Spectacle, Emergency and Exception: Benjamin and Agamben on Trump and Neoliberal Configurations of Violence

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule. We must arrive at a concept of history which corresponds to this. Then it will become clear that the task before us is the introduction of a real state of emergency; and our position in the struggle against Fascism will thereby improve. Not the least reason that the latter has a chance is that its opponents, in the name of progress, greet it as a historical norm. – The astonishment that the things we are experiencing in the 20th century are “still” possible is by no means philosophical. It is not the beginning of knowledge, unless it would be the knowledge that the conception of history on which it rests is untenable.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)[i]

It’s been a long twentieth century.

For twenty-three months, since the November 2015 Paris attacks, there has been a state of emergency in France. In times of acute crisis, the French president assumes pouvoirs exceptionnels—‘exceptional powers’—granting the ability to carry out house arrests, instate curfews, regulate public assembly and conduct investigations with nearly inexistent oversight. Since the dispersion of thousands of refugees from the Calais Jungle, these exceptional powers have given free reign for police to legally harass marginalized populations scattered throughout the heavily securitized banlieues. Critics comment that this is the new normal for police brutality in France.

A present-day Walter Benjamin might have given the situation its grim diagnosis. The state of emergency is increasingly becoming the norm; the exception is becoming the rule. The challenge Benjamin throws down to our “astonishment” at the normalization of state violence should strike us even deeper today than at the time the above lines were written, in the spring of 1940, shortly before the author’s death. Europe seems embroiled in an endless crisis, and politics on the international scene aren’t faring much better.

The twenty-four hour news cycle does much to dull our senses, and whatever reaches our imagination is already mediated by spectacle: of these critiques, Benjamin was amply aware. Yet it would take an unapologetically situationist spin to heed Benjamin’s anxieties for the hyperrealistic farce of global politics in the Trump era. Beyond the normalization of the exception, Benjamin was keenly aware of the aestheticization of politics—and, by contrast, the politicization of aesthetics.[ii] A decidedly futurist aesthetic firmly rooted in the past germinated in proto-fascist Italy, and the Nazis envisioned similarly folkloric futures, each infused with jingoistic elements ranging from subtle to overt. The sway that these aesthetics hold is undeniable. The unsurrendering presence of an all-encompassing spectacle tends to cause us to surrender our judgement rather than embolden our beliefs, as Hannah Arendt observed, and this is especially true in periods of extreme crisis. It is with this in mind that we should approach the analysis of Trump’s position in international politics today.

Precisely because “The Donald” is hyperreal, pure simulacrum, a transcendent ego, etc., one must attend to the ways in which the spectacle causes and helps to maintain the normalization of the exception. His cartoonish irresponsibility, his excesses of racism and misogyny, are magnified and mediated by deeply networked relations of power. Everything Donald Trump says or does is deeply infused with the spectacular, from his warmongering with North Korea to his delusional dealings with Mexico and Venezuela. The news cycle magnifies his apish buffoonery while Twitter users are forced to choke on the drivel of his digital spew. By the simple fact that the media at our fingertips expand and contract the reality of things and events in the worlds of our concern, we must treat Donald Trump as a floating signifier that points back towards the exclusion; that is, the exclusion of a zone or state of exception from the game of politics as normal. The question is, what do we not see, when all that we can see is Trump?

Because practically everything he says is deeply polarizing, Donald Trump creates the illusion of being the utmost exception. More and more, public opinion sways violently away from the majority of positions Trump takes. Meanwhile, international allies and more polished neoliberal agents carry out similar abuses unburdened of the inconvenience of drawing too much attention to themselves. As France and Turkey remain in states of emergency, while the threat level in the United Kingdom has been recently downgraded to ‘severe’, analysts opine that Europe is slipping into a permanent state of emergency. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has received plaudits for his successful transactions with Trump, continues to receive little criticism for exploitation by Canadian mining companies abroad, particularly in Latin America, while the patience of First Nations is running thin over the much touted process of reconciliation for cultural genocide and systematic neocolonial abuses. While there is no state of emergency to speak of in Canada, many reserve lands carve out geographies of exception where our vision of progress has meant the brutalization and neglect of those seen to be non-progressive.

Sophisticated neoliberal ‘progressives’ like Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau are seen as injecting some youthful vim into international relations and the management of the global economy by the world’s wealthiest nations. At the recent G7 Summit in May, Trump isolated himself over his negative stances towards the refugee crisis and climate change. Officially scorned by the other member countries, Trudeau and Macron (their “bromance” widely reported) came out strongly in favour of free trade and the Paris Climate Accord, clashing with Trump on either score. While Macron played “the good cop”, praising Trump’s “pragmatism,” Trudeau issued limp imputations of his American counterpart’s attitudes. Both profit from economic and environmental exploitation and political repression in their own countries.

One might contend that it is easier for Trudeau to govern with a certain gloss due to his country’s distance from direct terrorist threats; however, Canadian citizens in Quebec have been imprisoned for attempting to flee the country to join ISIS, and the quiet city of Edmonton, Alberta, was rocked by a terrorist attack as recently as last month. Alas, this contention somewhat misses the point. Zones of exception are indistinct in the abstract, as they are realized only in the concrete geographies of political landscapes. Such zones might be multiple and overlapping, but in any given landscape, some will be more pronounced than others.

Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben theorizes the exception beyond its normal limits. In a sense, Agamben’s entire work can be interpreted as an attempt to force the enclosure opened by Benjamin in the philosophy of history, and the history of philosophy. For Agamben, the paradigm of western politics in the era of modernity is the camp, meaning Nazi extermination camps or forced labour camps. The camp is a zone of indistinction, where sovereignties extend their power precisely by suspending the rule of law, treating citizens as non-citizens and erupting the continuity of any conception of ‘rights’. Sovereign power is constituted by the exclusion. It is no coincidence that Agamben’s critical currency swelled among American theorists following 9/11, in the search for a conceptual geography in which to think the explosion of rights and uses of exceptional violece against a targeted population of (non-)citizens guilty of being (or appearing) Muslim.

The banlieues in France, many First Nations reserves in Canada, exemplify states of exception. For Agamben, sovereign power is constituted by the power to proclaim the exception. He traces a shift in sovereign power, departing from Foucault, who held that the power of the sovereign consists in the capacity to let live or make die. Sovereign power for Agamben is characterized by the paradoxical status of Homo sacer—one who can be killed, but not sacrificed. Agamben’s point is that Homo sacer, “the sacred” or “the accursed man,” is held subject to the law by exclusion from it, thus having no legal protections from being put to death, but also constitutively lacking in the Spirit of a religion or a culture such that that man’s death could be ritualized. The camp is a zone of legal indistinction in which all are potentially Homines sacri. Crucially, as Agamben figures Homo sacer as the exact mirror image of the sovereign—that is, as paradoxically existing both inside and outside of the law—the figure of the accursed is the functional norm of sovereign power. to As the camp, or the state of exception, increasingly becomes the rule, all subjects of sovereign power, thinks Agamben, may potentially feel the force of sovereign power through the suspension of the law. The key point Agamben wants to emphasize is that those living in the state of exception lack legal citizenship in the eyes of the sovereign, and along with it, any right to claim a duty on the part of the state to protect them. They are literally stripped of their humanity, such that Agamben will also call Homo sacer, “bare life,” meaning brute animal living, excluded from any force or principle that could constitute a community.

First Nations in Canada have fought hard for the recognition of their stories by the federal government—an ongoing and incomplete process—while many communities continue to struggle for basic necessities. A suicide crisis plaguing many of Canada’s indigenous communities is a bitter testament to the logic of sovereignty Agamben describes. In France, police continue to carry out discriminatory raids and abusive searches in banlieues where thousands live below the poverty line with a complete lack of services, noted by critics and government agencies alike to be hotbeds of radicalization. Today Puerto Rico would be a further example of the state of exception, while the United States’ response to a terrorist act committed by a white man in Las Vegas merits attention insofar as it demonstrates the current limits of the rule of the exception—the insignificance of the shooter’s race (precisely what makes his race significant for philosophy) shows that the exception in the United States operates as a principle of racialized exclusion (although theory on this point would be infinitely less instructive than a drive through any of America’s inner city ghettos).

One could imagine innumerable examples, theorizing the ways in which neoliberal abstractions representing man as Homo economicus generate exclusions. But we must return, by way of a conclusion, to the subject of the spectacle. Agamben cites Guy Débord as a major influence. But even Benjamin, in his earlier engagement with the philosophy of the spectacle, offers a telling insight.

XI. The shooting of a film […] affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to a spectator a viewpoint which would exclude from the actual scene such extraneous accessories as camera equipment, lighting machinery, staff assistants, etc.[iii]

What is remarkable here is that Benjamin connects spectacle with exclusion, the spectacular image with the apparatus responsible for generating it. What does this entail for the spectacle of sovereign power? According to Agamben, sovereign power is constituted by the power to proclaim the state of exception. The power that produces the exception is thus masked by the spectacle, and the spectacle reproduces the empty proclamation of the exception as a pure affect. Benjamin will suggest that this is similar to how the viewer loses the ability to place his perspective in the shift from stage play to film. That the logic of exclusion is constitutive of the power of sovereignty disappears from our imaginative fascination with Trump’s profane excesses. Benjamin concludes this passage, evocatively stating, “the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.” Something tangible, even beautiful—because natural, pre-modern or pre-technological—is dissolved by the force of total mediation.

Politics in the Trump era play by the rules of the aestheticization of politics as much as they do the rule of the state of exception. The former point is crucial for understanding how Trump’s image has become the idol of the alt-right imaginary, but without holding this up as against the normalization of the exception, it is impossible to place Trump in the broader context of political power in the age of neoliberal globalization. Trump fits into the broader context of these power relations by performing what is problematic about the logic of sovereignty in an absurdly excessive manner, creating the impression that only he is the problem; this, while providing a cover for the actual routine excesses of neoliberal violence.

Is there any way to break this spell? Agamben, following Benjamin, entertain the possibility of a “divine” or “pure violence,” one which shatters the cycle of mythical violence that operates as a normal function of sovereignty, politics, the rule of law, etc. This violence would be violence as “pure means,” rather than a “means to an end”. Benjamin draws the comparison between a political general strike, in which workers stop work in order to force their employers to make certain concessions, and a proletarian general strike, which amounts to an absolute refusal, a refusal to employ violence as a means and to break with the cycle of mythical violence by exploding the continuities of law and sovereign power. The practical output of these elements of their theories remain unthought. But perhaps there is something to the outrageous spectacle of “The Donald” that will tend to peel his image away from the cycle of violence and lay the latter bare before all our naked indignation.

[i] While the exact time of writing is uncertain, Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt have surmised that Benjamin must have written the Theses in spring of 1940, months before his death in September of the same year. They were first published in German in 1942.

[ii] The former corresponds to a conservative reaction to liberal narratives of progress under the conditions of socioeconomic degeneration and destitution, while the latter points towards possible strategies of resistance, the spirit of which Benjamin saw in French Surrealism.

[iii] From Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936). My emphasis.

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speed.

The public relations disasters of this week — Sean Spicer’s holocaust-denying bumblespeak, Pepsi’s obtuse attempt to co-opt social movements into its advertising, and United Airlines’ brutal attack on a paying passenger who got “reassigned” — are all examples of the unifying concept of ‘speed’.

Speed is the manifest product of the capitalist mode of production. Speed means efficiency, translocality, decentralization and dispersion as well as dislocation and concentration.[1] The tendency towards efficiency would be best characterized by Marx on the competitive investment by capitalist firms of their surplus into their privately-owned means of production.[2] Capitalist production accumulates speed; speed is part of the process of capitalist accumulation.

Here, we see speed broken free, fleeting untethered from the constraints of the capitalist mode of production, before they are reined in by the hand of reaction. These events became issues as they were scandalized by social media, seeding out organic dissent through channels opened up by instant communication technology. The powerful were forced to the table to make their public apologies: not that saying “I’m sorry” means Sean Spicer has done his homework and not that withdrawing their ads and apologizing means anything more than regretting plummeting stock values. This is the reality of capitalist production reacting against the norms of its production. Even Trump hopped on the Twitter hate train in poo-pooing United Airlines.

This is the difference between the material reality and the Law of Capital; the Law operates to protect the existing mode of production by the protection of its mode of ownership; the material reality has outgrown the mode of private ownership and seeks to go beyond it, to escape it and occasionally to strike at it. Communication is one of the central technological innovations of capitalism: today it serves to socialize labour on hitherto unknowable scales, in a web spanning across the globe. The internet transects, concentrates and collects. This also serves the purpose of mobilizing dissent. The speed of successful social movements today is such that their rapidness of assembly can elude even the ostensibly panoptic repressive state apparatus.

Here Capital has introduced the material basis of a social force that exceeds its control. Perhaps Habermas would arrive here at this juncture to suggest that the internet has the potential to unite and manifest an ideal (critical) space for communicative, intersubjective reason. If that is true, then the law of private ownership would operate in the digital sphere to disaggregate these collective possible communal spaces, truncating them and carving up borders. In these cases, attempts to cover up gaffes and violence were as blundering as their original events.

As communication is also not a directly material force, but a force with a sociocultural and psychic reality, it is able to temporarily escape the material reality of capitalist production. Communication is thus primarily not material production itself, but a means of intervention in material production, interspaced within matter itself. Communication is a product and an organ in the (re)production of capital. These means its direct effect can be a speeding up or a slowing down – in fact, there is a dialectical relation between the two. First, a slowing down of production and the subsequent intensification of a particular event inside of it. An intensification is also a speeding up, but along a tangential trajectory. A “line of flight,” if you will.

There is an ideal politics and it states that all of the machinery of production be turned against the edifice of private ownership and used instead in the interest of the collective well-being of humanity. Communication has been given a material reality in production under Capital by its processes of technological development. Accumulation in speed of communication under Capital has transcended this material reality and created the possible principle of a universal ideal (critical) communicative space for intersubjective reason.

This can be hindered or harnessed but it cannot be kept under control.


[1] The philosopher of ‘speed’ would be one Paul Virilio. I have neither read Paul Virilio, nor much by way of secondary sources making reference to him; hence I am not qualified to assert with any confidence the extent to which our understandings of the concept might agree or disagree.

[2] For example, in Wage Labour and Capital (1847) as well as in Capital (1867) Ch. 15: Machinery and Large-Scale Industry.

Two Models of Reasoning in Historicism: An Enquiry into (Post-)Marxist Science

Historicism justifiably culminates in universal history. Nowhere does the materialist writing of history distance itself from it more clearly than in terms of method. The former has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive: it offers a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogenous and empty time.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)

How do we posit historical events as evidence for the claims we make for our theories? What is the status of the evidentiary relationship between events in history, and our historical reasoning?

By “historical reasoning”, I mean not just reasoning about history (indeed, we could reason about history non-historically), but reasoning in a historical manner, such as discerning the (irrational) rationality of existing standards, norms or categories based on their historical development; or recognizing cause-effect relationships in the field of human affairs as the particular examples of abstract general laws. History predates historicist science. But the science of history makes history what it is – an essentially human unfolding. The dialectic between materialist or abstract (ideological) theorizing about history, which unfolds generally in historicist critical theory takes as a model, as it were, a rupture with world-historic possibility first introduced by Marxism, which is to say that Marxism is a progenitor to later kinds of historicist theory insofar as it opens up the field of possibility for a critique of history from its outside: a practice more commonly called the critique of ideology.

Thus, the models of reasoning I consider here, though they refer primarily to Marxist theory, are situated within the same poststructuralist milieu as other strains of historicist critique. Marxism also, for better or worse, has a history of striving to make itself “scientific”. Analysis of models of reasoning are part and parcel with this aim. A formal logical analysis of competing models of reasoning will not be my aim in this paper, but rather, an exploration of the theoretical ground conditions giving rise to two competing models. These competing models are called ‘historical induction’ and ‘historical abduction’.

A note: in this essay I look at a small part of the development of Marxist theory in the 20th-century which I take to be significant in view of the present analysis, and generalize in order to frame Marxist theory in the nebulous “today”. Had I a publisher, I would write a book. I have a blog, and you have an essay.

“The Soviet Union under Stalin was more progressive than the most progressive alternatives on offer at the time under liberal state capitalism, for example in the United States,” says Person A, who is engaged in a political argument with Person B. Person B retorts by asking whether A has ever read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, or George Orwell’s Animal Farm (and will have made a good point in doing so), pointing to the Soviet Union under Stalin’s abysmal record of human rights violations, its failure to keep its population clothed and fed, the cultural totalitarianism of late bureaucratic communism, etc., etc. Person A has in mind that “progressive” means “progressive with respect to ownership and control of the means of production,” which is closer, in their mind, to the post-capitalist constitution of the only alternative to barbarism (that is, capitalism in its death knell, past its sell-by date), which is to say that it is the most rational alternative; while B is committed to a principle of rationality more in keeping with the maximization of individual freedoms bootstrapped to a utilitarian side-principle, which today qualifies for what most of us think of as ‘neoliberalism’.

The particular example doesn’t matter. Person A might be claiming that the capitalist classes in Britain and France in the lead-up to the Second World War were decidedly pro-fascist, right up to the point that fascism threatened their national borders, the sovereign personification of Hitler; Person B could then steadfastly disagree, claiming that all those liberal states swiftly united in attempting to crush fascism with little compunction at some point during the war, thus demonstrating their ideological opposition to it. They might be arguing about whether the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was a decisive factor in sparking the hostilities leading up to the First World War. It matters not. What matters here is the manner in which each frames the evidence given in support of their conclusions.

Each individual in this case is arguing from historical induction. The examples are historical because they treat events in actual history as their empirical field of explanation. Inductive reasoning leads from premises to conclusions by way of an inference to the best explanation. Premises in inductive inferences give probable support to their conclusions, which are further held true by the way the world (probably) is. Each Person experiences, interprets and interacts with this world (or field of empirical reasoning) in different ways, leading them to draw different conclusions about its processes, evolutions, objects and relations, etc. They are not arguing about the status of their epistemic access to the historical evidence, but rather, about what the significance of the evidence is in relation to their historical reality. Each provides some piece of historical evidence – namely, rationally planned industrial production versus the existence of the gulags – thought to stand in support of a generalized conclusion.

It is worth it to take the time for a brief aside to explain how the present framing of the debate is indebted to Hegel and Marx; that is, the historicist debate about the status of history in relation to theory, rather than a debate limited to our epistemic access to events in history and their ‘actual significance’. Certain categories of experience lay the ground conditions for the possibility of such claims being made. That is, one needs to be able to explain their status in relation to the evidence being provided for the claims they are making. Our knowledge of history is a cultural memory. Culture mediates our understanding of historical narratives, both local and global. Hegel first articulates the process by which this manner of simultaneously thinking and expressing the essence of history – in the dialectic that Marx is credited with having “flipped on its head” – involves a kind of ongoing discourse between individuals and their societies, the material bases of their cultures. Marx anchors the dialectic of Hegel in two mutually opposed material forces locked in a struggle that is itself history in its present expression, which, under capitalism, takes the form of the struggle between workers and capitalists, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

Again, A and B are not arguing about the status of their perceptions in relation to the evidence; they are arguing about the best conclusions to draw from the evidence, based on the very structure of their experience. A basic condition of this, alongside other material conditions, is the existence of a mass of individuals brought together by their collective alienation under, or dispossession by the currently existing society and its norms. Such is the Marxist historiography of historicism, anyway. Materialist critique begins where society’s ideological superstructures slip away from its ever progressing base, accounted for by the constancy of revolutions in the sphere of production.

Now a brief interlude on the mode of historical induction and its critique. Culture produces the narratives by which all of our experiences of social, political and economic reality are mediated. The critical force that calls those norms into question is a mind altering substance. But it is mind altering precisely in that it opens on to a space that is beyond rationalisation, beyond the space of what is possible to conceive within the field of world-historic possibilities. What critical force orthodox Marxism renders through a capitalist eschatology, its death knell, and the historic overcoming in practice of its vast internal contradictions, Nietzsche set in motion with a hammer and the shrieking destructive laughter of the absolute ego. (And this destructive satisfaction produces such an amnesiac absolution of the individual that their face peels of in laughter, and they put on again new masks). I am trying to play out a conversation that Marxism comes to have with its own history here, specifically the post-scientific nihilism of Marxist critical theory under the Frankfurt School in a period characterised by the stark failure of the great Marxist experiment in the Soviet Union (Walter Benjamin referred to Moscow as a “laboratory” of human betterment in the 1920s, though his optimism would drop off sharply in the decades to follow), when the optimism of Marxist critique was deeply blunted by the defeat and corruption of an actual world-historic alternative to capitalism. Not that any of the Frankfurt School were Nietzscheans – though Horkheimer was a devotee of Schopenhauer, and Marcuse an early student of Heidegger. The theoretical conditions in which they worked, I argue, reflect a shift in the underlying dynamics of theoretical production, which is to say a tectonic shift in the relations and identities of objects in a given system. According to this shift, critique itself was flung far off the opposite end, reacting against the relative severance of theory from practice by reconciling itself to the negligent domain of pure theory. Which is not to say that the reaction was not grounded in some real historical event; or rather, in a rupture with the historicity of all events. There are historical conditions internal to the history of theory that make theory nihilistic. Hence the reference to Nietzsche. In later years, members of the Frankfurt School who, like Marcuse, remained in the United States after the war, regained some optimism, however, while Adorno and Horkheimer determinedly dispossessed themselves of both their involvement with praxis and the spear of their critique.

Several factors feed in to the Frankfurt School’s rejection of classical Marxism and scientific socialism – for example, for Adorno and Horkheimer, their loss of faith in the revolutionary potential of the working class following the failure of the Left to resist the rise of the fascists, which they, as did Fromm and Marcuse, go on to interpret as an unconscious desire in the masses for fascism. But much more than this, I suggest – and this point goes beyond exponents of the Frankfurt School itself, and extends into how Marxism is often viewed today, in areas where it still has the courage to dabble in scientificity and experiment in practice – is the understanding that eschatological politics quickly becomes eschatological morality, which can in turn serve to justify the most ignominious atrocities. When your world-historic alternative is couched in the image of the phoenix rising from the ashes of the currently existing society, there is the possibility one will take to starting fires everywhere.

This is not necessarily a common trait of adherents of Marxist theory today. But I suspect it is more common than we realize, if only due to the ostensible similarity between inductive reasoning and abductive reasoning. It would be a danger if those engaged in Marxism as political practice lapsed into such lazy epistemic attitudes: namely, the undialectical adoption of post-capitalist utopianism, engaging in scientific discourse without scrupulous and continual foregoing analysis of biases and acquired preconceptions, etc. In more recent history this would involve a romantic return to Marxism’s early scientific credentials, safely mocking poststructuralist or other strains of critique as coming up empty in political practice. Poststructuralists might rightly reply that this simply means that their praxis is non-identical with Marxist praxis, and hence outside of Marxist theory. At the same time, we must be critical of any critical theory not adequate to the task of the praxis it recommends (maybe it was always to be that even in the revolutionary climate of 1968, the best theorists of the Left were already predisposed to scurrying up high into the safety of the Ivory Tower). This is not a foreclosure of political collaboration, but rather an endorsement of radical theoretical pluralism. Theory defines a field of possibilities, including possibilities for political practice and possibilities for conclusions drawn from evidence, mediated by history as an empirical field and a material reality. The auto-critique of Marxist theory, as it were – I say “auto-critique” because it represents the potential resolution of an internal contradiction contained in part within Marxism as historic process – which opens it up to poststructuralist thinking, results from its self-consciousness as a rupture from within the field of possibilities prefigured by capitalist ideology, capitalist histories and capitalist categories. There is no cogent way to reason about this exterior – at least not scientifically – as long as it is infinitely situated within the point of a rupture from a system of representations, which reveals the system as such, but is a void.

Orthodox Marxism wants to step outside of capitalism while keeping one foot in the door. That’s not a viable option when the plan is to have the building collapse. This collapse implies an absolute rupture with current ways of reasoning; you can’t alter or blow away the foundation while holding up some of the structure and scaffolding.

So, historical induction is fundamentally flawed because it can’t take us past the system of representations that would be required to cogently reason about post-capitalist structural formations. The absolute future does not provide a valid perspective from which to reason about the past. This manner of historicizing in theory lends itself to a form of political practice which can justify the greatest atrocities. A coda attempting to link the rejection of historical induction with Marxism’s auto-critique under the metaphysics of technology and the will to mastery in the 20th-century (of central concern to den Frankfurter Marxisten) will be drawn following the remainder of this essay. Now, I want to move on to a different model of historical reasoning, one which, I think, takes these critiques in stride and compiles them into a way of theorizing better able to face the task of fusing theory and practice today, in this nihilistic wake, where we are all quite skeptical of those know-it-alls who contain all of the answers in their grand master narratives. This model is called historical abduction.

Abductive reasoning is another mode of inference to the best explanation; however, there is a key difference between abductive and inductive inferences. Inductively, I argue X entails that Z; abductively, I infer that Z explains X. Inductive reasoning takes place within the field of theory. Abductive reasoning takes place in a field of activity: a field in which theories are constructed. But abductive reasoning involves inferring that Z explains X out of a list of multiple possible competing explanations. This makes abductive reasoning the characteristic style of inference of a kind of post-theory theory.

Persons A and B, now conscious of the situation in which they are having a political argument, concede, sticking to a model of abductive reasoning, not only that they each respectively have equally limited access to the historical event(s) being presented as evidence, but also that the inferences to explanations that they draw from the bits of evidence each joins together in examining could differ. Each is conscious that there are necessary gaps in their own theories, which can be filled in practice only through discourse with exponents of different, competing theories. Theories aren’t true or false, strictly speaking, but rather, draw together competing sets of facts relevant to their explanations, and explain those different facts in more or less robust ways. We can’t get outside of our own systems of representations. But in political practice, these necessary outsides will shine forth in their absence by their presence among different systems of representation; naturally this calls for pluralistic mass political action. Hence I reason that historical abduction is the natural method of reasoning for broadly intersectional mass movements (that don’t neglect their class politics and political economy).

In fact, Adorno held just such a view of dialectical reasoning. He called it negative dialectics (in a book by the same name). The idea of dialectical reasoning is to construct a total system of explanations isomorphic to reality by the process of the resolution or sublation (Hegel uses the notoriously difficult Aufhebung) of contradictions. But, for Adorno, the system can never be total. It will always consist of certain gaps. These gaps correspond to the multiplicity of alternative explanations. In the traditional, Hegelian view, the system of explanations fits like a glove over the world of objects. In the orthodox Marxist view, which crucially opens up the possible field of critique, the system of explanations is split into materialist (Marxist) and ideological (capitalist/bourgeois, feudal/religious; lagging behind the stage of actual historical reality) ones; how the glove fits the hand is a function of the hand’s growth and whether the glove was produced precisely for it. In Adorno’s view, there is a glove to every hand, and each pairing will result in a quality of fit determined by the wearer’s immanent criteria. In this way the latter tends closer towards Hegelianism. The practical task is to unite these hands in the upwards-thrust, closed fist of revolution.

In theory, Marxism as critical science views itself as making abductive inferences, developing a view of history as such that is in every sense of the word, progressive. Inductive reasoning can be difficult to distinguish from abductive reasoning, and their difference will have much to do in the last instance with the epistemic culture of the groups of knowers/actors making historical inferences. What characterizes a tendency towards making abductive inferences in an epistemic culture would be an openness to the frailty of one’s explanations. Modesty in epistemology comes at a tax that can only be filled by dedication to praxis. This is precisely the disturbing problem in differentiating between inductive and abductive inferences in historicity theory; historicist theory can be said in general to be in the mode of making abductive inferences, while in practice its aim is to make inductive inferences.

To make the move to historical abduction is not to collapse into theoretical relativism. We can still talk about structures of reasoning, the logic that leads from evidence to explanation through the categories of experience. The benefit is that it gets us closer to creative collaboration in mass movements. The danger is that it becomes a farce of itself, turning the gap between theory and material reality, the field of practice, into an absolute principle, that severs theory’s concern for practice. Such was the great failure of the Frankfurt School, whose members – save perhaps for Marcuse, and Georg Lukacs and Karl Korch, each at some point associates – were never adequate to the task of revolutionary practice, for all of their theoretical developments.

Orthodox Marxist traditions heavily influenced by the “scientific socialism” of the Second International will find themselves especially en garde against any appearance of relativism, openly hostile, as Lenin was, to any separation of theory and practice. This informed his lengthy polemic in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Lenin was not aware that the gap between theory and practice was a necessary one, as evidenced by the very physicists whom he critiqued in that work over the decades to follow. His aim at the time Empirio-Criticism was written was a definite political one: to defeat the speculative metaphysics being cranked out by reformists antithetical to the revolution. Lenin’s superb flexibility in theory meant that he rarely deviated from what was required in political practice. Today, the best way for Marxism to move forward is to step outside of its own space of representations into the field of possibilities that it itself opened up; the new field of materialist critique is theoretically pluralist; the new insurrection against the establishment of facts and counter-facts, multiple, massively dispersed and organic. The only way to consciously and consistently maintain this line is to remain concretely committed to praxis (theory has no outside); to throw oneself into the mud of that slippery surface between theory and practice that maintains their distance as at a critical threshold.

How better to take our first steps towards doing this than by reclaiming that great gulf that was opened by the separation of theory and practice in Marxism, resulting in the slippages of the Frankfurt School, of so much post-1968 academic Marxism, with all of its malaise and contempt for revolution? The law of combined and uneven development also applies to the relation between theory and practice; in the pluralistic field of material struggle, one could add ‘exclusive and complementary’ to the list.

 

Coda: On historical induction and the will to mastery. 

There is one further element, which Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno and the rest were reacting against in their philosophies. In a Heideggerian vein – Marcuse was a student of Heidegger’s in the 1920s, and continued to work using much of the one-time mentor’s conceptual frameworks, despite thoroughly denouncing his politics – the Frankfurt Marxist intelligentsia mourned the end of metaphysics in the humanistic ideals represented by the Enlightenment, and saw instead the rising of a metaphysics of technology, installing itself into humanity’s historical essence. This metaphysics undergirds the way we approach, observe and order human and non-human natures. It is incipient in the one-dimensionality of society, politics and philosophy, in the culture industry and the apparent desire of the masses for fascism. It is precisely these tendencies that Adorno and Horkheimer present as latent in the repressive rational human experiment carried out in Europe on a grand scale, the “Enlightenment”.

In Heidegger’s language, it means that the essence of technology has displaced the essence of humanity or Being from its center, which repositions Being’s relation to beings, how the latter manifest themselves to the human. Everything appears as through the lens of a technological ordering; the term “human-resources” as a kind of corporate man-management is especially indicative of this. ‘Technology’ in this sense is not confined to any particular gadget or device. “The essence of technology is nothing technological,” says Heidegger. What he has in mind is the way humanity exists in the mode of Enframing (Gestellen – Heidegger’s word) objects in nature, as resources that are exploitable, and how this further manifests the human as a technological object, a quantum of exploitation, in relation to itself. Marx drew similar insights from the commodification of labour power and the alienation of labour under capitalism.

Marxists are not anti-technology. Their entire theoretical apparatus is constructed on the notion of absolute progress. This was precisely the danger, as identified by the Frankfurt School. The notion of ‘progress at all costs’, in their day, ran a terrifying balance, between the Soviet Union and its degeneration into the Stalinist bureaucracy, Nazi Germany, and the always ‘bigger ‘n’ better’ American-style capitalism. Marxists are also of the view that capitalism, and not technology, oppresses people, and so we should put technology in the hands of the workers and not of capitalists. Fair point. The Frankfurt School was most fecund in a time of capitalist crisis on a world scale, the likes of which had never before been seen. All was danger in the system as they saw it, both at the poles of power and their resistance; this much is symbolically represented by stability at the precipice of the policy of “mutually-assured destruction” during the Cold War.

Heidegger, however, wrote not only of the ‘danger’, but also of the ‘saving power’ in the essence of technology. This seems a notion that the Frankfurt School, like Marcuse, reject out of hand along with his politics or searing anti-Semitism – probably they are right to. It is of some interest here to point out that Marcuse rarely if ever owed up to his debt to Heidegger in terms of his theoretical framework, seeming instead to externalize his unconscious guilt and conscious distaste for Heidegger in the figure of Hannah Arendt, whom he admonished for continuing to be a self-conscious Heideggerian in the postwar period. I shall only indicate here that, perhaps, had Marcuse approached his own ideas self-consciously through Heideggerian thought, some greater optimism may have manifested in his works on humanity’s relation to technology in the era of mass production. Or perhaps the time was always past for that manner of thinking. I continue to write only to account for a possible blind spot in Marcuse’s own position, which I believe is reflected in the one I take up presently.

Heidegger was a romantic, who fell for the false poetry of Nazism, becoming one of its most significant intellectual supporters. But revolutionaries are also romantics, stomaching an unhappy consciousness following on the law of the heart (which Hegel thought doomed to be crushed in the world). Aesthetics are a paramount concern where one ventures into poetics. I do not know whether it is possible for aesthetics to contain a moral quality, but Heidegger’s aesthetics were purely disgusting if so. But I digress.

The one-dimensionality of philosophy in the technological society speaks to a metaphysical oneness, the complete subsumption by ideology of all of the internal contradictions of society. It is worth mentioning here that the philosophical villain in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment is Parmenides. The rational principle of technology in this sense is a pure logos, an ordered and ordering logocentrism, a complete system of quantification and ubiquitous qualification. The total rationality of the system is one that is free always to defer to the preconception of theory when making inductive historical inferences; the essence of technology gathers together history and encodes it with its own essence, reifies its own immanent history of absolute progress, so to speak. Nothing in nature, which includes history on a materialist conception, escapes the totalizing gaze of the essence of technology.

Except abduction. Heidegger thought that poetry, or poietic revealing (letting ‘things’ ‘bring themselves forth into appearance’, a natural tongue heavily inflected by German romanticism) was key to the ‘saving power’ in technology, which could introduce a rupture into its totalizing essence. Poiesis lets things bring themselves forth while their essence recedes from view, the nothingness or emptiness of beings outside of my Being, present only in its absence, as Heidegger would say. This, I want to suggest, corresponds to the necessary gaps in a historicist theory using the method of abduction. Things bring themselves forth into appearance in a lattice of explanations, but the aura of systematicity setting forth, or setting upon nature from the human, recedes from view, or is destroyed. Things empty themselves of the ordering systematicity imposed on them by technology and mastery, by bringing themselves forth in nature. Such is not to reintroduce metaphysics in our reasoning about nature after the epoch of its death, but rather, to learn to reason humanistically precisely in the wake of metaphysics.

What this opens up, for the first time, in turn, is an historic reasoning resolutely fixed to the past and the now, whose futurity opens up not from the empty promises of a future to come, but rather, as Benjamin wrote in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, from the absolute redemption of the past.

Admittedly, this poses the question of a messianic, rather than an eschatological return to the essence of human history. History is what returns to itself precisely from having never pressed beyond itself into the nothing, into an impossible and preconsciously calculated speculative metaphysics.

Here I have no further arguments or insights; just the view that we have not yet learned to reason as human gods after nihilism, that the eternal is located precisely in the emptiness of a future-bounded history rather than in silent hope for the specter of the return.

When talking politics with your barber: two postmortem reflections of mid-November.

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In the post-election political situation, you talk politics and political economy, the dynamics of globalization and the dejection of its discontents, with friends at bars and burger joints; with your barber at a morning haircut; with your parents over an innocuous cup of coffee. Shit is hitting the fan and people are beginning to realize that it is everywhere, flying into every corner of the room.

Trump is an utter reactionary. [This much is obvious – what does it mean?] What this means is that, while he represents the definite political form of the existing class society, he has managed to engineer – or rather capture, or buy – the political will of an inherently progressive force, the disenfranchised masses of the exploited and oppressed heaving in its Herculean effort to outgrow, to unburden itself of the bondage imposed on it by: neoliberalism, free-trade and globalization, Reaganomics, Clintonomics, Trumpanomics – shit, whatever contrived degenerate form of crony capitalism we can coin new discourses about in its present forms. Trump wants to rewind the manifest reality of globalization, like all of the other reactionaries. This is what is now called, “protectionism.” It stinks. What it is is basically the late neoliberal equivalent of populism in the so-called “first world”, the socioeconomically developed and “progressive” west.

[When I say “reactionary”, I also mean a tendency that verbalizes itself in much more pernicious and violent ways, which all are familiar with: misogyny, racism, xenophobia, etc. That this exists in all its dangers as a part of the reactionary tendency calls us urgently to attention; it is also orthogonal to the point I endeavor briefly here to make. Hence I mean “reactionary” here primarily in the narrower economic sense, and hopefully allow the reader to draw out any further conclusions.]

Justin Trudeau delivered an address – aired on the coattails of Obama’s first public election postmortem – where he detailed [“detailed” may be a strong word – “alluded to”] Canada’s plans following a meeting with a forum of international investors positioned to speculate on Canadian stability through infrastructure spending. Trudeau is advertising Canada as open to the world, rather than closed to it. “Privatize everything” – the natural pairing to deficit spending – co-definitive of Keynesianism and the neoliberal project. Neoliberalism failed, and everywhere in today’s reaction is its death knell. The IMF has declared that neoliberalism was a failure as a set of economic policies. At a summit of G20 leaders, Trudeau was practically laughed off stage for presenting Keynesian economic policies as an alternative to brutal austerity plus Keynesian economic policies: the two go hand-in-hand, the former alone a naive delusion in the global political and economic climate we live. So, Trudeau is nearly as stuck in the past as Trump. In terms of economic and foreign policy and trade relations, Justin is simply rehashing the role of his papa Pierre, while Trump and Theresa May may yet play the parts of Ronald Reagan and Margaret “the Iron Woman” Thatcher. We’ve seen this movie before. It’s not a happy ending.

[So we have a series of arbitrary, spectacular divisions erupting within the forces of reaction, where today’s progressives will likely tend towards the more palatable or clandestine form of reaction of a Trudeau, distancing themselves further from any progressive elements in the support of the disenfranchised masses swept away by populism. This lets the rot of reaction under the existing political system fester.]

The reason that this class is utterly unable to find a solution to today’s crisis is ultimately that that article which most upholds their power – that is, the political and economic principle of private property – is exactly the stricture which prevents the new society from outgrowing the old. All conditions of alienation in the presently existing system are conditions of the growth of the embryo of the new within the old (to recall some tried but true revolutionary imagery).

Power & Politics pundits pipe up over why the federal government should have to court and cajole private investors into investing. The market is wiser than the politik – bookies have been reported as having given better odds on a Trump win than the pollsters. Humanity is hopelessly lost-in-the-woods, an honest to God real fable of the Grimms, in navigating the management of financial markets, because the existing market society attempts to harness indeterminacy as an axiomatic reification [empty abstractions: a self-fulfilling prophecy, a matter taken as given by the economists and thus turned into economic reality]; that is, as an alternative to rational planning, the auto-correcting value of the dollar, which squares up omnisciently against commodity and labour markets alike. Capitalism, the existence of capitalist markets, means not knowing how markets work – not entirely, some degrees of knowing being better than others, which is why finance capital exists and speculation is profitable – while there is so much stuffy talk about its management, the “stuff” only of the propertied and privileged strata of society protected from the smog where outside we are suffocating, crushed, clamoring for the comfort of their abundantly overvalued houses.

Radical redistribution is the best we can aim for: free education for all and a guaranteed universal basic income. Otherwise we can continue to stalk political talk like reapers smoking cigarettes to mock death on the bosses’ time.

[The seizure of political and economic power notwithstanding.]

Leonard Cohen is dead and I pray for another poet. I pray, being an atheist, and mourn that poetry is nothing.

My Canada would soar into tomorrow like it tears through the sorrow of a dead poet. It would find poetry in the now and not neglect the reality that we live where the kingdom of death and nihilism encompasses all around.

Marxism and the Philosophy of Ideology, pt. III

See Part II of this series here.

Historical consciousness develops along with the material forces of history, and not through abstract rationality, as Hegel thought. Today, the mass of rational human subjects discovers their environment not as something self-alienated – that is, produced both by themselves and for themselves, as Hegel’s conservativism led him to regard in his own Enlightenment culture – but rather as an environment imposed with the hegemony of capitalism’s cultural, political, social, scientific and economic spaces. This point, of course, does not disprove the dialectical synthesis of Hegel’s view – it only adds to it a necessary material dimension. The mass of human subjects is entirely subordinated to the hegemonic rationality of the bourgeoisie, in the logical space carved out by capitalism. The reality of this logic is based entirely on abstractions, fictions drawn from the material forces of history and distorted in order to perpetuate the cultural authority and political power of the bourgeoisie.

Because the social existence of the proletariat is not at the same time its existence within a proletarian culture, ideology is driven into the working class, rather than revealed, in the last, to be something of themselves and for themselves. Althusser calls this driving force “interpellation”, which also means ‘hailing’ or ‘calling-forth’. Ideology calls us forth in the same way that police officers do when they hail you (‘Hey, you there!’). In the eyes of the Repressive State Apparatus, your existence is only as an abstract quantity, until so hailed, at which point said existence is qualitatively transformed, in this case, into that of a suspect.[1] It is the same with ideology.

This is, perhaps, the trickiest part to grasp of the philosophical puzzle concerning the functioning of ideology. Ideology hails us from the very instant we are born, at which moment we take on the label of being a son or a daughter, hence starting us towards developing a consciousness of ourselves as within the bourgeois family unit. Althusser makes some rather paradoxical comments at this stage about the nature of ideology: first, claiming that “ideology has no outside,”[2] meaning simply that the illusion of ideology is ever present, the task of science (specifically, of historical materialism) being to shatter this illusion; and second, that ideology “has no history,”[3] which makes sense if we consider that history belongs to the material processes which, in the last instance, determine particular ideologies, and are beyond them. If there is an outside of ideology, it is in the material processes of history. The history of ideology, because imaginary, is necessary immaterial.

Marxist science studies material processes and the most general dialectical laws that govern them. It does not deal in abstractions or imaginaries. However, it is necessary to understand the expression of the general laws in the imaginaries as well, in order to fully grasp the functioning of ideology. Individuals hailed by ideology are hailed as individual subjects. What does it mean to be a subject? Althusser offers an instructive example, in the case of Christian religious ideology:

… there can only be … a multitude of possible religious subjects on the absolute condition that there is a Unique, Absolute, Other Subject, i.e. God… God thus defines himself as the Subject par excellence, he who is through himself and for himself (‘I am that I am’), and he who interpellates his subject, the individual subjected to him… i.e. the individual named Moses. And Moses, interpellated-called by his Name, having recognized that it ‘really’ was he who was called by God, recognizes that he is a subject, a subject of God, a subject subjected to God, a subject through the subject and subjected to the Subject. The proof: he obeys him, and makes his people obey God’s Commandments.[4]

The God of the market is a many-faced God, but the general laws of ideology are the same. Ideology mirrors itself in its subjects, and individual subjects mirror themselves in ideology. Xenophanes of Colophon once remarked that, if oxen and horses had a religion, their gods would be painted with hooves[5] –Althusser adds that the oxen and horses would recognize themselves as real oxen and horses only on the condition of their semblance with their behooved gods. This generally holds true in the case of commodity fetishism under capitalism. The forces of capitalist production become fetishized, inscribed with a certain commodity value, and this recognition is doubled by that of the workers, who recognize themselves as commodities – that is, they recognize their embodied labour as obeying the logic of the commodity value-form. They recognize their labour power as a quantity of money, which can be exchanged with other commodities.

Fetishization occurs when the concrete or use-value of a product is invested entirely with abstract and imaginary quantities, detached from the actual processes of production that created the product in question, as in the transformation of productive processes by capitalism into commodity-production. Ideology overflows with the logic of fetishization, producing facts and formal logics completely separated from the material processes that gave rise to them. Religious iconography provides an overwhelming wealth of examples, but we may also observe this in the case of scientific revolutions, where old hardened dogmatists have often struggled not to give up belief in some entities, once thought real, which came to be thoroughly disproved in the face of new evidence; such was the case in Antoine Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen in the 18th-century, having first observed the process of oxidization, against which one Joseph Priestley defended the old theory of dephlogisticated air to the bitter end.

Under the general logic of fetishization, what-there-is is completely detached from how what-there-is is produced. The chemical dispute of Lavoisier and Priestley was but a trite example compared with the more devious ways in which ideology and fetishism combine in capitalist society to carve out imaginary divisions between concrete individuals. We often hear of the fetishization of gender, and race. The history of the western fetishization of Asian women, for example, extends back to the 15th-century, taking an upturn in the 18th, at the dawn of industrial capitalism, when European – mainly British – trade with Japan and China sharply increased. The sexual stereotype of Asian women as exotic and submissive is directly tied to the colonial history of western imperialist powers; this is an example of fetishization, because it leads to a valuation and, fundamentally, a misrecognition of individuals, having nothing to do with their material reality. Naturally, elements of the ideological apparatus combine in various ways. The fetishization of Asian women in the early days of British imperialism combines with the existing bourgeois ideology of the family, which envisions women as an extension of private property.

Fetishization becomes particularly dangerous in the era of capitalist globalization. The façade of multiculturalism is paraded before the material reality of capitalism’s cultural hegemony. As capitalism conquers the cultural sphere, the logic of the fetish becomes a way not only to misrecognize others in an imaginary way, but also to misrecognize oneself. Consider the self-experience of a transgendered person. At a certain point, their material reality as an embodied subject breaks with the ideological categories of gender imposed by capitalism and the rise of the state in institutions extending property rights into persons, which are typically identified as the structures of patriarchy.[6] Similarly, the proletariat exists for the most part under the stupor of bourgeois ideology driven by the culture industry; fetishization is driven by consumption, and it often takes some earth-shattering material event, such as a general strike or a steep and prolonged economic crisis, to shake workers from the consumption of their own manufactured submissiveness to exploitation. Both are conditions for the reproduction of capitalism’s productive forces.

The only way to break definitively with ideology and the logic of fetishization is with a scientific view consistently grounded in material reality. This is precisely the project of dialectical materialism. Just as with the example I gave of the transgendered individual, the revolutionary proletariat has the potential break with ideology by discovering its material reality. The science that aims at this is inherently revolutionary, because the material reality of the proletariat as a class is one and the same with the motor force of history, which is a real material force. The material reality of the transgendered person is as an individual; the material reality of the working class is as a collective. This thesis underlies the science of historical materialism.

As was seen in the case of the Christian religious ideology, the condition of the unity of individual subjects was external, subjected to and imagined to be of God’s will. With the working class, this condition of unity is intrinsic to their very material reality. The functioning of ideology disrupts the ability of the proletariat to recognize its own material reality, by carving up relations between individuals with imaginary divisions and distortions. Fetishization serves both to multiply and crystallize these divisions.

This misrecognition is at the heart of the functioning of ideology, which aims to root the building class consciousness of the proletariat out like a weed. But weeds will drive through every crack, and so too with the revolutionary will of the workers.

We have only to take on the additional task, as builders of the subjective factor of the revolution, i.e., of the revolutionary party, to attack ideology wherever it exists. This can be done only by subjecting ideology and ISAs to a consistent material critique, revealing the productive forces and reproductive dynamics underlying them.


Postscript – on the subjective factor, the revolutionary vanguard party.

Some of you might be asking, what of the subjective factor of the revolution – the need for a revolutionary vanguard party, to combine with the objective, material factor of the mass of workers and their incipient class consciousness? Is this Subject another form of Absolute, like God, unique to a particular form of ideology? Any worker who believes this will have gravely misrecognized their material reality. Hegel says,

Self-consciousness is in itself and for itself when and because it is in itself and for itself for another; that is, that it is recognized as such.[7]

This recognition is accomplished when the subjective and objective factors enter into a unity – when the mass of workers definitively combines with the theoretical understanding and advanced consciousness of the revolutionary vanguard. This recognition is possible because it accords with the material reality of the proletariat; it is historical because this material reality is also the motor force of history. Thus, articulating the Marxist philosophy of ideology does not force us to abandon the subjective/objective factor distinction, but rather reminds us that the relation of these two factors is dialectical in nature, with each pole interpenetrating with the other.

[1] Althusser (2009), 48.

[2] Ibid., 49.

[3] Ibid., 34.

[4] Ibid., 52-3.

[5] Ref. in Alan Woods & Ted Grant, Reason in Revolt, 2nd ed. (London: Wellred Books, 2012), 42.

[6] Engels, Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), especially Ch. 2-4.

[7] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), §178. My translation and emphasis.

Marxism and the Philosophy of Ideology, pt. II

See Part I of this series here.

We need only think of Wal-Mart’s notorious anti-union propaganda ‘training’ videos to see the force of ideology in action. Unions are a counterbalance to the unbridled anarchy of capitalist production. They’re also a threat to the power of the capitalist class. Producing an anti-union consciousness is a particularly effective, and pernicious way of reproducing capitalist power and production.

Now, most instances of ideology in action aren’t as obvious as the Wal-Mart example. Capitalism is not only an economic system – it is a cultural force. Capitalism is able to reproduce its relations of production in countless ways, both on the factory floors and beyond them. This insight takes us from ideology as it exists in concrete relations of capitalist production, to ideology as it exists as a state apparatus under capitalism. It is this which leads Althusser to turn our attention from ideology in general, to the historical development of Ideological State Apparatuses, in general.

An Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) is a special breed of Repressive State Apparatus, the latter of which secures through the direct use of force the political conditions for the functioning of the former. The Repressive State Apparatus is the direct arm of state power: police, the military, etc. Thus, a division of labour exists between the two kinds of state apparatuses. Althusser does suggest that a particular state apparatus is not likely to operate wholly either by ideology or by direct repression, but rather holds that “the (Repressive) State Apparatus functions massively and predominantly by repression, whereas the Ideological State Apparatuses function massively and predominantly by ideology.”[1]

For much of humankind’s social development during the pre-capitalist historical period, the Church was the singular, dominant ISA in society.[2] During the French Revolution of the 18th-century, it was absolutely essential that the burgeoning capitalist class challenged not only the absolute right to property and ownership of the means of production of the feudal aristocracy, but also the intellectual authority of the Church, as the main ideological support of monarchial power and land right throughout Europe, and beyond.

In the modern period of capitalist development, the central authority of the Church ISA becomes fractured and dispersed through a plurality of new institutions. Education becomes largely the responsibility of a professional class of teachers, rather than priests, in institutions owned and operated either by the state, or privately (which is increasingly the case in the current period of capitalist crisis). In school, we learn bourgeois history, thoroughly revised and “purified” of any revolutionary content; we also learn all of the basic skills required for us to become productive members of capitalist society. Today, even kindergarteners are learning computer programming in school. Just as yesterday, when we trained today’s civil and industrial engineers in the best available physical and social sciences. The basic education one is entitled to receive under capitalism is entirely at the sway of the productive forces in society.

There are other ISAs in the modern period. The parliamentary-political ISA combines universal suffrage with rhetoric and a smattering of reformist policies to produce a basic false consciousness – recently touted quite fervently by Rex Murphy in one of his vacillating centrist CBC rants – that voters possess the ultimate power under bourgeois democracy. Scientific institutions have long produced an understanding of the natural world that consummates the authority of bourgeois rule, for example, through Charles Darwin’s vulgar theory of natural adaptation, which continues to inform much research in evolutionary developmental biology, leading to a view of capitalist society as a social ecology in which the bourgeoisie thrive and survive as a class not off of the backs of exploited workers, but simply because they are the “fittest”. Lastly, broadcast-media ISAs, which create an additional layer of representation atop any experience of material reality, represent not our real conditions of existence as such, but only their imaginary distortion, biased by corporate owners or state sponsors in support of the aims of the capitalist class.

We can see that ISAs exist not only in order to reproduce the forces of capitalist production, but also to reproduce the value-framework of capital, which, in the last instance, amounts to the same thing.

Countless beliefs and representations, signifiers of the capitalist order and the bourgeois imaginary, circulate through the ideological superstructure of society. Now, there is one more element of the functioning of ideology that we have not yet considered. If ideology in ISAs is at its core the totality of beliefs and representations that exist in the bourgeois imaginary about capitalist society, and ideology in general functions to reproduce capitalist productive forces by bringing workers over to belief in the bourgeois worldview, then ideology must, in its functioning, make it so that the working class takes the thought of the bourgeoisie immediately to be its own. If this was not the case, then the mass of workers would quite easily witness the reality of their alienation in the struggle between frameworks of ideas – proletarian and bourgeois, revolutionary or reformist – on the factory floors themselves. The proletariat is not consciously convinced of the bourgeois worldview; rather, no other worldview seems to exist, from the perspective of the individual effectively subdued by the spell of the ISAs.

We should note here that the very crux of Hegel’s early dialectical method, from the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), proceeds by the overcoming of media (mediations/representations), to a point where consciousness becomes increasingly certain both of itself and the concepts of its understanding; that is, certain of them, immediately. This process iterates itself in each case that the knower – a rational human subject – discovers some part of their environment as self-alienated.

To be continued…

[1] Althusser (2009), 23. My emphasis.

[2] Ibid., 25.

#Ghomeshi: or, Justice, God of the Godless

Canadians have had their gaze fixed on the sexual assault trial of Jian Ghomeshi since it began last February. A Toronto court today found Ghomeshi not guilty on four counts of sexual assault and one count of forced choking. (It’s important to note that Ghomeshi has a second sexual assault trial pending for June, this time with only a single complainant).

Justice Horkins’ 26-page verdict on the Ghomeshi trial is available here. I’ve personally had a lot of difficulty thinking any clear thoughts about the verdict, besides just anger, frustration and sadness. This is what most stood out to me in the judge’s verdict…

“There is no other evidence to look to determine the truth. There is no tangible evidence. There is no DNA. There is no ‘smoking gun’. There is only the sworn evidence of each complainant, standing on its own, to be measured against a very exacting standard of proof.” ([131] p. 23).

“The standard of proof in a criminal case requires sufficient clarity in the evidence to allow a confident acceptance of the essential facts. In these proceedings the bedrock foundation of the Crown’s case is tainted and incapable of supporting any clear determination of the truth.” ([140] p. 25).

My thoughts: we need to seriously consider our standards of “truth” and “truth-acceptance” in the science of jurisprudence, especially in criminal trials of this nature. The very thought that there is a concrete, determinate and independently real “truth” to the matter seems, to me, fundamentally misguided. The presumption of innocence – widely considered a crucial aspect of a fair criminal justice system – appears to have failed to actualize the goal of justice in this case. This, because this presumption not only places the burden of proof on the Crown and Ghomeshi’s alleged victims – more importantly, it puts survivors, rather than their assailants, on trial.

Our justice system is as pervasively Christianized in this respect as countless other liberal occidental institutions. Failing to speak the truth, in full knowledge of it, when called upon as a witness, is already called a sin, in Leviticus. Obviously the implication is that the notion of absolute truth, metaphysically, is as distant from us as knowers as God is.

I do not know what is to be done. I only know that I am made sick by the godless, who create themselves in the image of gods, in the name of a god called, “Justice”.

The “smoking gun” Justice Horkins is looking for, as I see it, is the justice system itself. And the DNA he is looking for is only its own genealogy.

When radical therapies are not at all rad.

A class action lawsuit has been filed by a Toronto law firm over allegations that psychiatric treatments administered at a former Ontario treatment facility, involving radical therapeutic theories and practices, constituted a rare form of psychological torture for many patients. Patients exhibiting psychopathological tendencies actually showed higher rates of violent recidivism as a result of receiving treatment than psychopaths incarcerated in federal prisons.

Interestingly, the Toronto law firm that’s filed the class action suit has claimed that the methods used at the Ontario psychiatric facility had “no basis in science”, while a former research director and her colleagues hold that “[t]here is no doubt that the therapeutic community … was based on sound clinical experience and a solid theoretical understanding of the contemporary literature on the treatment of criminal offenders” (Harris et al., 1994). We can be critical of science in more fruitful ways, without maintaining such stringent demarcation criteria.

The methods used at Oak Ridge were based in part on radical psychiatric theories, not unscientific ones. However, after reading some of the former institution’s publications, I can say that the higher rates of comorbidity of certain types of mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia) with psychopathological behaviour does not seem to have factored into the rates of violent recidivism considered in their outcomes data. Moreover, the thought that massive doses of LSD and other psychotropics, extended periods in isolation and sleep deprivation could easily induce schizophrenic breaks in patients, deemed “glib” (op. cit), and resistant to coercion. Furthermore, Harris et al., fail to realize that the comorbidity of schizophrenia and psychopathy is also higher among violent patients, compared to nonviolent ones (Nolan et al., 1999).

Now, let’s just remember that the matter of ‘having a scientific basis’ is importantly different from the matter of consent, and the violent and coercive implementation of measures established in accordance with scientific beliefs on subjects who, by and large, are not in a position to give consent…

  1. Harris, Grant; Rice, Marnie; Cormier, Catherine, “Psychopaths: Is a Therapeutic Community Therapeutic?” in Therapeutic Communities (1994) 15(4), 283-299.
  2. Nolan, Karen; Volavka, Jan; Mohr, Pavel; Czobor, Pál, “Psychopathy and Violent Behavior Among Patients With Schizophrenia or Schizoaffective Disorder” in Psychiatric Services (1999) 50(6), 787-792.

The Force (and the Understanding) Awakens: A Philosophical Review of the New Star Wars

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has captivated audiences for a little over a week in box offices now, working our natural favourite of sci-fi franchises once again into all of our holiday magic – especially with the record-smashing litany of product tie-ins, which I must admit had me, even as an avid Star Wars fan, feeling cynical. Even so, it didn’t take me long to settle back into the sheer nostalgia of the fantasy. Some critics have felt that The Force Awakens plays up the nostalgia a little too much, perhaps verging on being a little more like A New Hope 2.0. I disagree with this view. Repetition is a comedic device, and Star Wars story arcs are typically tragicomic (as in the distinct movement from tragedy to comedy between Episodes V and VI).

Furthermore, repetition is philosophically interesting. It provides a greater wealth of examples by which to argue for consistent and telling themes. And Star Wars films don’t often come with a shortage of themes to dissect. Just in time for the holidays, this philosophical review should drive home the spirit of what we hope in all earnestness that this time of year is all about. Take a break from the HP Star Wars branded laptops, Darth Vader Apples and Yoda Grapes – Star Wars: The Force Awakens is all about the family.

(Warning: significant spoilers ahead).

 

The Force (and the Understanding) Awakens

The film’s first act focuses heavily on the theme of running away. Finn, traumatized by the savage killing of villagers on Jakku by The First Order, defects and helps captured Resistance pilot Poe Dameron escape in a stolen TIE Fighter from a Star Destroyer; the two return to Jakku after a crash-landing despite Finn’s protesting his desire to run away. Later – after some actual running away, as Finn and the young scavenger Rey evade capture by First Order Stormtroopers along with Poe’s highly sought-after droid, BB-8, on the surface of Jakku – Rey and Finn run away again, in a stolen Millennium Falcon. Both will attempt to flee their apparent fate at several more points during the film, only to crash headfirst back into it.

Independence is important to these characters, even though it doesn’t work out too well them during the first act, and accepting their being brought together by the Force involves some overcoming of this (this is symbolized in part by Rey’s rejections of Finn trying to take her hand). In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel describes something like this movement as the essential movement of Force;

… the ‘matters’ posited as independent directly pass over into their unity, and their unity directly unfolds into its diversity, and this once again reduces itself to unity. But this movement is what is called Force. One of its moments … is the expression of Force; but Force, taken as that in which they have disappeared, is Force proper, Force which has been driven back into itself from its expression.[1]

The Force is literally what brings our main characters together. Finn and Rey demonstrate some level of sensitivity to the Force as they intuitively combine in the pilot and gunner’s seats of the Millennium Falcon for the first time while escaping from Jakku. Their sheer giddiness after pulling off such a fantastic escape further illustrates a deep connection. Moments like these are part of a building up of their awakening to the reality of the Force, as something actually existing. We need to remember that the Force, the Jedi and the Sith all enjoy a mythical status in the Star Wars universe. A vast majority of the populous would believe them to be nothing more than stories. Han Solo himself was once such character, making him an effective mouthpiece through which to suggest to our new protagonists that the Force is, indeed, very real.

Just as the Force disperses its independent moments throughout the galaxy before bringing them into a unity, Force for Hegel divides itself into two opposing forces in actuality. “In this, there is immediately present both the repression within itself of Force, or its being-for-self, as well as its expression.”[2] Here, I believe that we can interpret the repressed being-for-self of the Force as the Resistance, traditionally the Rebel Alliance, against the direct expression of power that has manifested variously through the Republic, the Empire, and The First Order.

The Force is everywhere. It opposes itself within itself, and divides itself into balance and the Dark Side of the Force. In this interplay, the self-consciousness of Hegel’s Phenomenology appears as the Understanding of a Force sensitive being. The Hegelian Sage in the Star Wars universe is an Understanding consciousness that “looks through this mediating play of Forces into the true background of Things.[3] The Jedi and the Sith take the interplay of opposing Forces to have the shape of Law, and posit this world of lawfulness in the beyond of the world they inhabit as actual.

Expressed in determinate moments, this means that what in the law of the first world is sweet, in this inverted in-itself is sour, what in the former is black is, in the other, white… The punishment which under the law of the first world disgraces and destroys a man, is transformed in its inverted world into the pardon which preserves his essential being and brings him to honour.[4]

This bipolar lawfulness of the interplay of Force is perfectly demonstrated when Kylo Ren kills his father, Han Solo, in a First Order castle on a snowy planet (whose name is hitherto unknown). Ren plunges himself into the inverted world of the Dark Side of the Force. Patricide is an obvious recurring theme in the Star Wars universe. Ren himself expresses feeling torn before he drives his lightsaber through Han’s gut, despite knowing precisely what he has to do to. He is torn between two worlds, with some serious daddy issues.

Rey’s awakening is the awakening of an Understanding of Force, in exactly the sense that Hegel describes. She is only able to best Kylo Ren in lightsaber combat after accepting Luke and Anakin’s lightsaber from Finn – a gesture in which she at once accepts her fate, and the unifying nature of Force. The bipolar law of Force in the actual world shines forth with an exclamation point as, at the moment that Rey has bested Ren, the earth cracks between them, leaving a gaping chasm and allowing, once again, the possibility of escape.

 

Human and Divine Law: The Dark Side and the Jedi; or, government against the Family.

In the Phenomenology, there stands opposed the human and Divine spheres of law, whose respective ethical orders are constituted by government and the Family. Interpreting the opposition between the Dark and ‘Light’ Sides of the Force in this way can be telling. What more, I’m skeptical for simple fanboy reasons about the existence of a ‘Light Side’ of the Force; Terrance MacMullan points out in a recent paper on “The Platonic Paradox of Darth Plageuis” that a ‘Light Side’ is never mentioned in any of the original films.[5]

The Force isn’t a quasi-Zoroastrian religious duality of the triumph of Good over Evil. What we would expect to be called the ‘Good’ is more often referred to as balance, or moderation (hallmarks of virtue in both Socratic and Aristotelian conceptions of ethics). The two opposing spheres of law hold each other in balance, with moderation between them taking the form of a social and political virtue against the totalitarianism of either faith or empire. The antithesis of these spheres makes up the inner movement of something that Hegel calls Spirit – a term which at its best should evoke both the inner spirit so often associated with the personal soul, and what we might call the spirit of a nation, of a sports team, or of a nigh blasphemously famous science fiction franchise.

For Hegel, Spirit as government exists as a concrete power in actuality, while the power of the ethical order of the Family emanates from a spiritual beyond. This is roughly what we have in mind when we picture the Dark Side as supported by truly terrifying imperialistic Nazi-styled regimes, while our heroes – for the most part – gain their power from faith, either in their own powers or in their friends (the entire assault on The First Order’s definitely-not-a-Death-Star in TFA is gambled on Leia’s faith in Han, Finn’s ostensibly blind faith in the Force, etc.). Obviously there is also a militaristic regime supporting the Resistance in the form of the Republic, just as there are also familial and nepotistic power structures within the Dark Side’s war machine. But this is precisely what allows for the tragedy of the family of faith. When Kylo Ren kills Han Solo, he isn’t exactly committing patricide; his new father is the Dark Side sovereign (another familiar theme). Killing Han consummates a process that begins with Ren’s felt abandonment by Han and Leia. His turn to the Dark Side is an adoption, by a father whose son Ren cannot finally become until severing himself of the natural blood-relation as the son of Han Solo.

When Ren says he feels torn, presumably this is not just between achieving balance and falling towards the Dark Side. Hegel would say that he’s torn like the children of divorced parents feel torn. For Hegel, the relationship of husband and wife can be taken quite literally as two spirits coming together. The “objective reality” of these two spirits is actualized in their children. Bracketing his early 19th-century heteronormative ideas about families as mainly a historical interest, if we may,

… [the relationship] of parents towards their children is emotionally affected by the fact that the objective reality of the relationship does not exist in them, but in the children, and by their witnessing the development in the children of an independent existence which they are unable to take back again… That of children towards parents is emotionally affected, conversely, by the fact that they derive their existence from, or have their essential being in, what is other than themselves, and passes away, and by their attaining independence and a self-consciousness of their own only by being separated from their source – a separation in which the source dries up.[6]

When Rey in captivity bests Ren, through an intense force of will, and penetrates his spirit with Understanding, she discovers the latter’s fear that he will never be as powerful as Darth Vader. It would be easy to feel that way as long as you’re bearing the scars of old wounds related to abandonment, which paradoxically creates distance only in and through presence; and moreover, if power is something valued (a role prototypically attributable to Dark Lords in the Star Wars universe, and in TFA belonging to Supreme Leader Snoke, is the insinuation of power as a value). What this means is that Kylo Ren can only mend his wounds by killing Solo, which is to excise the power that his abandonment by the latter holds over him. To assert his independence, the source has to ‘dry up’.

Rey’s journey can already plainly be seen as an effort to find her father, whose figure she first makes of Solo, in order to reconcile herself with her own abandonment as a child on the surface of Jakku. The predominating prediction, which I can agree with on philosophical grounds, is that Luke Skywalker is Rey’s father; I also think that Luke abandoned Rey on the surface of Jakku. It works, because this theme is at one and the same time the theme of seeking balance in the Force. This is one of the strongest thematic currents in the Star Wars universe; the Force is simply all about the Family. The obvious next question is, who is Rey’s mother?

We should make a note here that Han and Leia explicitly contrive to bring out the ‘Light’ both are sure still remains in Kylo Ren’s heart. I’d like to think that either this misunderstanding of the Force partially contributes to their failure in accomplishing their goal, or that Disney has unwittingly bastardized a more complex tale of the presence of evil in favour of a more simple and marketable dichotomy. Moreover, Hegel would have some interesting things to say about the competing claims made on the individual by the Family and a government, which may explain some of the antipathy Ren seems to feel towards General Hux, among other things. We could explore these issues endlessly. The Star Wars universe is a philosophically rich text, which we can interpret and re-interpret time and again, with much to gain. I only hope to emphasize the philosophical products of the box office’s favourite sci-fi franchise, against the torrent of kitschy commodified junk products spewing out this holiday from every TV set, toy store shelf, cereal box (and Christmas Elf).

May the Force be with us, and us with all of our families.

[1] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, §136.

[2] Ibid., §141.

[3] Ibid., §143.

[4] Ibid., §158.

[5] MacMullan, T. “The Platonic Paradox of Darth Plagueis: How could a Sith Lord be Wise?” in The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy (2015).

[6] Ibid., §456.

No Fallout, Not Now

One has to distinguish between this “reality” of the nuclear age and the fiction of war. But, and this would perhaps be the imperative of a nuclear criticism, one must also be careful to interpret critically this critical or diacritical distinction. For the “reality” of the nuclear age and the fable of nuclear war are perhaps distinct, but they are not two separate things.[1]

No Fallout, not now.  I’ve got work to do.  Books to read.  Writing to attend to.  Firmly, I must decline your invitation, deflect your advance, reject your seductions of nuclear waste and romantic post-apocalypticism.  No, Fallout; I shall resist my life’s melting at the border of your nuclear war, your diagesis, your critical imperative.  May god have mercy on my productivity.

No Fallout, Not Now.  Jacques Derrida, in a 1984 issue of Diacritics, takes on the speed and sheer imminence of global mass suicide by nuclear auto-obliteration: “No Apocalypse, Now Now”[2].  ‘Speed’ appears as an irreducible new phenomenon of the Cold War era.  Speed is a temporality of us collectively careening towards our ownmost destruction.  There is no right speed.  Speed is an ever-present, in which we immerse ourselves critically to confront ‘remainderless destruction’, the perspective of the (final) war, “the first war which can be fought in the name of the name alone, that is, of everything and of nothing.”[3]  A war not quite between Being and non-Being, but between Being and its Other, non-Being for it. 

The idea evokes the image of Dr. Strangelove’s Major Kong, riding the atom bomb like a rodeo bull, full speed ahead… 

I load up Fallout 4 for the first time.  I am telling myself that this does not constitute procrastination.  I am thrust into a new world with astonishing, decentering and dislocating speed.  I awaken.  I have a wife and a son.  I have a robot.  My family has place in Vault 111.  Nuclear weaponry obliterates several major American cities.  I am thrust into Vault, cryogenically frozen (asleep through the war) and awakened to behold my wife’s murder and my son’s capture.  It is a new world into which I am so violently thrown.  These events make up the first few moments of gameplay in Fallout.

We expect this speed with the apocalypse; apocalypse promises to be cataclysmic, a truly explosive spectacle.  Fallout consummates this expectation.  But we are not so much ‘fallen’, as ‘thrown’ into the fable of the post-apocalyptic nuclear age.  For Heidegger, Verfallenheit (‘fallenness’) had to do with the historical and factical situation into which Being finds itself always already born: for example, in Being & Time, where Heidegger sets up Being as that for which its own Being is a problem, something encountered in the state of its ‘fallenness’.  By contrast, we can say that ‘thrownness’ is Verfallenheit with a violence; it is ‘fallenness’ complemented by speed.  As such, we are torn up and plunged into Fallout the nuclear fable, amidst echoes of warheads and mushroom clouds on the horizon.

But we may interrogate our expectation that the post-apocalyptic world will be one into which we are thrown.  It is interesting to consider our enduring romantic fascination with nuclear war, with imminent and actual environmental catastrophe overcoming us in the real.  Climate change and looming disaster in the modern geological era of the Anthropocene is, too, bound up with the question of speed, as something irreducible in it.  The essential speed of humanity qua techno-scientific anarcho-market labour-powered wage-slaves is bound to the ecological crisis with chains, each absolutely overcoming the other, the nuclear speed of the techno-human elevated to an ontological principle for the world in which it finds itself fallen.  While speed is an irreducible element of the current crisis of anthropogenic climate change, humanity finds itself so absolutely overcome by it (its ownmost crisis!) that its experience is more of a fallenness than a thrownness.  As a fallenness, it is not typically perceived as a violence, not essentially different from other historical and factical situations of our individual experiences of being that infinitely exceed us.

However, the evidence is overwhelming on this point, that anthropogenic climate change is a violence, that its violence injures poorer nations with unequal and greater severity compared to nations whose contribution to the climate crisis is greater, that it injures future generations of humanity as well as other forms of life on Earth.

Must our recognition of this violence be only as a thrownness?  Or may we make a turn, from fallenness into thrownness, or vice versa, as one who experiences themselves falling forward in a dream, only rapidly to awaken shooting upright from their bed?

In Fallout, the environment is our foremost threat, rather than any faction or any arms of war.  The entire landscape is heavily irradiated.  All that gives sustenance is toxic, a sickness.  We are even asleep (cryogenically frozen) during the initial mass nuclear destruction, only to be thrown out spinning into the new world, with a new purpose, and a new threat that is absolutely overcoming and identifiable as such: the post-nuclear environment.  In the act of waking, the former world is dissolved, as a dream.  We are fallen into the post-apocalyptic world of the nuclear fable by way of thrownness into the Vault.  In this way, we might suggest that Fallout subverts the expectation of the apocalypse as a waking cataclysm into which we are thrown.  We are to recognize that our waking world – a dream world held in a tension over its own dissolution – is only the dream world of a non-apocalyptic present, where speed is reducible to humanity as something that has not overcome it, and where what is really said by our self-assurance of the dream world is only a self-effacing deferral: No Apocalypse, Not Now. 

And so we are thrown, Vaulted, into the world of Fallout, which is just to say a ‘fallenness’.  The dream held in tension is dissolved, and our immediate encounter with violence is carried through to the fallen world, an encounter as something ecological.  Speed has also been subverted here, as if whipped around a massive gravitational center and set upon a new arc; it becomes a velocity, and thereby possesses of it some direction.  And yet the direction shall ever be constant should we continue to see Earth as the bomb, ourselves riding it into the waste and void of annihilation, seeing ourselves set out on a frenzied path upon which speed is our only reckoning.

[1] Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now (full speed ahead, seven missiles, seven missives)” in Diacritics / summer 1984, 23.

[2] Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” 20-31.

[3] Ibid., 30.