In this issue
we continue our series of book symposia first rehearsed at the Marxism and the World Stage conference by focusing on two intersecting, but ultimately quite different, works of contemporary left literary and cultural thought: Amitava Kumarâ€™s Bombay-London-New York and Warren Montagâ€™s Louis Althusser. As the commentators and authors make abundantly clear, both volumes are â€śaboutâ€ť cultureâ€”cultural theory as well as theoretical cultureâ€”but they represent divergent conceptions of the nature and role of theory in the world today. Yet, in their different ways, both the authors and the volumes are inseparable from the concrete history of RM and the ongoing project of rethinking Marxism. We want to acknowledge the tireless efforts of Jack Amariglio, who had the initial inspiration for and issued invitations for both symposia, as well as Joseph Childers and David Ruccio, who assumed responsibility for shepherding the essays to publication.
Readers will recognize that Althusserâ€™s reading of Marx has been central to the task of opening up and reinterpreting the Marxian tradition to which this journal has been committed from the very beginning. The key role that Althusserâ€™s work has played in our ongoing project has been explicated in two extended editorsâ€™ introductions (which appeared in our inaugural issue as well as in the first issue of volume 10) and is evidenced in the special issue devoted to Althusser (â€śRereading Althusser,â€ť Winter 1998) and in many individual articles, including a series of essays by Warren Montag that we have been fortunate to receive and publish over the years. Now, Montag has published his first book-length introduction to Althusserâ€™s contributions to Marxismâ€”although, as he and at least one of his interlocutors readily admit, Althusser may not be the most elementary introduction to Althusser.
What Antonio Callari does credit Montag with is an attentive examination of Althusserâ€™s textsâ€”discovering in them a particular â€śpracticing of theoryâ€ťâ€”and a way of moving beyond the peculiar divide between structure and conjuncture into which the tradition of reading Althusser has been separated. Montag accomplishes these tasks by emphasizing the materiality of textsâ€”the idea that texts are themselves and nothing elseâ€”â€śin order to fill a space that would otherwise be filled by an authoring and authorizing subject.â€ť For Callari, the lessons of Montagâ€™s discussion of the irreducible materiality of texts can be extended to the problem of ideology and the subject. But he also wonders if, as Montag claims, the study of literature should have a privileged place in the project of deauthorizing the subject or if one can equally trace the materiality of interpellated subjects in other domains of social life. Literature certainly has functioned in that manner (for Althusser as well as for Montag and Pierre Macherey) but Callari reads Montagâ€™s Althusser as inviting us to look beyond the space of literature so that we might displace the subject from its authorizing position and produce a â€śfuller, thicker materiality of the subject.â€ť
Jason Smith moves in a different direction, drawing out the implications of Montagâ€™s decision to strategically privilege the aesthetic in defining the Althusserian problematic. Smith contextualizes Montagâ€™s attempt to formulate a â€śtheory of the causes of literatureâ€ť by noting the current proliferation of both non-Marxian materialisms and immaterialist Marxisms. He then explains that Montagâ€™s attempt to rejoin Marxism and materialismâ€”to develop a new figure of materialityâ€”represents a contradictory coupling of the idea that literature (the institution as a whole as well as each literary text) is historically caused and, at the same time, should be seen as an artifact that has a â€śreal, objectiveâ€ť existence, that cannot be reduced to something else. For Smith, this seemingly odd coupling of historical determination and timeless duration is Montagâ€™s way of capturing the moment of literature, to present the work as it â€śactually is.â€ť And what is this irreducible actuality of literature? It is a giftâ€”â€śgiven by no one, to no oneâ€ťâ€”that allows us to see both the antagonisms and openings that characterize the social world in which we live.
Michael Hardt is less interested in the way Althusserâ€™s work can be applied to contemporary literary studies than in the key role art, literature, and theater play in Althusserâ€™s reinterpretation of Marxism. Indeed, he reads Montag as recognizing this centrality of artâ€”in a way that Althusser and, later, Macherey simply could notâ€”because of changes that have occurred over the past twenty-five years. Hardt summarizes these changes as the emergence of the hegemony of immaterial labor, in other words, the qualitative hegemony of a mode of laboring that gives rise to immaterial products, including images, affects, and social relationships. What this means, for Hardt, is that some of the qualities of immaterial production, such as its performative nature, are transforming other types of labor around the globe. It also means that immaterial property rightsâ€”for example, the legal status of patents and copyrights in a wide range of areas, from music to indigenous knowledgesâ€”are increasingly being contested. If, then, traditional notions of individual authorship can be discarded, in favor of anonymous or collective authorship, the hegemony of new forms of labor and property have made the work of Althusser newly relevant. And, in Hardtâ€™s view, what history has made possible Montag has most clearly articulated in this new reading of Althusser.
Andrew Parker also identifies the novelty of Montagâ€™s reading of Althusser with the centrality of art, and the consequent displacing of received accounts that have emphasized other decisive moments (such as Althusserâ€™s oft-misunderstood conception of the break between ideology and science). Yes, for all its accomplishments, Montagâ€™s Althusser registers its own set of paradoxes for materialist criticism today, which Parker poses as a set of questionsâ€”for Montag and for Marxist critics more generally. For example, is it possible to follow Montagâ€™s reconstruction of Althusserâ€™s prescription for reading a text in its â€śmaterial, literal existenceâ€ť when the text itself, whether by Shakespeare or Marx, is seen to be ill-defined or unstable? Why should art be so central to Althusserâ€™s work (and, by extension, to Marxist theory) when Althusser himself seems to have held a rather classical position on the limits of art? For Parker, the position of prominence accorded to art might, paradoxically, serve to contain the threat it poses. Montagâ€™s contribution is precisely the opening up of these thorny but important issues.
In his response, Montag confesses that the book he wroteâ€”â€śon the relevance of culture to the thought of Althusserâ€ťâ€”was not the one he originally intended. But, as he explains, he was intrigued by the fact that Althusserâ€™s having placed â€śIl piccolo teatroâ€ť at the center of For Marx had been overlooked and he set out to explain whyâ€”why art was so important in Althusserâ€™s work and why this general oversight had finally become visible. The emergence of new forms of labor and property, especially the struggles that have emerged in and around them, may, as Hardt suggests, have contributed to Althusserâ€™s new-found interest in art. Montag also expresses his agreement with Callari that the concept of authorship does function beyond the confines of the name and, therefore, the realm of culture. As for the problem of identifying the â€śmaterialâ€ť object of criticism raised by Parker, Montag admits that the same problem is associated with another of his preferred Althusserian terms, â€śpractice.â€ť And yet, as he develops his ideas beyond what he wrote in the book, he joins with Smith in seeing materialism as a way of thinking about causality, an intervention in a philosophical space that is already occupied by other (idealist) formulations. Thus, his focus on the irreducibility of the material text serves to exclude both an internal and external presence in order not to eliminate or resolve the â€śdifficulties, contradictions, and aporias one encounters.â€ť It is also a formulation that helps to establish the connection between theater and theoretical practiceâ€”each of which is a performance that, when successful, serves to â€śmove minds and bodies simultaneously to think and to act.â€ť
Weâ€™ve all seen the maps. During the U.S. presidential campaign, after the votes had been projected or actually counted. Red states, blue states, and states that hung in the balance. And then, after we were besotted with the electoral math (and horrified by the implications of the results), the nuances of color-coded counties, cartograms adjusted for population, various shades of purple, and nonlinear color scales. For Valerie Tevere, in â€śWhoâ€™s Afraid of Red, White, Blue?,â€ť the challenge is to destabilize the accepted topographyâ€”by effacing the primary color-coding and separating politically disjoint regionsâ€”in order to begin the project of imagining other spatial configurations.
The success formula of U.S. capitalism has involved rising rates of surplus value for capitalists accompanied by rising levels of consumption for workers. For Richard Wolff, the paradox inherent in this formula is that â€śthe U.S. economy has achieved not only the most exploited working class in the world, but has done so while encountering relatively less resistance than many capitalisms elsewhere.â€ť What explains this paradox? Wolff proposes that Althusserâ€™s theory of ideology, especially his notion of Ideological State Apparatuses, can be used to explain how workers have come to accept higher levels of consumption as adequate compensation for the punishments meted out in capitalistsâ€™ pursuit of ever more surplus. As Wolff sees it, the systematic interpellation of workersâ€”â€śin their families, schools, churches, civic and labor organizations, the mass media, and so onâ€ťâ€”as consumers (and not as laborers, much less exploited laborers) has meant that they have mostly contented themselves with higher real wages and not contested the exploitation to which they have been subjected. The alternative is to explicitly integrate Althusserâ€™s notion of Ideological State Apparatuses into Marxist politics in order to analyze both the complex contradictions inherent in consumerism (such as successful campaigns to lower taxes, which imperil workersâ€™ standards of living as well as programs that support capitalist enterprises) and the limited efficacy of left strategies to make consumption more inclusive (through, for example, programs to establish â€ślivingâ€ť or â€śfairâ€ť wages). Wolffâ€™s provocative conclusion is that the Left can turn failure into success by integrating a pointedly anticonsumerist system of values into its anticapitalist political strategy.
Both the 1922 childrenâ€™s story, The Velveteen Rabbit, whose fairy-tale ending allows the toy rabbit to escape the humiliation of being a disposable commodity, to the 1995 film, The Toy Story, in which the toys simply accept their commodity status, enact a particular narrative concerning the relationship between childhood and capitalism. But, according to Jyotsna Kapur, by the end of the twentieth century, the idea that the child could or should be kept apart from the â€śexchange-driven, instrumental relations of the marketâ€ť had virtually disappeared. Capitalism had succeeded in tightening its web around children, drawing them into the market as consumers of alienated images and branded toys, â€średefining their play as entrepreneurship or consumption.â€ť But the dominant capitalist narrative does not mean, as Kapur does indeed point out, that this is how childhood is actually lived. Yet, it does tell us that childhood is being redefined by capital, eliminating not only the sentimentalized, repressive images of childhood innocence but also a noncommodified space of utopian imagination. It also hides the dismantling of the traditional labor movement, the mobility of global capital, and the erosion of social protections previously granted to children. Until a socialist alternative is placed on the agenda, we are forced to accept the fact that capitalist toys are us.
Amitava Kumarâ€™s latest book, Bombay-London-New York, defies easy categorization in terms of genre and field but, as this symposium suggests, it does reveal itself as a fecund encounter of novel ideas and identities. Joseph Childers introduces this encounter by registering the material distance and dispossession that are invoked in much of the writing on imperialism and in postcolonial theory. Kumarâ€™s lyrical recording of his experiences, he notes, breaks with that mold, not only by raising the â€śserious and headyâ€ť theoretical issues but also the essential â€śdilemma of humannessâ€ť that arise when movements of people follow the extended pathways and occupy the multiple spaces created by empire and globalization. Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â
If Kumarâ€™s book is read as an academic memoir, a record of his â€śreading practice,â€ť it distinguishes itself from other examples of memoir-criticism by its insistence on the political. Indeed, Marian Aguiar argues that, precisely because Kumar puts self-reflexivityâ€”his calling attention to the modes, materials, and margins of representationâ€”at the service of political and social commentary, it represents â€śan important contribution to the field of Marxist studies.â€ť Whether discussing the rituals and economies of reading or describing the experiences of migrant laborers who ride in (and, in most cases, die in falling from) the wheel carriages of planes to London, Kumar leaves us with both poignant and prosaic images that register worldly disenfranchisement and, at the same time, the magic of a new critical imaginary.
For Gautam Premnath, the originality of Kumarâ€™s new mode of academic writing, what distinguishes it from â€śmuch contemporary market-ready humanistic scholarship,â€ť is the authorâ€™s ability to combine an attitude of sympathy with an ability to provoke. Sympathy: for individual lives marked by hope and dispossession, for other authors in and of the Indian diaspora (although, in the case of V. S. Naipul, perhaps a bit too generous, admits Premnath), and, most of all, for collective struggles to change the world. And provocation: to those who too quickly dismiss Naipul (but, warns, Premnath, there is still much in the Trinidadian author about which Kumar may be â€śtoo kindâ€ť) and to those who are content to remain within the â€śincreasingly routinized and often vacuous exercisesâ€ť in contemporary criticism. In this manner, Kumar provides a crucial touchstone for Marxists interested in transforming the terrain of postcolonial theory.
Evan Watkins expresses his concern that, perhaps, Kumarâ€™s new-found focus on mobilities might serve to elide and displace what has been a â€ścentral and consistent focus of inquiry for him,â€ť class and class divisions. Yet, whereas for others mobility and class represent a tradeoff in terms of key social categories, Watkins reads Kumar as exploring connections that can help us recognize â€śthe growing impossibility of understanding mobilities without thinking in class terms. And vice versa.â€ť The key to understanding this conjunction is the idea that class can be represented in the very movement across cultural and social spaces that are differently organized by forms of labor and the possibilities of protest. Class consciousness thereby acquires a revived usefulness, beyond the impasse defined by subjective possibility and objective conditions, as Kumarâ€™s text is able to give expression to the â€śinventiveness and resourcefulness of those in subordinate class positions.â€ť
In his appreciative but polemical response, â€śTheory by Other Means,â€ť Kumar sees his work as both aligning itself with the project of RM (by carrying out a critique of disciplinary practice) and breaking from it (in renouncing the â€śhighly theoreticalâ€ť work that, in his view, we often publish). In fact, Kumar uses this occasion to explain how and why he has come to believe that we need â€śmore theory without theorists.â€ť In rejecting what he considers to be the â€śdead vocabulary of critical terms,â€ť and in encouraging his students to become not theorists or journalists but â€śwriters,â€ť Kumar advocates a mode of writing that refuses the false choice between magical and dull realism but, instead, â€śenlarges what is fictive about our world.â€ť Equally important, he expresses his desire to find and forge an â€śimpure practiceâ€ť of writing that â€śrisks the loss of academic prestigeâ€ť and, as such, is capable of producing a wider and different readership.
Although it has escaped the notice of most academic economists (including Marxist economists), a concept of economy has had a long and varied history in the texts of philosophy and social theory. Focusing his attention on the work of such deconstructionist thinkers as Jacques Derrida and Arkady Plotnitsky, Sean Saraka notes that, in the twentieth century, Marcel Maussâ€™s anthropology of the gift and George Batailleâ€™s theory of general economy served to inaugurate a specifically French theoretical tradition in which â€śeconomy became the preferred figure for totality.â€ť For Derrida, â€śgeneral economyâ€ť (the focus on loss and expenditure as against the â€śrestricted economyâ€ť of calculation) becomes synonymous with the deconstructionist notion of diffĂ©rance, by emphasizing the incompleteness of philosophical structures and the elements of contingency they contain. Plotnitsky, in turn, establishes a connection between the heritage of economic thought that runs from Kant through Nietzsche to Derrida and the ideas of interdeterminacy and energy loss in quantum physics. Sarakaâ€™s own view is that Derrida and Plotnitsky overstate the difference between deconstruction and modern philosophy. Moreover, specifically Marxian concepts of economy and value go beyond deconstruction, by maintaining a philosophical openness and by shifting the terms of debate from a purely philosophical contestation to a â€śdifferent kind of practical assessment of theories. . .on the basis of their effects.â€ť
Michael Slott identifies what he considers to be a disturbing turn, in the work of left educational theorists such as Henry Giroux, Peter McLaren, and Stanley Aronowitz as well as many of the editors of and contributors to RM, toward an acceptance of a postmodern antifoundationalism. Slott criticizes their approach because it leads to a â€śradical relativismâ€ť that, in his view, undermines the â€ścapacity to distinguish between true and false propositions, as well as better and worse theories,â€ť which is necessary for â€śfruitful interventions in politics.â€ť While Slott wants to maintain the valuable aspects of antifoundationalism (e.g., the critique of subject-object dualism and the correspondence theory of truth), he believes the perspective shared by John Deweyâ€™s pragmatism and Roy Bhaskarâ€™s critical realism can provide an alternative grounding for radical praxis. While he credits both Dewey and Bhaskar with recognizing the perspectival nature of knowledge, Slott emphasizes the role their â€śontological realismâ€ť plays in keeping relativism at bay. In particular, what Slott wants to salvage is the idea that an â€śontologically stratified realmâ€ť separate from the social production of knowledge can be used to â€śtestâ€ť the truth claims of scienceâ€”and that such scientific knowledges are crucial to formulating strategies for radical social change.
The Remarx section is devoted to Mauricio Schoijetâ€™s analysis of the political situation in Argentina leading up to and following on the December 2001 rebellion that forced the resignation of President Fernando de la Rua. The causes of the rebellion, which Schoijet characterizes as one of the worldâ€™s largest mass mobilizations â€śagainst neoliberal policies at the world level,â€ť include prolonged crisis of hegemony, a decade-long assault on employment, the distribution of income, and living standards, extraordinary levels of corruption, and the freezing of savings deposits. And while Schoijet sees the rebellion as â€śthe expression of proletarian consciousness struggling to be born,â€ť it only achieved partial success. It managed to bring down the president and to disrupt the existing party system but it failed to reverse the expropriation of the peopleâ€™s savings or to devise an alternative to the existing system of representative democracy. For Schoijet, the persistence of the piqueteros, the movement of the unemployed, represents the continuation of a â€śrevolutionary crisisâ€ť (which he distinguishes from a â€śrevolutionary situation,â€ť when bourgeois power itself would be seriously threatened), from which employed workers have mostly kept their distance. However, even though the policies of the Nestor Kirchner administration and subsequent elections have not been able to solve the economic and political crisis, Schoijetâ€™s conclusion is that the revolutionary movement in Argentine will have to overcome the memories of past repression and persistent high unemployment in order to forge an alternative to the existing order.