LettersTheory & Practice

#Accelerate and inertia

Thinking historically and systematically would appear to be something of an urgent requirement for critical theory in the Anthropocene. Yet there was a great allergic reaction to all such lines of thought in the late twentieth century from which social thought never really recovered.

Recently, there has been some attempt to articulate what it might mean to think future historicity as either a negation or an acceleration of what, through some sort of consensual delusion, everyone is now agreed is called ‘capitalism.’

Both positions take as given a distinction between the social and its natural ground, and contend over how the social is to be thought historically.

But there’s another axis to this, which one could think of as a ‘spatial’ rather than temporal. It’s the question of how to think the continuities and partitions between nature and culture. Revisiting this axis seems timely, given that one thing the Anthropocene might imply is that there’s no taking for granted that there is any separation between natural history and social history.

This was why I thought it helpful to look, for example, at the organicism and extrapolation of Joseph Needham, one of those now rarely acknowledged Marxist thinkers who took Engels seriously on the question of thinking the natural sciences within the frame of a critical theory.

For what is striking is that despite their differences, both the negationists and the accelerationists take the totality whose history they want to think to be a social or at best social-technical one. Either there’s negation or there’s affirmation, but it is of a social-technical apparatus whose conditions of existence are only ever mentioned in the margins, if at all.

This leaves untouched the other axis of thinking a totality and its history. At one end of this axis I placed Needham’s extrapolation. Briefly, such a mode of thought takes very seriously the groundedness of the social in the natural, but refuses any simplistic image of the latter. Needham, a first-rate biologist, knew only too well how complex and differentiated biological forms actually are. Rather, nature has to be thought on the one hand as setting severe limits to historical totality, but not prescribing any forms. Indeed, extrapolation might be a mode of thinking that looks for instances of possible forms for the social in the biological that do not yet exist.

But what is at the other end of this axis? What I think I want to call that is inertia. If Needham thought affirmatively about what forms the natural world might suggest for the social, inertialists think it negatively. They think historical movement, whether it be in the form of negation or acceleration, as rising up only to fall down again, accreting back into dead matter.

Perhaps the most significant thinkers of inertia are, or could be, Sartre and Merleu-Ponty. I say ‘could be’ in the sense that they might now retrospectively be cast in that role. In what follows, I am not claiming to give an adequate account of their thought, in the study of which I am an amateur. But rather just to suggest that there is something in that work that can be recruited to thinking a useful quadrant of the Anthropocence spatial and temporal totality. (I am indebted here to the accounts of both Martin Jay and Fredric Jameson).

Lucien Goldman once offered the provocative thesis that Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time was basically a response to Georg Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, but shifted into a strictly philosophical and less activist realm. For Goldman, both were attempting to think outside of dualism, but in a manner that preserves the honor of philosophy as having dominion over a totality.

In Heidegger there is then a lost and prior whole before the separation of object from subject; for Lukacs there is an historical agency – the party of the working class – that can become the unitary subject-object of history. In one, the good totality is lost, in the other – to come. What stands in the path of recovering the thought of Heidegger’s lost whole is the inauthentic; what stands in the way of the consciousness of a totality to be made in Lukacs is reification.

Beginning the story here helps account for the strange way that Sartre found his way from a reading of Heidegger toward a kind of inside-out Lukacisan dialectic of the totality. Or in our terms, how he moves around the square from negation to inertia. As is well known, Sartre’s reading of Heidegger is a highly ‘creative’ one, which makes not Sein but Dassein its central point of reference. In France there was a certain creative freedom to mix one’s Heidegger with a little Hegel and a lot of Kierkegaard. (Whose influence on western Marxism I discuss elsewhere.)

In short, Sartre produces not an ontology of being but a phenomenology of the human condition, his famous Being and Nothingness. If for Heidegger the inauthentic just masks a basic unity; for Sartre, it becomes a terrible chasm. Nothingness is all there is at the heart of being. The subject confronts the object as something irredeemably foreign. The object he calls, after Hegel, the in-itself. The subject he calls the for-itself. The for-itself is defined negatively. There’s no affirmative statement of an anthropology here, no species being of the order of Feuerbach or the young Marx.

The for-itself is not an identity, it is nothing but a difference, a lack. The for-itself depends on its desire for what it is not. The lack the for-itself feels can never be overcome, as there is no prior unity to uncover, nor is there a final synthesis to posit as a goal in the Hegelian-Marxist manner of the negationists. Nor is the in-itself and the for-itself in any relation of reciprocity. The for-itself lacks the in-itself, but not vice-versa. (One might think of Laruelle as taking off in an interesting way from this thought).

Unhappy consciousness is a permanent condition. Sartre’s thought – at this time – is relentlessly individualist. Human relations are conflictual. Only the objectifying gaze of an external, third-party observer can make squabbling individuals cohere into a group by producing a sense of community, an us-object. But this has its limits. There’s no god who can occupy that place for the whole species-being. (One thinks in this connexion of the desire to leave the planet as literally trying to conjure the world population into an us-object: The cosmists’ ‘common task’.) This then is Kierkegaard’s individual but without his God. We are a planet of petit-bourgeois individuals – or in today’s terms ‘neoliberal subjects’.

Sartre goes further. There is no totalization of time. The for-itself is future-oriented, and the future is open, a realm of freedom. Existence implies no essence other than this freedom, but it is conceived by Sartre at this point as a question of individual projects that open towards individual futures.

Sartre agrees with Lukacs contra Engels that nature is un-dialectical and outside of history, but not that history can be thought separately from nature. Here he curiously aligns with those like Needham with whom he otherwise appears to have nothing in common.

In Sartre, non-dialectical nature permeates the human, in the form of the body, troubling the for-itself. Nausea (the title of Sartre’s first novel) reveals the body to consciousness. As Martin Jay remarks in Marxism and Totality: “In short, the radical heterogeneity between history and nature that was posited by Hegelian Marxists like Lukacs and Kojeve in order to save dialectical totalization for human practice was interiorized within the realm of human history itself by Sartre.” (341) We are confronted by the facticity of an alien world that is not for us.

And yet we must act, and we are responsible for all our acts. In his famous phrase, we are “condemned to freedom.” But we dwell in bad faith, refusing to accept that we are our choices. What we must do, Sartre urges, is choose a project and embark on it, and above all take responsibility for these freely-chosen actions.

The goal of such actions is however an impossible one: the fusion of for-itself with the in-itself, but it isn’t really possible. There is no god, just the inert, repulsive facticity of an alien nature. And so as Sartre says in Being and Nothingness, “man is a useless passion.” (754) At best we throw ourselves into projects that attempt to realize our freedom, crash against the inert world, and fail.

Such was the mindset of the Sartre of the 1930s, a depressing and dark time, where it would have been foolish to expect any reconciliation of reason and history. The for both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, the wartime Resistance offered the possibility of something else. One can read Sartre’s later works as attempts to graft onto the individualist phenomenology of Being and Nothingness some kind of thought of the totality.

The Resistance raised the question of commitment. We are free to make our lives and are defined by our actions. We suffer anguish at having to choose. Our actions cannot be gratuitous, as in the Surrealists or Bataille. But at the same time Sartre starts to see constraints on the projects via which freedom is realized. Already, in the margins of Being and Nothingness, was the category of situation, that indistinct zone where the contours between the in-itself and what the for-itself might be able to realize are not known in advance. The situationists will expand that thought into a whole practice, not of the free act, but of the constructed situation in which different acts are possible.

It was probably Merleau-Ponty who pushed Sartre toward Marxism. Merleau-Ponty’s work always stressed the social dimension of the human more than Sartre. And he was in his own way a more consistently monist thinker. Merleau-Ponty: “The study of perception could only teach us a ‘bad ambiguity,’ a mixture of finitude and universality, of interiority and exteriority. But there is a ‘good ambiguity’ in the phenomenon of expression, a spontaneitywhich accomplishes what appeared to be impossible when we observed only the separate elements, a spontaneity which gathers together the plurality of monads, the past and the present, nature and culture into a single whole. To establish this wonder would be metaphysics itself and would at the same time give us the principle of an ethics.” (Primacy of Perception p11)

Actually what it might to do rather is open the door to a quite different solution to the problem of correlation than that proposed by Quentin Meillassoux, but which the latter acknowledges: the making absolute of the correlation itself: a monism of sensations. In this respect Merleau-Ponty offers a more sophisticated version of Machism – but that’s another story.

For Merleu-Ponty, we are condemned not to freedom, but to meaning. Our consciousness is embedded in both the body and the social. The Resistance for him meant not Sartrean freedom, but the ambiguities of history. The Resistance was a collective intervention in history, not an individual project, but nor was it Lukacs’ party as unfied object-subject of history acting on the reified world to bring into being the totality.

In his Adventures of the Dialectic (1955) Merleau-Ponty defended Hegel against Kierkegaard. He saw historical undertakings as adventures without rational guarantees, and stressed the experimental character of Marxism. In a line of thought picked up by Zizek, he defends terror. Collective action cannot always be freely chosen. The proletariat still remains the transcendent figure of hope. History is, in the same way as in the orthodox Marxism of the time, still a kind of absolute, for all Merleau-Ponty’s qualifications.

But he gradually came to realize that politics can’t articulate itself to the totality. The Hegelian Marxists of the negationist, Lukacsian stripe don’t grasp the inertia of infrastructures. As he writes in Adventures: “The Marxism of the young Marx as well as the ‘Western’ Marxism of 1923 lacked a means of expressing the inertia of the infra-structures, the resistance of economic and even natural conditions, and the swallowing up of ‘personal relationships’ in ‘things.’ History as they described it lacked density and allowed its meanings to appear too soon. They had to learn the slowness of mediations.” (64, emph. added)

A lesson apparently unlearned by today’s negationists and accelerationists.

Negation has no magic power. There is no leap out of the mundane, quotidian matters of social organization. This was the brute experience of the early Soviet Union of which Andrei Platonov wrote so well. The negationists lack a sense of history’s intractable institutional quality, of the residues and detritus within which any attempted collective action has to summon the energy to come into being. Merleau-Ponty: “Marx was able to have and to transmit the illusion of a negation realized in history and in its ‘matter’ only by making the non-capitalistic future an absolute Other. But we who have witnessed a Marxist revolution well know that revolutionary society has its weight, its positivity, and that it is therefore not the absolute Other.” (Adv p. 90) Platonov is the great witness to this.

Merleau-Ponty accused Sartre of ‘ultrabolshevism’, of still entertaining the myth of the party as transcendent subject-object of history, brining reason into the world. Sartre, he says, does not get the web of symbols, the passivity of subjects, the intractability of objects. Merleau-Ponty unfolded instead a negative dialectic, not unlike Adorno’s, in which there can be no normative totality, and certainly not an absolute one as terminus of history.

Interestingly, Merleau-Ponty moved away from a human-centered philosophy and revived question of nature, posing the question of the continuity of the “flesh of history” with the “flesh of nature.” (Jay, 377) he started to see the structuralism of Levi-Strauss as a way out of the correlationist problem, of always a subject of reason for there to be an object in the world. Structures, Levi-Strauss seemed to suggest, were to be found in both nature and culture. But by the end of his short life, Merleau-Ponty ended up in a sort of bad infinity, where ambiguity and difference are without end, suggestive though that might have been for some who came after him.

If one source of Sartre’s grappling with Marx was Merleau-Ponty, the other, strangely enough, was Heidegger. In the ‘Letter on Humanism’, he contends that Marx had at least grappled with the problem of alienation, and extracted from it a conception of history that found a real material basis for that estrangement in capitalist relations of production of modern technological forces of production. But Sartre was not thinking alienation historically but only phenomenologically, and hence had no way to respond to the leading historical thought of the time.

Given the violence with which hack party thinkers attacked him – even Lefebvre had stuck the knife in – Sartre’s disinterest in such a move is quite understandable. Still, he was a fellow-traveller of the party from 1950-1956 and did his best to do the party’s thinking for it. But he was still resistance to totality as category, and resistant to terrorist practice of liquidating particularity. Martin Jay: “But any philosophy which subordinates the human to what is Other than man, whether it be an existentialist or Marxist idealism, has hatred of man as both its basis and its consequence. History has proved this in both cases.” (349) One could predict what Jay, and others marked by Sartre’s influence, might then make of the ‘nonhuman turn’ in our times!

Which brings us to Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason. Sartre still stresses the primacy of the individual, and the resistance of lived experience to any abstract system. He thinks totality as a dead exteriority produced by human action. Or rather, what Lukacs called totality, and the young Sartre called the in-itself, the later Sartre calls the practico-inert. It is that great heap of worked over matter that resists our actions and shapes them to its habitual patterns, rather like the way Marx thinks fixed capital as dead labor over and against living labor in the ‘Fragment on Machines’ and elsewhere. The practico-inert as irreducibly other, even though produced by collective human labor.

The for-itself is now thought as praxis, as self-definition through action in the world. But does all action lead to the practico-inert, or in short is all objectification also alienation? Unlike in Lukacs, there is no affirmative model of the unalienated, because for Sartre the for-itself is negatively defined, by its lack. Our species-being is nothing but lack, desire, project. Praxis can however be a kind of totalization – a term borrowed from Lefebvre – which is dynamic, living, and above all unstable.

The totality in Sartre is then not an expressive totality as Althusser says of Lukacs. It is not the case that all the particulars are saturated in the totality. Sartre (partly) anticipates Althusser’s “history is a process without either subject or goals,” in that Sartre defines history as a human work without an author, or a “a totalization without a totalizer.” (CDR 805) There’s no collective subject, no humanism, not even a socialist one, despite what Althusser and others might have thought of the Sartre of the Critique.

Sartre still thinks an rational total history is possible, but only as a futurity, a project for praxis to posit. He does not quite want to give up the faith. But he is nervous about history as last court of appeal, as in the Marxists, and is well aware of the tendency to make the ends – ‘history’ – justify any means to the party.

There is no univocal temporality. Human time as repetitive and non-redemptive, somewhat like in Adorno on this but not Benjamin. Any totalization via praxis is ephemeral. There is a sort of anti-dialectic of passivity. Praxis can happen as the act of a fused-group, coming together to realize a project, but they all fall back toward the practico-inert, indeed, the praxis of a fused group may just contribute to the practico-inert some new layer of detritus and new sources of inertia. The fused-group falls away back into what he calls seriality.

The world is not really knowable via collective praxis. Group solidarity might be the result of coercion as much as of freedom. True acts of reciprocity, of fusion and praxis are very rare – not unlike what in Badiou will become the ‘event’ – even if in Sartre there is no magic other place from when such events might emanate.

As Jameson points out, Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason comes close to a cyclical philosophy of history. Curiously, he bases it on the Marxism of Engels’ Anti-Duhring. It even uses Engels’ reductive version of the ‘three laws of the dialectic’: the transformation of quantity into quality, the interpenetration of opposites, and the negation of the negation.

In is starting to become clear above, in the Critique, Sartre translates the terms of Being and Nothingness into a new language: the inauthentic becomes seriality, project becomes praxis, and facticity becomes scarcity.

Scarcity is the initial structure of the world, to be negated and overcome by human need. The negativity of need or desire organizes the scarcity of the in-itself into a situation. The useless passion that is man makes the world over in a project with meaning. This is the negation of the negation: the negativity that is human need organizes the negativity that is scarcity. Scarcity is the reason history is a world of violence.

This is an almost Hobbesean world, except that in Sartre it is not human nature that is violent, it is the situation. Our species-being is simply negativity and lack, which becomes violent in the situation of scarcity, which prevents reciprocity with others.

Scarcity transformed by human desire, a negation of a negation, is the basic form of the project in its collective form, a praxis, and is also what Sartre calls a totalization, which means an organized activity towards a goal. Praxis organizes the heterogeneity of the world into a coherent situation.

Sartre preserves the radical difference separating people and things of Being and Nothingness. Consciousness is alienated in things and also in other people. These initial dualisms are the elements on which Sartre builds an integrated, in a sense even monist, view of history. As in Marx, so in Sartre, being is not reducible to thought, thought is integral to the world in the form of activity.

We make our own history, but not in situations of our own choosing. Sartre really pays attention to those situations, which are themselves the result of past human history-making. Marx wrote at the beginnings of the capitalist mode of production proper, when “all that is solid melts into air.” Sartre writes at the point where it becomes late capitalism, where all that capital dissolved into air calcifies again into rigidities of one kind or another. Praxis does not confront natural situations in Sartre, but rather the already worked-over results of previous projects.

The rough, rotting, decaying detritus of failed projects – which in Platonov fall outside of meaning – appear in Sartre as a kind of anti-dialectic, a counter-finality conjoined with the finalities of praxis. This anti-dialectic is what produces the practico-inert — objects which are not just objects, but objects in which the residues of the human are mixed.

Sartre: “what has never been attempted is a study of the type of passive action which materiality as such exerts on man and his history in returning a stolen praxis to man in the form of a counter-finality.” (CDR124, emph. added) Or: first time as farce, second time as tragedy. Projects are already circumscribed by scarcity and worse, by a layer of the practico-inert that precedes them, and renders the project null in the end. This is a version of Hegel’s cunning of reason in reverse, an undoing and abrading into insignificance of any Promethean desires, no matter how rational.

It is not just the world that fills up with the practico-inert as residue of failed praxis. The human becomes thing-like and passive in order to impart something human into the passivity of the thing. Here Sartre generalizes Marx’s concept of fixed capital as stored labor. Just as in Marx, where labor/ commodity is two sides of same thing, in Sartre it is worked matter/ praxis. Worked matter shapes activity, and the subjectivity that results is seriality.

Seriality is a side-by-side anonymity and indifference. Like those moments when a homeless person begs for change on the subway and everyone just pretends they are not being addressed by this person’s entreaties.

To seriality, Sartre counterposed the fused group. This might seem like playing a ‘folk politics’ such as Occupy off against some kind of claim for a ‘rationality’ of planning, but like that distinction it goes back to some old categories in social thought. It root it is the distinction between what Tönnies called Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Sociology has for a long time been thinking about the difference between what is affective, motivating, integral and local, on the one hand, and what is stable, predictable, scalable and yet affectless and alienating on the other hand.

In seriality, “everyone is the same as the Others in so far as he is Other than himself.” (CDR260) The center of my world is not in me, it is in other people for me – and the same for them. We all ignore the beggar on the subway, as if s/he was not addressing us. In seriality, everyone stands in exteriority to each other. Examples of serality for Sartre include the market and broadcast media, although it is hard not to see Facebook as pure seriality too.

The way Sartre thinks the fused-group is that it is the emergence of an event that produces a subjectivity. (Here one finds, interestingly, a source for both Badiou and Guattari). The fused-group produces not more things but an authentic subjectivity. In the fused-group, everyone is the center, and otherness becomes identity. The fused-group is no longer a dualism of my indifference to you and vice-versa.

In the group we are united by the threat of an external third, interiorizing the threat to remain a group. Each becomes a third to all the others. One can think of recent examples, such as Occupy Wall Street. The fused group seemed sustainable to the extent that there was constant fear of being displaced or confronted by the cops. But even that was not enough, in the long run, to sustain it, and it melted away. For Sartre, man is still a useless passion.

The fused-group is temporary, it has no ontological status. Yet members of a fused-group are defined by its non-existent totality. The malaise of the community is the very thing that strengthens its practices of integration. At this stage everyone is leader. Apparent leaders are really only the mouthpiece for the desires of the group. The group is oriented to a futurity, to an appointment with a future time.

So far this might seem like it supports the position of those who would want to renounce the ‘folk politics’ of things like Occupy, and instead prefer something like a rational mode of planning. But for Sartre, the state is just a reified version of a fused-group, one which has relapsed into seriality, into bureaucracy or worse.

The means via which fused-groups impose themselves on history are not pretty. His two examples are the French and Russian revolutions, which in some ways betray the same pattern. The fused-group binds itself to a future appointment by a blood oath. Constituent power pledges itself to its group desire and comes into being out of the negativity in this act. The pledge could be to liberty, equality and fraternity; or it could be to peace, land and bread. But the pledge sets up the conditions for identifying the traitor and the group-structure in which the terror appears to sustain the impossible totality of the fused-group.

There is then a bracing pessimism to Sartre. On the one hand, there is now the Anthropocene world as we find it, where objects are already worked-over by past praxis into a practio-inert. On the other hand, subjectivity is either passively shaped into the same form as the practico-inert, or it fuses into groups that have no being, that collapse back, or worse – which impose themselves on history through the methods of terror.

As in organicist thinking, there’s a recognition of the limits to rationality imposed by the very materiality of matter itself, except that it is the counter-finality of matter transformed by agency rather than the possibilities of the natural world that is central. Both tendency share a rejection of Vico’s notion that the world humans make for themselves is uniquely graspable in rational form because it is the product of rational (or rationalizable) human activity. This transparency cannot apply when the neat, a priori cut between the cultural and the natural is simply taken as given.

Interestingly, in Search for a Method, Sartre says that “Marxism, while rejecting organicism, lacks weapons against it.” (51) It is not entirely clear if Needham’s organicism can be assimilated to this category, but it certainly appears enabling for thinking the four quadrants of historical thought at the moment: an acceleration <-> negation axis, and an <inertia <-> extrapolation axis. Acceleration and negation actually share an optimism about a purely social totality that can be rationalized; Inertia and extrapolation refuse this and insist that the opacity of the social-technical world results in part from its imbrication in dead matter. But what negation and inertia have in common is the labor of the negative, while extrapolation and acceleration share an affirmative approach to the making of history.

The real opposition in thought is thus not between acceleration and negation, but between acceleration and inertia. Inertia is what acceleration has to account for and overcome as the already-existing critique of Promethean projects. The path to that overcoming lies through the theory and practice of extrapolation from organicist understandings of forms of organization that traverse the presumption of a nature-culture divide, which deal instead with what Donna Haraway calls naturecultures, which are attentive not just to the conceptual but also technical means by which what Karan Barad calls the cut is made, and an artifact of ‘nature’ appears in a ratonalizable form, separated out from its cultural, social and technical conditions of existence.



McKenzie Wark

Previous post

Islamists and the Perpetuity of Catastrophe

Next post

Cop Violence and the Order of Urban Terrorism