses:

Three points are worth noting in closing: (1) It can seem that this sense of explosion [he’s referring to Malabou’s claim that plastique has an explosive element immanent to it] requires the claim that after explosion, no form remains. Since that claim is false (exploded things have lots of form), Malabou had better not be committed to it. But she is no more committed to that claim than Derrida is committed to the claim that we can never understand each other, that performatives are never successful, etc. Her claim that plasticity includes explosion is isomorphic to Derrida’s claim that conditions of impossibility are as important as conditions of possibility. (2) Plasticity in the sense of explosion contains the possibility of its auto-destruction, since to be perfectly plastic is to annihilate one’s form in general, and therefore to annihilate the “first two” plasticities as well (though see (1) above). This is a welcome feature of plasticity, since it bars us from understanding plasticity as providing the final answer to all questions in ontology and value theory. (3) There is an analogous use of “explosion” in formal logic, where a set of sentences (sometimes called a “theory”) is said to “explode” when it contains a contradiction (or when a contradiction can be derived from its members). It “explodes” in the sense that it no longer has any limits or form, since we can derive any sentence at all from a contradiction (and the limit or form of a theory in this sense is determined by its members). But this possibility of explosion is inherent in the conception of truth value, etc., at use in those formal systems susceptible to explosion, and thus in a Derridean way one could say that explosiveness is just as characteristic of these logics as their more well-publicized features (e.g., truth-preservation, bivalence) are. In that sense, the possibility of formal logic is also supported by an explosive possibility (and it is the mission of paraconsistent logics to develop deductive systems not susceptible to such explosion).

Plasticity and Explosions

I’m writing something up on Catherine Malabou and though I have an inherent interest and respect for what she’s trying to do, I wonder why she continues to mention that plastics have an “explosive” element to them since there are plastic explosives. Now, I don’t see the need for her to use this, since plastic’s reformability would be enough to offer her what she needs. But as far as I can tell from my viewing of bad ’80s movies, the explosive part—thank god, since it’s in the keys I’m typing on—is not the plastic, but, uh, the explosive elements introduced into other materials to make them formable. It’s an important adjective/noun difference, since otherwise I would fear the explosive power of my plastic garbage can.

Merleau-Ponty: The Reading Group

The book is set for this semester’s Critical Reading Group meetings: Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible. Monica Stufft of Theatre Arts (and who works on performative theory) will be along for the ride. Student Life Pavilion, Second Floor: Thursdays at 5:30. Email me if you need the text.

Quick Book Review: Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism

I read Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism yesterday. The first thing to mention is that it’s from Zero Books, which is fast becoming the source for books from the New New New Left (or whatever: i.e., your favorite reads working past Zizek, Badiou, and other to think alternatives to global capital). The subtitle of the book is “Is there no Alternative?” For some, such as Catherine Malabou, there simply is none. As she notes in an interview two years ago in the JCRT (9.1, 2008): “Well, we have to admit that there is no alternative to capitalism; this is something that is, I think, inescapable today” (p. 11). Everything is subservient to this “motor scheme,” though, as in China, “capitalism is multiple” and it teaches us “how a single form is able to differentiate itself almost infinitely.” To this, she adds in Plasticity at the Dusk of Writing (Columbia U.P. 2010), that  “plasticityshould beunderstood as the global and capitalistic economy of the world(p. 74, ). (N.b., I cited some of this last night on PiTE). Heuristically, Malabou is onto something when she presents “plasticity” as the replacement for Hegelian dialectic and Derridean “writing” as the “motor scheme” of the present day. Fisher writes:

Capitalist realism … entails subordinating oneself to a reality that is infinitely plastic, capable of reconfiguring itself at any moment. We are confronted with what [Frederic] Jameson … calls “a purely fungible present in which space and psyches alike can be processed an remade at will.” The “reality” here is akin to the multiplicity of options available on a digital document, where no decision is final, revisions are always possible, and any previous moment can be recalled at any time. (p. 54)

In other words, the modus of capitalism is acting as a dialectically negative “formless form’ that is entirely plastic and yet at the same time is the horizon of what is thinkable today. For Malabou, this has meant thinking ways to push capitalism toward a further dynamism (it is merely thinking itself as “elastic” now) in which there would be this “fungible present” without any other in a more egalitarian “being-with.”

To Malabou’s “there’s no alternative,” Fisher poses (not to Malabou herself, of course) the incessant “Is there no alternative?” and I highlight the posing of this question as a question for three reasons: (1) The modus of the question that poses itself is one that looks for an answer from the outside instead of meekly repeating what is provided in the given set of knowledge, however “elastic”; (2) It is also to be read in the plaintive “really, is this the best we can do?” tone of voice that we should use to f*ck (hey, it’s a blog review: if I was publishing in a journal, it would be “interrogate” or “critically analyze”) with the capitalist “realists” who tells us that we must face up to the cold, hard fact that there is no alternative even as they must admit, well, it wasn’t always this way (see Malabou above) and thus there can be no naturalism to anchor this “realist” claim.  Fisher writes: “The power of capitalist realism derives in part from the way that capitalism subsumes and consumes all previous history: one effect of its ‘system of equivalence’ which can assign all cultural objects … a monetary value” (p. 4). The realism dictates that it is governed by no “transcendent law.’ This makes capitalism like the Thing in John Carpenter’s film of the same name’ [note to self: get this film]: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact” (p. 6).

What Fisher ultimately diagnoses is a failure of political imagination: “we need to begin, as if for the first time [note; not for the first time—he’s not pedantically acting as if he is alone, or that this is alone his discovery: egalitarianism, rather than scholarly naming and owning theories, begins here] to develop strategies against a Capital which present itself [everything in Fisher’s analysis circles around this “presents itself” and what this presentation of itself means] as ontologically as well as geographically ubiquitous” (p. 77). Thus what presents capitalism as the horizon of our time is not just misguided anti-historicism akin to those who think the Greeks had capitalism and Jesus was charging for loafs of bread (I swear I’ve seen that somewhere in my travels in the U.S. South); it is a philosophy of the victors at a time when its victory produces a formless form that is destroying all “traces” (I use this word purposely) of a world worthy of the name.

I can’t go on too long about this book, but it includes great sections on movies and teaching and what we academics do (what is that again) when not doing either. Against the realism of a plasticity that needs no celebration, I find in Fisher’s book not just an at times laugh-out-loud (but in a sad, oh-that-sucks way) narrative, but the glimmer—dare I say the trace?—of an alternative to come.

Derrida on Materialism

And it just so happens, I picked up Derrida’s interviews in Positions tonight since I was looking for some other odd quote—I forgot how wonderfully snarky he is in answer to some of these questions—and came upon his old interview on Marxism and materialism. Basically, Jean-Louise Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta are trying to get Derrida to answer for how deconstruction works with regard to the larger “materialist” movements of Marxism. I can’t reproduce the whole back-and-forth here, but it is apropos the discussion this weekend.

“The signifier ‘matter’ appears to me problematical only [note that he’s attempting to move the deconstructive notion of the text closer to what the interviewers want, but with this following strong caveat] at the moment when its reinscription cannot avoid making of it a new fundamental principle which, by means of a theoretical regression, would be reconstituted into a ‘transcendental signified” (p. 65).

This reminds me that I haven’t used the phrase “transcendental signified” in a while. But I think here it’s helpful, since it describes better what is meant by idealism as Harman and Bryant and Bogost refer to it. It’s the deus ex machina of a system put outside of all materiality in order to make the conceptual system work: that’s what makes an idealism an idealism, not the silly idea that everything is but an “idea” or pure subjective projection.

What’s the Opposite of Reductive?

Yeah, yeah, not to introduce another binary or somesuch, but I have been looking for a word to use to oppose well to “reductionism.” I’ll say that I think all critiques of presence, which are never understood by the readers of Heidegger and Derrida et al. who prattle on about the “metaphysics of presence,” are really, in one sense , a critique of reductionism. I put in view one form and then make that ever-present, even as the given form mutates, etc. That’s why Catherine Malabou is, in this sense, off in her critique of Derrida for equating formalisms to idealisms: on this, he’s right. Go read Heidegger’s essay on the Thing, since that’s what Derrida means when he says the form becomes an Eidos.In any case—I’ll put this out to the real OOO people: inflation? I could be a bit tongue in cheek and suggest “dissemination” but still, it’s hard to think of a word that works.