Response to Negri on Italian philosophy

Pier Rovati has a response to Negri’s pamphlet on Italian philosophy…

In spite of appearances, Antonio Negri’s obscure pamphlet ‘The Italian Difference’ does not really lend itself to a polemical discussion. It must be taken for what it is, a coup de théâtre dictated—as the author himself confesses—by a rather ingenuous moment of hubris. At the end of the day, it is a sparata, as we say in Italian. Such a blast would intend to strike at the entirety of Italian contemporary thought (and with particular violence against so-called ‘weak thought’) in its capacity as a philosophy of the master; at the same time, it positively exempts from this treatment three names—the old Gramsci, and the new Mario Tronti, the workerist, and Luisa Muraro, the feminist—in their capacity as, it would seem, philosophies that creatively resists the master by means of difference. Everything else is a desert.

True. But the next part (in itals) is best. One often seems a similar rhetoric in Agamben, which might explain why he and Negri are often writing at each other:

If there are no doubts about Gramsci, the two other names are—even for an Italian—quite unexpected. I wonder what those concerned by this bizarre ordering think about it (and then I ask myself: What status does he who arranges them arrogate to himself? Is he like the fourth man officiating at a football match?). …

This is a good point for anyone writing: the presumption to name the first, best, etc., of philosophy often comes with the notion (implicit or explicit) about how wonderful you are for being the first to recognize the first or the best. Not that one should always avoid this kind of rhetoric or can (obviously, we all have thoughts on various “firsts” and “bests”), but when it comes to infect one’s writing, then in the end you’re only writing your self-glorification as philosophy’s sovereign, always passing final judgement on the first and best, even though that presumption carries with it the idea that somehow you’ve read all of the archive of philosophy to say without a doubt that you haven’t missed some other writing that indeed would have been first or better on a particular topic. But I digress….

The next important point, though, turns to Vattimo’s so-called “weak thinking.” Now, I am not at all a Vattimo apologist and his work never had much influence on me. But every once in a while you’ll read an article from someone like Negri who thinks they’re making a brilliant suggestion that “weak thought” is just weakness or something. Why, that’s brilliant! As if Vattimo didn’t purposely take up the term with a certain irony, to oppose it to various philosophies that were too masterful, too hubristic. In fact, he wrote a lot on just this topic. Why, it’s even in the archive….

As for Negri’s intended targets, they revolve around the old motif, often used in reactionary terms, of the ‘poverty’ of Italian philosophy. I just want to say something about weak thought (‘the vilest point’ of the twentieth-century decline, as Negri delicately describes it), considering the fact that, at the beginning of the 1980s, I was its promoter together with Gianni Vattimo. Weak thought was an episode in the Italian philosophical debate that aroused considerable alarm in academia and whose effects (which also had significant international echoes) have yet to die out. These effects, which in part intersected with those of deconstruction, should induce some caution even in the worst-disposed of critics. I mean that, were he to exercise such caution, Negri would realize that what is at stake here is an issue of power [potere] that concerns the so-called metaphysical violence of philosophy, its administration of truth, and the elements of micro-government that follow from it, beginning with the real privileges that exist in the institutional circles of research.

I think Negri is well aware that there is a front of struggle within philosophy, related to the very way in which the scientificity of concepts is understood and knowledge as power [potere] is used. Negri’s sharp mind cannot overlook this Foucauldian inspiration of weak thought, unless he does so deliberately. As a matter of fact, his very strong thought could obviously fall into the critical horizon of weak thought itself.

I’m sorry to say this to a friend like Negri, but his pamphlet on the Italian difference is full of superficialities, that is, hurried verdicts which, as if wielding a machete, take the place of the reflection required by critical discourse. 

Humans and Other Objects

Larval Subjects has a great post up responding to Paul Ennis’s thought experiment on the future of speculative realism, namely that there will be the eventual reactionary insight that somehow humans have been forgotten, thus offering a desolation akin to the one on offer in ecological catastrophe:

Setting that aside, I think an additional point worth making is that today we simply cannot talk about the human without talking about objects. As Latour tirelessly argues, the great sin of modernity was to try and produce a schism between the world of nature entirely independent of humans and the world of the cultural entirely independent of nature. The problem is that the world in which we live is a world in which we’re constantly enmeshed in imbroglios with objects of all sorts. To understand ourselves is, in part, to understand these imbroglios with objects. Yet what do we in fact find in so much cultural and critical theory? We find a bracketing of objects so as to get at that which is specifically human– norms, cultural significations, ethics, politics, and so on. 

Agreed. Writing as someone whose work at times has been deeply embedded in those “bracketers,” I can say that killing off the beast of humanism hasn’t worked out all that well. Surely there is someone dusting off their old attacks on the anti-humanism of Derrida, et al., and simply finding and replacing “Derrida, Foucault,…” with “Meillassoux, Harman…” I would only add that Meillassoux’s notion of the subject, for example, is rather classical (a point I make with a bit more subtlety in my recent Pli article). But more importantly, what SR offers  is a thinking that would call on us to avert the very catastrophes that would make up the moral blackmail no doubt coming soon.

Call it the argument from catastrophe, in which you cite the real possibility of global environmental devastation (in a previous era it would have been the nuclear holocaust) and then accuse X figure of basically wanting that through some theoretical apparatus. In any event, what is exciting about the work in SR is how it meets up with work in environmental studies and animal ethics, to name but two areas, which have long argued for getting out of the human as a part of a larger normative project, part of which would be finding means for averting the very catastrophe in question. This is where, in a sense, I see SR going, namely connecting up with these other movements in such a way as to bolder SR’s normative accounts (such as they are). Or at least, I see these connections whenever I’m at an environmental philosophy conference.

Rules of Engagement: Different Heroes, Please

If I’ve been reading my Continental political philosophy right over the past few years, I really must have gone wrong somewhere in my political upbringing. Because I really don’t want to read another article or another major writer that tells me the radical politics of two particular people (and I’m sure I’ll think of more later on):

1. Bartleby: Deleuze, Agamben, Zizek, and I’m sure I’m missing a few people who have held up Melville’s Scrivener as the go-to for emancipatory politics. First, I don’t think “I prefer not” really disrupts the traditional binary of actuality and possibility, but let’s leave that aside. He prefers not … to do work. With you on that one. He prefers not … to be bossed around. Still there. He prefers not to …turn on the heat. Well, I’ve been through a NY winter, but sure, if it’s also getting him out of work…

But finally the man brings him down and forces him out. And he still prefers not. Some time later, he finally dies, preferring not … to eat. And this, Zizek notes, could be the greatest violence of all. And I love that work by Zizek, but, um, no. This is, in fact, a great story about the self-abdication of a certain part of the left, which Zizek is often so good at taking down (for example, in critiquing Critchley’s infinite demands for finite demands). We are so cynical about the whole of politics, and for good reason, that we take our distance from the state, we practice a micro-politics of the local, and then we just circle up and prefer not…to engage. 

2. Paul: I’ll pop this one in to spike my blog numbers. Now Paul preferred a lot: the kairos, the universalism of humanity, and, right, the conversion of the heathens. Paul is great for thinking of the universal, if that means all others have to agree with you in order to be part of that universal. He also tells a lovely story of our saving at the hands of a messiah. Great story. But while I’m waiting, preferring not along the way, can I still be deconstructing ontotheology?

Ah this sounds cranky but I’ll post it anyway….

When ideas mattered…

Graham writes at OOP:

As unfortunate as it may be to read of Christian vs. Christian persecutions over such issues as the exact status of the Son, and as much as I would hate to live under the threat of persecution for my philosophical opinions, isn’t there also something enviable about a period that took its ideas that seriously?


So, I hate to make my first cross post on Graham a bit critical, since I usually agree with him. But this time, not so much. I don’t understand this mythology that we entered in an age of play in which no one took anything seriously. The culture wars were serious and while I know Graham has no love for some of the po-mo culture warriors, the effect of the 80s on the academy, I would argue, has been for the better. Would we want to return to the way English departments were run in the 70s? Would we want the intellectual exclusion of vast areas of knowledge simply because they didn’t come from the west or they were deemed feminine? I’m not saying that at times there weren’t excesses, but surely if it had Bill Bennett upset and stepping away from the slot machines long enough to decry the death of the American Academy, then it couldn’t have been all bad. (I’m letting my snark there get ahead of decent logic.) In any event, whatever one might think, this was not an era where people didn’t take their ideas seriously, and in fact that was often the complaint: people were too serious and everything became too political. Anyway, we still live in an era of Christian-on-Christian exclusions and violence, so it’s a myth to think that anywhere in the culture–the academy, the school boards of Kansas, or the churches of the Midwest, for example–that ideas aren’t taken seriously.

This reminds me, FYI, about the arguments over realism. As I noted to Graham once in an email, it’s not as if there are anti-realists. I just don’t know how that way of framing the debate is helpful. I mean, even if you think we live in a world of simulacra where the map is on the same ontological level as the landscape, then you are very much taking simulacra seriously. And you are very much taking it as “real.” Just as Hegel took ideas as “real.” Just as Husserl took the lifeworld as “real.” Just as Foucault took discursive power formations to be “real.” What matters, then, is the question of materialism: what do you take to be real and does this “real” have the correlationist effect of cutting out broad swaths of that real from philosophical consideration?

Rules of Engagement

I’m teaching Žižek’s Violence yesterday, and I could aim at a number of questions I would have about his approach to the question of violence. I’ll take that up in a later post. What I want to zero in on is his description of Maoism at the end of the book, which is a type of argument that is everywhere in Continental philosophy but makes no sense upon any quick thinking of it. Žižek’s claim—no doubt to tweak Badiou a bit—is to say Maoism’s “permanent revolution” is structurally the same as post-industrial capitalism: create and destroy, leave the political ever unstable and thus renewable, and so on. 

Now, this argument has been made about deconstruction (e.g., Jameson), and just about everything someone wants to say is “bad.” But doesn’t it ever matter that the content of a given position is utterly different? Whatever problems Maoism may have, its similarity to the logic of capitalism is silly. In fact, only a few pages previously, Žižek argues that though “divine violence” and “revolutionary violence” may be structurally similar to what Benjamin calls “mythic violence” or what would be just a revolution for the sake of grabbing power (rather than attempting to call an end to the system altogether), the crucial difference is the goals and more importantly, the change in the symbolic (often oblique to the political actors) that a true revolutionary violence could bring about. But apparently, it’s enough to say that, well, by some rather simple formulations Maoism is really like capitalism (except, you know, it’s a political logic, not an economic one, however we might tease that difference out) such that, well, it should not be “surprising” that the cultural revolution gave way to the post-Mao “reforms” of the late 70s/early 80s in China. Such that now you’re more likely to find books in Beijing on how to be a good manager than to find a copy of the red book. But there was, of course, a little history in the way between the Cultural Revolution and the events of the late 70s, not least the death of Mao. But I’m going on too long in even taking on this argument…

It’s an argument too clever by half: deconstruction is not capitalist; Heidegger is not capitalist; Foucault’s view of power is not capitalist. Heck, I’ve been thinking: maybe Meillassoux’s speculative realism is just another logic of capitalism in disguise: the pure possibility of the virtual (that is, the chaotic in-itself) such that all things and indeed all physical laws are utterly contingent and thus could change at any moment–hmm, just like capitalist globalization which makes all manner of life contingent, even the supposed laws that would give us a sense of continuity into the future. 

Or maybe the worst capitalist logic would be to see it mirrored in all things…