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)

Sergei Eisenstein A Dialectic Approach To Film Form

Sergei Eisenstein adopts the theory of dialectics into art. Where the dynamic force that animates art is given as a series of conflict: conflict of social mission, nature and methodology.

“According to its social mission because: It is art’s task to make manifest the contradictions of Being. To form equitable views by stirring up contradictions within the spectator’s mind, and to forge accurate intellectual concepts from the dynamic clash of opposing passions.”

According to its nature because: Its nature is a conflict between natural existence and creative tendency.

The ossified, inorganic, dead formalism that no longer has the power to move is in combat with an effortful move towards the new. This dynamic conflict Eisenstein sees this not just as the basis of art, but all thinking:  the intellectual lives of Plato or Dante or Spinoza or New- ton were largely guided and sustained by their delight in the sheer beauty of the rhythmic relation between law and instance, species and individual, or cause and effect.

Finally, there is the conflict in the methodology. Eisenstein looks at the basic movement of image to image: the montage. He looks at the older theory of montage, which sees it as a sequential series of images to convey an unfolding of an idea. ” The earliest conscious film-makers, and our first film theoreticians, regarded montage as a means of description by placing single shots one after the other like building-blocks. The movement within these building-block shots, and the consequent length of the component pieces, was then considered as rhythm.”

But he thinks this is a mistake. The power of the images are not so much in their series, but in their relation to one another. “According to this definition, shared even by Pudovkin as a theoretician, montage is the means of unrolling an idea with the help of single shots: the “epic” principle. In my opinion, however, montage is an idea that arises from the collision of independent shots-shots even opposite to one another: the “dramatic” principle.”

Like how art creates dynamism by vibrant contrast of colors, arrangement of lines or postures to convey movement, or use of disproportion to draw attention to ideas; like music that uses counterpoint to expand it’s theme, the montage creates dynamism by drawing out the conflict between images

For all this, the basic premise is: The shot is by no means an element of montage. The shot is a montage cell (or molecule). In this formulation the dualistic division of Sub-title and shot and Shot and montage leaps forward in analysis to a dialectic consideration as three different phases of one homogeneous task of expression, its homogeneous characteristics determining the homogeneity of their structural laws. Inter-relation of the three phases: Conflict within a thesis (an abstract idea) – formulates itself in the dialectics of the subtitle – forms itself spatially in the conflict within the shot – and explodes with increasing intensity in montage-conflict among the separate shots.

In Methods of Montage Eisenstein elaborates on five kinds of montage: metric, rhythmic, tonal, overtonal, and intellectual. In true dialectic form, he believes that each state subsumes the other and enters into conflict with the one before it: metric is in conflict with rhythmic, overtonal with tonal. The overtonal is the highest form of this category, which works on the physiological (affect?) level. But Eisenstein has in mind a movement towards a new kind of film, the one that turns the intellectual montage into a full-fledged intellectual movie. Once the physiological overtonal conflict is resolved in the intellectual will this emerge:

The intellectual cinema will be that which resolves the conflict-juxtaposition of the physiological and intellectual overtones. Building a completely new form of cinematography- the realization of revolution in the general history of culture; building a synthesis of science, art, and class militancy.

Addenum: In his ideas concerning the intellectual cinema, Eisenstein relies on a concept well developed by Soviet psychologists which has been explored in the series on Bakhtin: that of inner speech. Here are some quotes from Eisenstein about the idea in relation to montage, from his book of essays Film Form:

How fascinating it is to listen to one’s own train of thought, particularly in an excited state, in order to catch yourself, looking at and listening to your mind. How you talk “to yourself,” as distinct from “out of yourself.” The syntax of inner speech as distinct from outer speech. The quivering inner words that correspond with the visual images. Contrasts with outer circumstances. How they work reciprocally. . . .
To listen and to study, in order to understand structural laws and assemble them into an inner monologue construction of the utmost tension of the struggle of tragic re-experience. How fascinating ! (105)

Inner speech, the flow and sequence of thinking unformulated into the logical constructions in which uttered, formulated thoughts are expressed, has a special structure of its own. This structure is based on a quite distinct series of laws. What is remarkable therein, and why I am discussing it, is that the laws of construction of inner speech tum out to be precisely those laws which lie at the foundation of the whole variety of laws governing the construction of the form and composition of art-works. And there is not one formal method that does not prove the spit and image of one or another law governing the construction of inner speech, as distinct from the logic of uttered speech. It could not be otherwise. (130)

Concerning “affective logic,” about which Vendryes writes and which lies at the base of spoken speech, montage very quickly realized that “affective logic” is the chief thing, but for finding all the fullness of its system and laws, montage had
to make further serious creative “cruises” through the “inner monologue” of Joyce, through the “inner monologue” as understood in film, and through the so-called “intellectual cinema,” before discovering that a fund of these laws can be found in a third variety of speech-not in written, nor in spoken speech, but in inner speech, where the affective structure functions in an even more full and pure form. But the formation of this inner speech is already inalienable from that which is enriched by sensual thinking

Thus w􀀅e arrived at the primary source of those interior principles, which already govern not only the formation of montage, but the inner formation of all works of art-of those basic laws of the speech of art in general-of those general laws of form, which  lie at the base not only of works of film art, but of all and all kinds of arts in general. But of that-at another time. (250-251)

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.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Selections

This summary is part of the presentation for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club. Come join us on our meetup or facebook group.


Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas on language offer new insights against the dueling psychological giants of the time, behaviorism and psychoanalysis. He faults both for locating the psyche inside the organism, whereas he will argue that the psyche is the border between the inside and outside world, in the realm of language and speech.

The section Critique on Freudianism provides a good contrast point to elucidate his sociolinguistic conception of “objective psychology”. He immediately questions the very methods Freud used to understand the unconscious. For Freud’s psychology, the desires and motives of the unconscious are hidden, and only in their manifestations in the consciousness can they be interpreted. But how did Freud get to this idea in the first place? Bakhtin argues, that it is through his interaction with patients. But interactions are always situated in the world, with real people enacting various roles and ideologies. The doctor and patient role has different utterances than other interactions. The insights Freud achieved about human sexuality and hidden drives were not a universal proof of the unconscious, but a dramatization of the ideology and practices of his time, his place, and his role as doctor. The unconscious is thus not a hidden drive, something other than consciousness, but simply another form of consciousness.

Verbal reactions are determined by social interaction, so nothing uttered can be considered in isolation. Inner and outer speech are both generated by these outward social connections. “Any instance of self-awareness is an act of gauging oneself against some social norm, social evaluation…In becoming aware of myself, I attempt to look at myself, as it were, through the eyes of another person, another representative of my social group, my class. Thus self-consciousness…is class consciousness.” Every verbal utterance is small-scale ideology.

The reference to class and ideology shows the Marxist framework Bakhtin is working in. In the section Language as Dialogic Interaction he makes the case that his vision of lingustics can learn much from the ideas of Marxism, and that linguistics can solve the problems of superstructure and base, namely how they interact and affect each other.

Ideology is based on signs. Signs are always outwardly manifested. Bakhtin argues that, instead of the idealistic conception of ideology being in consciousness, consciousnesses is a product of understanding a chain of signs. And to understand and interpret signs is an activity between individuals who are organized socially in an interindividual territory. Whenever this understanding and interpreting happens, the word is there.

The word can help understand the relationship of base and superstructure because it is so ubiquitous. Speech performances work closely with the social situation, and so can be used to observe the barely noticeable shifts which eventually become full fledged ideology. This is the social psychology that Bakhtin proposes, which is “first and foremost an atmosphere made up of multifarious speech performances that engulf and wash over all persistent forms and kinds of ideological creativity: unofficial discussions, exchanges of opinion at the theater or at various types of social gatherings, purely chance exchanges of words, one’s manner of verbal reaction to the happenings in one’s life, and daily existence, one’s inner word manner of identifying oneself and identifying one’s position in society, and so on.” (54) Because various classes use the same language, but come at it from different angles and accents, a form of class struggle happens at the level of language as well.

So what does Bakhtin’s conception of language look like? Language as Dialogic Interaction and Speech Genres give us some ideas. Speech, which is a ubiquitous form of signs and thus ideology, occurs within various spheres of activity, each of which develops relatively stable types of utterances. These stable types are called speech genres. The number of these genres is almost inexhaustible. Utterances are “manifested primarily in the choice of a particular speech genre…it is shaped and developed within a certain generic form.” (83) These genres from the repertoire of speech, usually unknowingly. They are learned while acquiring language, and someone might have an excellent command of the language but still be at loss in certain situations because “of the inability to command a repertoire of genres of social conversation, the lack of a sufficient supply of those genres of social conversation, the lack of a sufficient supply of those ideas about the whole of the utterance that help to cast one’s speech quickly and naturally in certain compositional and stylistic forms, the inability to grasp a word promptly, to begin and end correctly…” (84).

Utterances are units of meanings in themselves, but they are always in response to other utterances before it, and anticipate a response from others. The addressee “can be an immediate participant-interlocutor in everyday dialogue, a differentiated collective of specialists in some particular area of cultural communication, a more or less differentiated public, ethnic group, contemporaries, like-minded people, opponents and enemies, a subordinate, a superior, someone who is lower, higher, familiar, foreign and so on. And is can be an indefinite, unconcritized other (with various kinds of monological utterances of an emotional type)” (87)  So an addressee is always present in speech, inner or outer.

In Bakhtin’s philosophy of language, the basic unit of language is not grammar, but the utterance. An utterance is dual natured: it is a full meaning in itself, but belongs in a chain of other utterances. One person’s utterance is complete when it awaits a reply from another. These utterances cannot be removed from their context, because situations and social roles give rise to a huge number of genres that a person acquires as they acquire language. Seen this way, inner speech is more of an inner dialogue.

There are two types of genres identified, simple and complex. The complex genres are a mixture of various speeches and utterances, and are usually written. The novel is the for Bakhtin an example of a complex genre. Bakhtin wrote extensively on Dostoevsky’s works, which he considers to be a new genre of polyphonic novel, where all the different voices and dialogues freely interact with all others without authorial imposition. But he also claims that all novels are always in what he calls heteroglossia, a multitude of voices. He contrasts this with the idea of a national poem, which is ideologically stable and speaks with one voice. Historically the novel was developed in “the heteroglossia of the clown…street songs, folk sayings, anecdotes where there was no language-center at all, where there was to be found a lively play with the ‘languages’ of poets, scholars, monks, knights and others, where all ‘languages’ were masks and where no language could claim to be authentic, incontestable face” (114).

The language novels use consists of the following: hybridization of different speeches, the interrelation of languages (characters, narrator, audience, etc.) and the pure dialogue itself. Ultimately the interaction of the three creates in the novel a mirror for ourselves: “What is realized in the novel is the process of coming to know one’s own language as it is perceived in someone else’s language, coming to know one’s own belief system in someone else’s system. There takes place within the novel an ideological translation of another’s language, and an overcoming of its otherness- an otherness that is only contingent, external, illusory. Characteristic for the historic novel is a positively weighed modernizing, an erosion of temporal boundaries, the recognition of an eternal present in the past. The primary stylistic project of the novel as a genre, is to create images of languages.” (120)

The reference to clowns and folk sayings segues into Bakhtin’s other famous concept: the carnival. His studies on Rabelais and folk humor reveals an often overlooked aspect of Medieval life. He finds that people in the middle ages had developed folk humor and carnival parallel to the Church. This is a continuation of old pagan rites, where “coupled with the cults which were serious in tone and organization were other, comic cult which laughed and scoffed at the deity (‘ritual laughter’); coupled with serious myths were comic and abusive ones; coupled with heroes were their parodies and couplets.” (197)

In older cultures serious and comic rites were both official, but in the middle ages the comic rites developed in parallel to the Church and outside of it. Every official feast and religious occasion had it’s folk double, (which survives today in perhaps the most conspicuous of carnivals: Mardi gras) there were parodies of liturgies, hymns, Gospel stories, and proclamations, both in Latin and the vernacular.  The carnivals adopted the language of the marketplace, oaths, profanities and ritual obscenities that were outside of the official language. It was a spectacle which has no distinction between actor and spectator. Everyone was engulfed in the carnival spirit. The official feast “asserted all that was stable, unchanging, perennial: the existing religious, political and moral values, norms and prohibitions”; the carnival brought “a second life to the people, who for a time entered the utopian realm of community, freedom, equality and abundance.” (199)  The laughter of the festivites was ambivalent, since the person included themselves in the object of their ridicule. This is what gives the carnival its philosophical and utopian weight.

This concept of the carnival gives Bakhtin a response to two common interpretations of Renaissance works, particularly Rabelais. Rabelais’ works spend a lot of time focused on the human body. This has been interpreted as the ‘rehabilitation of the body,’ an attempt at moving away from the ascetic middle ages. In fact ,Bakhtin says, the works of grotesque realism draw from the rich carnival heritage of the Medieval era. Another thing that these works are not, as was commonly thought, is satire, at least in the modern sense of an author standing outside the thing he ridicules in order to negate it. Grotesque realism degrades the high and abstract into the earthy level. Bakhtin gives an interesting and positive spin on the term degradation. Laughter degrades, and:

To degrade is to bury, to sow, and to kill simultaneously, in order to bring forth someone more and better. To degrade also means to concern oneself with the lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and reproductive organs, pregnancy and birth. Degradation digs a bodily grave for a new birth; it has not only a destructive, negative aspect, but also a regenerating one. To degrade an object does not imply merely hurling it into the void of nonexistence, into absolute destruction, but to hurl it down to the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception and a new birth takes place. Grotesque realism knows no other level; it is the fruitful earth and the womb. It is always conceiving. (206)


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


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 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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Brian Massumi- Ontopower

This summary is part of the presentation for the Seoul Contemporary Philosophy Club, meeting Saturday March 11th in Jong-gak, Seoul. Come join us on our meetup or facebook group.

Preemptive Logic

The Bush administration unfurled the beginning of a new military and political strategy, that of preemptive logic. This doctrine of attacking the enemy before it has a chance to strike has far wide ranging consequences. The idea has taken a life of its own and has become it’s own self-perpetuating thought, which Massumi calls an operative logic. Preemption is a replacement for the old Cold War operative logic: deterrence.

Like preemption, deterrence takes a future case as its present effect. The future cause- potential nuclear war- has a present act: you build a nuclear arsenal that could potentially destroy you and the enemy does the same, increasing the immediate threat of a future danger. This is the logic behind mutually assured destruction. MAD creates an equilibrium, as one side builds their arsenal so does the other and the system becomes self-propelling. Deterrence leads to a dynamic equilibrium, and the causes suddenly produce a different effect: an arms race. This arms race is self-causing, the logic of deterrence working as a self-closed loop. 

Deterrence has a clear enemy which is equal in power and still retains a humanistic side, or at least is not insane nor suicidal. But enter the terrorists: a hidden enemy, one that is weaker than the Western powers and does not seem to have that human impulse of self-preservation. Deterrence no longer works, and that is where preemption comes in. The military is transformed. A branch of it is made smaller and works on the slightest of perception in order to flush out the terrorists before they get to attack. It in effect is what Massumi calls “becoming-terrorist,” and a different system calls for a different logic. Preemptive logic works on a threat that is perpetually there, but is not known- Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknown”. “Preemption is when futurity of unspecified threat is affectively held in the present in a perpetual state of potential emergency, so that a movement of actualization may be triggered that is not only self-propelling but also effectively, indefinitely, ontologically productive, because it works from,  virtual cause whose potential no single actualization exhausts.” And so as a logic that proliferates and changes, it takes on many forms like the increase of executive powers in the person of the president and commander-in-chief. The war is the “permanent state of emergency” as Walter Benjamin once said.

The logic of preemption has implications not just for the military, but politics and society as a whole. In 2004 when Bush was up for re-election, he addressed the lack of weapons of mass destruction by arguing that if Saddam had weapons, he would have used them: “in the past there was a future threat.” The threat and menace felt very real, and fear is the anticipatory present of this threatening future. And this future is open, forever open. This justifies preemptive action. Any preemptive action towards a potential threat is always legitimated by the affective fact of fear. The logic is circular because “the logic of affectively legitimated fact is in the conditional: Bush did what he did because Saddam could have done what he didn’t do.” If Saddam in the future could have acquired weapons of mass destruction he would have used them, a double conditional.

In 2005, things seem to be going bad for Bush’s invasion of Iraq. He argued that present Iraq is full of terrorists. At the time of the invasion, Al-Qaeda was not in Iraq despite what the administration said, but after the invasion it was, meaning- in double conditional logic- they always could have been there, and now they were, so the invasion was right. “The could have/would have logic works both ways. If the threat does not materialize, it still always would have if it could have. If on the other hand the threat does materialize, then it just goes to show that the future potential for what happened had really been there in the past.” The preemptive action ended up causing what it aimed at preempting.

“Proposition: Because it operates on an affective register and inhabits a non-linear time operating recursively between present and future, preemptive logic is not subject to the rules of noncontradiction as normative logic, which privileges a linear causality from the past to the present and is reluctant to attitude an effective reality to futurity.”

Around the same time, a Montreal airport was shut down because of a potential anthrax threat. That the substance could have been anthrax triggered a series of actions as if it were: enter the military, helicopter forces, news alert headlines, all of it. Even when the white powder turned out to be flour, it was still referred to as a “toxic substance alert.” It could have been toxic, so it’s a toxic substance alert. The alert highlights what the threat could have been, not what it was and so the event is always tainted with a feeling of threat. “Proposition: Threat is capable of overlaying its own conditional determination upon an objective situation through the mechanism of alarm. The two determinations, threatening and objective, co exist. However, the threat-determined would-be and could-be takes public precedence due to its operating in the more compelling future-oriented and affective register. This gives it superior political presence and potential.” The fake anthrax caused real increase in security.

And what is the mechanism of this feeling of threat?

The Affect of Fear

In 2002 the Bush administration released the color coded terror alert system, which goes form low alert to severe. “Safe” isn’t even an option. The alert system calibrates on the population’s fear, playing on them with affective modulation. It tweaks on the population’s nervous system and their affection worked in unison, though not necessarily in the same way. That’s because it’s not a matter of identification or imitation: after all, the spectrum gives no form to imitate. Rather the hues work on the intensity of the emotions, bypassing cognition and working directly on the body. Since each body reacts according to its own acquired patterns of responses, the result of this affect is hard to predict or control. Rather the color shift immediately goes at a person’s pre-subjective level which activates the predisposition or tendency that the body might have. “Without proof, without persuasion, at the limit even without argument, government image production could trigger (re)action.” Because the affects produced in immediacy cannot be predicted, especially given social and cultural diversity, the role of proof, persuasion, argument-which addresses the subject- fails in front of the pre-subjective activation power of affect.

When government deals with threats, the object is formless, looming and  unseen. The only form they have is a time-form: futurity. Threat and fear are then intertwined, since fear is triggered by threat, but threat is only threatening if fear exists. As William James argued, fear compels the body to action before the emotion is consciously felt, and threat is the intensity of that experience without any content. Fear is the immanence of experience. After the initial startle the body begins to perceive, reflect, and recollect- at that point emotion and affect diverge. Once fear becomes phenomenal, it can have an object. Narrating or recounting the fear further separates from the original intensity.

The anticipation of a sensation can cause that sensation. Quoting William James: “When an ideal emotion seems to precede the bodily symptoms, it is often nothing but a representation of the symptoms themselves. One who has already fainted at the sight of blood many witness the preparations for a surgical operation with uncontrollable heart-sinking and anxiety. He anticipates certain feelings, and the anticipation precipitates their arrival” (James 983, 177). What the alert system does is keep people in constant anticipation of fear, fear itself becomes the threat. Fear can be self-caused, even without external threat to trigger it. It’s an all encompassing affective atmosphere. Fear may be contained, but fear always exceeds its containment and will always stay as a mood. “Fear, in a quasi-causal relation to itself, has become redundantly self-sufficient- an autonomous force of existence. It has become ontogenic: an ontopower.” Just like the arms race was how deterrence was able to perpetuate itself, threat is the means in which preemption persists.

CS Pierce calls indication or indexes things that “act on the nerves of a person and force his attention” because they “show something about things, on account of their being physically connected to them,” yet they “assert nothing.” An example is a fire alarm. The alarm itself has asserted nothing, yet it still startles and forces attention, becoming an experience even if there is no actual fire. Awakening to the possible threat of the fire is more important than fire. The body is activated into the transitional state of experience, fire or not.

What if the alarm works on preemptive logic, and sounds for all the fires yet to come? Then the innerviating effect of the alarm is always there, always right.

According to Pierce, the effects of the sign on the body is the threshold between active and passive. There is a moment of pure affect collectively felt. The terror alert system is that alarm constantly reminding you that fires could happen, and acts as if they always are.

What Next?

Massumi begins his final chapter mentioning how the potential for avian flu is the news headline, and gives an observation: “We live in times when what has not happened qualifies as news.” Threat is from the future. It is what might come next. Its eventual location and ultimate extent are undefined. Its nature is open-ended. It is not just that it is not: it is not in a way that is never over. We can never be done with it. Even if a clear and present danger materializes in the present, that does not exhaust future threats. There is always the nagging feeling that what comes next might be even worse. “The uncertainty of the potential next is never consumed in any given event. There is always a remainder of uncertainty, an unconsummated surplus of danger. The present is shadowed by a remaindered surplus of indeterminate potential. For a next event running forward back to the future self-renewing.”Even if the threat is nonexistent, it is very real.

Operative logic is a process that produces more of itself. It’s an impersonal will-to-power which is always in interaction with other operational logics. Signs are needed to carry on an analysis of the never-fully-activated operational logic. “To understand preemptive power as an operative logic it is necessary to be able to express its productive process of becoming as a semiosis. Since preemption’s production of being in becoming pivots on affect as a felt quality, the pertinent theory of signs would have to be grounded first and foremost in a metaphysics of feeling.”

Massumi hints at possible alternatives to the present state throughout the book. He suggests that new operatives will need to be found, and new affects to replace fear. It is a matter of fighting operative logic with operative logic, affect with affect.