RETHINKING MARXISM Volume 8, Number 2 (Summer, 1995)
In this issue, we start with Enid Arvidsons critical discussion of the "L. A. School," a group of Marxist scholars whose writings since the 1970s on contemporary architecture, uses of space, and the "built environment," have put forth some of the most trenchant statements of the problems with postmodern "hyperspace" in the era of "late capitalism." Arvidson lauds these writers (who include, among others, Mike Davis and Edward Soja) for making the issue of spatial relations and their transformations in such places as Los Angeles (their preferred object of analysis and much scorn) a key concern in Marxist socioeconomic criticism. Inspired to a degree by Fredric Jamesons now famous article on postmodernism and late capitalism, in which he advances the view that the postmodern built environment has produced profound disorientation and alienation in peoples "cognitive mapping," Davis, Soja, and others put forward rich and novel descriptions of the ways in which spatial fragmentation, destruction, and reinvention of place are themselves consequences of a new phase in capitalism fostered by globalization and shifts in national economies. Arvidson finds, though, that, like Jamesons piece, the L. A. School first makes postmodern spatial relations a mostly superstructural effect of "the economy" and then reduces "the economy" to the pure space of capital (neglecting, therefore, the possibility that there are locales for economic and class relations that remain "outside" capitalism and that may also expand in conjunction with the proliferation of postmodern hyperspace). Arvidson notes as well that much of the L. A. Schools writings suffer from a related form of reductionism, that which attributes to their own "sighting/siting" an epistemological privilege to reveal the capitalist reality that pervades all those displacements and fragmentations. While seeing what is valuably added by the L. A. Schools use of cognitive mapping as a guiding metaphor for making sense of current spatio-economic relations, Arvidson shows too what is hidden in these accounts, particularly (and perhaps ironically) the multiple class processes that traverse and fracture the supposedly hegemonic postmodern, late capitalist terrain. Following a line of thought put forward by J. K. Gibson-Graham (see RM, Volume 6, Number 3) and others, Arvidson faults the L. A. School for disabling radical politics by painting a picture that just frames a global capitalist landscape, only to be replaced by an entirely different picture of the planet. Arvidsons turn to nondeterminist Marxism charts "a fragmented economy with a variety of class processes and their conditions of existence, to open up alternative routes to transformative social change rather than waiting for the revolution."
Most left activists, at some time or another, have likely wondered about the psychosocial forces that, for some people and times in history, have led to movements for social change while, in other times and climes, have resulted in quietude and acquiescence. In the Marxist tradition, often orthogonal to economism and class determinacy, there have been "heretical" formations that have made psychosexual analysis and the question of personal agency the core of revolutionary political theory. As Ramsey Eric Ramsey relates, the writings of Wilheim Reich and Ernst Bloch are two such efforts to account for the individual and social structures that create personalities for which possibility and hope are attendant. Ramsey discusses the importance of "everyday life" for both Reich and Bloch and especially the ways in which they called attention to how our experiences of everyday activities often articulate dissatisfactions that express profound structures of character and personality. As Ramsey notes, for Reich, these structures were themselves linked inextricably to structures of authority and power such that our "dispositions" to events were both determined by and expressive of broader social forces (often of reaction) and institutions. Ramsey joins Reichs analysis of these dispositions to Blochs "militant optimism" (his discussion of the various levels of "possibility" that could and sometimes do motivate people to enact the potentialities that are rife within even the most administered of societies). Ramseys message, which he derives from his conjoining of Bloch and Reich and which he also advocates as a teaching method, is that attention to the dissatisfactions that we all face in our everyday existence may be the best way to incite us to "potentialize the potential," although often this may be possible only through collective action. Ramsey joins Bloch and Reich in believing that the utopian moment—the hope—which is made visible by asking about our dissatisfactions can be made to last if it induces forms of agency that "seek to actualize the hidden, but not absent, revolutionary potentialities in situations."
In her cogent and impassioned article, Teresa Ebert sets forth a materialist "Red Feminism" over and against the mostly idealist "post-al" theoretical practices that she believes have infiltrated left politics, displacing such crucial Marxian ideas as exploitation, class struggle, ideology, and justice from the terrain of social action. Eberts clarion call for "Red Feminism," closely connected to those Marxist and socialist-feminist traditions in which emancipatory projects link oppression and injustice to the material conditions of production that prevail under "patriarchal capitalism," is developed in her piece through a confrontation with leading poststructuralist feminist and post-Marxist thinkers, such as Jean-Francois Lyotard, Drucilla Cornell, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, and Judith Butler. Ebert argues that, for most of these "post-al" theorists, the assertion of the "impossibility" and "unrealizability" of the good, the textualization of politics, the dissolution of emancipation into free play, the absolute relativizing of truth and "the good," the delinking of power and justice from class and production, and the displacement of broadly-based historical narratives for local and singular events represent not so much a new and effective politics of social transformation as a denial of the very possibility and desirability of this goal. This is, claims Ebert, a necessary result of the fact that the "anarchic-ludic" politics of "post-al" theory both reinforces the dominant economic logics (of a global patriarchal capitalism) of our times and occludes "the historical necessity of the class struggle over power" that she finds central to Marxism and Red Feminism. Ebert shows that the consequence, for example, of Cornells "ethical feminism" is a turn away from historical materialism and the connection of womens existence, their suppression, and the relations of production toward a concern for the "discursive economy of violence" through which womens reality is thought to disappear. Likewise, Ebert finds fault in Butlers "valorization" of the "unrealizability" of any notion/project of emancipation, including, therefore, womens liberation from patriarchy. Butlers move, like Cornells, keeps in place the capitalist status quo by providing "an alibi for continuation of the existing relations of class exploitation and class privilege." Ebert concludes by proclaiming that, in contrast to the "ludic" feminism of Cornell and Butler and their "post-al" cronies, Red Feminism "insists on the historical reality of the knowable good: the necessity of ending exploitation and meeting the basic human needs of all people."
Colin Hays rethinking of the "crisis" of the British state begins, initially, as a critique of Tom Nairns recent attempt to attribute Thatcherite "one-party dominance" to the requirements of Britains ruling class to secure the "antiquated structures" of the English establishment in the face of prolonged economic and social failure. Hays criticism of Nairn proceeds in the form of an alternative conception of "failure" and "crisis" in the Marxian theory of the state. For Hay, the important distinction that Nairn neglects to make is that between failure as a complex set of "objective" contradictions in the economy and polity and crisis as a process which, in essence, involves the always contested discursive construction of perceived failure as decisive moments of transformation. Hay uses this distinction to put forward his own story of the rise and continued success of the Thatcherites and new Rightists in the United Kindom. In Hays view, the Thatcherites in the 1970s were able to construct the "crisis" as a narrative that merged together in abstraction disparate events as singularly caused by the "overextension" of the welfare state brought on by the influence of the trade union movement on Labour government policies. Thus, as Hay explains, the New Right was able to selectively narrate "the symptoms of state and economic failure into a coherent and simple discourse of crisis capable of finding and constructing resonance with individuals experiences . . . of the economic and political context." This discursive construction of the moment of crisis has done nothing, in Hays view, to alleviate the underlying causes of economic and political failure in the United Kingdom. If anything, the transformations of the state precipitated by the Thatcherites have led to a new "post-Thatcher settlement" in which an "underextended, retrenched, and debilitated state" can no longer be expected to intervene in the deep recession that has characterized the British economy. Hay believes that the hope for the Left in Britain should reside in the recognition that it, too, can construct the current situation as a crisis caused by the prior Thatcherite narrative (and its effects). While Hay is rather somber about the current Labour partys willingness to construct this discourse of crisis—largely because he believes that they have accepted for the most part the "profound structural transformation of the institutions, apparatuses, and boundaries of the state, economy, and civil society" effected by the Thatcherites—he also thinks that the British Left "cannot wait for the crisis to materialize, it must constitute it." In thinking about an alternative strategy, one that taps into the deep dissatisfaction of the electorate with the Major government and with experiencing ongoing economic dislocation and demise, Hay concludes that Labour must seize the discursive/political moment since "the devil may have all the best tunes, but the Right need not have all the best narratives."
David Mertz examines the "constellation of relations amongst racism, nationalism, and State(ism)" through a Lacanian lens in order to show the basic conceptual necessity that these ideological forms possess for modern subjects. Mertz is particularly concerned to redress the "severing" of racism and nationalism that he finds in Benedict Andersons Imagined Communities, one of the most sophisticated and influential treatments of nationalism to appear in recent years. Mertz shows, contra Anderson, that nationalism (and its fantastic representation and constitution by the State, during the past two hundred years) relies on a projection of its own impossibility—the "fact" that the "real" nation cannot be shown to have empirical existence as it is always comprised of diverse and different groups, languages, locations, and individuals—onto an imagined, racialized Other. Relying on Slavoj Zizeks use of Lacanian categories in the analysis of racial, ethnic, and national subjectivity, Mertz argues that Andersons failure is in his belief that nationalist "love" and racialist "loathing" are not implicated in each others constitution and their codetermination of the national subject. Mertzs view is that the nation which is "loved" by its "natives" is one whose unity is fantastically represented in relation to its empirical lack. Thus, the projected, symbolic unity which is the Nation-State, both stems from and introjects a subjectivity whose "failure to achieve national identity is condensed onto the racial Other." For Mertz, then, racism cannot be combated within the framework of a call for national unity, nor seen purely as a "perversion of cultural differences," but, rather, must involve simultaneously a confrontation of nationalism and statism as ideological forms that operate to construct our essence as modern subjects.
Guy Debords Society and the Spectacle has achieved something of an iconic status for artists and activists who, perceiving the pervasive commodification of modern everyday life, have turned to cultural politics and/or alternative art forms to locate the possibilities for individual and collective action that would combat the passivity induced by the "spectacle" of popular culture. Concentrating his inquiry on the cultural politics of the Situationist International—the group of artist/practitioners, including Debord, whose creation of "situations" as oppositional aesthetic/political practices sought to interrupt the trivialities and inactivity of everyday life—Bradley Macdonald considers the extent to which the situationists were able to commence a set of theoretically informed practices that avoided the thoroughgoing pessimism about popular culture which beset the Frankfort School as well as the aestheticism and compartmentalization that characterized avant-garde art movements, such as Dadaism and Surrealism. As Macdonald shows, the situationists believed that, rather than being the totalizing prison within which only the most talented and critical individual philosophers and artists could escape (at least in the Frankfort view), popular, commodified culture had as a dominant feature the fact that individual desires for pleasure and play (and even transgression) could never finally be satisfied, controlled, or extinguished. Yet, as Macdonald points out, the situationists also thought that the appropriate forms of cultural resistance to the spectacle was the supersession of art, as everyday life (and not the specialized "work" of artists) could become the location for creativity and especially collective action. The publicly staged "situations" they produced—from graffiti to living collages to mobile architectural forms within the urban environment—were designed, says Macdonald, to make the sites of everyday life, and not the gallery, the arenas for common cultural/political experiences in which power, play, and desire were given free reign against the conformity and acquiescence required by capitalist commodity culture. In assessing the cultural politics of the situationists, Macdonald regards them as both a precursor to and a supplement of recent "post-Marxist" theories of politics and radical democracy. Their cultural politics uniquely yielded a post-Marxism "that resituates the best of Western Marxism and postmodernism." Without completely retreating from their Marxian sources, but also without hanging their political analysis on a theory of a classically constituted working class, the situationists, concludes Macdonald, succeeded in theorizing a politics of everyday life that takes "popular culture seriously as a terrain of struggle" by linking the micropolitics of subjectivity, identity, and power to the macropolitics of capitalist commodification and alienation.
As readers may know, a major inspiration for our rethinking of Marxism was and remains the work of the late French philosopher, Louis Althusser. The contributions to the Remarx and Review sections in this issue take up the continuing question of Althussers significance—of both his writings and his life—for contemporary Marxian thought. Jo-Young Shins article reminds us of Althussers lasting interventions in Marxian philosophy and social thought. Organized by the overriding concept of overdetermination, Althussers reading of Marx posits a double rupture of Marxian thought from nonMarxist, bourgeois forms of essentialism/determinism and from its own "ideological," humanist, and economic reductionist past. Shins object here is to show that Althusser precipitates a new rupture, one that separates Marxism from its modernist history and inaugurates a postmodernist Marxism. Shin shows that, for Althusser, the inception of postmodernist Marxism involves a "continuing break" from economism, humanism, structuralism, and historicism by a rigorous adherence to overdetermination. But Shin also seeks to preserve the specificity of Althussers Marxian postmodernism which, in his view, consists of Althussers partisanship, his commitment to "go beyond private exploitation" while doing battle with modernist tendencies of all kinds. Shin sees overdetermination as initiating a new, postmodern history for Marxism or, quoting Althusser himself, "a point of no return" whose consequences for social thought and political practice are only at a beginning.
Richard Wolff reviews Althussers "autobiography," translated into English as The Future Lasts Forevever: A Memoir. This work has been considered sensational and scandalous alike by detractors and supporters of Althusser, in many cases for similar reasons: the intense scrutiny and intimate detail through which Althusser interrogates his "subjective" life, dwelling at length on his sexual foibles and frailties, his emotional wanderings and disablements, his familial situation, and of course his murder of Helene, his wife and comrade, the point of departure for the text. Wolff reads Althussers memoir as a reflection on the overdetermined conditions that constituted a life in which Marxian theory, communist political commitment, and high academic standing were deeply intertwined with subjective elements that caused Althussers ceaseless efforts to construct a "presence" in lieu of the fundamental "absences" that he believed were in part constituted in and by his family situation. Althussers "confessions" of his fraudulence in regard to Marxism and philosophy in general and his sentiments of feeling most often like an imposter in personal relations, the academy, and political circles are seen by Wolff to be examples of the struggles with "self" and "mastery" that Althusser took from being "missing" from the scene of his own nuclear family and especially from the love of his mother and father. Indeed, Wolff sees throughout Althussers retelling of his life the themes of absences and presences that figured prominently in his epistemological innovations and in his desire to make visible the repressed forces of exploitation and class that, he believed, remained unappreciated even in the Marxian tradition. Yet, Wolff is largely interested here—using Althussers own painful recollections as prime example—in arguing for the inclusion of those subjective (and material) psychological and emotional aspects in social/theoretical analyses informed by Marxism. Wolff views Althusser as recognizing the impoverishment of those forms of Marxian thought that bracket off the sexual, familial, psychological, and emotional as outside of their self-consciousness and irrelevant to their stories of the social. In sum, Wolff believes that Althussers poignant and often tortured recounting "achieves a kind of Marxism whose commitment to social analysis and radical change includes and integrates subjective, familial intimacies into its theoretical framework," thus supplying one more text in Althussers œuvre that enriches our collective Marxist understanding.
Last up, Chip Rhodess review essay looks at the renewed interest in Althussers work during the past few years. He focuses on two books of essays: the first, The Althusserian Legacy, edited by Michael Sprinker and E. Ann Kaplan, and the second, Althusser A Critical Reader, edited by Gregory Elliott. Rhodess main concerns are to see how the criticisms of Althusser have held up in the light of the continued relevance of some of Althussers main theoretical initiatives—the concept of the "conjuncture," the notion of ideology, and the idea of structural causality (with last-instance determinance of the economy). These concepts, according to Rhodes, comprise Althussers primary attempt "to initiate knowledge production that will further the goals of a communist praxis." In perusing the essays in the two collections, Rhodes sees that the majority of contributors pay Althusser the homage of reading his own work "symptomatically" in the same vein as Althussers own reading of Marx and the Marxist tradition. Rhodes goes on to revisit the important debates Althussers work set off in three distinct areas as a way of illuminating Althussers lasting contributions: historiography and the status of historical materialism, the notions of ideology and subjectivity as they appear in Althussers reading of Lacan, and the possibilities for political action in the absence of the self-contained historical subject. While the essays range from outright dismissals, oppositions, and inversions of Althussers views in these areas (he mentions the pieces by Axel Honneth and Paul Ricoeur in the Elliott edition as examples) to more inventive if not appreciative pieces (such as Rastko Mocniks essay on ideology in the Sprinker and Kaplan volume), Rhodes concludes that for the most part the criticisms and revisions do not displace, and actually help delineate, Althussers genuine challenge to Marxist theoreticians and practitioners—to study the current conjuncture "in its complex relationality" and to reopen the question of revolutionary politics.
Readers might also look at a recently published collection of essays, Postmodern Materialism and the Future of Marxist Theory: Essays in the Althusserian Tradition, edited by Antonio Callari and David Ruccio. The book is published by Wesleyan University Press and contains new essays, written in the wake of Althussers passing, by Antonio Negri, Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson, Gregory Elliott, Richard McIntyre, Warren Montag, Stephen Cullenberg, Emmanuel Terray, Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, Etienne Balibar, Jonathan l~iskin, Anne Marie Wolpe, Alain Lipietz, Bruce Roberts, and Grahame Lock, along with an extensive introductory essay by Callari and Ruccio who are members of RMs editorial board.
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