Spivak and Chatterjee (The Subaltern, The Governed)

Spivak: Can the Subaltern Speak

Spivak works with many concepts in this essay, but for our purposes lets build off of one, the concept of the subaltern. The subaltern is pulled from Gramsci’s Notebooks and it refers to any person or group who is low ranking in the grand scheme of society. In other words, the subaltern is that person who is suffering under the dominant hegemonic class, such that their basic rights of participation are denied. They are denied political activity, in other words. In Gramsci’s work the subaltern are specifically the workers and peasants under the Mussolini regime who are oppressed and discriminated upon. These groups and the subaltern in general is not unified and cannot be unified unless it organizes as a counter hegemony. A fundamental difference between Gramscian and Marxist analysis in the raising of class-consciousness and the construction of a new hegemony was the fact that Gramsci included peasants, whereas Marx (in Northern Europe) was convinced of their dwindling significance and the rise of the workers. This, according to El Habib Louai, is the connection between Indian historians and cultural theorists of the 1980s and Gramsci.

At the forefront is Ranajit Guha, who defines the subaltern as a name for the general element of subordination in South Asia, expressed in terms of class, caste, age, gender, etc (Louai, 2011). In the Indian context, the subaltern are the general population in contrast to the elite (be that it may the colonial elite or the localized native elite). More to the point, from the perspective of the historian rather than the political activism of Gramsci, to study the subaltern for Indian scholars, was to assess the role of the elite and to critique the elitist interpretations of that role (Guha, 1982; in Louai, 2011). The significance of what Guha was doing here as far as historiography goes cannot be understated. He and many others (particularly anthropologists, who were undergoing a reflexive turn) during this period were re-considering how history was written. This was because of their growing concern based on the assumption that Indian national history was controlled by colonial elitism or was being produced by nationalist-bourgeois elitists (also produced by British colonialism). The question then became, how do we get at, or get to the subaltern? This is the same as asking what is the history that is not the “accepted” history? Is such a history possible? We reside here at the use and abuse of discourse broadly construed. This takes us into the epistemological. This is where Spivak’s text comes into the discussion.

Spivak is interested in the epistemological structures that denote the parameters of our discourse. Like Guha, she is interested in how history is written and the extent to which a vast majority of the individuals in that history are left out, written out, written over, unvoiced, or given a voice. What is written about? For what reason is it written certain ways? We can take this further of course. What is the extent that we can write about this something? Without the knowledge of something or an exposure to it and therefore without the language for it, can it be discussed? Interesting here is what is done when we are exposed to something we have no words for. The abject comes to mind here, but other examples abound, particularly in the form of artistic development (eg: Duchamp’s urinal), or socio-cultural “abnormalities” (homosexuality as an example, if we witness the level of sophistication of discussion here in Korea compared with the US).

With Spivak however we are not in this potentially emancipatory space. She takes us to a question before the “What is to be done”, before the “What do we talk about”. Who is the “we”? Who is talking? Who or what are they talking about? The work of colonial historians as we have mentioned More importantly, if they are talking about a “who”, why doesn’t the “who” speak for itself? Can the subaltern speak? Spivak says no. A great deal of her reasons why the subaltern cannot speak, we have already touched upon above through Guha and Gramsci. However this claim that the subaltern cannot speak was met with great criticism. Spivak seems to have been trying to refuse the possibility of a subaltern voice, though her argument was more towards a recognition of how well buried the voice of the subaltern is given the historical discourse.

Half way through her text, Spivak finds herself trying to fully understand what the subaltern is and thereby finds herself raising an example of what might be one instead, women. Here she reflects on the status of Indian women by analyzing the sati practices of women under British colonial rule and comparing it with the Hindu policy. Under the British discourse in the colonial there was a writing of the individual freedom of sati women, the overarching analysis being one where the woman were forced into the practice. But under Hindu policy sati was understood to be a voluntary ritual. The conflict between these two positions produced two different discourses, which simply could not reconcile with one another. The British one, in Spivak’s words being: “white men are saving brown women from brown men,” while the other discourse being, “the woman actually wanted to die” (Spivak, 92). In either of these contradictory discourses however, the woman is totally without voice. In some respect, the next Chatterjee piece tries to reconcile this voicelessness through a more contemporary historical and ethnographic analysis.

Chatterjee: The Politics of the Governed

Chatterjee’s set up, his brief conceptual history of the world in the second chapter, is as follows. The French Revolution came from coming together of enlightened modernity and the universal political aspirations of citizenship. What came out of this was a formula: the identity of the people with the nation and the identity of the nation with the state (Chatterjee, 28). His claim is that the legitimacy of a modern state from this point onwards was grounded in the concept of popular sovereignty and indeed this is the beginning of democratic politics of today where all regimes today claim to rule on behalf of the people (ibid). Through the concept of this modern state, “the people” and the entire discourse of rights have become generalized within the very idea of the nation state, but there exists a massive gap between the advanced democratic nations of the west (where these concepts came from) and the rest of the world (where these concepts were applied). Moreover, and this gets to the crux of Chatterjee’s discussion, there was a particular framework of rights of and for those people in the modern state, these included the ideas of freedom and equality. We know all too well and could easily open up a massive discussion on this, but these two core concepts at the heart of the nation state, are constantly pulling at one another in opposite direction.* Because of the opposition of these two core concepts of the modern state, to further concepts were required to ameliorate the inevitable conflict. The French philosopher, Etienne Balibar, has labeled them simply, property and community (30). “Property” was meant to resolve the contradictions between freedom and equality from the perspective of the individual in relation to all other individuals, whereas with “community” the resolution was implied in regards to the level of the entire “fraternity” (ibid). The correlations to larger dimensions of political discourse that Chatterjee briefly makes here could be written as: resolutions of property are liberal, while resolutions of community are communitarian. In the third chapter he describes “property” as “the conceptual name of the regulation by law of relations between individuals in civil society” (74). “Community” on the other hand, is “conferred legitimacy within the domain of the modern state only in the form of the nation” such that, “[o]ther solidarities that could potentially come into conflict with the political community of the nation are subject to a great deal of suspicion” (75). In order for a modern nation state to properly operate then, we could more simply correspond “property” with the necessity of the legal and paralegal and “community” with the necessity for moral solidarity (74/75). At the heart of Chatterjee’s discussion is that these ideals of a modern state and its correlative, modern citizenship, required a very specific form of homogeneity (30). Put into terms we have discussed in the Spivak piece, the tension of equality and freedom with their twin operatives of property and community as they were realized in modern state “defined the conceptual parameters of political discourse of capital, proclaiming liberty and equality, could flourish” (30). Chatterjee’s use of “capital” here has many implications, but he is referring to the latter incarnations of a modern state with the rise of industrialization and capitalist practices, which in fact heightened the ideals of equality and freedom. Additionally equality and freedom got rid of a great deal of restrictions against individual mobility which were traditionally confined by birth and status, however the legal-political theory which unraveled in trying to reach these ideals separated the domain of Right (universal equal rights) from the actual domain of life of civil society (ibid). Again, rights of citizens were unrestricted by race, religion or class, but this did not mean that these distinctions were abolished in society, that is, they remained heterogeneous. The promise of universal equal rights coupled with this heterogeneity of course propelled the vast majority of struggles over the past two centuries based on social differences of race, religion, caste, class, and gender (ibid). Given this universalism promised in the domain of Right and the heterogeneity of the actual civil society, a whole new range and ordering of power relations came into play; entirely new methods of governance set out to resolve threats to its order. This birth of new modes of governance is familiar to us by now, but it’s worth examining a few points.

Taking us into the end of the colonial era and the beginning of the postcolonial period, in the West at least in the early 20th century, an entirely new distinction was made between citizens and populations. Here to be a “citizen” was/is to carry an ethical connotation of participation in the soverienty of the state, while “population” referred/refers to the domain of policy (34). Populations are wholly descriptive; there is no normativity involved. Populations are identifiable, classifiable and describable, and amendable through statistical technique, as Chatterjee explains. As we have learned from Foucault several decades ago, the implications just described in the use of the very concept of “population”, gives various institutions of the government or bodies of the government “a set of rationally manipulable instruments for reach large section of the inhabits of a country as the targets of their policies–economic, administrative, law or mobilization” (ibid). The shift then is away from a participatory politics of the citizen within the modern state, represented in the term “civil society”, toward a governmentalization of the state where state legitimacy is gained through a claim to provide for the well being of the population, a management of bodies, so to speak. The shift then is from politics to governance, from political representation to administration.

More substantially, in Asia and Africa, this chronological sequence was rather different, since under colonial regimes, these forms of governmentality actually predated the nation-state. Individuals in these countries were subjects, never exactly citizens since colonial rule never recognized a popular politics. Nevertheless these ideals, which we have already looked at, of the republican citizen and of citizenship guided the growing consciousness of colonized peoples and accompanied their historical movement and the very politics of their national liberation (37). In this well known story of a postcolonial state however Chatterjee adds an additional caveat: neither citizenship nor national liberation were every fully realized in postcolonial states because, without exception, “they were overtaken developmental state which promised to end poverty and backwardness by adopting appropriate polices of economic growth and social reform” and by deploying the latest governmental technologies which promoted the well-being of their populations” (ibid). In this governing of the population through technical strategies, all the old ethnographic concepts of classifying people and even in the using of the national languages (as we saw with Spivak) were used out of convenience and expediency.

Chatterjee’s long set up here returns us to Gramsci of last week and the loosely defined distinction between political society and civil society. It might be noted that the distinction is not only useful for India or other postcolonial states, but to all subalterns as we have defined them above. Civil society is connected with the nation-state, founded on popular sovereignty and granting equal rights to all citizens. This is politics, as we traditionally know it. Civil society is bourgeois society, inhabited by a small group of elites. Across the board even as colonial powers left or passed over their modes of governance to the people, a vast majority of those who held on to power were native individuals who had previously eased the governance by foreign powers (India and Korea are good examples of this). Point being, everyone is necessarily a member of civil society, but in practice, civil society and the benefits that come with access to it was and remains to be inhabited by only a small group. Chatterjee then refuses to give this term to everyone in society. In theory it should be an access point into political activity, but in practice it is not. What Chatterjee wants to call political society on the other hand, connects people to governmental agencies, which pursue modes of security and welfare to the population. More to the point, those subalterns who are being governed often have tenuous and ambiguous rights as citizens, yet they are not outside the state and therefore demand to be looked at by the state. In trying to discern the entanglement between clearly demarcated citizens and the subaltern Chatterjee is trying to bring out this space of political society. His question is, might this relationship between these subaltern and those who have a readily available access to civil society, require a different mode of politics?

His third chapter is a fuller discussion of how the politics of the dispossessed might be realized. Here Chatterjee returns us to that tension of freedom and equality and their correspondents, property and community. He builds towards his argument of how this kind of politics may look like first with an interesting discussion of a smallish religious group, but later in a discussion of the 100’s of thousands of squatters throughout the country. Going over the various success stories and the not so successful, his claim is that the subaltern (squatters here), must first find recognition as a population group, but more than that they must invest in a collective identity of moral content, they must, in other words, shoot for that (moral) community (57). Property on the other hand, as we have seen is the regulation of law of regulations between individuals and civil society. Pushing the subaltern further, refugees, landless people, day laborers, people below the poverty line, (and we can take this beyond Chatterjee’s context), aborigines, Native Americans, those registered as offenders, those registered with AIDS, women, etcetera etcetera—are all demographics categories of governmentality and it is on this ground of their governance, through these demographics, as opposed to through their rights as citizens, that they define their claims (59). These claims are always political and not limited to postcolonial states of course.* Returning us to Spivak’s question, “Can the subaltern speak?” Chatterjee ends this chapter on the quest for a mediator, someone who is capable of pursuing a persuasive politics of the governed, and someone who equally has certain access points to that civil society. The mediator must “succeed in mobilizing the population groups to produce a local political consensus that can effectively work against the distribution of power in society as a whole” (55). These individuals are meant to mediate between those who govern and those who are governed. Chatterjee briefly mention the significance of teachers in the Indian context here, but leaves us hanging toward the end of the chapter as he says they have lost a certain amount of “social capital” for this kind of mediation.


Julia Kristeva: Powers of Horror, Black Sun

Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (Chapter 1 “Approaching Abjection”)

In horror films especially, though often showing up in psychological thrillers, is a moment on the screen that disrupts the rolling of the film—a growing crack in the wall, the movement of an inanimate object, the ominous glance of a distant character which up until now we thought nothing of. We have come to expect these moments now as cinematic and formulaic clichés, about how these kinds of films are to be made, but they are, no matter how well prepared we think we are, no less jarring and disruptive to the flow of our expectations. The abject is the moment in the film, when you come to realize that the flow of logic unrolling before you, is about to be halted by something other, or, when you come to realize that you were tricked into that logic, but in fact were on a very different trajectory from the beginning. The abject is that “twisted braid of affects and thoughts” which we call by such a name, but it skirts our need to define it as a definable object right there, in front of us (Kristeva, 1). “It lies there quite close, but cannot be assimilated”, as Kristeva writes, but it shares one important characteristic of the object, that is, it stands there before us, facing us and opposing us, the “I”. Here, this (non)object, which stands opposed to me and I still attend to as an object, settles me into a desire for meaning, but being a (non)object, it draws me toward the place where meaning collapses. The abject then, is the reaction of the “I” to a threat in the breakdown of meaning, which has been caused by a loss of the distinction between the subject and object, the self and other.

I’d like to take us in two directions in regards to the abject. First, I’d like to further discuss examples of the abject. Second, I’d like to put the abject into a much larger scheme in order to open up this text for our discussion today, that is, I’d like to look at it from the perspective of our conscience and the experience of the abject. I want to think about the necessity of the abject in ethics.

Kristeva opens with two most evident forms of abjection, the first being “food loathing. Here, is the case of the child who has yet to distinguish itself from the father or mother. Freud calls this “primary identification”, the first form of emotional attachment to something or someone, which comes before any defined and conscious distinction between subject and object. Thus, a baby cannot distinguish itself from the world and experiences the world as a part of itself, “The breast is a part of me, I am the breast” (Freud). The experience of the abject forces us into this liminal experience of infancy once again. We could even take it a step further into the past, when the baby becomes a baby. Abjection preserves the “immemorial violence with which the body becomes separated from another body in order to be” (Kristeva, 10). Kristeva blends this primary identification of the baby in the process of eating and the becoming “I” or becoming subject/object in birth, with the experience of the abject (for the adult, we might say). The whole experience of watching a child eat from the multitude of perspectives (whether we are the parent, an onlooker, the child) brings the abject into focus. She writes,


“I” do not want to listen, “I” do not assimilate it, “I” expel it. But since the food is not an “other” for “me,” who am only in their desire, I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself. That detail, perhaps an insignificant one, but one that they ferret out, emphasize, evaluate, that trifle turns me inside out, guts sprawling; it is thus that they see that “I” am in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death, During that course in which “I” become, I give birth to myself amid the violence of sobs, of vomit. Mute protest of the symptom, shattering violence of a convulsion that, to be sure, is inscribed in a symbolic system, but in which, without either wanting or being able to become integrated in order to answer to it, it reacts, it abreacts. It abjects. (Kristeva, 3)

In very simplified terms, the abject sits outside our symbolic order. The symbolic order determines the subject, it is the Other, in Lacanian parlance. This Other for Lacan is language in the broadest sense, it is the community we live in, of shared ideas and accepted ways of being that existed long we as subjects came into the world. By sitting outside that, the abject is territory-less, it wades in the unthinkable corners, not Other, not “I”. The abject then disturbs identity and order, it has no respect for borders or rules (Kristeva, 4). This brings us to the second example Kristeva writes about. The abject par excellence is the corpse, or more attractively, the cadaver*. Like the wound, or pus, the corpse does not signify death for if it did, we would understand it, react to it or accept it (ibid). Instead we are there again at the limit of our condition as living beings. Death infects life, it brings us to the border, and it is that very border that encroaches upon everything (Kristeva, 3). Always returning to a bodily understanding of these experiences of the abject, Kristeva later gives an example of the choking sensation, that is, how the feeling of being choked does not separate inside from outside so easily and the one is drawn into the other indefinitely (Kristeva, 25). The person in which the experience of the abject exists therefore is a deject who does not ask “Who am I”, but “Where am I” (Kristeva, 8). Artaud could then write, “[t]he dead little girl says, I am the one who guffaws in horror inside the lungs of the live one. Get me out of there at once” (Kristeva, 25). It is not so much that we are horrified of what the corpse signifies (death), but of what the corpse may make of us if we bring it inside, or meet it at its horizon. The corpse takes us to the border of the “I” as we have come to understand this “I” in the symbolic order. The Prince Gautama’s story as he left his palace, or Neo waking in the pods, or Cronenberg’s body horror, or Kafka’s Metamorphosis and so on are examples of this destabilization by the abject. We can think of many more. By contrast, Sade’s orgies, cartoon logic, as well as fantasy and adventure stories all miss the mark. They are “methodical, rhetorical and…regular”, they make everything nameable, and their scenes integrate, in other words, they “allow for no other, no unthinkable, nothing heterogeneous” (Kristeva, 21).

In developing the abject as I have here, I want to ask much more broadly if the abject is necessary. Kristeva’s abject is fuzzy to be certain yet we might consider what is there that can take us away from her mythologizing and aestheticizing to the more emancipatory (a question Spivak* poses). Is the abject necessary? Must we be destabilized by it, and if so, what do we do when we are, how do we retread back from this destabilization or how do we proceed from that destabilization? This distinction of course is one of the fundamental differences in politics—the difference between conservatives and progressives. But more fundamentally the distinction pushes us further inwards toward questions of ethics that I’d like to try to uncover in this first chapter. Kristeva hints at a number of ways in which the abject might be necessary.

The “jettisoned object”, the abject that draws me toward the place where meaning collapses is banished yet, it never ceases to challenge its master* (Kristeva, 2). The abject, which is without a sign, is to the superego what the object is to the ego. The ego is where our perceptions, and cognitive functions remain and from where we act, our conscious state in the world. The superego is the overrider, our conscience, it is where we maintain our sense of morality and from where we decide not to*. For the superego, our conscience then, our object is the abject. Kristeva puts it in the following way:


“[I}ts a brutish suffering that “I” puts up with, sublime and devastated, for “I” deposits it to the father’s account [verse au pere pere-uersion]: I endure it, for I imagine that such is the desire of the other. A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture. (Kristeva, 2)


Taking from this quote alone, it is clear that in the work of the conscience, the abject, or better the experience of the abject*, is key. It is the “primer”, the “safeguard”. Of what? Cadere. The fall. The abject in its most socialized appearance is the corrupter, yet so as far as we do not fall into it fully, religion, morality and law have always been there to thrust it aside. More recently is the work of contemporary literature, always fascinated with the abject, yet not necessarily taking the place of religion, morality or law. In fact, according to Kristeva, it realizes the absurdity and impossibility of this trifecta. Literature dabbles in the abject, the writing and reading of it is a crossing over into the abject, a perversion to be certain. But the activities of contemporary literature are more. Pushing it further, Kristeva tells us that there are various means to purifying the abject, religion being one of them, but art, including literature, is by far the best example. What we are left with then is perversion and sublimation. Again, we are at the liminal, with Kristeva. Speaking towards the value of literature, she writes:

“In a world in which the Other has collapsed, the aesthetic task—is a descent into the foundations of the symbolic construct—amounts to retracing the fragile limits of the speaking being, closest to its dawn, to the bottomless ‘primacy’ constituted by primal repression” (Kristeva, 18). This experience itself is of course still managed by the Other, yet here the subject and object push each other away, confront each other, collapse and start again in that boundary of what is thinkable: the abject (ibid).

Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia (Chapter 1 “Psychoanalysis—A Counter Depressant”)

We start right at the heart of Kristeva’s second text, a veiled critique of psychoanalysis, or, perhaps a soft push into a different direction. This direction was perhaps embedded in her text on the abject and the bond that both psychoanalysis and the literary or artistic share in their sensitivity to it. In the chapter we read at least, psychoanalysis and the literary/artistic are not so much as opposed, but measured up to one another. Starting at the crux of the two texts when they are read side by side its hard not to see similarities between the abject and depression/melancholia. Both take us to a space of breakdown, a schism. Through depression or melancholia, we witness the collapse of the symbolic, the Other, culture in an all encompassing sense, with all its meanings and representations, the order of things as we have come to know it and as we can know it, the limits of which are our own. The line of questioning Kristeva wants to pursue here is that literary creations and religious discourse are very good at creating a semiological representation of the subject as it battles with this collapse of the symbolic (Kristeva, 24). But such representations are not “elaborations”, they are not a “becoming aware” of what causes inter and intra-psychic moral suffering. This is the function of psychoanalysis, which aims at dissolving the symptom. But, the work of such literary representations and their religious counterparts do have a real and imaginary effectiveness, which borders more toward the cathartic than the elaborative (ibid). All societies however have used these therapeutic techniques for ages. Psychoanalysis, according to Kristeva, always imagines itself as being more efficacious mainly because it directly attends to the strengthening of the subject’s cognitive abilities (ibid). But Kristeva continues, psychoanalysis would do itself good if it paid greater attention to the sublimatory solutions of literary representations and in doing so it could provide “lucid counterdepressants rather than neutralizing antidepressants” (Kristeva, 25). This turn of phrase here is somewhat typical of Kristeva, for it implies confrontation, or the necessity of confrontation rather than annihilation. “Counter” as “against”, “in opposition to”, towards reciprocation, towards a dialectic. “Anti”, similarly implies that “against”, that “opposition”, but more commonly there is the implication of a movement toward the “not”, “no more”, we might say, the erased and wanting to be forgotten.

We have skipped over what exactly melancholia/depression* is. It is “an abyss of sorrow, a noncommunicable grief” that infects us, long-term such that we “lose all interest in words, actions and even life itself (Kristeva, 3). For psychoanalysis of course, the questions always turns to the origin, “where does this black sun come from” (ibid)? Is it triggered by sorrow, loss, love life, unhappiness in our professional life? Does it matter, especially if the events that create our depression are out of proportion to the feeling that overwhelms us? Let us go further. At the existential level, what is happening? Might melancholia have in it a redeeming value? Kristeva writes, “I owe a supreme metaphysical lucidity to my depression…[h]ere on the frontiers of life and death, I have the arrogant feeling of being witness to the meaninglessness of Being, of revealing the absurdity of bonds and beings (Kristeva, 4). The depressed is the ultimate atheist, not only my being is lost, but being itself.

Philosophers have had an ongoing relationship with melancholia. Like a good continental philosopher, Kristeva returns us to the beginning, or the kind of beginning. She uncovers an attractive version of melancholia in Aristotle and from him she wants to build, perhaps toward the “counter” as opposed to the “anti”. Aristotle’s version of melancholia is alien to us today since it assumes a “properly balance diversity”, that is to say, he removed it from the pathological and located it nature, as a part of it and moreover as inherent in the nature of the philosopher—his ethos (Kristeva, 6). Melancholia ensued from heat as the regulator of the organism; it was the place of mestotes, the mechanism controlling the fluctuation between too much and too little. After the middle ages this perception of melancholia changed from this extreme state revealing the true nature of Being. Here melancholia was bound to Saturn, the planet of spirit and thought. Christian theology considered sadness a sin, though monks did see it as a paradoxical method to truth and [it] constituted the major touchstone of faith” (Kristeva, 8). Eventually, melancholia asserted itself into religious doubt. Kristeva cuts us off here in her conceptual history of melancholia where she wavers between depression-sadness-melancholia. She returns to a new definition worth taking a look at, she writes:

“I shall call melancholia the institutional symptomatology of inhibition and asymbolia* that becomes established now and then or chronically in a person, alternating more often than not with the so-called manic phase of exaltation.”

If this is meant to be the definition of melancholia, we are left trying to grasp a few things. “Asymbolia” is the loss of the ability to comprehend by touch the form and nature of an object. In Kristeva’s constant context such a definition is simple enough to understand but there is another, notably what exactly is meant by “institutional symptomatology”. “Symptomatology” can mean a symptom complex or a group of symptoms occurring together that characterize a disease. But it can also mean the branch of medicine concerned with symptoms of diseases. “Institutional” here is more problematic. What are we meant to assume the “institutional” is? Without extrapolating on the details of her definition, Kristeva complicates the matter further obfuscating the distinction between melancholia and depression. But, interested in examining matters from a Freudian point of view, it would seem not to matter much, since from this perspective, there is the common experience of object loss and the modification of signifying bonds. In melancholia, with an object loss, these bonds, notably language are “unable to insure the autostimulation that is required in order to initiate given responses” (Kristeva, 10). Language here, in the melancholic, instead slows down thinking and marks the individual as next to mute. This is why the melancholic struggles to name or voice the loss, and the object itself is often unclear. The aggregate of melancholia/depression is based off of the mechanism of identification. The other object, both love and hated is imbedded into me and becomes my “necessary, tyrannical judge”, which I want to rid myself of (Kristeva, 11). Melancholia then is cannibalistic. We hold within us the intolerable other, which we want so badly to destroy so that we can possess it alive. Kristeva writes, “Better fragmented, torn, cut up, swallowed digested…than lost” (Kristeva, 12). Kristeva returns us to the boundary of the subject and object in the abject, a threshold more than anything else, where the subject and object, pull at each other and collapse into one another, only to reestablish themselves again, independent wholes touching on each other’s beginnings and ends once again. With Black Sun, Kristeva develops this “object” further; the loss of the object for the melancholic is not an Object, but the Thing (Kristeva, 14). In her notes, she writes that the “Object” is the “space-time constant that is verified by a statement uttered by a subject in control of that statement” (Kristeva, 262). The “Thing” on the other hand is the “something” which is seen by the already constituted subject looking back and it appears as unseperated and elusive (ibid). The Thing is the sun in your dreams, the distant light, never seen but producing effects. The melancholic person therefore has the impression that something is lost, but no word could signify it. With the Thing, “the depressed person wanders in pursuit of continuously disappointing adventures and loves; or else retreats, disconsolate and aphasic, alone with the unnamed Thing (Kristeva, 13).

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Sculpting Time

This summary of Chapter 5 from Andrei Tarkovsky’s book, “Sculpting Time”, will be read and discussed along with a selection of clips from his films and a similar discussion/analysis of the work of Sergei Eisenstein for our Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Group Meetup in Gangnam on Saturday April 15th, from 4pm-7pm. We meet weekly to discuss contemporary philosophical texts. We have a Facebook page and meetup page. Please join us one afternoon.

Tarkovsky’s Sculpting Time (1989)

I’d like to build through Eisenstein, Tarkovsky. Chronologically it works of course, but there is a great deal more than just historical trajectory I have in mind. To repeat a few points about Eisenstein’s thought, art is always in conflict. This is fundamental. The basic elements of film are shot and montage. For many, montage is the laying out of an idea in single shot form, one after the other in succession. As art however, it is better understood as the collision of independent and even opposing shots after one another (Eisenstein, 4). In this sense Eisenstein’s well-known point is that succession is not a rolling out of one shot to the next, but a layering. One shot in the mind’s eye of the viewer is superimposed with another shot. The previous shot is not forgotten in the mind, but retained.

(The Old and New, Cream)

Eisenstein sees film previously as a direction of emotions. With his understanding of film however and with his new filming style, quick clear shots and powerful images superimposed over other powerful images, he is able to grab hold and direct the entire stream of thought of the viewer. Film, traditionally a direction of emotions, is now given the opportunity to direct the whole thought process (Eisenstein, 16). He leads himself in this analysis to the idea that his form of film is most suitable for the expression of ideologically pointed theses. As we have seen this couldn’t be any more accurate. I want to drift toward the word propaganda here. Eisenstein’s technique of cinema, leads itself to the propagation of a particular strand of thought. The images are surely dynamic, but it is unidirectional in a sense, because one image leads to the next so quickly and forcibly, there is little else one could think about, but the represented image itself. One second later, there is a new image. Any kind of reflection is limited or condensed into a very short space. By doing this, they become all the more powerful and effective. Eisenstein writes that with this new form of film expression, we are freed from traditional limitations and move toward a purely intellectual film (Eisenstein, 16). Eisenstein’s four major films were of this type for certain. The nerve of cinema for Eisenstein is montage. That he uses the term “nerve” here is appropriate. Eisenstein’s films, at least his earlier silent ones, are of the cerebral, intellectual kind. They hack into the central nervous system directly. They are meant to take control of you.

If Eisenstein is of the central nervous system, Tarkovosky is all the other systems, notably, more than the others, the circulatory system, the human bloodlines. Much of the distinction has to do with the time in which both directors worked. Eisenstein a child amidst the revolutions, Tarkovsky a child long after the revolutions had settled. Furthermore, the impression we might have of Eisenstein is that we have the beginning of filmmaking in general, and an inner desire sparked by the times (the revolution and new Soviet era) to create new methods for this new medium. By Tarkovsky’s time, many years later, film had shifted, finally, into a kind of poesis. Poesis is not merely creation, but action that transforms and continues the world. In it comes a resolution, of sorts we might add, of thought with matter, time and being, the being, in the world. This term complements the work of Tarkovsky well. In his work, again and again, we are reminded that there is not meant to be any kind of technical wizardry at play here for the guided direction of thought (a la Eisenstein), nor are there any romantic allusions to some ideals or concepts of being human and being capable to do whatever it is that humans do. Tarkovsky says that just as sound is to music, color is to painting and character is to drama—time is to cinema. This makes a film bigger than what it is. The power of the film, its evocation itself in its poesis, does not comes out of the precision and technicality of the film form, but instead seeps into you, taking hold of you in a very different way than montage methods do. This seeping far extends beyond the ending of the film, the edges of the frame. It’s a haunting.

(Nostalghia, Farmside,)

Time flows beyond the edges of the frame of a film and it becomes something other than its ostensible existence (Tarkovsky, 118). Tarkovsky is interested in the moral qualities which are inherent in time itself, since the time that a person lives gives her the opportunity to know herself as a moral being, engaged in the search for truth (Tarkovsky, 58). He writes, “And life is no more than the period allotted to him [man], and in which he may, indeed must, fashion his spirit in accordance with his own understanding of the aim of human existence. The rigid frame into which it is thrust, however, makes our responsibility to others and ourselves all the more starkly obvious. The human conscience is dependent upon time for its existence” (ibid). Film is the essentially the observation of phenomenon passing (Tarkovsky, 67). Passing implies the signature of time and movement. With film, for the first time in the history of the arts, man found the means to take an impression of time (Tarkovsky, 62). We can take a moment and look at the following clip. 1898. Pay attention to the depth and bustle. The people filmed likely hadn’t the slightest idea what the instrument beside the train tracks was.

(L’Arrivee d’un Train en Gare de La Ciotat, clip)

The story goes in the first screening of this film, the people in the theatre jumped up and ran away as the train approached the tracks. In their jump and run, a new aesthetic principle was formed, according to Tarkovsky. In film, man acquired a matrix for actual time. Just as the sculptor carves into the marble before him, the film director, is a sculptor of time. As an artist he is inwardly aware of the features of his finished piece. The key to this form of editing is rhythm, the expression of time in each frame. Tarkovsky uses the image of bodies of water of differing sizes flowing into each other, or alternatively water pipes that need to be connected. It is the director’s job to control the operative pressure of these waters as the volume of their liquids change from one scene into the next. Tarkovsky’s film directing process then is in stark contrast to Eisenstein’s process, indeed he outright rejects it in the text. For Tarkovsky, the editing process does not engender or recreate a new quality; it simply brings out a quality already inherent in the frames that it joins (Tarkovsky, 118). Perhaps this is why he is inclined toward long cuts, where details can be detected and sat with in the mind of the viewer, in effect becoming old and familiar even though they are presented on the frame over the course of a singular take in a minute or less. Tarkovsky’s affinity to the Japanese aesthetic is evident here. In the book he is led to a discussion of saba, rust. Quoting a journalist, he writes that for the Japanese, time helps to make known the essence of things (Tarkvosky, 59). Saba is link between art and nature, a theme very much alive in all of Tarkovsky’s work. Cinema, for Tarkovsky is first and foremost, observation. This observation is immediate, there before us. It may be filtered with our perceptions or memories, but it is ongoing before us, and even when we take our eyes off of it, we have come to know through age or experience, that it will continue beyond our recognition of it. “On screen”, he writes, “the logic of a person’s behavior can transfer into the rationale of quite different—apparently irrelevant—facts and phenomena, and the person you started with can vanish from the screen, replaced by something quite different, if that is what is required by the author’s guided principle”.

(Rublev, Climbing)

(Sacrifice, To Go)

What we have for Tarkovsky is film, an impression of time that situates itself in the space where the aesthetic coincides with the ethical. There is a scene in his first long film that pulls these three factors together; time, the aesthetic and the ethical. Here we have a young boy passing by a shoppe window. Aided by mirrors, he suddenly becomes aware of the passing of the world. The moral, the child’s place in the world, comes out in his smile. He is mesmerized, caught up in the world and his smile brings gives him a place in this, a recognition. For us the viewer, it does the same.

(The Steamroller, Morality)

Why do people go to the cinema, he asks? Because people want an enhanced concentrated version of time. Our memories exist as such. They are impressions or stamps of a brief moment. A number of Tarkovsky’s most memorable scenes work as concentrated time. They always involve a natural movement toward that most impressionable moment. In this scene, a child awakens from his bed and gently walks out of his room. Without this scene prior to the Water Dance, one wonders of its effectiveness.

(Mirror, Water Dance)

Another reason why Tarkovsky is so against the montage method is that the methods are apparent. Keeping inline with his aesthetics, he believes the audience should never be fully aware of why a director is choosing any one method over another, otherwise, as Marx warned, the spring starts to stick out on the upholstery (Tarkovsky, 111).

(Mirror, The Slaughter)

The director above all through attention to time, acquires a sense of rhythm. As we mentioned, the director directs the flow of the various rivers and streams. Here too a director develops his or her own individuality. Tarkovsky argues that this is what is lost in Hollywood films, a distinct time signature of the director, which a careful eye would recognize instantly as a particular director no matter where one might be in that director’s filmography. One’s rhythm then colors a work with the stylistic marks of a director (Tarkovsky, 120). This cannot be constructed entirely on a theoretical level nor fully planned out before hand. There has to be a level of spontaneity to the filming process, which comes from “the director’s innate awareness of life, his ‘search for time’ (ibid). There are at least three scenes in three separate films that Tarkovsky records the flow of a water plant moving under a current. In this text, and given the aesthetics of time and Tarkovsky’s shift and interest in it as the basis for man’s morality, their movement tells us something. Just as the movement of a reed tells us the direction of the current or wind, all that is available to us, all that is observable, tells us, the movement of time. This leads us to fire. We could imagine an Eisensteinian scene of a fire, followed by a frantic group of people with buckets of water trying to douse it. Their sweaty eyebrows are in close up, their charred hands, the fire violently giving into the whim of the wind. The fire goes out, brows are wiped and smiles all around. It is so often with Tarkovsky, that we not only see the fire, but we see the people, his characters seeing the fire. What comes of this is something much more intimate, arguably, real. For Tarkovsky too, we don’t witness the fire going out. We know it will, as fires do, but for now, the fire lingers as it should.

(Mirror, Farmhouse)

Mikhail Bakunin (God and the State and Other Anarchist Selections)

This summary is for our group Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club meeting on April 8th from 4pm- 7pm.

GAS=God and the State

SSA=Stateless Socialism=Anarchism

SA=Statism and Anarchy

RC=Revolutionary Catechism

WIS=Where I Stand

Bakunin’s entire political enterprise rests on the notion of freedom, for people, and that which denies this freedom, authority. Any system or body that is put in place that realizes an authoritative stance, whether it is a god, the state or even a parent, is deplorable to Bakunin and must be revolted against. Our readings this week can be read from such an angle towards freedom and against authority. He does not say God is horrible, instead he strongly believes what the notion of God, in particular here a Christian god, does to humans is horrible. The State similarly, in a congealed, bureaucratized and hierarchical form too will always and forever subordinate humans and limit them in some way. Again, he is against the State here, but he is not throwing his hands up totally in regards to a social life between humans. This weeks readings give insight into Bakunin’s understanding of freedom and authority, the two best examples of the latter being, God and the State. As for the former, freedom, we will discuss Bakunin’s socialism in comparison to Marx’s, ending our discussion on his “Revolutionary Catechism” which reads as a futuristic list of demands for the kind of society Bakunin imagines. Held beside our previous discussions, which have tried to imagine a future society outside of our current neoliberal one, Bakunin’s work (almost all of which were fragments) and the life that he led in particular adds a great deal to the discussion.

If authority is what Bakunin detests with all his heart, let us begin there. First in the abstract sense, what is authority? Authority is a power coming from laws of the natural world that are manifested in the physical and social worlds in which we reside (GAS, 28). We cannot know them, we can misunderstand them, but we cannot disobey them. In a strong sense, Bakunin’s “authority” comes awfully close to our understanding of hegemony that we have been building in our group, he writes, “they constitute the basis and fundamental conditions of our existence; they envelop us, penetrate us, regulate all our movements, thoughts and acts; even when we believe that we disobey them, we only show their omnipotence” (GAS, 28). We are slaves to these laws since they are not outside of us, they constitute our whole being and without them we are nothing. We haven’t made the jump yet from these natural laws of authority to the manifestation of them into and by an authoritative construct (i.e. State or God). Because of this, we might not call this slavery at all, since there is no external master outside of us who is commanding a particular manifestation of this authority. In our relation to these natural laws within us, we have but one liberty—the capacity to recognize and apply them (GAS, 29). By doing so, we exercise an authority and this authority, this “government of common sense” is never questioned (Ibid). At issue is not this process, nor the natural laws of this authority established by science, but that a great number of people are unaware of these laws, thanks to the government. Secondarily if not obviously, a great number of these laws in their application to human society (by a political body) have been poorly established and not have not been recognized by science itself. Political organization, direction and legislation that come, even if they conform to the system of natural laws, will always be hostile to the liberty and freedom of people, since they will always be a system imposing external laws. Bakunin sums up this libertarian view,

The liberty of man consists solely in this: that he obeys natural laws because he has himself recognized them as such, and not because they have been externally impose upon him by any extrinsic will whatever, divine or human, collective or individual” (GAS, 30).

Simply said then, freedom is not granted to us by the State (formal freedom), it is prescribed to us by the laws of our own nature and it consists in the total development of all the material, intellectual and spiritual powers that are in a potential state in everyone, thus no external legislators could enforce laws of freedom on us (WIS, 1).

Let us move from the abstract to the concrete. Though he shared a great deal of his concerns and conclusions, Bakunin is often contrasted with Marx (who he in fact had a heated argument with). Keeping these ideas of authority in mind, this contrast is made clear. Bakunin totally rejected positivism and the application, notably by an external force, of scientific laws governing objects to the behaviors of living people who have the ability to modify and choose (SA, 2). Bakunin’s use of science here is rather important.

Marx’s revolution, coming from theoretical analysis of natural laws, intending to be by the people, installs a new State (of the people). Bakunin and other “revolutionary anarchists” declare themselves enemies of the state and the statist principle (SA, 4). For Bakunin, natural and social life always comes before theory and theory is always created by life and can therefore never create it. We can understand theories as mileposts and road signs, they can indicate the direction and the different stages of life, but they cannot directly influence it. Bakunin believes strongly that people carry within themselves the future of social organization and that no scheme can be concocted from books that would be better than that scheme which is already within people. Putting these direct jabs to the intellectual establishment aside (he is filled with them), Bakunin believes that every state power, places itself outside and over people and to maintain itself this body necessarily subordinates the needs and aspirations of people (ibid).

Marx’s communism falsely imagines itself to be the will of the people. How is this actually put into action? Is it possible for the whole proletariat to stand at the head of the government? What does this mean if 40 million Germans or 80 million Russians become a part of the government? This would be an impossibility, indeed the real living people haven’t the foggiest idea of this new ideology. For this and because of this Marxist theory comes up with a solution, the rule of a small number of people who represent the others. Of course this remains pseudo-representative. This is to say, Marx’s government of the people conceals the fact that it is still very much a state (albeit a new one) which has been conceived of by and is being run by a handful of privileged elite (presumably Marx and his intellectual friends) (ibid). Each step of the way, Bakunin seems to have a profound understanding or sensitivity to what it means to take on the responsibility of others and what can come with that responsibility (i.e. a politics and with it certain and specific claims in particular person’s wants and needs over others). In this context, if the proletariat are to become the ruling class, who are they to rule over? Always someone. The factory proletariats over the farming proletariats. Intellectuals over the factory workers. Marxist are well aware of this predicament and their measured response is that this rule over will only be temporary. In time, people are to be educated economically and politically to the point that a government is unnecessary and the state would come to lose its coercive character over people such that it develops into a free organization of communes (SA, 6). Bakunin would not have any of this, since the means to such an aim (in which he would agree with this aim) is still through a state dictatorship. Along with our previous discussions, especially as it was mentioned in the text Inventing the Future, Bakunin believes revolutions do not happen because their is no common ideal capable of inspiring a popular revolution. He completely embraces propaganda and a commitment to changing popular thought (SA, 17). At the same time, the social revolution cannot be done by any particular nation, but must be international in scope (SA, 13). Instead of this state socialism, an authoritarian revolution, a revolution from the top down, Bakunin wants a different kind of socialism, led by a libertarian revolution—a revolution from the bottom up (SSA, 5).

Socialism is justice and justice means equity, yet such socialism has never existed in any pure form across history (SSA, 1). Marx’s way would never lead to such equity as we have seen. Bakunin sees it best not to propose a new socialist system, but principle: “that every human being should have the material and moral means to develop all his humanity” (SSA, 1). This translates into the following problem worth quoting in full since it is the base from which our later discussion of anarchism will unfold.

“To organize society in such a manner that every individual, man or woman, should find, upon entering life, approximately equal means for the development of his or her diverse faculties and their utilization in his or her work. And to organize such a society that, rendering impossible the exploitation of anyone’s labor, will enable every individual to enjoy the social wealth, which in reality is produced only by collective labor, but to enjoy it only in so far as he contributes directly toward the creation of that wealth.” (SSA, 2).

There is after all no combination of geniuses so capable of representing the infinite multiplicity and diversity of all the people, their interests and aspirations (SSA, 4). Bakunin wants to abolish all political power and establish a federation from the bottom up, a genuine people’s republic, the republic as a true commune—the system of Anarchism (SSA, 3). How would this come about? Here lies an interesting similarity on the two sides of the Libertarian table, the anarchist-libertarian and the capitalist libertarian. Whereas the latter is committed to the spontaneous whim of capital, Bakunin believes that equality should and would “be established in the world by a spontaneous organization of labor and collective property, by the free organization of producers’ associations into communes, and free federation of communes” (SSA, 4). We will return to more detailed points Bakunin makes in his “Revolutionary Catechism”, below.

Bakunin’s sentiments about the State hold true for God. In God and the State he works with very similar themes in the context of and against a human construct, which by claiming a certain form of authority, imposes restrictions on people. The text is incomplete and at times reads like a tirade, but it brings further insight into Bakunin’s concerns for people, that is, his strong belief that governments, and God here in particular, systematically poison and stupefy the masses (GAS, 11). In this text, more than the others, Bakunin as a moral personality comes out more than anything else, rather than Bakunin as an intellectual authority (GAS, vi). This distinction may not have been particularly useful in our past readings, but with Bakunin especially it seems like a sensible remark. While reading him one gets a sense of not only a childlike enthusiasm, as Avrich in the introduction remarked, but of a childlike deviousness, an inclination to revolt endlessly. Case in point, his version of Genesis is devious and fun in and of itself, so let us start there.

God, in his “egoistic solitude”, had created Adam and Eve for reasons we never know. Granting them the entire Earth, he placed a single limit on them. In so doing this he damned them to remain as eternal beast before God. But in comes Satan, “eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds” who “makes man ashamed of his bestial ignorance and obedience; he emancipates him…” (GAS, 10). God, “flew into a terrible ridiculous rage; he cursed Satan, man and the world created by himself, striking himself so to speak in his own creation as children do when they get angry; and, not content with smiting our ancestors themselves, he cursed them in all the generations to come, innocent of the crime committed by their forefathers” (ibid). Catholic and Protestant theologians look at this as being just and profound just because of its very iniquity and absurdity (GAS,11). God, remembering that he was not only a God of wrath, but also a God of love took pity on humans and sent him his son, only so that he may be killed (ibid). This became known as the mystery of Redemption, the basis of all Christian religions. Moreover, the paradise promised by Christ, is meant for an elect few, all others will eternally burn in hell. Bakunin ends, “Such are the absurd tales that are told and the monstrous doctrines that are taught, n the full light of the nineteenth century, in all public schools of Europe at the express command of the government” (ibid).

Bakunin derives three fundamental principles from this myth and two caricatures. In emancipating itself from its animality, humans had become something uniquely human—a human animality, as he calls it. With this, humans began to embark on a distinctly human history through this act of disobedience and what he calls “science”—or in other words, rebellion and thought. With human animality, we have the social and private. With thought, we have science. And with rebellion, is liberty. As for the caricatures, we have the idealist and materialist. One is described as the opposite of the other, such that we might simply look at the idealist (a long list of individuals including theologians, philosophers and politicians), who believes that all matter is vile. Their work transformed the only non-real matter into the only “real” matter, God. He writes,

They have taken away from matter intelligence, life, all its determining qualities, active relations or forces, motion itself, without which matter would not even have weight, leaving it nothing but impenetrability and absolute immobility in space; they have attributed all these natural forces, properties, and manifestations to the imaginary being created by their abstract fancy; then, interchanging roles, the have called this product of their imagination, this phantom, this God who is nothing, “supreme Being.” And, as a necessary consequence, have declared that the real being, matter, the world, is nothing” (GAS, 13).

We should rest there, but Bakunin is eager for more. The idealists insist on a salto mortale from which the divine, eternal, infinite and absolutely perfect decided to no longer be as such. All philosophical systems and religions hinge on this “iniquitous mystery”, this leap into the profane. Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, not to mention the Indian philosophers have written beautiful systems to describe this leap, but it remains a mystery (GAS, 15). In the mind of Bakunin, these efforts have been such a waste, albeit a beautiful one. But he asks the question, how would intelligent and well-informed people ever come into believing this mystery of the ages? People accept religion “without criticism and in a lump” (GAS, 16). Although he does not go into detail here, he does briefly mention how ignorance is a great condition for the use of power, particularly by a governmental body. Harkening on that notion of hegemony discussed earlier, or authority for Bakunin, he describes how religion is “artificially sustained” in the minds of people by a multitude of officials (from priests to laymen).

There is of course a class of people who do not share any of these religious beliefs, but they at least give the appearance of believing. For Bakunin it is this very class, which comprises all tormentors and oppressors including; the priests, monarchs, statesmen, jailers, monopolists, “vendors of sweet meats” and so many more (GAS, 17). His blending here of collaborators of the State and its administration and what we might call collaborators of God/religion and its administration is rather intriguing. It is not surprising here that he quotes Voltaire: “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him” (ibid). Yet another class, does not take to the Christian doctrines seriously at all, yet they haven’t the courage to renounce them altogether.

Bakunin settles down a bit. For the revolutionary socialist, none of this is surprising. History appears to us as the revolutionary negation of the past it consists in the progressive negation of the primitive animality of man by the development of his humanity (GAS, 21). Why we still believe in god the divine idea is an outcome of ourselves, an error historically necessary in the development of humanity (GAS, 22). We must take note and grab hold of this “development of religious hallucinations in human conscience” (GAS, 23).   When we can fully give an account of the supernatural or divine world, how this world developed and more crucially how it developed in the historical evolution of the human consciousness, all our scientific conviction of the absurdity of it all will be continually be in vain (ibid). If we want to succeed in annihilating the opinions of the majority, again a necessary measure for Bakunin’s revolution, we must reach into the depths of the human being where these ideas are born. Perhaps even, the revolution starts here. Summarizing his thoughts on religion he writes: “The idea of God implies the abdication of human reason and justice,· it is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and practice” (GAS, 25). Returning us full circle to his detest for authority, he continues a little later on the same page, “If God is, man is a slave; now, man can and must be free; then, God does not exist” (ibid).

To end we might highlight a few points from Bakunin’s “Revolutionary Catechism”, a document highlighting the practical problems of the Anarchist revolution as well as describing a list, in effect, of commands. As we mentioned with the transitional phase of Marx’s communism above, Bakunin was well aware that his project would take generations and therefore this document or outline was meant towards the more immediate early stages of the revolution. Much of what we have discussed is here in condensed form. The direction of this revolution and the ultimate political and economic organization of social life, for example, is clearly outlined as starting from base to summit, from center to circumference (RA, 1), in contrast to Marx’s revolution which in spirit is intended to move in this direction, but in action, doesn’t. The only way to real freedom, unconditional freedom as he writes in his, “Where I Stand”, is through the actualization of certain conditions, in which this catechism is one long list. A few are worth highlighting as they offer further insight into Bakunin’s thought. We might end here and use a selection of these points as a conclusion.

A.) The abolition of all state religions and all privileged churches, including those partially maintained or supported by state subsidies. Absolute liberty of every religion to build temples to their gods, and to pay and support their priests.

B.) Abolition of monarchy and the establishment of a commonwealth

C.) The abolition of all classes, ranks and privileges; absolute equality for all men and women; universal suffrage

D.) The total abolition, dissolution, and moral, political and economic dismantling of the all-pervasive, regimented, centralized State.

E.) Immediate direct election of all judicial and civil functionaries as well as representatives (national, provincial, and communal delegates) by the universal suffrage of both sexes.

F.) Individual rights. The right of every man and woman, from birth to adulthood, to complete upkeep, clothes, food, shelter, care, guidance, education (public schools, primary, secondary, higher education, artistic, industrial, and scientific), all at the expense of society.


And further on these individual rights:

  1. The freedom of adults of both sexes must be absolute and complete, freedom to come and go, to voice all opinions, to be lazy or active, moral or immoral, in short, to dispose of one’s person or possessions as one pleases, being accountable to no one. Freedom to live, be it honestly, by one’s own labor, even at the expense of individuals who voluntarily tolerate one’s exploitation.
  1. Unlimited freedom of propaganda, speech, press, public or private assembly, with no other restraint than the natural salutary power of public opinion. Absolute freedom to organize associations even for allegedly immoral purposes including even those associations which advocate the undermining ( or destruction ) of individual and public freedom.


G.) The basic unit of all political organization in each country must be the completely autonomous commune, constituted by the majority vote of all adults of both sexes.

H.) The province must be nothing but a free federation of autonomous communes. The nation must be nothing but a federation of autonomous provinces.

I.) From the moment of pregnancy to birth, a woman and her children shall be subsidized by the communal organization. Women who wish to nurse and wean their children shall also be subsidized.

J.) Parents shall have the right to care for and guide the education of their children, under the ultimate control of the commune which retains the right and the obligation to take children away from parents who, by example or by cruel and inhuman treatment, demoralize or otherwise hinder the physical and mental development of their children.

K.)  Children belong neither to their parents nor to society. They belong to themselves and to their own future liberty. Until old enough to take care of themselves, children must be brought up under the guidance of their elders. It is true that parents are their natural tutors, but since the very future of the commune itself depends upon the intellectual and moral training it gives to children, the commune must be the tutor. The freedom of adults is possible only when the free society looks after the education of minors.

Srnicek and Williams- Inventing the Future: Post capitalism and a World Without Work

Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work


Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

This is the reading for our discussion on March 25th. Visit us on meetup.com


Given the level of our technological development and infrastructure we now have in place, the future, which the left has always imagined, seems more possible than ever. But it hasn’t come. Is it just that the world we live in is no longer suited to the outdated ideas of the Left? Or is it that, the left has always imagined it but never actually set out a course of action, most certainly in the democratic context, at the very least. What happened to the Left’s capacity for imagining new political realities? Where and how have our politics failed us? Moreover, towards the other side, is there something particularly pernicious about today’s capitalism—neoliberalism? Though once a fringe ideology, how did it come to being the dominant mode of thinking for the last three or four decades? Srnicek and Williams offer a diagnosis of this stagnancy of the Left, but taking it a step further than Jameson of last week, through this diagnosis and an atypical analysis of neoliberalism (as opposed to a mere critique), they offer a much more rigorous outline, a long necessary shock treatment for the left.


It would be a mistake and unproductive to simply say that the left fails today because of the increased collaboration of the state with capitalism and an increased inclination towards the use of austerity. Yes, the effect of this is an increased saturation of neoliberal ideals, even to the point of infiltrating the common sense of both the political left and right. But a more immediate point is that the left’s political repertoire of recent, is limited to what Srnicek and Williams call, “folk politics”. Folk politics, a response of the left to (failures of) state communism and the collapse of social democratic parties, favors the local and the immediate (p.12). It wants to bring down politics to the people, the human scale, and it does this by focusing its attention to the temporal, spatial and conceptual immediacy (p.12). Key to this orientation towards the present for Srnicek and Williams, is that it outright rejects hegemony and in so doing, it withdraws or exits left, as opposed to building a counter-hegemony. We might look at folk politics a bit more closely before moving on.

Folk politics emphasizes direct action by the participants themselves; it values the everyday over the structural, personal experience over systematic thinking, feeling over thinking (p.13). Folk politics is Occupy, student occupations, the Invisible Committee, the Zapatistas, the slow-food movement, ethical consumerism and many more. Folk politics rejects the deliberate process of constructing a universal politics. This is the general malaise to which movements of today take shape—a passion for change, a readiness for change, a profound feeling of wanting change. But the preposition is missing, a “change to”…what? As the authors write, folk politics do not name an explicit position, but an implicit tendency. The position seems to begin and end with discontent. Furthermore, it starts from the presumed authenticity of the local, which all politics does, but it is content to stay there. Indeed, it may win out in some local struggles but we are fooling ourselves if we think we are truly turning neoliberalism into something else. Neoliberalism needs to be countered rather differently and a look at how neoliberalism became so successful would offer insight into inventing such a counter.

Though they claim that their history of neoliberalism, as such a successful ideology, is not written for the sake of being a model that the left can imitate, it is clear that they reserve a certain admiration for its historical development at least in the manner it was conceived and the many decades which its adherents committed to it in order to construct, refine it and insert it into the mainstream at just the right time. That said, neoliberalism, like folk politics of today, had no immediate or real program from the onset. It has its roots in the years after the First World War, but it did not take shape until just after the second, when the Mont Pelerin Society was formed around like-minded individuals. It was set on challenging the political common sense at the time and developing a liberal utopia (p.39).

As we have discussed in a previous meeting, its main proponent, Hayek, had developed a very suspicious attitude toward Keynesian economics, which he believed could very well return us to fascism. Hayek believed that there were no alternatives available and for him the MPS was a way for creating a space where “the best minds could formulate a program, which has a chance of gaining general support (ibid). From its beginning, it is clear that neoliberalism shared many similarities of folk politics, but the crucial distinction is that it worked from the perspective of a global horizon, beyond the parameters of existing possibilities and it tried to conceive of a strategy for expanding its terrain (which was mainly to be elite public opinion) (p.40). This approach was clearly long-term, deliberate and was built around a distinct social network. What is more phenomenal about this political order, is that it remained a fringe ideology for decades. But during that time its adherents were extraordinarily active and committed, emphasizing the use of a variety of venues to influence, in particular, elites and construct a new common sense (p.41). These venues included conferences, academic research groups, popular writing for non-academic audiences, excessive writing in op-ed pieces (a notable tactic of Milton Friedman) and the construction of think tanks. At this point, came the economic issues of the 1970s; the oil shock, commodity price increasing, wage increases, the expansion of credit. Whether or not this crisis was caused by the dominance of Keynesian economics is irrelevant in the scheme of history, for a new alternative had to be proposed, and it could have been anything. But, neoliberalism was so well placed by this stage. Srnicek and Williams point out that in contrast to the neoliberal/capitalist narratives, neoliberalism was in no way the inevitable outcome of these economic issues of the time, but was, at its simplest, the most well-developed political construction (p.43). It was, in effect after several decades, the most ready and whole program out there.

Neoliberalism was created through long-term vision, through imagining beyond the conceivable possibilities. It considered what could become possible later, after the proper preparations and actions were made. It was undoubtedly a counter-hegemonic project which was meant to overturn consensus, the general common sense. Its tactics were consistent, it was to lay out and spread an ideological infrastructure that could “insinuate itself into every political issue and every fibre of political common sense” (p.46).


Given the left’s preoccupation with folk politics, the current hegemony of neoliberalism and the lessons we can learn from its construction, Srnicek and Williams argue that the contemporary left needs to reclaim the project of modernity, build a populist and (counter) hegemonic force and mobilize towards a post-work future (p.47). Treading back to the term “capitalism” as opposed to the more refined “neoliberalism”, it is clear that capitalism is a universalism and thus any particularisms of withdrawal, resistance, or localism with never succeed against it. Instead the construction of a future-oriented politics that can challenge capitalism at the largest of scales is in order. “Modernity” has been representative of such an orientation. It too has served as a “narrative for popular mobilization and a philosophical framework for understanding the arc of history” (.p48). More than this, the conceptual ideals of modernity remain central to human endeavors regardless of where we might be on a political spectrum, these include universal ideals of: progress, reason and freedom. It is in effect, the space in which all political struggles take place today and therefore contesting this term would be of particular importance for the left.

In the fourth chapter of the book the authors examine three factors that would help elaborate such a (new) left modernity, these being: an image of historical progress, a universalist horizon and a commitment to emancipation. Beginning with the first, the left was always future-oriented, the right quite the opposite (the change only happened with neoliberalism, think Thatcher). From the 70s onwards there became a singular destination of the future, a one-size fits all model, a European modernity. Undoubtedly it was this single-handed vision that gave rise to postmodernists who grew suspicious of these grand narratives. In this sense postmodernism could be considered a cultural condition, not so much as a disillusionment with grand narratives, but a disenchantment (p.50). Unfortunately, the seduction of the postmodern discontent, has withered away the potential for new possible futures to open up. One way to get out of this quandary is to reimagine the notion of progress. Progress, write Srnicek and Williams, has no singular path, it is uneven. It comes from many different realizations in a multitude of places. It is hyperstitional. It is a kind of fiction, but one that aims to transform itself as an eventual truth (ibid). Neoliberalism, nor modernity itself is a necessary outcome, it is sought out and must be elaborated upon. Such a vision of the future and of modernity is necessary against capitalism.

The second idea needed for the elaboration of a new modernity comes by first admitting capitalism as a universal—the idea of it, its values and goals hold up across all cultures (p.51). As such, localized and particular forms of politics and culture will always fail up against it. Rescinding the universalism of capitalism is not an option. By now it is obvious a great deal of Srnicek and William’s work is deeply informed by Western Marxism (Gramsci in particular), though their capacity for leaving out all of the necessary trappings is refreshing. Universalisms, the current hegemonic power must not be fought with folk-politics, but another universalism. A counter-hegemony must be constructed and this is done through the kind of work and politics early neoliberal adherents were so good at. A universal makes an unconditional rule, that everything must be placed under its rule, but it too is never complete and it is not homogenous. Being incomplete it is open to contestation. Lacking homogeneity, a universal is an integration of difference. In this sense a universalism is not so much as a body, a monolithic structure out there. Instead we might imagine it as a placeholder, where hegemonic particulars come to occupy (p.52).

The third and most novel aspect of modernity that the left must elaborate upon is the notion of “synthetic freedom”. Always associated with the ideals of equality, the left has too found itself defending a notion of freedom (e.g. The US, the “free world” against the totalitarian enemy, the Reds, the USSR, or today “Islamofascism”). What is the image of freedom today under capitalism? It is a negative freedom, the “freedom of individuals from arbitrary interference by other individuals, collectives and institutions” (p.53). In practice, this amounts to political freedom from the state and the economic (un)freedom to sell our labor power so that we can buy the latest phone or consume the latest gastronomical creation. Given these conditions, the rich and poor are considered equally free, a point again and again emphasized in Libertarians and conservative circles, despite the fact that these two groups have entirely different capacities to act given systemic conditions unalterable by the will of one individual. The example given is that in a democracy we are all free to run for a political position, but without the right combination of financial and social resources for such a campaign, all efforts would be effectively futile. Such a concept of freedom thus limits us considerably in our new modernity, so Srnicek and Williams push for the notion of synthetic freedom. If negative freedom is a concern for assuring our formal right to avoid any kind of interference or hindrances, synthetic freedom recognizes that that formal right without a material means or capacity is completely meaningless (ibid). We might insert a meaning of power to the mix. “If power is the basic capacity to produce intended effects in someone or something, then an increase in our ability to carry out our desires is simultaneously an increase in our freedom” (ibid). The more we are capable of acting the freer we are. A postcapitalist world would allow for an unhindered flourishing of all humans and the expansion of our collective horizons. Three elements are needed to achieve this and together they constitute this synthetic freedom, a freedom that has been constructed through historical achievement rather than one that is natural and a product of just letting people be as they are.

These three elements are: the provision of the basic necessities of life, the expansion of social resources and the development of technological capacities. Synthetic freedom insists on the provision of basic resources needed for a full and meaningful life (i.e. income, time, health and education). The classic social democratic goals resolve this but beyond a mere construction of such a social democratic infrastructure for public goods however there are two further aspects essential to our existence—time and money. Time is essential for us to develop our capacities and the basic condition of self-determination. Therefore, the concept of synthetic freedom demands that a basic income is provided to all. Such a provision makes it possible to live under the conditions of capitalism. But we must take this a step further and seek to expand our capacities beyond what is currently possible, what is even imaginable. It is not enough to simply be open to people’s current desires, but to open itself to experimentation with the largest set of desires and options on the table. Indeed, through a greater command of the technical and scientific knowledge of our natural and built worlds, we gain greater powers to act (p.54). Thus, synthetic freedom requires experimentation with collective and technological augmentation (including and not limited to: cyborg augmentations, artificial life, synthetic biology).

All anti-intellectualism and skepticism of the right (and left) to technological and scientific exploration are of the most detrimentally regressive type, particularly to a commitment and whole expansion of freedom. Again, we return to the theme here of deliberate, well thought-out and contested political construction. The authors write, “[f]reedom is a synthetic enterprise, not a natural gift” (p.55). Synthetic freedom then is a massive collective project, and it is unapologetically open-ended. Sadie Plant, expands this further

It’s always been problematic to talk about the liberation of women because that presupposes that we know what women are. If both women and men have been organized into the forms we currently take, then we don’t want to liberate what we are now, if you see what I mean…It’s not a question of liberation so much as a question of evolution—or engineering. There’s a gradual re-engineering of what it can be to be a woman and we don’t yet know what it is. We have to find out”. (as quoted on page 55).


The progression that Srnicek and Williams are setting out leads us to a platform of post-work, where both waged labor and capitalist accumulation need to be transcended. Chapter 5 sets out a description of the crisis of work, contrasting it to leisure, which is not to be understood as simply idleness, since it require massive amounts of energy (p.56). In a post-work world, people would no longer be bound to their jobs (and their precariousness in the neoliberal order), but free to create their own lives. After a discussion of the historical spaces of labor market segregation (in regards to race, gender and the rural-city divide), the authors show that there is a growing number of people who are situated outside the formal waged work who are making do with minimal welfare benefits, informal subsistence work or simply working by illegal means (p.64). Given this instability and slippage of stability that the hegemonic order is grounded in, it will likely deploy various forms of coercion and violence against those who resist it (p.64). The ideal championed by social democrats has always been that of full employment, but the global economy will find it increasingly difficult to produce enough jobs given the expectations of automation in the next few decades, yet the constant demand and dependence of individuals for that employment given the necessity to participate in capitalism. Given the failures of left folk politics, the necessity to counter the universalism of capitalism with another universalism, the demand to take hold of the future through a concept of modernity and the call to reconsider freedom not as a natural given but a constructed reality, Srnicek and Williams offer a counter to full-employment—full unemployment. In chapter 6 they try to imagine what a post-work society would look like and what it would mean in practice.

To ground us a bit, harkening back to the methods of early neoliberals, the struggle for a post-work society would take on the widest range of sites and contests, including: “creating hegemonic ideas about the obsolescence of drudgery, shifting goals of trade unions from resisting automation to job-sharing and reduced working weeks, government subsidies for automation investment, and raising the cost of labour for capital” (p.68). Though loose and intentionally open, chapter 6 is meant to be a contribution toward the discussion. But resting rather obviously on the left, the authors emphasize a particular point. Returning to their earlier discussion about the symptomatic behaviors of the radical left today and its refusal to make demands since this would imply that it is giving into the existing order of things, their diagnosis is that this continued rejection is due to theoretical confusion, not practical progress (p.69). Indeed, this is not politics at all.

In short, revolutionary demands seem naïve, yet reformists demands seem futile. Srnicek and Williams then make their demand for “non-reformist reforms”. This implies 3 things: (1) that it is given a utopian edge straining at the limits of what capitalism is capable of conceding; (2) that it is grounded in real world tendencies which give them a viability that revolutionary dreams lack; (3) that these demands shift the current political equilibrium and construct a platform for further development. Point being, Srnicek and Williams are insisting on an open-ended escape from the present (ibid). Understandably, the momentum of these proposals is to break out of neoliberalism, though not necessarily capitalism (just yet). They are meant to build a consensus. Adding more specifically to the demands raised in the previous chapter, the ones discussed here are: a fully automated economy, the reducing of the working week, and implementation of universal basic income and achieving a cultural shift in the understanding of work (p.70). Some concluding remarks might be said about each of these.

In all functions of the economy be that they may production, distribution, management or retail, there are large-scale tendencies to automation. Added to that the general work conditions in North America and Western Europe are characterized by low-skilled, low-wage manual labor or service jobs, which means huge swathes of workers are poised to be out of jobs. Many economists point out that productivity has not increased to the degree we might have expected from automation, but there are likely a number of reasons this has been the case (as explained on page 72). Low wages repress investment in productivity-enhancing technologies. This is to say that there is simply no incentive to invest in advanced expensive machines, when you can higher cheap irregular workers to do the same job. A second issue, comes from the experience of technology across time, from conception of the science, to implementation. There seems to be a digital lag of technologies from their creation to an actual investment in them in industry of anywhere between 5 and 15 years. A third reason for the lack of serious automation crucial to Srnicek and Williams, is that our entire discussion of automation in general is skewed and dependent on economic necessity, but because of its potential, it should be a political demand. The fact that between 47 and 80 percent of the jobs existing today have the potential for automation should be taken as a political project and a call against work (as we know it) (p.72). In sum automation is a utopian demand that aims at reducing labor deemed necessary by the hegemony of capitalism. It is rather significant to point out how far Srnicek and Williams are willing to go here. For example, what of care-work, work associated with personal one-on-one relationships, such as the care of children? Of course, these spaces, particularly work of the household are spaces that capitalism has had very few incentives to invest in, but what if certain forms of this non-accounted for labor can be eliminated? Srnicek and Williams see every reason for experimentation in these and similar spaces of our lives.

A secondary demand for a post-work society is a reduction in work hours. Interestingly, there have been numerous movements towards reduced working hours over the last century, notably nearly realized ones during the depression. Today, there is a great deal of undocumented and therefore undocked hours that we pour into our jobs, such that the work-life distinction has essentially dissipated. Added the environmental benefits in the decrease of the work week, Srnicek and Williams emphasize their preference for a 3-day weekend (p.75). With a reduction of labor through automation, and the ensuing reduction of the labor supply through a shortening of the number of hours poured into a work week, a considerable amount of free time opens up. This increase in free time does not equate to a reduction in economic output or an increase in unemployment (a euphemism for under-waged) (p.76). But this free time will be meaningless if people still struggle to make ends meet. Therefore a third essential demand for a post-work society is universal basic income.

Like shorter workweeks, UBI has been tried in the past. Srnicek and Williams identify three factors that must be articulated if UBI is to be considered truly meaningful: it must be universal, it must be provided to everyone unconditionally and it must supplement the welfare state (not replace it). The demand for UBI is part and parcel for the kind of political transformation, not simply economic transformation, Srnicek and Williams are insisting upon. UBI situates itself as a point of common interests to a variety of groups in society. It transforms the precariousness of work allowing us to step outside of the constant state of insecurity in today’s age of austerity, to a state of voluntary flexibility (p.77). More than anything else, it allows us to rethink the values we have long attributed to different types of work, such that the nature of work becomes a measure of value not merely its profitability. UBI in accompaniment with automation is a feminist proposal, for it offers a radical level of experimentation with the family structure (p.78). It is a redistribution mechanism that transforms the production relations. It is an economic mechanism that changes the entire politics of work as we have come to know it.

The obstacles to UBI are seemingly insurmountable its implementation would require us to do nothing less than change our beliefs about work, our commitment to our work ethic. This ethic tells us that no matter how demeaning work is, it is ultimately good because it is, well, work. This ethic has demonized those without jobs and our blind belief in this ethic, our incapacity to imagine any kind of meaningful life outside of the scope of work, demonstrates how saturated our lives and modes of thinking are with these ideals. Remuneration requires work and with it, suffering. Srnicek and Williams insist that we take cues from neoliberalism, and not simply refuse to participate in this suffering imposed on us, but begin a calculated and collective effort towards building a different kind of future through a hyperstitional image of progress. Through their discussion of full automation, the reduction of the working week, the provision of UBI and the diminishment of a work ethic, they have advanced an integrated program for us.

Jameson – An American Utopia

This is the reading for our March 18th meeting.  Visit us at meetup.com for the location and details.

There have been very few utopian ideas over the last few decades; most of our cultural production goes toward imagining dystopias.  Some of the reasons for this are internal to leftist thought.  In the 1950s, when leftists thought about power, they imagined pre-agricultural societies without power.  This eventually morphed into a thinking of power’s origin.  Factors such as the work of Foucault and the “revelations” of the gulags, turned thought about power into a near paranoia concerning collective action and practical politics.  This is the context that Jameson is writing An American Utopia in, and it straddles the line between a political program and a utopian vision; this summary leans heavily on the utopian side.

Jameson thinks that utopian visions contribute to discursive struggle, “the process whereby slogans, concepts, stereotypes, and accepted wisdoms did battle among each other for. . . hegemony.”  It is the attempt to delegitimate the slogans of the other side, as Thatcher and Reagan managed to do with nationalization.  The strongest evidence that Thatcher and Reagan won is that so few people today can imagine an alternative to the market. Liberal parties are good for keeping repressed ideas in circulation, by “talking socialism.” Words that we need to discursively struggle over are words like austerity, which has a whole neoliberal framework behind it, or debt, which functioned as an empty signified for Occupy Wall Street.  We need to rehabilitate ideas of collectivity and even bureaucracy against “big government”.  

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Ian Hacking: The Social Construction of What

Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What? (1999)

I’d like to take a step back for a moment, dive into the matrix of this text, in order to approach the issues Hacking raises here more attentively and appreciate what he is doing. The social sciences have always had a complex of sorts as Hacking notes on page 104. It has always tried to reach a level of certainty about a kind of object, which the sciences claim to reach with the backing of its instruments, math, technology and techniques. Of course the certainty which science reaches is not stagnant nor is it linear –it is wiped clean or added to again and again with the advent of new technologies and instruments and techniques. But still these changes to the logic of science flow and build in a much more pure, antiseptic way then they do with the social sciences. At least this is science’s constant claim. This is to say, the sciences have reached a level with its techniques and progress, which is so rarely contaminated, a situation the social sciences could only dream of. Though perhaps a bit misguided in the attempt to match the sciences and match it in the details and accuracies of its theories and discoveries, the social sciences have told us a great deal about humans and human society and the interactions between the two, that is; the individual and the society to which he or she is a part of. Philosophers of science and many scientists, who find themselves on the fringes of the science that they are doing however, would tell us that science takes place in this same rather messy space where the scientists and the science they are doing is entrenched and constantly interacting with the society around it. It is handled, manipulated and discovered by humans within an endless number of matrices, all connected or a part of, or making up that very vague but very real encapsulating entity we call society.

Enter social theory and the notion of social constructionism. There are many versions and addenda to this theory but the basic idea, crudely put, is that society creates the individual. The flip side of this, equally important, is that groups of individuals construct their social reality. These basic premises dominate the social sciences and since the late 19th century, this notion has grown to the point it now even invades not only the doing of the science we do, but forces us to question those aspects of science which are on the fuzzy border of science/society, particularly those related to the human body. Is madness socially constructed? Schizophrenia? Depression? How about highly common patterns of human phenomena that surfaces over and over in human history, such as violence, child abuse, or homosexuality? The observations of the social sciences, the doing of the sciences, and the science itself, are all coming into contact with one another in a way that never happened before. Hacking, clearly frustrated with social constructionism though well aware of the social matrices in which sciences are done, is not quite ready to completely toss the idea aside. While he is undeniably more on the side of science, often claiming that while “at the bottom” we are likely to find out a biological or chemical or physical reason for most of our questions, he believes now, specifically right now because we do not have these answers just yet, now, us we need away to navigate these two vastly different approaches in order to better understand our object of study. In many ways therefore, Hacking’s text works as a disruptor in the debate between essentialists and constructionists. Essentialist argue that a particular feature or characteristic of someone is essential to them whereas constructionist say there is no part, no pre-given part of one’ essence (p.17). The history of modern philosophy, going back to Kant and developed much more intently by Heidegger and Sartre, is a play where these two perspectives battle it out again and again not with the weight of any particular human disorder or circumstance as mentioned above, but with the very basic question of whether or not the “self”.

Those who use the concept of “social construction” often consider themselves radical, those who abhor the term deem themselves “rational, reasonable and respectable” (p.vii). As we have just mentioned, Hacking is of two minds, he despises the term, but can’t shake it off. In the end, this text is an attempt at understanding the very term “social construction”. By categorizing it and pointing to its flaws, it is also an attempt to acknowledge it and use it, ultimately, as we get on with our sciences.

One of the reasons the concept of social construction has become so commonplace is that it is a liberating idea. We might be mothers, homosexuals, people with OCD, or drug addicts. It is comforting to know that the way we are supposed to feel and act with these various labels is the consequence and product of history and ideology (p.2), it is not “us” so to speak, these labels do not define us. For these reasons, it is a catchall phrase loved by social activists and individuals who debate race, gender or just about any kind of cultural difference and disagreement imaginable. Hacking quickly points out that social construction is only liberating for those on their way already towards a raised consciousness and even this is limited, taking for example, the case of anorexics, a recent phenomenon in human history. Such “transient mental illnesses”, as Hacking calls them, though flourishing at certain times and certain places, are nonetheless very real, and social construction or not, anorexics are unlikely to eat, even if they have come to some kind of realization that they are dupes in some kind of twisted socio-cultural trend.

We might even take the concept of social construction into the sciences. At an extreme we could say that scientific results are social constructs. In these “science wars”, and “culture wars”, and infused in the concept of social construction is the idea of relativism. Moreover, with social constructionists is the idea of the decline of the West, a loss of tradition (p.5). Hacking is setting himself up here, and it’s only in passing, but it is an important distinction for us and much of what we have read for the past few months in our group. He is not interested in relativism, or the decline of the West (the malaise we read so much about with the Frankfurt School), or the culture wars. His highly analytical approach briskly deters him from speculating on these things. In fact, this approach is as evident as ever in his text when he finally gets down to addressing the issue and meaning of social construction directly. This section, entitled, “Don’t define, ask for the point”, does just that, hunts for the point.

The point, claims Hacking, is not to describe what is happening in a particular relationship which has been socially constructed (A exploits B). The point is it to raise consciousness and change how we see this relationship. Hacking creates a very useful scheme for understanding this. A social constructionist holds that X is a social construct, in so doing this, Hacking says they tend to hold the following 3 theses (from page 6):


  • X need not have existed, or need not be at all as it is. X, or X as it is at present, is not determined by the nature of things; it is not inevitable.
  • X is quite bad as it is
  • We would be much better off if X were done away with, or at least radically transformed.


Again, we can plug in many things for this X, perhaps anything. Illness, woman refugees, emotions, quarks, nanobacteria are all nice cozy Xs, for example. One of the first and therefore most looked at X, is gender. Simone de Beauvoir’s famous words from her 1949 text, The Second Sex, that one is not born a woman, but becomes one, is an opening if there ever was to explore here. Following this text, feminist with an agenda, mobilized X and took to all three of the theses above. In tracing the directions different feminists have taken in relation to these three theses, Hacking unravels a fantastically helpful outline for understanding “the point” of social construction, and we might even say the point of social theory more generally. It should be clear, Hacking is not denying the strengths of these approaches, nor is he denying the necessity for understanding them thoroughly.

Looking at this outline, as far as from the perspective of different feminist approaches to getting at X, Hacking identifies three types: the unmasker as reformer, the rebel and the revolutionary. He furthers these three types later in the chapter but for the moment lets stick with these three. The unmasker takes very seriously to the first thesis above, X need not have existed in the first place. But, since it now does, it serves a particular end, and members of this or that group categorized by this term may not be aware of it. In short, the unmasker, unmasks the ideology behind the use of the term, “gender”, or X more broadly (p.8). When we go into the next thesis, that X is bad, we have a certain normative view, we perceive something is amiss. When someone like Naomi Scheman claims that gender is socially constructed, she insists that, women are subjected to male domination. Here, we shift into the want to reform the category of gender. Judith Butler pushes this further. Gender for her is a performance, male and female bodies are not givens, sex itself is as culturally constructed as gender. For Hacking, Butler is the rebel because she rejects the idea that gender is just an add-on to sexual identity. We presume that that sex is a physiological given prior to human thought, but Butler makes us question that given. In turn she begins to turn us away from social construction talk altogether. We still tread however within the first and second theses, however Butler cites the fourth type, the revolutionary who insists that our gender categories be completely overthrown.

The obvious unanswered question that we have yet to look at, is, “what” is being constructed, when we say someone is socially constructed? This takes Hacking into the territory of language and the act of naming. There are Xs where these distinctions above are less obvious and accepting the three theses do not require much effort on our part. No one would argue, for example, that “women refugees” is good idea (going against thesis 2). The concept is much less controversial, nearly everyone would admit all three theses are obvious, since no one wants women refugees. But minus any controversy, we have to examine the context what is laid bare is that we have an idea. This is to say, what is being socially constructed is not individual women who are fleeing this or that, it is through the particular activities of particular women, given certain circumstances that a classification of, the idea of “the women refugee” which is being constructed, as if this kind of human being, is seen as a species, like “the whale” (p.10). This is a kind of person, and this kind or idea is what is being socially constructed. As is always significant for Hacking, kinds exist within a matrix, in other words they inhabit a social setting. To be clear, this matrix that “forms” the woman refugee involves, as Hacking writes, “the complex of insitutions, advovates, newspaper articles, lawyers, court decisions, immigration proceedings…[and] the material infrastructure, barriers, passports, uniforms, couters at airports” (ibid). For Hacking we tend to call these things material, but they are material and given this materiality, they make substantial differences to people.

The thing about the idea in a matrix, particularly when the thing (that is the individual person here) becomes conscious of this idea, is that they evolve and change by being so classified as a “woman refugee”. Though this may seem obvious this is an important point, that is—people are affected by their classification and make conscious adjustments.

Hacking here is leading to a precondition of the three theses above. The first thesis tells us that X need not have existed. This is a set up, everyone knows this, such social construction is obvious, and sharing his frustration with the term, he says we do not have to keep pointing this out. Instead, Hacking asks why do people begin to argue that X need not have existed. Here he introduces a preconditional theses, thesis (0), stating that “in the present state of affairs, X is taken for granted; X appears to be inevitable” (12). Without this precondition there is no inclination to talk about the social construction of X. This is why there are no books on the social construction of banks, dollar bills, the Federal Reserve, British monarchy or Japan. No one would doubt that these things are socially constructed, and we would never presume that they came inevitably. This distinction, between objects and ideas is of great importance for Hacking. The starting point, thesis (0), does not work for objects. A bit later, Hacking discusses emotions and asks if they are social constructs. Many argue that emotions vary from culture to culture and even the character of these emotions change across time and place. These authors do not claim that the idea of emotions is a social construct, but the emotions themselves, grief for example, are socially constructed. Hacking’s point, and this is tricky, is that damned word “constructed” here loses all force. Unfortunately he does not bring much to why this is the case, though he does quote Griffiths who concludes that the “insights of social constructionism are perfectly compatible with what is known about the evolutionary [and therefore biological, pre-cultural] basis of emotions (p.19).

Still coming to no official resolution, Hacking finds himself once again asking the question of why use social construction talk in the first place. As is the case above, he turns to grades of commitments given the 3 theses. He adds two new dimensions—historical and ironic. He places these at less demanding levels of constructionism in comparison to the reformist/unmasker positions. He states that someone who presents a history of X and argues that X is socially constructed, but goes no further than that would be presenting a historical and non-committed construction. The ironist is a powerful intellect and sheds a fantastic light on why X is X, and why it could have been nothing other than X given the particular development of its construction. But in our lives and in the current state of affairs, there is not much we can do about it.

Lets walk through all of this and see what comes from it. The “child viewer of television” is a social construct. Now labeled, the child viewer, this new species, like the “whale” from above is a relation involving this child, the producers of the vieweing material, the advertisers attached to it, the products, etc (p.27). The child is no longer a passive victim, but becomes actively present and actively participates in the milieu of Television. We would consider the precondition (thesis 0) and say that, “the child viewer”, is an inevitable category in our times. But the constructionist of course want to argue for thesis 1, this is indeed not inevitable at all. The child who watches television never needed to be conceptualized in this way. Though this seems like a sensible classification, it was imposed upon us, namely through a vast network, a matrix. From here comes thesis 2, the idea that the child viewer of society is not a particularly a good one. Some may take it further (the revolutionary), that we would be better off without it. What is problematic in all of this is that having this kind to work with, this “child viewer of television” presupposes that there is a coherent object. We then collect data about watching television, ages, sex, attentiveness, school scores, and acts of violence, all which may very meaningful, but are all artifacts of a construction. Such data might be meaningful, but they are artifacts of a construction. In this constructing process, “child viewers”, the actual individuals adapt and react to these labels. This process Hacking calls a “looping effect” (p.34). The studies then change and revise to these changes. What is constructed is not only the classification, but the child, who is constructed and reconstructed within the matrix. Under all of these complications, Hacking’s insight is simple. What is the “what” being constructed? When social constructionist, talk about the social construction of “what”, they very likely are talking about different “whats”. It is the interaction between these “whats” that Hacking’s interest lies and he believes the mistake in all of this lies in blurring of objects and ideas. The example he leads to at the end of this chapter takes on quarks and baseballs. Quarks, the objects, are not constructs, are not social and are not historical, whereas baseballs are (p.30).

On this note, many would agree today that schizophrenia is at the bottom a biochemical or genetic disorder whereas others would say it is a social construct (p.101). Hacking does not want to take sides, as it should be clear by now. Instead he wants to create a space where both ideas can be developed. As he is so apt to do, Hacking creates a scheme for distinguishing between the “kinds” we have been discussing. There are two kinds of “kinds”: interactive and indifferent. Children are interactive kinds, because they are self-consious and react and interact with their social environment, they are, in a word, aware (103). If we are “females” or “disabled”, we interact with the categories put upon us, as well as consider the actions expected of us and the whole network of milieus that we live in and are engaged with. Returning to an earlier point above, social sciences strive to grab hold of this, but it is so troublesome to get to that fixed target, as Hacking notes, because, just perhaps, it’s a moving target (given the looping effect).

There is a second kind, the indifferent. While our knowledge of quarks might affect quarks, it is not because they are aware of our knowledge of them. Similarly Plutonium interacts with people certainly, for it kills us. But it is indifferent to our knowledge of it, it is indifferent to the idea of plutonium. He gives two further interesting examples, microbes and horses, the latter of which he says undoubtedly interacts with us, but is no different for being classified as a horse. More then anything Hacking is invested in the principle of classification and the individuals (objects, yes) that interact with this classification.

What if something, as is the case with psychopathologies (and can we think of something else?), is both an interactive kind and an indifferent kind? Though he might wince at the idea of someone calling something like childhood autism a construct, he wants to find a space between this and the biological and chemical processes happening in the child. The reason he is not so quick to denounce social construction, apart from the socio-historical richness it endows objects with, at least in the case of disorders and disease, it is well proven they can influence one another. This is the case of biolooping, where, for example, a cancer patients better mood do to behavioral or cognitive treatment, extends their life expectancy.

Having said all this, the problem Hacking has with social construction, particularly in the case of various disorders, is that society is meant to construct it. That’s how it is understood of course. But when something is both an interactive and indifferent kind, the disorder does not really exist in the way it is being described, indeed it may not ever have existed in that way if it weren’t described (p.117). What Hacking insists here is that it is not a one-way street, its not as simple as the construction of the thing by society. By introducing the idea of an interactive kind, we can understand that what we have here is a two-way street, or perhaps a city. Even if we finally come to some kind of conclusive result that pathology P is of a completely indifferent kind, how might we explain psychological treatment? This is because child autism, taken for example, is of both kinds it is almost certainly of a particular pathology P and it involves interactive children.


In the last chapter on rocks we were meant to read for our meeting, Hacking puts much of his criticisms and insights from the previous chapters to work in story form—the story of what dolomite is and how it is formed. And, to really push it now, how we form it, how it is categorized, how we interact with it, how it, the object, extends into all aspects of our lives. We might consider it an attempt to create a stirring philosophical, sociological and historical example of a more sensible collaboration between the insights of social construction and that “bottom” which science can get to for us. Hacking’s attentiveness to the science is evident here, but so is the messiness which humans bring to it. A last point rests on Hacking’s philosophy, since that is what he is, after all. He writes, “One way to do philosophy is to take a careful look at some corner of the world…The example must illustrate, and serve as a parable for, a general point of great interest. My choice here is up to the minute and into the future. No one knows how the story will end. The facts have not stabilized. But it certainly is an exciting story. We could be talking about the origin of life, maybe even life before Earth. And, like some of the most fascinating science, it starts with the dullest, most ordinary stuff imaginable” (p.186).