No Shared Identity?

Mark Fisher‘s recent piece on “Exiting the Vampire Castle” earned a response (“B-Grade Politics“) from Angela Mitropoulos.

EDIT 27/11/13: See comments below. I am accused of individualising critique on the grounds it is ‘personal’.

I’ve removed the section that placed Angela’s comments in the context of her other recent online postings where she is critical of what I guess you could call ‘Leninist-brocialism‘. I have expanded the below to clarify my point (considering two people with PhDs do not understand it). Now I have structured this post as 1. very simple rearticulation of the two pieces and 2. an expansion of my point.

Put very simply: Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces approach the question of engaged political critique from different positions. From Mark’s perspective the point of engaged political activity is to overcome the individualising mechanisms of capitalism. From Angela’s perspective the point of engaged political activity is to extrapolate from the ways we are exploited at a personal level to find the broader political dimensions. So far, not insurmountable differences.

The differences become insurmountable at the next level: For Mark, what he calls identitarianism is a kind of white-anting within progressive political movements, exacerbated by the way we are encouraged to project a version of the self through social media. For Angela, any move to elide difference is to betray a commitment to anti-racism and/or anti-sexism and to base critical engagement on a political subject that according to this logic is defined as straight, white and male.

Rather than finding some way to overcome these differences, the final level turns them against each other: Mark draws on Nietzschean notions of bad conscience, describing those who subscribe to Angela’s position as the ‘moralising left’. Angela suggests that by ignoring race and sex, Mark is ignoring how capitalist exploitation is actually played out, and maybe ironically (but unlikely) Angela suggests Mark’s post was about his own enjoyment. For Angela, because Mark is relying on a notion of class, he is basically reinscribing the identity-based politics that he is allegedly critiquing.

Good? I hope that is an adequate summary and that I have represented the different positions fairly. I had assumed readers of my original post had read both Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces, and had a relatively sophisticated understanding of these issues.

My interest in this the relation between experience, identity and what Spinoza calls a ‘common notion’. Do we have a ‘common notion’ of living in capitalism? I believe Mark was trying to address this.

Of course, my understanding of ‘common notion’ is via Deleuze.

[Spinoza] always defines a common notion like this: it’s the idea of something which is common to all bodies or to several bodies—at least two—and which is common to the whole and to the part. Therefore there surely are common notions which are common to all minds, but they’re common to all minds only to the extent that they are first the idea of something which is common to all bodies. Therefore these are not at all abstract notions. What is common to all bodies? For example, being in movement or at rest. Movement and rest will be objects of notions said to be common to all bodies. Therefore there are common notions which designate something common to all bodies. There are also common notions which designate something common to two bodies or to two souls, for example, someone I love. Once again the common notion is not abstract, it has nothing to do with species or genera, it’s actually the statement [ÈnoncÈ] of what is common to several bodies or to all bodies; or, since there’s no single body which is not itself made up of several, one can say that there are common things or common notions in each body.

I read this in a number of ways. Following Massumi’s notion of “becoming-together”. Following Guattari and Negri’s notion of “new alliances” (PDF). Massumi is useful because he frames this ‘political economy of belonging’ in terms of the experiences shared by those who ‘become-together’. Experience for Massumi may very well be subjectively felt, but it is not ‘subjective’; it is pre-personal and through which the individual is individuated. Guattari and Negri’s notion is useful because it posits a ‘common consciousness’ apprehended by a ‘revolutionary imagination’ that serves as the ‘basis of the constitution of a future movement’.

Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza’s ‘common notion’ is framed in terms of sadness and joy. Sad affects are when bodies are acted upon in conditions that ‘do not agree’ with it, and ‘nothing in sadness can induce you to form a common notion’. On the other hand, joy is the condition of a ‘common notion’ (from Deleuze’s lecture):

One never makes progress on a homogeneous line, something here makes us make progress down there, as if a small joy here had released a trigger. Anew, the necessity of a map: what happened there that unblocked this here? A small joy precipitates us into a world of concrete ideas which sweeps out the sad affects or which is in the process of struggling, all of this makes up part of the continuous variation. But at the same time, this joy propels us somehow beyond the continuous variation, it makes us acquire at least the potentiality of a common notion.

I’ve written a great deal about how affective-complexes involving ‘joy’ and their relation to localised fields of knowledge are played out as ‘enthusiasm’ in working class subcultures.

Returning to the distinction between Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces, I read both as suggesting that there cannot be a ‘common notion’, but for different reasons. Angela is arguing that racialised and sexed bodies are exploited more than straight, white and male bodies in the current composition of capitalist relations, and that there cannot be a ‘common notion’ across these differences if difference is elided; she writes:

That is, unless ‘success’ has been practically and more or less consciously defined as the recruitment of people who do not want to talk critically about race or gender politics, will not overly criticise those (white men) who present themselves as their ‘leaders,’ and who will actively curtail any committment to anti-racism or anti-sexism in the name of a ‘class unity’ magically redefined as essentially white and male.

Mark, on the other hand, is advocating what is common:

A left that does not have class at its core can only be a liberal pressure group. Class consciousness is always double: it involves a simultaneous knowledge of the way in which class frames and shapes all experience, and a knowledge of the particular position that we occupy in the class structure. It must be remembered that the aim of our struggle is not recognition by the bourgeoisie, nor even the destruction of the bourgeoisie itself. It is the class structure – a structure that wounds everyone, even those who materially profit from it – that must be destroyed.

Mark is using the word ‘class’ here in a specific way; class is necessarily based on the shared experience of living in a capitalist composition of social relations (“frames and shapes all experience”). This is an experience of exploitation in different ways depending on one’s particular position we occupy in the class structure. Already his piece is at odds with an approach which seeks to reduce individuals to their individualising identity. An appeal to a shared experience is problematic for those who believe that they do not share any experience. Class consciousness is a knowledge of this experience and a knowledge of our relational positioning in this shared experience. (At a very simplistic level: most of the commentary about Mark’s piece I have encountered online and offline begins by identifying and agreeing with his experience of ‘snarky social media’ .) Does a ‘brosocialist’ have anything in common with those who identify as queer and/or coloured? Is there a ‘common notion’?

Mark, secondly, is suggesting that the current compositions of capitalist relations encourage the circulation of sad affects and the erasure of what is common; enter his notion of the ‘Vampires’ Castle’:

the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.

The ‘Vampires’ Castle’ is both structure and ephemera; it is an ‘assemblage’ in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense.  The ephemeral character of structure is really very difficult to even describe, let alone talk about. Deleuze discussed it in “What is structuralism?” and instead turned to the terminology of the ‘machinic’, etc.

My overall point, can we have positive identities or a positive sense of identity that is shared? Yes, of course. Mark is describing a situation where we are encouraged to misrecognise this shared dimension. Importantly, to return to Angela’s second point above, she pours scorn on ‘recruitment’. Clearly, she frames her identity in terms of the capacity to talk critically about race or gender politics. It would be interesting to know if Angela thinks she shares any dimension of experience at all and, if so, how does she police the boundaries of how this shared dimension is defined.

As a final additional point, it is amusing that Deleuze frames the development of adequate ideas (adequate ideas are when you appreciate the relations of causality in the balance between positive and negative affects) from common notions in terms of ageing:

Knowing how to age is arriving at the moment when the common notions must make you comprehend in what way things and other bodies disagree with your own.

Forget OOO 2: The Nadir of OOO

Review of OOO as a movement by Nathan Brown, from Tool-Being to Realist Magic:

In order to stake its claim to originality and supremacy, “OOO” has to fulminate against what it sees as a threatening field materialists, purveyors of “scientism,” process philosophers, Deleuzians, and systems theorists.
Yet many readers, perhaps trying to find an initial foothold in philosophy and theory, will find themselves in a position from which this might not be apparent. And the problem with obscurantism is that its strategy is to reinforce incomprehension, rather than alleviating it. To the extent that this strategy can itself be clarified, its effect—the cultivation of ignorance and error—is mitigated.

See some of my previous critical comments about OOO.

Tools for Critical Epistemology: Part 2

In the fragments from his estate’s papers translated and published as Technical Mentality Simondon focuses on the event of human invention, how it was unified with the artisan, but then becomes dispersed in the industrial age. He describes this in terms of the distribution of information and the distribution of energy, where they do not overlap. He suggests, “industrial modality appears when the source of information and the source of energy separate, namely when the Human Being is merely the source of information, and Nature is required to furnish the energy”. He continues a little later, “Unfortunately, the entry of information that comes into the work is no longer unique in the way it is with the artisanal gesture: it happens through several moments and at several levels.”

Simondon describes four moments of the entry of information 1) Invention, 2) construction, 3) learning to use and 4) operation. I’d like to add a fifth, repair. Simondon should be celebrated for focusing squarely on the role of the technical object in the constitution of the technical reality. He writes:

“Technical thinking has by nature the vocation to represent the point-of-view of the element; it adheres to the elementary function. Once technicity is admitted into a domain it breaks it up and starts a chain of successive and elementary mediations governed by the unity of the domain and subordinated to it. Technical thinking conceives the operation of an ensemble as a chain of elementary processes working point by point and step by step; it localises and multiplies the schemas of mediation, always remaining lesser than the unity.” (421)

Different subjectivities are distributed through this chain in many ways and for Simondon this is unfortunate. The separation of subjectivities arranged through this chain of mediations of the technical reality of a singular object is manifest in the character of socio-technical discourse through which each of the subjectivities apprehends the technical reality. In most circumstances the operation, maintenance and repair of a technical system demands participation in this technical reality for the human that is actually divorced from the abstracted scientific theory and the pure automatic incorporation of Ellul’s ‘technique’. The ‘technical reality’ is like ‘technique’ in that describes a reconfiguration of subjectivity appropriate for functioning at an appropriate moment between thresholds in the chain of the technical reality. This is similar to the actor-network theory of ‘black boxing’ but at each moment in the entire mediative chain of technical reality for a given socio-technical object. Simondon argues there is no organic totality or unity between the mediations.

For the thinker of ontogenetic accounts of the individual clearly there must be an organic dimension at each moment in the chain of mediation whereby the correlative subject is co-individuated with the ensemble of the socio-technical reality. Simondon also briefly discusses the way consumers of socio-technical objects, such as consumers of the automobile, are kind of suspended between the symbolic dimensions of the object and its functional aspects. The point being that are alienated from the actual technical discourse through which they could be individuated as a technical subject able to participate at other moments in the mediation. The solution to this problem is to not regard knowledge as ever totalising but as a partial development determined by the process of individuation. This partial, situated knowledge is better understood in terms of singular points, phase spaces and thresholds of understanding, or what Deleuze and Guattari called a ‘minor science’.


Writing a Research Essay

Students in my third-year undergraduate unit Communication Technologies and Change have to prepare a ‘research essay’. As there are many students who are studying in the unit who have not written a research essay (some from the media arts program or the marketing program, for example) I have offered to meet with any student who would like to have a meeting to discus and plan their essay. This means I meet with a large number of students one-on-one. There are 240 students in the unit this semester and there were about 160 last year; I see about a third of these.

In meetings I walk the students through three steps:

  1. Isolating a suitable ‘research problem’ based on your interests and/or work already carried out. This will give a sense of direction and a way to approach how you are going to develop an argument.
  2. Developing this into a draft essay outline/structure with possible examples that you want to explore. This will give us a sense of your overall argument and thus the gaps in your argument.
  3. Lastly, we will then look at what sort of literature review you need to carry out. This will enable you to provide evidence for your claims in the argument and demonstrate your understanding of the course content; And at the same time giving you a direction in terms of carrying out research to ‘fill in’ the gaps.

The ‘research problem’ is constructed from two (sets of) questions. One question faces ‘outwards’ and is asked of the world. The other question faces ‘inwards’ and asks a question of the scholarly field(s). To get the students thinking along the right way I normally prompt them to discus some examples. My unit is very ‘theoretical’ so students are sometimes overwhelmed or feeling anxious, but I encourage them to recognise the practical dimensions of what we discuss in lectures and tutorials. Crucial here are examples or case studies as they enable students to, firstly, demonstrate knowledge and understanding of the topic, and, secondly, enables students to show extent and relevance of research (both of these are part of the marking criteria).

Valorising Research, Teaching and the Research Hole

My (recently) ex-colleague Jason Wilson has published an insightful piece on self-funded research. We’ve had a number of chats about this over the last year. The examples I raised of ‘self-funded’ research were of cultural studies scholars in the 1980s who did not receive ‘funds’ for research and even included those (for example, like Meaghan Morris) who worked on the fringes of academia as journalists and in the media industry.

Jason makes a number of key points. Firstly, you need to be relatively privileged so as to be able to afford to this in terms of time and money. Secondly, he did not plan for this to be self-funded and the circumstances emerged because the funding application did not work out. This has some implications that Jason notes and that I want to expand on below. Third, he notes it is incredibly mobile, or it is as mobile as Jason is, and the project goes wherever he does, so there is no need for complicated ‘handover’ processes. Lastly, he notes that this experience has made him realise that ‘funding’ and ‘research’ are separate and that receiving ‘funding’ does not necessarily valorise ‘research’ (even though we are encouraged to think in this way). I want to add two points.

First, I want to speculate on the valorising relationship between ‘funding’ and ‘research’. I’ve just finished Graeme Turner’s What’s Become of Cultural Studies (2012) and the below passage resonated with a weird exchange I had with a colleague from another university late last year at a conference. She told me she had never taught at university and I was dumb struck. My first thought was how the hell do you test your ideas from your research to see if they work? Another colleague with a research-focused career suggested that it was the ARC and the various mechanisms which judged the first colleague’s research as worthy. ‘Worthy’ in this context means that it aligns with the government-prescribed ‘national interest’. Maybe the first colleague would not think of themselves in cultural studies, the second colleague certainly would. Here is what Turner says about this phenomena:

I routinely find, when I present talks on research applications and professional development in general, that most of those who attend these seminars take the view that they are entitled to entertain ambitions of a fulltime research career. […] [It] is hard not to feel that it is important for them to recognize that a research-only career remains an unrealistic ambition for 90 per cent of the academics working in cultural studies in Australia. In my own case, for example, the past 10 years of research-only employment have only come after decades of fulltime teaching.

It is the pragmatics of the situation that worry me most, then. And I wonder how these ambitions are being fed. Just what kinds of expectations are being sold to completing doctoral students and to junior staff members by their supervisors or by their university’s research office? Successful ARC applications result in significant funding benefits to the university, and so it is in the interests of Australian universities to encourage their staff to apply; the fact that so few will succeed ultimately does not bother the university much. It should bother us. It raises the possibility that we are going to be filling our teaching programmes with disappointed researchers who regard a conventional teaching appointment as the consolation prize. And it increases the possibility that those who are currently teaching cultural studies in our universities do not believe that the satisfaction teaching generates will play a fundamental role in sustaining them, personally or professionally. (emphasis added, pp 74-75)

I was very happy last year when I finally got to teach an upper-undergraduate unit that aligned with my research interests. My greatest challenge in doing research is not in producing new knowledge or thinking new ideas but in communicating them in a way that is sensible and which non-specialists can understand. I am not sure how teaching fits with others.

Relatedly, over the last year or so I’ve been experimenting with ‘modules’ within units in preparation of an exciting new unit ‘Newsroom’ in the Journalism program here at UC. ‘Newsroom’ is entirely based on research I’ve carried out over the last year on teaching methods for preparing students for the current industry context for media and journalism. It is based on my experience working in the magazine industry and working to adapt (or at least try to adapt) to a post-print industry, but extended beyond this. At its core is working with students to develop the capacity for producing their own expertise in industry contexts that we can’t even imagine. This production of professional expertise derived from the experience of testing out new practices and being confident in engaging with the world actually has more in common with the development of cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s then it does with the conservative forms of ‘journalism’ education from the 1980s through to the early 2000s. I am hoping those familiar with the so-called ‘media wars’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s can appreciate the irony of all this. Turner as well as Grossberg in his recent book on cultural studies both locate the capacity of one’s student to produce knowledge as a central aim of cultural studies and this has little to do with particular methodologies except in the most abstract (and concrete! Oh, Deleuzian puns). This is a modification of the Kuhnian science-based model of scholarship where instead of the research problems being created on the edge of the scholarly field, and scholarship in part being a performative power struggle between proponents of competing ideas, the edge of the scholarly field (at least in cultural studies) is reoriented so it coincides with the edge of our students’ understanding. ‘Student’ in this context does not necessarily mean undergraduate students at university as it includes anyone we are trying to educate with new forms of knowledge.

Lastly, I want to extend Jason’s point regarding the relationship between research and funding. There is a parallel to the transformation to what we regard as ‘news’ in the journalism industry. By transforming the structural conditions through which ‘research’ is produced, academics are compelled to produce funding applications year in and year out, regardless of whether or not they have a funding-worthy research project. Note ‘funding-worthy research project’ is not determined necessarily by the individual academic or even the institution where he or she is employed but by the constraints of the funding guidelines. Ironically, one of the major expenses for humanities scholars factored into research funding applications, besides for research-only positions, is teaching buyout, so another academic can be paid to cover their teaching. The character of ‘news’ was transformed in the early 20th century so instead of journalists finding news they produced news. News had to be produced because of the ‘news hole’ created by advertising schedules; something had to be put in the hole produced on the page between pre-sold advertising space. Similarly but not exactly the same, research has to be put in the hole produced by the current funding regime. Knowledge is not produced for its own sake, but as a consequence of the imperative to seek research funding. Separating the mechanisms by which research is valorised from the mechanisms by which funding is valorised will mean that knowledge production can be valorised for other reasons.

Here is useful test I might experiment with this year. Does my research help me with my teaching? Both ‘research’ and ‘teaching’ broadly understood.