Wednesday, August 31, 2016



"In her 1979 essay 'The Family: Love It or Leave It,' the late music and cultural critic Ellen Willis noted that the counterculture’s desire to replace the family with a system of collective child-rearing would have entailed 'a social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude.' It’s very difficult, in our deflated times, to re-create the counterculture’s confidence that such a 'social and psychic revolution' could not only happen, but was already in the process of unfolding. Like many of her generation, Willis’s life was shaped by first being swept up by these hopes, then seeing them gradually wither as the forces of reaction regained control of history. There’s probably no better account of the Sixties counterculture’s retreat from Promethean ambition into self-destruction, resignation, and pragmatism than Willis’s collection of essays Beginning To See The Light. The Sixties counterculture might now have been reduced to a series of 'iconic'—overfamiliar, endlessly circulated, dehistoricized—aesthetic relics, stripped of political content, but Willis’s work stands as a painful reminder of leftist failure. As Willis makes clear in her introduction to Beginning To See The Light, she frequently found herself at odds with what she experienced as the authoritarianism and statism of mainstream socialism. While the music she listened to spoke of freedom, socialism seemed to be about centralization and state control. The story of how the counterculture was co-opted by the neoliberal Right is now a familiar one, but the other side of this narrative is the Left’s incapacity to transform itself in the face of the new forms of desire to which the counterculture gave voice.

"The idea that the 'Sixties led to neoliberalism' is complicated by the emphasis on the challenge to the family. For it then becomes clear that the Right did not absorb countercultural currents and energies without remainder. The conversion of countercultural rebellion into consumer capitalist pleasures necessarily misses the counterculture’s ambition to do away with the institutions of bourgeois society: an ambition which, from the perspective of the new 'realism' that the Right has successfully imposed, looks naive and hopeless.

"The counterculture’s politics were anticapitalist, Willis argues, but this did not entail a straightforward rejection of everything produced in the capitalist field. Certainly, pleasure and individualism were important to what Willis characterizes as her 'quarrel with the left,' yet the desire to do away with the family could not be construed in these terms alone; it was inevitably also a matter of new and unprecedented forms of collective (but non-statist) organization. Willis’s 'polemic against standard leftist notions about advanced capitalism' rejected as at best only half-true the ideas 'that the consumer economy makes us slave to commodities, that the function of the mass media is to manipulate our fantasies, so we will equate fulfilment with buying the system’s commodities.' Popular culture—and music culture in particular—was a terrain of struggle rather than a dominion of capital. The relationship between aesthetic forms and politics was unstable and inchoate—culture didn’t just 'express' already existing political positions, it also anticipated a politics-to-come (which was also, too often, a politics that never actually arrived).

"Music culture’s role as one of the engines of cultural acceleration from the late ‘50s through to 2000 had to do with its capacity to synthesize diverse cultural energies, tropes, and forms, as much as any specific feature of music itself. From the late ‘50s onward, music culture became the zone where drugs, new technologies, (science) fictions, and social movements could combine to produce dreamings—suggestive glimmers of worlds radically different from the actually existing social order. (The rise of the Right’s 'realism' entailed not only the destruction of particular kinds of dreaming, but the very suppression of the dreaming function of popular culture itself.) For a moment, a space of autonomy opened up, right in the heart of commercial music, for musicians to explore and experiment. In this period, popular music culture was defined by a tension between the (usually) incompatible desires and imperatives of artists, audiences, and capital. Commodification was not the point at which this tension would always and inevitably be resolved in favour of capital; rather, commodities could themselves be the means by which rebellious currents could propagate: 'The mass media helped to spread rebellion, and the system obligingly marketed products that encouraged it, for the simple reason that there was money to be made from rebels who were also consumers. On one level the sixties revolt was an impressive illustration of Lenin’s remark that the capitalist will sell you the rope to hang him with.' This now looks rather quaintly optimistic, since, as we all know, it wasn’t the capitalist who ended up hanged. The marketing of rebellion became more about the triumph of marketing than of rebellion. The neoliberal Right’s coup consisted in individualizing the desires that the counterculture had opened up, then laying claim to the new libidinal terrain. The rise of the new Right was premised on the repudiation of the idea that life, work, and reproduction could be collectively transformed—now, capital would be the only agent of transformation. But the retreat of any serious challenge to the family is a reminder that the mood of reaction that has grown since the 1980s was not only about the restoration of some narrowly defined economic power: it was also about the return—at the level of ideology, if not necessarily of empirical fact—of social and cultural institutions that it had seemed possible to eliminate in the 1960s." - Mark Fisher, "'A social and psychic revolution of almost inconceivable magnitude': Popular Culture's Interrupted Accelerationist Dreams"

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

"Finalism, in Kant's definition, is the causality of a concept in relation to its object; it is the process whose a priori is an idea. Now the impossibility of eliminating this process from scientific enquiry is the impossibility for science to do away with ideal anticipation and hypothesis. Theory must be a priori, for without ideas there can be no observation; we see only what our preconceived ideas prepare us or predispose us to see. As Myrdal has observed: 'Theory . . . must always be a priori to the empirical observations of the facts,' since, 'facts come to mean something only as ascertained and organized in the frame of a theory.' 'We need to pose questions before responses can be obtained. And the questions are expressions of our own interest in the world; they are ultimately evaluations.' This is equivalent to Kant's observation that 'when Galileo experimented with balls of a definite weight on the inclined plane, when Torricelli . . . [etc.] and Stahl . . . [etc.], they learned that reason only perceives that which it produces after its own design; that it must not be content to follow, as it were, in the leading-strings of nature but must proceed in advance . . . and compel nature to reply to its questions'. This implies that what at first appears to be simple observation, a statement of fact, is in effect deduction, the objectification of our ideas, i.e. a projection into the world of our evaluations and pre-conceptions.

"On the other hand - and here finalism in turn is reconverted into causality, deduction into induction - the inevitable preconceptions of science are distinguished from the prejudgements of metaphysics (the hypotheses of the former from the hypostases of the latter) in that 'if theory is a priori it is on the other hand a first principle of science that the facts are sovereign'. This means that 'when observations of facts do not agree with a theory, i.e. when they do not make sense in the frame of the theory utilized in carrying out the research, the theory has to be discarded and replaced by a better one, which promises a better fit'. In other words, to be truthful, theory must acquire its source and origin in and from reality, it must be accompanied by 'basic empirical research' which must be 'prior to the construction of the abstract theory' and is 'needed for assuring it realism and relevance'.

"To summarize: value judgements are inevitably present in scientific research itself, but as judgments whose ultimate significance depends on the degree to which they stand up to historical-practical verification or experiment, and hence on their capacity to be converted ultimately into factual judgements. This is precisely the link between science and politics, between knowledge and transformation of the world, that Marx accomplished in the historical-moral field." - Lucio Colletti, "Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International"

Thursday, August 25, 2016

"Traditionally, most moral philosophers, as well as the proverbial man in the street, have viewed ‘moral perfection’ and ‘goodness’ as absolute values that one ought to and can realize. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition, this view has often been linked with the conception of a human being as created with a free will by a personal deity who requires obedience to a set of commandments that define the morally good. The eternal destiny of the individual is then linked to the fulfillment of these commandments (the ‘Divine Law’). For the past three hundred years, this religious ethic has competed with a secular, ‘humanistic’ ethic, in which the theological trimmings have been removed but the belief that human beings have free wills and are obligated to perform certain duties quite independently of their interests and desires, remains. The conscientious performance of these duties is called ‘virtue’ and is deemed worthy of praise, whereas the failure to perform them is considered morally blameworthy.

"Spinoza had little sympathy for this moral outlook in either its religious or secular form. For him, the entire outlook, as well as the conception of human nature that it entails, is a product of the imagination, rather than of reason. As such, it is based on inadequate ideas – specifically, on a failure to recognize that human beings, as finite modes, are parts of nature, and that their particular desires and values, as well as their actions, are necessary consequences of the endeavor to preserve their being.

"After providing a nonevaluative definition of perfection in terms of the completed, or finished, and noting that, so construed, it applies only to artifacts, he attempts to explain how the notion and its opposite came to acquire an evaluative sense and to be applied to natural things (including human beings). This is traced to mankind’s tendency, under the domination of the imagination, to form universal ideas (which are, of course, highly confused) and to regard them as norms, or models (exemplaria) in terms of which things and their actions are to be judged. Given such models, perfection and imperfection are now understood evaluatively in terms of conformity or lack thereof to the model – for example, the ‘perfect’ human being is the one who realizes or comes closest to realizing the ‘ideal ‘of what it is to be a human being. The specifically moral notions of good and evil are likewise defined in terms of these models. Not surprisingly, Spinoza connects the development of this way of thinking with the belief in final causes. The basic idea here seems to be that belief in a norm or model reflects belief in a purpose for which a thing has been created. For Spinoza, however, these ‘purposes,’ together with the associated models, are really nothing more than projections of human desires. He thus concludes that perfection and imperfection, good and evil, are not intrinsic properties of things, but merely ‘modes of thinking’ – fictions that we attribute to things insofar as we consider them in light of our desire-based model." - Henry E. Allison, Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction

Thursday, August 11, 2016

"[I]n the case of any desire to realize an ambition (whether to complete a journey, to write a book, or whatever), the more it is blocked and delayed by inhibitions, the more detailed the plans and interminable the preparations to which it gives rise. When one is failing to do something, there is no more obvious self-justification than the plea: 'I must prepare myself more fully.' Those who make the most detailed and exhaustive consultations of railway timetables, road maps or tourist guides are those who never make up their minds to leave, or do so only with difficulty and anxiety." - Sebastiano Timpanaro, "Freud's 'Roman Phobia'"