Poetics of Resistance: Radical Politics in the Waning Years of Capitalism

Levi Bryant has had a lot to say in the past several months about the relationship between politics and ontology. HERE is his latest. Essentially, he argues that academia is too caught up in symbolic and cultural forms of resistance to capitalism, when in reality what changes history are not shifts in consciousness but transformations of material conditions. The global non-locality of contemporary hyper-capitalism makes it especially difficult to resist, since, for example, if factory workers in America decide to strike and/or bargain collectively with their corporate managers and shareholders, the corporation can simply re-open a factory overseas where workers expect less. This is largely the story of the last several decades, as post-industrial America shifted away from manufacturing to become a nation of consumers.

In the comments, Bryant got into it with Tim of Fragile Keys over whether it is material conditions or habits of the heart that finally transform society. Bryant took his characteristic anti-religion stance, while Tim argued that, even with the best of material conditions, human beings still need proper enculturation in order to live in harmony with others and the universe. Religion, therefore, will be central to any social transformation. Bryant certainly has a point when he suggests that the evils of capitalism are structurally rooted, and not simply a matter of individual greed. However, I don’t think that changing the legal structure of our economy can happen without a transformation in individual and social values. But in the end, I wouldn’t want to claim the true cause is either one factor or the other. Change would seem to emerge as a result of both factors becoming effective simultaneously. I must also say that Bryant’s grasp of history is just wrong when he suggests that religion has most often functioned as a conservative force to maintain dominant power structures. I think the facts of history present a far more complex relationship between religion and politics, there being as many religious radicals as there have been reactionaries (my last post on Bruno’s radical politics and heretical religion being an example of this complexity).

On a related note, I just stumbled upon a 2010 issue of the journal Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy devoted to “Poetics of Resistance.” Here is an excerpt from the introduction:

The register of individuality and subjectivity that is linked with the term poetics, and the evocation of collectivity and community through the term resistance, places the practices and works under discussion in a tension between these categories. It encourages an analytical approach that considers the relationship between the work of art, the subjectivities of its creator(s) and of its recipients, and the social movements or political ideologies with which it is linked. The place of the work of art in the tension field between the subjective and the collective, and the relationality that the existence of this tension field necessarily entails, has emerged as one of the most important foci of the work of members of the network.

The term ‘resistance’, in the way it is used by the network, needs further explanation. We use it with specific reference to neoliberalism, as one recent form of capitalism, while also maintaining an interest in practices of creative resistance to pre-neoliberal regimes of capital. This focus was chosen to facilitate the response to a very particular situation which is characterized by the implementation of a specific set of ideologically based policies while, at the same time, the existence of the ideological dimension is disavowed by policy makers. As Eagleton points out, proponents of conservatism (we may apply this more concretely to neoliberalism) are wary of acknowledging its own ideological status, since ‘to dub their own beliefs ideological would be to risk turning them into objects of contestation’.[4] Neoliberalism thus pretends to be pragmatic rather than ideological; interested in policy rather than ideology. This pretence is made easier by neoliberalism having originally emerged as an economic theory. David Harvey writes:[5]

Neoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade. The role of the state is to create and preserve an institutional framework appropriate to such practices. … But beyond these tasks the state should not venture.

This ‘theory of political economic practices’ does, however, have ideological underpinnings which are crucially important to an understanding of neoliberalism’s impact on the arts, and also on scholarship. Those ideological underpinnings have become ever more obvious as the economic theory proves to be flawed, inadequate, and destructive. Since the crisis of 2008, it has become ever more necessary for neoliberalism’s proponents to maintain the appearance of its overall coherence and effectiveness. Ideology is indispensable for this. Other actors—not politicians—have to step in and provide the justification for the continuity of neoliberal politics. This justification draws on the previous ‘construction of consent’, as Harvey calls it, and this draws increasingly on the pretension that ‘there is no alternative’. Culture in the widest sense plays a part in translating the ideological points outlined by Harvey into more generalized assumptions, discursive figures, and commonly held beliefs. Thus, neoliberalism creates imaginaries that can then inform the creative imagination or that, conversely, are projected through works of art without this necessarily being the intention of the artist. The potentially complicit functions of art and scholarship and their co-optation, are important areas of interest of the members of the network. At the same time—and this interest is more prominently represented in the articles collected in this issue—the members of the network explore how works of art can effectively resist the imposition of neoliberal ideology and the absorption of art by neoliberal politics, either by creating alternative imaginaries or by contributing to and interacting with political projects that stand in opposition to the neoliberal model. This sometimes implies seeking spaces of artistic praxis ‘outside’ neoliberalism, but frequently involves entering into discursive, and sometimes financial, negotiation with neoliberally-informed social, cultural and educational structures. For those of us working in higher education, as we will see below, such negotiation is an everyday reality.

The essays in the issue focus on the power of art and culture to disrupt and transform the social imaginary concocted by the PR managers of neo-liberal capitalism. As an academic, I can’t help but believe that the maintenance and creation of culture can change society. I am of course still willing to put my body on the line in the few remaining sites of political rebellion. But this willingness is a side-effect of my convictions. As a philosopher in pursuit of a philosophical religion, I believe that when the opportunities for seizing history and bending its arc further toward justice do arise, the role of inspired and charismatic individuals and devoted communities should not be underestimated. Rebellion and resistance must happen on the ground and in the streets, but after the revolution, art and religion will still be necessary for civilization to construct and re-construct livable worlds. And while we are still imprisoned in the capitalist oligarchy, art and religion are the most effective weapons we have for combatting the consumerist imaginary beamed to every television and pasted on every billboard in the world.

Cornel West is another good example of a radical political activist whose radicalism emerges chiefly for religious reasons:

[Update: Bryant has responded, both below and at Larval Subjects. He is rather peeved and accuses me of intentionally misrepresenting him in order to score rhetorical points. I’ve responded below, but let me also add here that I fully agree with him concerning the heinousness of the religious right in America. I don’t so much blame the people, but the power brokers manufacturing their opinions both through economic oppression and propaganda. I’ve learned much in this respect from Chris Hedges]:

Science, Art, Religion: The Role of Speculative Philosophy in the Adventure of Rationality

I’ve just completed Isabelle Stengers‘ formidable but rewarding text, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011). The final chapters concern the viability of Whitehead’s theology, specifically his articulation of the relationship between God and the World. Stengers’ asks the reader to go slowly while considering why a divine function became necessary in the course of Whitehead’s speculative adventure from The Concept of Nature, through Science and the Modern World, and on to Process and Reality. God is the keystone of Whitehead’s entire philosophical edifice; but even so, Stengers’ writes, “God is not what explains: he is what is required, in terms of the conceptual scheme, by the cosmological perspective” (p. 424). Stengers goes to great lengths to assure atheists who may otherwise lose interest or become dismissive that Whitehead was “perfectly explicit about the barbarous brutality of traditional religious statements, and particularly outspoken on the subject of the despotic role attributed to the monotheistic God” (p. 479). For Whitehead, religion has primarily to do with individual feeling, while philosophy is a devotion to the correction of our initial excess of subjectivity. His philosophy is “an attempt to save God himself from the role assigned to him by the theological visions that make him the respondent to the [overly subjective] religious vision” (ibid.).

“The concept of God,” write Whitehead,

“is certainly one essential element in religious feeling. But the contrary is not true; the concept of religious feeling is not an essential element in the concept of God’s function in the Universe. In this respect religious literature has been sadly misleading to philosophic theory, partly by attraction and partly by repulsion” (Process and Reality, p. 207).

The religious feelings humanity has regarding God cannot, therefore, be evaluated outside of the demands of rational thought. Religious modes of knowing are to be held accountable to the same tests of experiential adequacy and conceptual coherence that are scientific and aesthetic modes. Whitehead insists that God’s function in the world be secularized (ibid.). This is perhaps philosophy’s most urgent task in our contemporary world: it must correct our initial excess of subjective feeling as regards the concept of God. When we at first entertain the Great Fact of the Universe, our tendency, due to the initially subjective excess of our individual perspectives, is to assert that this Universe, despite its apparent deafness to our complaints, must in the end conform with our hopes and aspirations. We expect and demand that there be some Advocate for us in the world who might correct the wrongs that have unjustly befallen us or those we love. Some psychologists have argued that the concept of God emerges naturally as the human psyche begins to consider the grave mystery of death. This is irrelevant from Whitehead’s perspective, since for him God is not first of all an emotional or psychological consolation, but rather a conceptual construct necessary for the coherence of his cosmological scheme (to employ the jargon of his system, God’s envisagement of the eternal objects is required as an explanation for their meaningful participation in the becoming of actual occasions).

“God’s role,” writes Whitehead,

“is not the combat of productive force with productive force, of destructive force with destructive force; it lies in the patient operation of the overpowering rationality of his conceptual harmonization. He does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness” (Process and Reality, p. 346).

Once Whitehead’s God has been constructed, however, it can no longer remain an abstract metaphysical technicality, since Whitehead’s real aim is not to build conceptual castles in the clouds, but to transform our experience of the actual world, to make life more interesting, more beautiful, more virtuous. The concept of God created by Whitehead’s imaginative leap must be tested on the ground of experience. As William James might ask, what does it do?, what is its cash value? Whether or not it passes the tests required of our adventure of rationality to succeed in becoming “true” for our civilization at large will only be known by future generations.

One of these tests concerns God’s relationship to Nature as it is studied by scientists. Can scientific knowledge and the divine element in the world co-exist? Many scientific materialists, including the biologist and renowned atheist PZ Myers (to whom this post is something of a reply), think not. Myers can conceive of no evidence that might persuade him of the existence of God. In the context of speculative philosophy, construing the problem of the existence of God in terms of whether or not there is “evidence” entirely misses the point, since the metaphysician is concerned with the construction of the very criteria that might determine what counts as evidence in the first place. Speculative philosophy cannot take for granted what positivistic scientists like Myers do, that our senses (and their extensions) paint a neutral picture before the Mind “in here” of Nature “out there,” and that the processes of both Mind and Nature can be explained and controlled by way of purely mechanistic models. Whitehead, a mathematician and a physicist, had already foreseen the need for philosophical re-evaluation of the basis of natural science before Gödel’s incompleteness theorem unhinged logic and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle delocalized material particle. The picture of the cosmos that had reigned since the Scientific Revolution dissolved before his eyes during the early 20th century: a Universe on the verge of being explained by the clarity of reductionistic materialism all the sudden seemed far stranger than 19th century physicists had imagined.

Whitehead’s metaphysical scheme is an attempt to naturalize God and to divinize Nature. Disenchantment and scientific investigation are no longer understood to go hand in hand, since for Whitehead, the Universe is ensouled. How does he know this? What is his evidence for this? Whitehead is the inheritor of James’ pragmatic philosophy, wherein the evidence of an proposition’s truth consists in the consequences of this proposition for our experience. Experience, in other words, and not the “objective world,” is the final arbiter of truth, since, as even Myers admits, the truth is what works. The evidence for Whitehead’s conception of the relationship between God and the world (which I unpack more fully in this essay on a naturalistic panentheism) is the Great Fact that the Universe continues to hold together as a whole, despite the freedom of each actual occasion to determine its own form of realization. That there is a Cosmos at all, and not just chaos, is the evidence for Whitehead’s God. God is the great unifier, that which “saves” the world from disharmony. One could deny that the Universe holds together, but this would put an end to humanity’s adventure of rationality. Reason, for Whitehead, is not an abstract ideal, but must be embodied by some actual entity: that entity is God.

Returning to Myers and his championing of scientific fact as the antidote to religious belief, he recently posted a blog in defense of the Nobel Laureate chemist Harold Kroto’s understanding of science. Kroto was criticized by journalist Andrew Brown for suggesting that “Science is the only philosophical construct we have to determine TRUTH with any degree of reliability.” Kroto went on to say that society has an ethical obligation to teach children the scientific method in order to assure they have a way to determine what is true based on evidence, because, says Kroto, “without evidence, anything goes!”

Whitehead was also an educator, and so certainly would have had an opinion on this matter. For him, education was about more than training in the scientific method, however. It was about the enrichment of the soul, awakening the student to their own potential for creatively re-imagining the cultural habits they have inherited.

As Stengers’ suggests,

“For Whitehead, thinking about what social progress requires designates education as a crucial site, in which an epoch judges itself on the basis of the way it fashions those who will prolong its choices, strengths, and weaknesses. Education can create the habit of appreciating concrete facts, complete facts. It can also create the opposite habit, as is the case with the education the produces professionals, the habit of yielding in the face of what is unacceptable, of adhering to what is incredible. Because for Whitehead, the link is obviously direct between the blind way in which thinkers who stuck to secure and definite habits of thought, that is, professionals, have subscribed to the concrete unacceptable consequences of industrial development, and the way in which other thinkers, just as ‘serious,’ have prolonged, in a routine way, the incredible theses that made nature birfurcate and reduced reality to the agitation of stupid, insensate matter” (p. 139-140).

Stengers’ then quotes Whitehead at length:

“When you understand all about the sun and all about the atmosphere and all about the rotation of the earth, you may still miss the radiance of the sunset. There is no substitute for the direct perception of the concrete achievement of a thing in its actuality. We want concrete fact with a high light thrown on what is relevant to its preciousness. What I mean is art and aesthetic education […] ‘art’ in the general sense that I require is any selection by which the concrete facts are so arranged as to elicit attention to particular values which are realizable by them. For example, the mere disposing of the human body and the eyesight so as to get a good view of the sunset is a simple form of artistic selection. The habit of art is the habit of enjoying vivid values” (Science and the Modern World, p. 199).

Myers’ asks in his defense of Kroto for someone to give an example of something about which we can have reliable knowledge that is not determined by science. The Beautiful and the Good come to mind. We can know these ideals, and be educated in their creation and appraisal, but we do so with methods other than science proper, like artistic and ethical practice. Science, Art, and Religion are different ways of engaging with reality, each equally important in its own context. I think Whitehead’s cosmology allows us to conceive of their proper relation to one another in a way that avoids the self-righteous positivism of those who think like Kroto and Myers. Science is not the cure to all of society’s ills. We have quite enough scientific specialists. What we need is a form of education that allows for the kind of imaginative generalization necessary for a coherent picture of the world, one which avoids bifurcations between “Mind” and “Nature,” or “subjective fantasy” and “objective fact.” Science, religion, and art can retain their unique differences, but Wisdom requires their integration into a unified image of the cosmos. Contradictions must be made into contrasts. The university must educate human beings to live in the Universe, not in a disinfected caricature produced by specialists.

Whitehead: Aesthetics as First Philosophy

I’ve jumped from Meillassoux‘s After Finitude to reading Steven Shaviro‘s book on Whitehead, Kant, and Deleuze Without Criteria (2009). A few thoughts have occured to me…

Whitehead’s philosophy of organism possesses an immunity to post-Kantian skepticism, since it arises out of a radically embodied characterization of sensory experience. Empiricism, for Whitehead, does not mean paying attention only to raw sense data devoid of necessary connections, as in Hume. Like Kant, Whitehead has a more textured conception of fact, or what is given to us experientially prior to cognitive operations of any sort. Time and space, as Shaviro points out, are not categories of the understanding added to experience after the fact, but the inner and outer modes of intuition given as our immediately felt connection with the body and the world. Of course, our intuitions of space and time are not entirely immediate, since we feel these with the body and so experience them through the mediation of our perceptual organs. But these organs are experienced by us immediately, and the flow of sensation through the nerves of our own body is clear evidence of causation. The raw sensa, or bare universals, that Hume mistakenly assumed were the atoms of perceptual experience are actually a later cognitive abstraction. There is no evidence of causal efficacy at this level of conscious experience (what Whitehead calls “presentational immediacy”), since it is here that our human freedom becomes most pronounced. One of the unique features of human consciousness seems to be its capacity to step back from the emotionally saturated causal vectors inherited by bodily organs in order to disinterestedly observe them. Whitehead thinks this capacity for the conceptual prehension of eternal objects (or universals) is present in all organisms to some degree, but it reaches extremes in especially reflective moments of human consciousness.

Meillassoux’s chapter on Hume’s problem might have benefited from Whitehead’s analysis. Meilloussoux asks why the apparent connection between events given to us perceptually should be allowed to trump our cognitive grasp of the absolute contingency of such events. But what if philosophy were to acknowledge that cognition is a species of feeling? Causality, which for Kant was a category added to experience by the understanding, would no longer be necessary, but nor would it be purely contingent. The connective glue between bodies would be habitual, but not in the sense that Hume meant (as though it were only a limitation of the human mind that restricted us from true knowledge of real events). Whitehead’s construal of causal efficacy transforms effects into affects, thereby connecting actual occasions in a sensual matrix in which ordered behavior becomes canalized for the sake of lasting beauty and prolonged enjoyment. There is no necessary connection between events, but things nonetheless have an aesthetic longing to relate harmoniously. Novelty also enters into the causal flow of events to disrupt encrusted formations of order, but it is always checked by the socializing tendencies of actual occasions. The subjectivities composing the universe desire freedom from each other even while they seek to merge with one another, creating a cosmic pulsation always verging on but never falling entirely over into the chaotic mystery at the root of reality.