Naked desire of history?
I wrote this little piece two or so days ago. I wasn’t going to publish it here, because it wears its heart on its sleeve a little, and the conclusions that are drawn here are still nascent and their meaning not fully decided. But Hanne protested and suggested that I publish it for the experience of ‘putting yourself out there’ as she has been practicing on her blog. So here it is, my naked desire in the form of a heartfelt self-criticism in the style only communists know how to do. Be a voyeur if you like. I’m certainly being an exhibitionist (I am in fact a closet exhibitionist). For me it provides a good theoretical grounding for the necessity of rigorous historical study, if not in general, then at least for my development.
An essay in self-criticism
Over the course of the past three and a bit years, primarily with the writings of Alain Badiou as guidance (beginning with reading Ethics at the end of 2008), I managed to establish for myself a firm understanding of a pragmatic-materialist ontology – as exemplified by the title of my blog usage and continuation – whereby the question itself of the being of things was rendered unimportant since it’s not about what things are (a question for metaphysics), but about whether things have to be taken into account from the standpoint of a practice (music, politics…).
This was a significant advance on my previous theoretical positions, which tended to privilege the critique of any positive concept of ‘presence’ or ‘being’ as such (so as to appear less ‘naïve’ than any of my fellow men and women, and to disguise perhaps my lack of understanding of anything whatsoever). This, along with a privileging of the ‘materiality’ of language chez Derrida, produced an immense impasse for the composition of music (and politics to be sure, although that wasn’t such a problem for me then). In fact, it did not allow for music as such, so composition was practiced as an unjustifiable act, and as unjustifiable act it had to at least let people know that it was aware of its inability to justify itself. Hence my music was organised (in general) by an irony (or mysticism, they’re the same thing – “In general, no people are more superstitious than skeptics.” L. Trotsky, Literature and Revolution) that bordered on postmodern parody.
In place of this anxious and arrogant deconstruction – which never produced much more than the statement, “but its possibility of existence is simultaneously its very impossibility of existing as such!” – I now had the firm belief that one can escape the banal positivist/deconstructionist back-and-forth one must simply affirm the irreducibility of practice as the sole entrance upon truth – i.e. haha, yes theorist, but do you do anything? This moved between a Fichtean belief in the self-positing of the individual subject, a Lacanian approach to the “subject of the Real” and the Badiousian concept of an incorporation into a body of truth (leaving aside the problem, for the moment, of the event). Certainly, this liberated an aspect (somewhat repressed under the deconstructionist metaphysic) of my previous practice in day-to-day life that was to always privilege the hard work of musical or theoretical practice as a counterforce against the decadence of Western suburban life I saw around me – in fact, this just shows the birth of both practice and critique for me: as two modes of raising myself above what I, as a sensitive ‘middle class’ young white male perceived to be an intolerably decadent society (just to make it clear, I think this perception is immensely liberal and petit-bourgeois). Certainly, the presence of Lacan in this mix provided a link to my previous ideology since it was primarily used as a critique of both the imaginary order of things and anyone in particular’s misrecognition of the Real – i.e., no no stupid, the Real is unpresentable as such! (I have to say that it was Marxism, and not Badiou, that purged me of this rather dull remnant of critique – allowing for the ascendancy, once and for all, of the belief that it is not about showing people that things are other than they think they are, a negative metaphysics for sure, but instead about making things other than they are!)
Ok, so, in broad brush strokes – certainly details would provide a more complex picture: first of all (after my mostly unconscious childhood), the Liam of university is more and more a Liam of arrogant deconstruction born from both a feeling of inadequacy at anything in reality (and thus the need to be able to defend oneself ‘on a higher plain’) as well as the recognition of decadence and metaphysical naivety of people in late-capitalist society (thus I had need of Nietzsche and Derrida in particular); then secondly, the Liam of the last three years has been the movement towards a privileging of practice over critique – culminating, in fact, in my current belief in the ‘Real’ as non-alienated labour (thus Badiou, Fichte, Lacan/Zizek, a little bit of Marx).
Yet, this new position carried with it a fatal problem, insofar as it made a short-circuit between practice and philosophy. Practice was conceived almost as pure negativity (as the idea of ‘real’ qua non-alienated labour shows) – a dialectical working of the subject against the resistances of the situation, for sure, but theoretically a kind of negative entity. Its sole consistency was found in philosophy, and despite the recognition of the disjunct between philosophy and ‘its conditions’ according to Badiou, what I ended up doing was engaging in music or politics, insisting upon their irreducibility to philosophy, but then, when it came to thinking them through as practices, I still relied heavily on philosophical concepts – hoping to find in these philosophies the way forward for the practice!!!
This central failing – the idealist error, a short-circuit between philosophy and ‘practice’ – can only give rise to various deviations musically and politically: ultraleftism, reformism, narrativism, vitalism, etc. Or simply, it can only give rise to an ill informed and impotent subject. There were counterweights to be sure, in both music, in the form of my renewed listening to things, and politics, in the form of the relatively orthodox Marxist-Leninist party of which I’m a part (and my increased appreciation of the concept of the economy). Nonetheless, in general, nothing stood in between philosophy on the one hand and ‘pure’ practice on the other. Or, at least, I did not have a concept of it – certainly, as is always the case, I was already beginning to do that which I didn’t yet have a name for. I began to try to introduce the concept of theory as an intermediary, as Bruno Bosteels is currently putting forward as an alternative to what he sees as an impasse in political philosophy (in fact, my exact impasse). But theory is just another name for philosophy unless something else, more concrete (and more concrete than this nebulous ‘practice’) can be added. In fact, it is significant that I began my journey into Badiou and this ‘second phase’ by way of Ethics, since it what is a better names the short-circuit between philosophy and practice (conceived negatively) that ‘ethics’? And indeed throughout this period I did consider everything, in the final analysis, from the standpoint of ethics: “what kind of figure of the subject should we be realising today in and through our music or politics?” (Not an irrelevant question by any stretch, but certainly a limited one.) In music, this essentially centred on the question of ‘affirmation’ chez Badiou, and in general, the question of continuity and discontinuity in ‘subjective sequences’ (i.e. how much is the new a break with the old, or how much does it emerge more ‘organically’ from it?).
It is here where the concept of history intervenes, and, I think, inaugurates a third phase of my development. History is the necessary supplement to the third position; not its complete negation, but its consummation. History furnishes the militant (not the philosopher) with categories, not concepts (to use a distinction of Nicolas’), as tools with which to act in a situation. They are not concepts in that they don’t capture the specificity of a situation in order to make it work for a philosophical system. They are categories that emerge from the movement of history itself, from the condensation of forms, and they are groundless except for this very emergence as such. “Why study counterpoint? It happened (it still happens) in music. You want to make music don’t you?” “Why study the Paris Commune? It happened (it still happens) in politics. You want to make a revolution don’t you?” (Also, I don’t buy this Badiousian bullshit of an internal history of truths. The history of the state, of the economy, etc, is fucking important too). So thus, there is this militant pragmatism of ontology, achieved in my second phase, applied to history (its proper object?), in order that practice may be liberated from philosophy. We can worry all we like now about the ‘capture’ of the present or the future by way of history, but without history this present and future are going to be captured by an even more useless and totalising philosophy (“if you don’t let these dicks fuck these assholes, then we’re gonna get our dicks and pussies all covered in shit”). It is then with history that philosophy may be able to relate to a practice, and vice versa. Without history, philosophy cannot but completely totalise a practice. Perhaps the dialectical coexistence of the two (history and philosophy) is precisely what allows the militant to not totalise their situation – but that’s not a given.
And I have no intention to get into turgid debates about the ‘reality’ of history or its ‘fictive’ nature, since this is an untenable distinction from the standpoint of a practical materialism. The point is that the study of history must be undertaken as a matter of ‘usage and continuation’. Is it useful to study history as a militant (of music, politics)? I’ll rephrase: be it reality or fiction, what could be more important to a militant (beyond their own practice) than history?
Perhaps this inaugurates an anti-philosophical period of my life? I hope so. I have recently tried to write two or three blog posts on philosophical topics and just aborted (after writing a fair bit), because the debates seemed so futile, so repetitive… This is not to say that I’m going to stop being influenced by philosophy – that’s impossible and undesirable anyway. It’s not to say that history is not also repetitive and also to a degree futile… There’s no silver bullet, but it’s a matter of discerning what is to be done next.
So, ‘when the student (me) is ready, the teacher (François) appears’ – I have been reading François’ writings for a long time, but only within the last one or two months have I begun to privilege the concept of history (see email below as evidence!). So, when, in our first real meeting François strongly urged the necessity of historical study, it hit me as a truth because it was already decided – decided, but not confirmed. François confirmed the decision that had already been taken. You always have to start twice before you start, as Zizek might say.
But also, since it won’t be François who actually teaches me history, let’s invert, ‘when the teacher (I) is ready, the student (me) appears’ – I am now ready to teach me, and thus me, I have appeared at the doorstep of the history teacher that I am. I, as student, have not been there before, despite attempts by myself to teach me history in the past (the teacher that I am was not ready then).
I must say that all this implies a certain humbling (not a great word, what about enhumblement) of myself. From the first position of aloof and arrogant deconstructor of everyone’s naïve beliefs, to the committed militant (of music, politics) who nonetheless believes himself to possess a higher level of thinking of the situation (however impotent… “It’s only impotent now because, in the end it will be infinitely potent!”), to the committed militant (call him a composer and an activist) who has a lot of learning to do. As a final note, I must say that I’ve tried to take on history before, especially in music, but such activity tended to be born from a feeling of inadequacy and crisis rather than from a feeling of strength and ability, and necessity. Before it was a matter of “Oh god! I’m this crappy Australian student who knows nothing! I need to appear to be the figure of the composer that I’m not! I must know counterpoint, or some such.” Utterly pretentious, no? I had little idea why such activity was necessary, except to appear to not be the dilettante that I was (am). Now, there is no real anxiety associated with it – it is something that must be done, and one can do it, it’s not exactly this metaphysical (or psychological) challenge.
So it is with great joy that I can announce a play on words: “my hitherto assumed theoretical positions now constitute my ‘pre-history’”.
Exhibit A: Letter to my broseph, dated 31 March, 2012 (to which he never replied because he’s an a-hole)
Towards the end of Badiou and Politics our dear friend Bruno Bosteels (whom I do admire greatly) suggests that there are large parts of Badiou that could be seen as contributions to (the rethinking of) historical materialism. Specifically his take on the Paris Commune and Mao’s China. His reason for suggesting this is simply that Badiou does not dwell in abstraction all the time, and doesn’t simply (or doesn’t always completely) reduce the historical specificity of events to mere mirrors of his philosophical schema.
But despite the fact that Badiou has numerous categories that cut across the extreme poles of being and event, or subject and object, or place and that which takes place in the place, his history as thought as internal to politics still comes across as very undialectical and deeply problematic. I think more ‘old fashioned’ historical materialism offers us a lot more – Badiou being perhaps a supplement to this, not a substitution.
Now, whereas 6 months ago or a year ago, the missing link for both of us was most certainly practice, now, I would suggest that it is history. Certainly for me it is (which is not to say that practice is any less important). Hence the document I have attached [Chris Harman’s A people’s history of the world]. Harman draws a lot from Cliff, so he’s one of your kind 😉 So, I doubt I’ll agree with him on Cuba or some other matters, but all in all, I think this is my next major reading project. After which I want to engage more closely with the objective and subjective conditions of more specific revolutionary moments or sequences (successful and failed).