Saturday, December 31, 2011

Last Posting of the Year (Probably)

     I thought that I would take the time to write a brief end of the year posting.  Most likely, I won't have the time or inclination to do this tomorrow, so I might as well put something up tonight.  It's been a curious year.  At the local level, this year has seen the success of the reform movement in the grad student movement, quickly moving from the challenges to the last contract to a strong, state-wide movement that successfully won all positions on the union's executive board.  From there, the local has been at the center of the attempt to revive the movement to defend public education.  Schools across the state have been involved in occupations, demonstrations, and disruptions.  The most notable actions occurred in Davis and Berkeley, but all the schools with heavy AWDU contingents have managed substantial political actions.  The local still needs to make up for the years of neglect in regards to its workplace organizing.  I still think that this is going to be a lot of work, particularly without any real models for the kind of work we are involved, but I think that we can still produce a strong rank and file union by the time the contract is up in a couple years.

      At the national level, the 'occupy' movement seems to present an opening for counter-systemic movements that doesn't really have an equivalent in my life time.  The movement has its obvious origins in the Arab Spring, but that impetus quickly translated into a method to fuse a number of disparate struggles.  The closest comparison might be the anti-globalization movement, but it never produced a linkage between the local, the national, and the international that we see here.  Additionally, the protests are remarkably popular.  Repeatedly in polls, over half the population supports the basic aims of the movement, giving the movement a popularity that the ant-war movement certainly didn't see.  The shift from the encampment structure to the attempt to protect houses from foreclosure seems to be a potentially powerful shift for the winter months.  I can see two potential points of collapse.  1.  A collapse of the delicate structure of alliances, between radicals and liberals, anarchists and socialists, veteran activists and new recruits, as well as a diversity of racial and ethnic groups.  2.  The presidential election is going translate into some pretty substantial attempts on the part of the democratic party to translate the movement into a prop for the Obama election.  I don't know whether these potential crises will be negotiated or not, but they represent the potential of the movement, in the form of previously unimaginable political assemblages and through a movement that is large enough to potentially change the fate of presidential elections.

      The productive problems of both levels of struggle gesture towards the need to reconsider the second type of knowledge as discussed in Spinoza's Ethics, common notions.  We need new forms of organization, new forms of communication, and new ways of communicating.  I don't know what those new forms are, or if we are capable of producing the kind of novum implicit in these new commons.  I think that we need to try to hold onto a little more theoretical modesty in regards to these questions.  If these new forms are created, they will be created collectively and in struggle.  In this context, we must take up Hegel's demand that we 'tarry with the negative' in order to produce new concepts, that is, the need to refuse the desire to synthesize antagonisms, to flatten ambiguities, and to accept the existence of the unknown.  Experimentation and failure are crucial to social movements, no matter how painful they are at times.  I'm looking forwards to finding out what happens in the next year, along with finishing a dissertation.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A short reading of the beginning of Chapter 2 in Karl Marx's Capital Vol. 1

     Before I got sick, I began another attempt of reading Marx's Capital, Vol. 1.  Up until now, I have only worked through about half the text, getting distracted by other projects, some significant, some less than significant.  Remarkably enough, I found reading the text on the airport quite productive.  I managed to work through the first two chapters of the text, while on the plane.  A lot of it was review, but a number of passages stood out upon increased scrutiny.  Marx's literary interests become increasingly apparent in the section on the commodity fetish, and continue into the chapter on exchange.  However, the opening passage of that second chapter, "The Process of Exchange" stood out in particular, given my current dissertation project.  Marx opens that chapter by describing the relationship between the commodity forms and their 'guardians.'

      "Commodities cannot themselves got to market and perform exchanges in their own right.  We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are the possessors of commodities.  Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man.  If they are unwilling, he can use force; in other words, he can take possession of them.  In order that these objects may enter into relation with each other as commodities, their guardians must place themselves in relation to one another as persons who will reside in those objects, and must behave in such a way that each does not appropriate the commodity of the other, and alienate his own,  except through an act to which both parties consent.  The guardians must therefore recognize each other as owners of private property.  This juridical relation, whose form is the contract, whether as part of a developed legal system or not, is a relation between two wills which mirrors the economic relation.  The content fof this juridical relation (or relation of two wills) is itself determined by the economic relation.  Here the persons exist for one another merely as representatives and hence owners, of commodities.  As we proceed to develop our investigation, we shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are merely personifications of economic relations; it as the bearers (Traeger) of these economic relations that they come to contact with each other.

     What chiefly distinguishes a commodity from its owner is the fact that every other commodity counts for it only as the form of appearance of its own value.  A born leveller and cynic, it is always ready to exchange not only soul, but body with each and every other commodity, be it more repulsive than Maritornes herself.  The owner makes up for this lack in the commodity of a sense of the concrete, physical body of the other commodity, by his own five and more senses.  For the owner, his commodity possesses no direct use-value.  Otherwise, he would not bring it to market.  It has use-value for others; but for himself its only direct use-value is as a bearer of exchange-value, and consequently, a means of exchange.  He therefore makes up his mind to sell it in return for commodities whose use-value is of service to him.  All commodities are non-use-values for their owners, and use-values for their non-owners.  Consequently, they must all change hands.  But this changing of hands constitutes their exchange, and their exchange puts them in relation with each other as values and realizes them as values.  Hence commodities must be realized as values before they can be realized as use-values." (Marx 179)

     Marx's description of this relationship takes on a particularly patriarchal valence.  The figure of the guardian is necessary for the commodity form, but the relationship is defined in terms of potential coercion.  Marx notes, "Commodities are things, and therefore lack the power to resist man."  The commodity is labelled a thing, but it is strangely animated by the relationship with its guardian.  'He' (to use Marx's language) can 'use force' or 'take possession' of the commodity in order to bring it into the market.  The commodity may be a thing, but it is haunted by a phantom-like volition that must be potentially dominated in order to bring into the set of relations that define the market.  To return to the question of patriarchy, its difficult to avoid the implications of rape contained in the word, 'force.'  If this seems like an overreach, the following paragraph describes the relationship in sexual terms, or perhaps more specifically, as a form of prostitution.  The 'guardian' puts the commodity form into an endless series of both intimate and degrading exchanges, oscillating between the antagonistic poles of use and exchange.  The violent intimacy of the commodity is opposed by the guarded relationship of the guardians themselves.  Haunted by the threat of dispossession, that is, of facing the kind of violation contained in the exchange of commodities, the guardians set up a thick set of laws to avoid that potential threat.

      However, the 'guardian' of the commodity doesn't escape this relationship unscathed. As Marx notes, "the persons exist for one another merely as representatives and hence owners, of commodities." Hemmed in by the logic of private property, the commodity 'guardian' or owner is flattened or objectified, just as the commodity is personified in exploitation and domination.  The patriarchal logic of instrumental reason reflects back on those who wield it, transforming them into mere representatives, equally trapped by the structure of domination that they created.  Marx makes this explicit with the following passage, "As we proceed to develop our investigation, we shall find, in general, that the characters who appear on the economic stage are merely personifications of economic relations; it as the bearers (Traeger) of these economic relations that they come to contact with each other."  Marx's term to describe this term is Traeger, translated as bearer by Ben Fowkers, the term also implies that the object plays the role as receptacle or repository.  In effect, the 'guardian' is himself an empty signifier, as infinitely exchangeable as the commodity itself.  The 'guardian' becomes a curious type of cypher, one that uses 'his own five and more senses' to represent the 'economic relation', which 'mirrors' or 'determines' the social relations between 'guardians.'  Marx describes this form of representation as 'ownership.'  If the commodity form is personified by the social relations in its production, its 'guardian' is transformed into an object.  

      It's fairly obvious that the domination and expropriation of living labor is thinly veiled by the mystified form of the commodity, which explains the threat of force contained in the relationship between guardian and commodity.  However, the patriarchal metaphor shouldn't be ignored.  We can already see a  glimpse of the critique written by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and, perhaps more significantly, a possible feminist engagement with Marx, avoiding a reading that simply operates in the logic of lack.  We can see in Marx's work, a sort of libidinal economy contained in the commodity form itself, one that arises out of the domination of production and colonizes the entire social field.  The role of patriarchy in the so called primitive accumulation of capital described historically by Sylvia Federici in Caliban and the Witch is already implied by Marx in the logical form of his analysis.  Marx continually insists that the commodity form contains in it the social relations of its production, and therefore the dispossession necessary for its genesis.  All to often, Marxists gesture towards this network of social relations without working through the full meaning of that implication.  Perhaps it is time to take that up.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Notes on the Post-War Period

Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique opens with her identification of a gap or lacunae in the dense network of discourse surrounding the household, a gap identified with the yearning of women. 

            “For over fifteen years there was no word of this yearning in the millions of words written about women, for women, in all the columns, books and articles by experts telling women their role was to seek fulfillment as wives and mothers.  Over and over women heard in voices of tradition and of Freudian sophistication that they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity.  Experts told them how to catch a man and keep him, how to breastfeed children and handle their toilet training, how to cope with sibling rivalry and adolescent rebellion; how to buy a dishwasher, bake bread, cook gourmet snails, and build a swimming pool with their own hands; how to dress, look, and act more feminine and make marriage more exciting; how to keep their husbands from dying young and their sons from growing into delinquents.  They were taught to pity the neurotic, unfeminine women who wanted to be poets or physicists or presidents….  A thousand expert voices applauded their femininity, their adjustment, their new maturity.  All they had to do was devote their lives from earliest girlhood to finding a husband and bearing children.” (Friedan 58)

             The unnamed problem discussed by Friedan is defined by its dialectical opposite, the utopian promise of an expertise created through a dense discourse of scientific and technical expertise, in the form of technical manuals, psychoanalysis, and social convention.  Friedan gestures towards an intense instrumentalization of the household through the construction of a dense web of discourse.  The care of the bourgeois family is mapped out in painstaking detail, through the minutiae of childcare, the management of resources, and most of all, the affective economy of femininity.  Friedan recognizes the intense social, political, and economic pressure being put on the newly reconstructed household, intuitively recognizing the radical shift in the economy of the family in the post war years described by Stephanie Coontz.  The figure of the mother can be found at the center of that nexus, linking shifts in political, social and libidinal economies.  Rather than following Friedan’s repressive hypothesis, I want to read the ‘feminine mystique’ as the symptom of the intensification of the body of the white mother, transforming her into the guarantor of the stability of not only the household, but the nation itself, linking to the creation of what Stuart Ewen calls consumer social democracy as well as introducing the working classes to the regime of sexuality.  These hegemonic structures along with the expansion and reintegration of the white supremacist order were intended to legitimate and reinforce the logic of capitalist accumulation.

            Within that economy, ‘expertise’ and ‘yearning’ are mutually constitutive, operating within a sort of dialectical relationship.  In her recognition of the dialectical relationship between ‘expertise’ and ‘yearning, Friedan implicitly develops a sort of class analysis, recognizing a common set of experiences between (white) women centered in the psychic, social, political, and economic structures of the household, which crossed ostensible class barriers.  The labor of the household becomes a central locus of complex set of techniques of population, legitimizing the Fordist regime of accumulation, and perhaps more significantly, operating as a locus meant to stabilize the social reproduction of the newly expand regime of accumulation.  In effect, the structures of affective labor and forms of consumption are central to mitigating the alienation of the workplace, continuing a regime of consumption, but perhaps more significantly, reproducing the population.  The mother becomes the focus for this web of discourse not because of irrelevance as Friedan occasionally thinks, but because these modes of unpaid labor are central to the regime as a whole.  That centrality, in turn, produces the modes of resistance gestured towards in Friedan's choice of language, 'yearning.'  Feminism becomes the primary, but not exclusive form of resistance to this regime. 

          In their work, Empire, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt argue that the current regime of accumulation is increasingly defined by modes of affective labor.  I'm interested in exploring the role that feminism as a form of counter-conduct to Fordist capital and the various attempts to appropriate those forms of counter-conduct coagulate into the current regime of accumulation.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Activism, Science Fiction Studies, and Cultural Studies Covered Briefly in Three Paragraphs

       I'm currently in Minneapolis, trying to get over a mild, but nagging cold.  It's about one in the morning before Christmas.  Why not start a blog posting?  I'm going to try to get back into the swing of writing with a great deal more regularity than I have over the past few months.  More specifically, I plan to return to some of the more academic topics that have gotten dropped a bit lately for more immediately focused projects and polemics.  It's not that I plan to drop that material, but I want to get back to some of the earlier discussions around cultural studies, science fiction, and critical theory that have found less emphasis in the blog lately.  Part of that has occurred because I have been recently been dealing with the potential loss of two chapters worth of my dissertation, but another part has simply occurred because  my thoughts have been focused on a number of immediate political concerns, particularly about the question about organizing the Irvine branch of the local union, and the attempt to create a coalition in defense of public education on campus.  I'm certainly not going to drop this stuff.  I'm still trying to get the local and myself to think about doing the day to day work of organizing, of moving away from the informal friendship structure of the current situation to something that is a genuine rank and file structure.  Additionally, I have some very definite ideas about some experiments that might make good actions for the coalition, and am trying to get Sylvia Federici and George Caffentzis to give a couple talks at the university about the question of debt as well as the history of social movements.

        But I also want to turn to some of the questions that brought me to the institution itself, questions that are themselves, but are a bit more untimely, to use Nietzsche's phrase.  My research for my dissertation has turned increasingly to the intertwined topics of the utopian form and structures of domestic conventionality.  These generic forms find their first major interconnection with the work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Critics often write about Gilman's utopian novel, Herland, but ignore the context of its publication, Gilman's self-published magazine, The Forerunner.  The majority of Gilman's novels were published in that magazine, including her major utopian works, Moving the Mountain, Herland, and With Her in Ourland.  These novels were serialized along with popular sociological material, and perhaps more significantly, types of writing that could fit very comfortably within a conventional women's magazine, despite its political content.  In many ways, The Forerunner isn't as exceptional a publication as many seem to think that it was.  Progressive era publications, including women's magazines, often took on serious political topics, and editors of the journals included naturalist author Theodore Dreiser.  What is perhaps unique to the work of the The Forerunner is the attempt to synthesize the utopianism that Gilman derives from the work of Edward Bellamy and link it with the conventions of domestic melodrama.  If Herland frequently operates under the logic of the feminine mystique, the conventional dramas about marriage and domestic life show a curious fascination with long economic exposition, frequently consisting of lists of costs.  In effect, Gilman attempts to negotiate her focus on household domesticity through generic form.

       Additionally, the question of cultural studies remains a continued interest, particularly around questions of subculture, everyday life, and the limits of capital contained in the contradictions contained in the commodity form.  The material that I am working with is obviously intensely commodified, and the rise of the genre of science fiction is linked to the rise of Fordist regime of accumulation, or perhaps more crudely, a society built on mass consumption.  The rise of paraliterature strongly parallels these economic shifts.  This is frequently gestured towards in the Marxist work on science fiction, following Darko Suvin, but it is rarely worked through.  Similarly feminist work does some impressive work of developing an analysis of the subcultural networks that form the critical apparatus of the genre, but don't take on the Lukacsian questions of form and history.  To be honest, I'm not sure if I can do this work within my dissertation, which is focused on trying to produce a type of social formalism, but I think I'm going to try to use the blog to try to ask these questions.  One of the things that I was really fascinated by in the early editorials of science fiction writer and editor Judith Merril was the way that she linked questions of literary quality with the commodity form, ie, the quality of the literature somehow paralleled the production of quality paperbacks, of the existence of hard cover science fiction novels, etc.  There are similar thoughts in some of the criticism of Damon Knight, and even to an extent in the early work of Samuel Delaney.  I think I am going to think through some of those histories more extensively.  In any case, I think that I am going to keep this transitional Christmas post brief, and leave it there.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

tentative notes on the state of the union

       I haven't written as much as I would have liked to do in the past couple of months.  I've been distracted by my work for the union, and the effort to produce a movement to defend public education at both the local level, as well as the state level.  Within that context, I thought it might be worth briefly discussing what's been going on within the Irvine branch of the local.  Most of my postings about the local have been polemical in nature, focusing on the conflicts with the former leadership or conflicts with the former leadership, but this posting is going to be a little more open ended.  To put it simply, our reform group, AWDU has been in charge of the local for the past quarter.  At this point, it might be worth asking what we have accomplished at this point.  I'm not going to get into the larger debates about the state, although some of the concerns around the Irvine campus may tie into larger concerns around the campus.

          To start off with some of the positive aspects of the past few months, the Irvine branch has managed to produce a fairly large activist base.  We currently have a listserve with about thirty activists on it, and, for the first time in years, we actually have all of our Joint Council positions filled.  Additionally, we have a number of steward positions filled by activists.  This has translated into monthly membership meetings with large numbers, the attempt to organize a number of committees to focus on campus issues, and a number of cultural events.  The former leadership at our campus always insisted that the Irvine campus was intrinsically conservative, and the rank and file preferred to let a small group of people make the decisions for the union, but I think the recent shifts point to the fact that this may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We still have a lot of work on this front, particularly within the natural sciences, but the shift in the local has been considerable.

      The local branch of the union has also been involved in the attempt to recreate the coalition to defend public education that more or less fell apart after the large demonstrations in March.  In this regard, there has been some meaningful success.  Despite the fact that the Irvine campus hasn't seen the drama and militancy that has been seen on the Davis, Irvine, and Santa Cruz campuses, the campus has managed to produce a significant coalition space, and has also managed to organize protests, and contribute to the protest against the California State University trustees in Long Beach, as well the UCLA regents meeting.  The direction of this coalition and its sustainability is still very much in the air.  A number of the issues that destroyed the 2009-2010 coalition, particularly around the issue of race and perhaps more specifically, the colonial legacy of the term 'occupation' and the attempt by one participant to argue for a focus on economics, rather than race, revealed themselves in the last general meeting. (a lot more needs to be said here, particularly around the need for us to meaningfully commit to anti-racist politics, but I feel neither the ability to take this on now.)  Within that context, the concept of 'occupation' is still viewed with a deep suspicion on the part of many of the undergraduate organizers, particularly the activists of color.  Furthermore, the movement has not linked itself to the broad student body despite a successful demonstration of about 300-500 people.  We managed to accomplish quite a bit in the past months, but we're going to need to launch a massive educational event, and perhaps more significantly, create forms of militancy that don't mirror the protests of the northern campuses.  (We also need to learn how to run better meetings, and call people on their nonsense, as well.)

       As a brief side note, the guilty verdict for the Irvine 11 has played a considerable chilling effect on much of the campus.  That verdict led to the choice on the part of the Irvine 19 to take plea deals, as well as making prosecution a much more real threat for on campus activism.

     Moving away from the question of coalition activism to day to day rank and file activism, we can see another substantial problem.  As I previously noted, the local unit has done a very good job of recruiting a powerful activist base, one that exists primarily in the social sciences and the humanities, but having representation throughout the disciplines.  The next step, making the union a presence in the workplace of the rank and file, has not yet occurred.  The AWDU group was able to successfully out organize the lone USEJ representative through a combination of resentments around the last contract, and more significantly, the variety of informal social networks.  That set of networks continued to produce an activist base for the campus, but efforts to move beyond this situation have been less successful, particularly in bringing in new membership, and more significantly, translating the right to collective bargaining into on the ground worker's power.  I don't want to say that this problem hasn't been implicitly recognized by the group, but the effort to create subcommittees hasn't translated into practical action, and the proposed organizing committee and departmental meetings have yet to occur.  We were right to reject the representational structure that the former leadership operated under, a structure that operated on an instrumental logic, but we haven't as of yet come up with alternative structures.  This seems to be the central question, along with the need to produce a new student movement in Irvine.