RETHINKING MARXISM 7, Number 4 (Winter, 1994)
In this issue we begin with an interview with Cornel West conducted in May 1994 by William Olson and Antonio Callari, members of our editorial board. The conversation ranges from West’s views on the positive aspects and lacunae in Marxian theory, and the limitations and potentials of postmodern theory, to the current status of liberation theologies and the black church, and finally to the question of the increasing significance of race, especially as it affects political action. In reviewing his strong debt to the Marxian tradition, West notes the importance of Marxian political economy to highlight what he calls “the rule of capital.” Yet he believes that Marxism has frequently stopped short of providing the much-needed, detailed analyses of reification and commodification that Marxists such as Georg Lukács and Fredric Jameson have wished to make central to Marxism’s historical project. Turning to West’s writings on such poststructuralist thinkers as Foucault and Derrida, West discusses his aim of holding on to some notion of totality even while recognizing the theoretical and political salience of poststructuralist, antiessentialist thought. Under careful questioning by Olson and Callari, West assesses his own current relation to postmodern and deconstructive thought. Here, West applauds the work of Derrida as a “thoroughgoing austere skeptic,” but he also notes that in their fixation on discourse and language, many Derrideans neglect to create the space for “reconstructive energy.” While West resists bashing deconstruction and its postmodernist cousins for purportedly making action impossible through the introduction of discourses of uncertainty, he avoids a “moral relativism” by embracing a “radical historicism” that no longer asks philosophy for “permission to act.” The conversation moves on to West’s familiar concern to view religiosity as a community project. In the process, West treats readers to brief historical lessons in the substantial role that some progressive religious communities have played in remaking the world even while more and more social institutions, including churches, get gobbled up in the ethos of the capitalist marketplace. Callari and Olson interrogate West on the meaning of his advocacy of a “politics of conversion” which incorporates an “ethic of love;” West responds by clarifying the resort to community and forms of communal agency that his notions of love and universality imply. Finally, West discusses the competing theses of the declining and/or increasing significance of race and racism in U.S. society. Here, West notes that while the economic possibilities for African Americans have been enhanced, certainly since slavery, the political use and misuse of (especially white) racialist discourse has recently increased in its extension and vitriolic force. As might be expected, West is hopeful that there is now some “real possibility for democratic regeneration.”
These days, Allegra De Laurentiis tells us, Walter Benjamin is most often regarded as a literary critic, though “a respectful reading of the texts must reaffirm that Marxism and mysticism are the two pivotal features of his thought.” De Laurentiis proceeds, therefore, to read Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History as an opportune occasion to reveal Benjamin’s immersion in both Marxist and Jewish-mystical traditions, especially as they shed light on Benjamin’s “meditations” on history. Benjamin himself defies the conventional wisdom that Marxism and messianic Judaism are absolutely irreconcilable. But, as De Laurentiis shows, Benjamin produces a novel understanding of Marxist historical materialism through his audacious claim that the Marxist approach to history would be “unassailable on the condition that it ‘enlists the services of theology.’ “ Benjamin’s unique reading of historical materialism centers on the idea that it is “redemption of the past” and not a liberatory vision of the future that enlivens Marxism’s theory of history. In particular, Benjamin finds present in historical materialism a moral obligation to the “oppressed past.” As De Laurentiis points out, Benjamin hitches his understanding of this moral obligation to what he called the “monodological view of history,” in which singular events in human history are inspirited with a transcendental and meaningful presence to be comprehended only by “a redeemed mankind.” As a means of illuminating the kind of historical knowledge toward which Benjamin aspired, De Laurentiis seeks examples (as Benjamin himself did) in the visual arts. Through a brief presentation of the photographs that Roman Vishniac shot of Eastern European Hasidic communities in the handful of years leading up to the “final solution,” De Laurentiis shows us what Benjamin could have been getting at: the seizure and arresting of a past time in the lives of an oppressed people to reveal the true essence of historical events. In De Laurentiis’s view, such a “Messianic cessation of happening”—glimpsed, for example, in the flash of time attenuated in Vishniac’s images—held for Benjamin the special possibility that the “past can now be suspended” through the revolutionary action presaged and then produced by historical materialism.
Subaltern studies have given rise, among other things, to a reconsideration of the traditional Marxian notions of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalist hegemony. In the realms of cultural and political representation, the critique of “Orientalism” has determined for postcolonial subjects and theorists of the subaltern a project of constructing a “relatively autonomous space” of resistance to continued postcolonial dominance. Much of the resulting analysis and suggestions for resistance have focused on the degree to which “tradition” has been or can be the grounds for eluding the ever-tightening grip of modernization. Ajit Chaudhury argues here that the notion of “simple hegemony,” which shows up now in “Brown Orientalism” (the borrowing and inverting by postcolonial subjects of the problematic of Orientalist discourse), is not adequate theoretically or politically to create the space of opposition to Western domination. For Chaudhury, what is most often missed by Brown Orientalists is the overdetermination of tradition by modernism and, more importantly, vice versa. The mutual constitution of tradition and modernism means that when and where colonial rulers had to modify their plans for modernizing cultural and political spheres, as with the British in India, the resulting transformations did not imply the “victory” of nativist tradition in subverting the class-based efforts of the colonizers to establish “simple hegemony.” Chaudhury contends that the tradition thus touted was, and is, always/already overdetermined by Western modernism, and that the seeming inability of subaltern subjects to fully interiorize Western values and therefore collaborate in their own subordination does not translate into counterhegemony and the repudiation of modernism. Chaudhury proposes, in place of “simple hegemony,” a concept of “synthetic hegemony” in order to bring to light the mutual constitution of tradition and modernism in the relative positions of colonizers and colonized. With this proposition, Chaudhury seeks to show that colonial, and now postcolonial, power “alters (displaces) the traditional values in order to combine them with modern values.” Chaudhury then sees in contemporary postcolonial resistance movements a collaboration with hegemonizing power, as the “servants” attempt simply to valorize that which they believe has escaped modernism, speaking (but now loudly, rather than meekly) in the language of their oppressors. Chaudhury does see the possibility of constructing a space of subaltern resistance, but here he uses insightfully the discussions of values and power that have emanated from Nietzsche and Foucault. For if, as Chaudbury reads these thinkers, the master’s aggressive self-conception allows him/her to “forget” the servant when the servant enacts his/her meekness and/or “cowardice,” then the “disappearance” from the master’s gaze of the servant when he/she acts “weakly” suggests that the master (here read colonial and postcolonial rulers) cannot often see and act in the face of nonviolence and other acts that are not valued as “strong.” Thus Chaudbury concludes: “implicit in the servant’s apparent submissiveness, we might find resistance.”
Henry Krips returns to the scene of one of Louis Althusser’s most noteworthy contributions to Marxian social theory: the concept of “Ideological State Apparatuses” and the process of interpellation. Interpellation, as Krips reminds us, was formulated by Althusser to explain the material practices through which subjects come to represent themselves to themselves and through which these same subjects are subjected to the “Law of the Other,” perhaps best represented by and in various “state apparatuses.” The ideology of self that both recognizes and misrecognizes the subject’s position is one that is born of this dual movement of being called (or named) and of being subjected, and is not the result of the inverted reflection (or distortion) of a prior reality or already constituted meanings that predate interpellation. While Althusser may have believed that his notions of self-representation and subjectivity were largely borrowed from Jacques Lacan’s retheorization of Freudian psychoanalytic concepts and conclusions, Krips argues that Althusser ignored the crucial role that desire played in both Freud’s and Lacan’s rendition of the constitution of subjects, Krips, then, sets out to revamp the Althusserian notion of interpellation by seeing the site of the subject’s being hailed as one constituted by fundamental antagonisms of meaning. In coping with such antagonisms, Krips says, subjects are forced to constitute themselves as desiring beings, revisiting and displacing through the process of “repetition” (Freud’s term) the “primal lack” that makes them experience a loss of control and a subjection to seemingly capricious forces that they see as outside (and perhaps above) them. The reconstitution of desire and self-representation, in Krips’s reading, is linked to the action of Ideological State Apparatuses only through the social antagonisms set off by the operation of these apparatuses. And these antagonisms, in turn, serve as the motivating force in constituting the subject’s desire as he/she experiences the urge to respond to the loss or questioning of self-identity that such potentially hostile interpellations may involve. Krips’s reconstruction of interpellation is designed, in the end, to indicate “the need both for a politics which understands the existence of social antagonisms, and a psychoanalytics which explains how those antagonisms come to have the constitutive effects of making us who we are.”
Employing at times the precise language and images of a mechanical trade magazine or, at the same moment, uncovering the libidinal excesses in the circulation of work, sex, and machines, Cinthea Fiss gives us “Pump,” a dexterous combinatory of text and photo stills. The words of a high-rise, building engineer, a woman whose discourse of exact quantities (from the pressure of hot-water pumps used to heat the goliath structure to the number of floors she must climb in order to service heat ducts and take water samples) is imbued as well with her sexual fantasies and their signifiers, her remembrances of friends, family, and foes (all workers, we should add), her narrative of her everyday worklife, and much else. The photos that accompany the text deliciously convey the seepage of desire that spills over into the naming of implements, processes, apparatuses, and artifacts of the mechanized workplace. Fiss gives us screws, cock valves, oiling pumps, and the like in this overdetermined, erotic economy of technology, labor, environment, art, and libido. Fiss’s piece also respects deeply the technical and social knowledge and skills of the engineers, as the narrator and her fellow workers traverse in pursuit of their jobs not only the many floorsfrom sub-basements to the roofof this center for corporate capitalism (the Bank of America’s President has his office on the fortieth floor), but they also bridge occasionally the gender, racial, political, and occupational differences that mark their spatial and social distances. Fiss’s spatialization of temperature difference (the heat pump nearing “implosion” is on the thirty-ninth floor, while the building’s cooling towers are on the roof) metaphorizes the fluctuating scenes of sexual heat, taut corporeality, and subsequent cooling that are imagined by the engineer as she climbs each day to the roof (her “secret excursion,” she calls it) to be bathed in the moisture produced by the pressurized, heated water of the “cooling towers.” Whether this climb is an escape, a passion, or a “discipline,” as the engineer describes it, (or all three) is left open; what is certain is that Fiss’s “Pump” eroticizes the blue-collar/white-collar workplace, while it brings means of production and mechanical power to bear on the constitution of sexuality.
Cynthia Kaufman and JoAnn Martin look closely at the theory of the political and the possibility for radical political action in the work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe and also of Judith Butler. Kaufman and Martin are troubled by the rather incomplete or undertheorized notions of the relation between social theory and the political practices undertaken by a multitude of “interpretive subjects” in the writings of Laclau, Mouffe, Butler, and other postmodern thinkers. For Kaufman and Martin, the conception of postmodern politics that emerges from some of these writings (as with Butler) often privileges antiessentialist and antifoundationalist discursive strategies, thus restricting subversive political action to only those moves that embrace the deconstructionist turn. Kaufman and Martin contend that in other streams of postmodern thinking about politics (as with Laclau and Mouffe), the opening up of the political space by notions of contingency, plurality, and articulation is followed by a closure in which radical democracy or some other unifying discourse or movement becomes the common ground upon which all antagonisms are articulated. In Kaufman and Martin’s view, the diversity of political practices and subject positions, though gestured at by Laclau and Mouffe and by Butler, is ultimately proscribed by the lack of recognition of or attention to the socially-constructed passionsoften stemming from deeply-felt, essentialist concepts of self, identity, and lived experiencethat motivate subjects to enunciate and enact their forms of political commitment. In sum, Kaufman and Martin fault Laclau, Mouffe, and Butler for failing “to include any sense of their theoretical formulations as emerging from an interpretive subject” or to “include the possibility that there are other interpretive subjects who are politically engaged and yet have a different understanding of the political.”
Over the years, we have published several articles that have questioned the pervasive left view that capitalism has oozed into every nook and cranny of modern society (among them, Fraad, Resnick, and Wolff, Winter 1989; and Gibson-Graham, Summer 1993). In these pieces, the authors have demonstrated not only the existence of noncapitalist class processes in, perhaps, unexpected locations, but they have also documented the strength and vigor of “other class structures in these same sites. A case in point is contained in the first entry to our Remarx section. Gabriel Fried and Richard Wolff use the history of the trucking industry in the United States to trace the alternating fortunes of capitalist firms and “ancient” (independent, “self-employed”) transporters. Fried and Wolff give an account of the ever-changing class structure of the trucking industry since its beginnings in the early part of this century, as motor carriages came to prominence as one of the primary ways in which goods were to be hauled over the landscape of the United States. What Fried and Wolff show is that, from the period of the Great Depression until now, the competition between ancients and capitalist firms has been affected by the growth and success of labor unions for wage-earning drivers (especially the International Brotherhood of Teamsters), government regulation of freight transportation rates, government distribution of transport licenses, changes from long-term to short-term freight contracts, the oil crisis of the 1970s, and finally government deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1980s. Fried and Wolff illustrate that in different periods, ancient truckers comprised the majority of enterprises (if not rigs and haulers), while in others, spurred on by the strength of regulations and sometimes the unions, capitalist firms were clearly dominant. And, at other times, ancients and capitalists enabled one another (especially in attempts to evade the power of the Teamsters). Fried and Wolff show that, in effect, the struggle between capitalist and ancient class structures in the trucking industry has displayed “no linear development toward adopting capitalist class structures to replace all others,” and that this case can be seen as one more corrective to the tendency of Leftists to assert rather than demonstrate the prevalence, universality, and security of capitalism where it is presumed (often mistakenly) to exist.
After NAFTA, has America seen the last of H. Ross Perot? Perhaps not, if Lauren Langman is right that Perot and his “Perotistas” comprise a postmodern version of “friendly fascism” to which many middleclass folks seem particularly vulnerable in this age of virtual realities. Langman provides a deep reading of the appeal of Perot’s 1992 presidential campaign (in which he garnered approximately twenty million votes) by focusing on the interconnections between the economic “crisis” of the 1980s (mostly reflected in the redistribution of wealth from poor to rich and the decline in real incomes for a considerable portion of the American population), the rise of postmodern forms of communication and identities, and changes in personal and group psychological structures during the past few decades. In his utilization of “depth psychology” as a means to make sense of the American psyche, Langman shows that with the recent proliferation of personal identities and the concern for identity politics, many U.S. citizens turned to Perot as a charismatic leader through whom they could redefine or achieve a sense of self-empowerment in the face of the attendant anxieties set off by postmodern fragmentation, deteriorating economic and social conditions, and much else. Langman describes the “farce” of Perot’s emergence as an American hero, in which this “ordinary (very rich) guy” deftly used the most advanced telecommunications systems to emerge as “a free floating signifier of substanceless charisma” who could “tap deeply into a number of heroic narratives to grant followers dignified identities linked to cultural traditions.” Farce, maybe. Good entertainment, perhaps. But Langman invites us to worry nonetheless about what the authoritarianism Perot’s candicacy and his relative popularity (not to mention the more recent and even more troubling reverence for the Gingrich-Limbaugh crowd) clearly exemplify. So, while Perot’s meteroric, neopopulist rise may have been halted temporarily, Langman’s analysis of the tendency of Americans to seek anxiety reduction and confirmation of self-esteem through increasingly authoritarian figures may turn out to be prescient with or without Perot actually on the scene.
The name of “materialist feminism” has been given to recent attempts to negotiate some of the distance between feminism, Marxism, and postmodernism. Two books appearing in 1993, one by Rosemary Hennessy and the other by Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean, provide excellent introductions to the present state of this negotiation. (For related work by these authors, see Hennessy in RM, Fall-Winter 1990 and RM, Fall 1994, and Landry and MacLean in RM, Winter 1991.) In his reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of these two books, Marc Epprecht appreciates Hennessy’s skillful discussions of current postmodern theorists and their contradictory influences on feminist thought and practice. He appreciates as well Hennessy’s cautionary notes warning of the way feminist historians have often written so as to keep in place forms of argument and the use of concepts that obliterate difference, tend toward naturalism, essentialize gender difference, obscure race and class, and much else that may “contribute to reforming [rather than eliminating] the unjust and exploitative structures of late industrial capitalism.” Yet, Epprecht finds much of Hennessy’s discussion to be couched in the very difficult, perhaps elitist and reactionary, language and conceptual frameworks that she makes the object of her criticisms. Accounting for this language, Epprecht believes that, while well-taken, Hennessy’s main positive proposals regarding the need for self-reflexivity, attention to disabling and essentializing language, and the inclusion of concepts of class and race while discussing gender have, indeed, all been made before within socialist feminism, a tradition that Hennessy supposedly sees materialist feminism to be an advance over. Here Epprecht comes to his main point: the omission of the very word “socialist” from Hennessy’s own position, despite the fact, at least in Epprecht’s view, that most if not all of Hennessy’s contributions can easily be placed within this context. In contrast, Epprecht finds Landry and MacLean’s book more satisfying on the fate and fortune of socialist feminism in the wake of postmodernism. Epprecht regards Landry and MacLean as providing a clearer and more comprehensible history of the engagement between Marxism and feminism over the past three decades. For him their book produces a discussion of articulation and plurality of left social movements that avoids the possible "totalization" he detects in Hennessy’s materialist feminism. Looking back at both texts, while also noting the advances materialist feminism has undoubtedly made, Epprecht finishes with a plea to resist the temptation to rename (or dismiss) socialist and socialist-feminist traditions and ideas in order to suit current fashion.
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