Posts tagged ‘Gramsci’

November 5, 2009

The werewolf and the silver bullet: ANT/Gramsci, pt. end.

by Carl Dyke

As I’ve said recently I quite agree with Duncan that “if intellectuals want to be politically useful in some way, as intellectuals, some of the more useful things they can do are 1) provide an adequate analysis of current social, economic and political conditions; 2) start generating concrete proposals for social, political and economic alternatives.” If we take these to be worthy goals, the blog medium is promising for both.

It should be noted that marxists have historically been reluctant to do 2), going back to the young Marx’s scathing and perhaps counterproductive dismissals of the ‘utopian socialists’ with their neat little plans for ideal worlds. In this sense although the communist telos remains definitive in marxism and creates some distinctive categorical limitations, marxism and ANT have been consonant in a theory of practice for which networks and structures must be actively assembled rather than posited as givens.

It is possible to extract just this sort of theory of practice from Gramsci’s journalism and prison notes; he does some of that work himself, although presumably his plan to turn the Notebooks into a finished text for the ages included more such. But the thing to remember is that Gramsci’s practice was praxis (it was theorized), so extracting the theory from it and setting it aside as a thing in itself is not (yet) gramscian praxis. Gramsci’s theory of practice emerges from and depends upon its actual deployments, in the same sense that Bourdieu resisted extractions of his theory from his concrete studies. There’s a certain amount of making it up as we go inherent in ANT/Gramscian praxis; as the Notebooks show, everything is in play, from popular literature to philosophy and from party politics to the organization of work.

Ultimately the point I want to get at with all this ANT/Gramsci stuff, and it may not be all that new or interesting, is that neither ANT nor Gramsci authorize a practice oriented toward killing the werewolf with the silver bullet. There’s no single, focused problem, nor is there a single, focused solution. Of course this does not mean that ‘it’s all good’ as we go about the business of making the world a more pleasant place, but it does suggest that a flexible, recursive distribution of analysis and action is more likely to move us along, because it’s the only thing that ever does.

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November 5, 2009

ANT/Gramsci, pt. 6: Networks, nodes, relations, alliances

by Carl Dyke

Because of the way the blog medium arose out of the interactive affordances of the internet, each blog, post and comment creates a node in a possible network of relations and alliances. Or they can just sit there doing nothing but taking up space.

Whether networks actually come of blogs depends to some degree on their content, and to a large degree on the work of authors and readers to create, maintain, intensify and extend links to other nodes. One of the first things I figured out is if I didn’t want to be just another odd online hermit muttering alone in my own cave, I’d have to go out and drum up business by finding other blogs with dimensions of affinity and making comments suggesting connections. (This can be a pleasure in its own right, of course.) Sometimes folks follow the trail of breadcrumbs and sometimes they don’t, sometimes they like what they find at the end and sometimes not. Over time, though, there tends to be an accumulation of readership and participation.

Good luck with that.

To shift metaphor, a blog is a bit like a gravitic mass. If it just sits in one place its pull is limited to the stuff that happens to wander by from the depths of outer space. But if it gets on a trajectory and visits other star systems it has a better chance of encountering capturable bodies, ranging from close orbiters to eccentric comet flybys; or even to get caught itself in a multi-gravitic system, like a group blog or a stable multiblog network. So anyway, dynamic motion and a certain weight of presence are important; connections don’t just happen because we’re nice people and our moms like us.

(For some reason Moby seems to think being made of stars helps ya get hot babes.) Btw, from the standpoint of this analysis the current series of posts has been a fail, attracting very little traffic or commentary [thanks to you who did!] and no links. So far Dead Voles has had its biggest days with posts that can be interpreted as gossip. This too is community-building, albeit negatively. Rather than moaning about this the next step might be to reflect on what it is about that communicative mode that attracts attention and participation so well, then find a way to inflect the dynamic for good purposes.

As I’ve already mentioned, the blog medium is not well-suited to enforcing orthodoxy, but it can work well to assemble alliances of affinity. It’s a good way to find and hook up with people who share interests and agendas. This is both a strength and a weakness. Communities’ tendency to create and maintain narrow, exclusionary biases can just be amplified and propagated. But if the community affinities remain open to negotiation and revision there’s an opportunity for the whole to become emergently more than the sum of the parts. I’m afraid I’m not saying much more than the creation myth of Web 2.0 here….

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November 3, 2009

ANT/Gramsci, pt. 5: Emergency!

by Carl Dyke

I mentioned in pt. 3 that Gramsci’s goal of a homogeneous collective revolutionary consciousness might itself be what he called an ‘Enlightenment’ error. And in pt. 4 I poked some fun at the distinctive wigglings of Left intellectuals hoist on this petard. The problem is a fundamentally doomed and therefore frustrated command-and-control model of political action. With Actor Network Theory we get closer to something that can illuminate politics’ unintended consequences by showing how multiple actors in various modes at various scales bump and ooze their way into particular emergent configurations and trajectories.

Emergence is not linear. What you can hope for in non-linear dynamics is outcomes (themselves moments in longer-term emergent processes) somewhere within a range of possibility. Momentum builds, tipping points are reached, little causes produce big effects. In the more ‘ethnographic’ notes in the Notebooks Gramsci shows this happening for capitalism and begins to theorize it for communism. But because in the more synthetic notes he premises capitalism and communism as the procrustean beginning and ending points, there’s only so far he can get with it before defaulting to stretching and cutting expedients. This is a cautionary tale for ANT/Gramscian blogging praxis. The trick would be to keep your options open and your feet moving, that is, to build links across a range of sites and to nudge it all toward tendential assemblages with lots of little angular pushes. Sort of like herding cats.

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November 2, 2009

ANT/Gramsci, pt. 4: Left intellectuals and the correct line

by Carl Dyke

In a post at Crooked Timber on the history of the terms ‘politically correct’ and ‘liberal fascism’ John Quiggin writes

At least since the 1970s, the description “politically correct” or, in Australia, “ideologically sound”, had been used within the left to mock those who were excessively concerned with doctrinal and linguistic orthodoxy. The story of how “political correctness” turned from an inside joke to a Marxist-inspired assault on All We Hold Dear is reasonably well known. Bernstein traces its emergence as a pejorative to a conference by the Western Humanities Conference held, appropriately enough, in Berkeley.

Ha! I used to live just south of Berkeley, cosmic epicenter of well-intentioned impotent righteousness. In the comments John Emerson muses

The phrase I remember, used seriously within some Marxist groups, was “correct position”. It was used seriously by people who thought that solving the dialectical questions came first, and and that before these were solved, any political activity was opportunistic and doomed. It was used jokingly within this same groups by those of a more activist sort. One guy told me how, after a succession of Trotskyist splits, his group had ended up being of about 50 people in one room—but they had the correct position. And then he laughed uproariously.

I think that a lot of the ideologues of that time did not actually believe it, but just were trying to make a stand against the amazing sloppiness of the free-lance left.

Later the term “politically correct” came to be used internally to label the minute rules of cultural politics within the left. At the beginning the term was sometimes used by old-school macho leftists to ridicule the newer feminists and gay liberationists. But the personal cultural politics really did get extreme.

Scylla – sectarianism. Charybdis – sloppiness. With a touch of genius – both.

Can actor networks fix this? Well, given commitments to sectarianism or sloppiness, no. But otherwise a flexible orientation to alliances may offer both an analytical grasp on the conditions, configurations, operations, strengths and weaknesses of whatever situation one might want to change; and an activist grasp on actors likely to share and/or obstruct the agenda.

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November 1, 2009

Tentative Album Cover

by Asher Kay

Comments are welcome. Does the finger look “just photoshopped enough”?


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October 31, 2009

ANT/Gramsci, pt. 3

by Carl Dyke

I need something or two short, pithy and on-point to frame my talk, perhaps even to pass out to participants. To both validate and complicate the idea that the blog medium can participate in the assembly of networks of Gramscian praxis, consider this from the Prison Notebooks, Q 24 (also in Selections from Cultural Writings):

The unitary … elaboration of a homogeneous collective consciousness demands a wide range of conditions and initiatives. … A very common error is that of thinking that every social stratum elaborates its consciousness and its culture in the same way, with the same methods, namely the methods of the professional intellectuals. … It is childish to think that a ‘clear concept’, suitably circulated, is inserted in various consciousnesses with the same ‘organizing’ effects of diffused clarity: this is an ‘enlightenment’ error. … When a ray of light passes through different prisms it is refracted differently: if you want the same refraction, you need to make a whole series of rectifications of each prism.

It may be that the goal of a homogeneous collective consciousness is itself an ‘enlightenment’ error; in view of the revolutionary terrors of the last century, a dangerous one. The balancer here is Gramsci’s understanding of the diversity of consciousness, culture and methods that must be honored with “a wide range of conditions and initiatives” rather than bulldozed with domineering dogmatic intellectualism. This is the preparatory work of the ‘war of position’ for hearts and minds among the ‘forts and pillboxes of civil society’ that must precede the more classically revolutionary ‘war of maneuver’.

Thinking then in terms of war of position, Gramsci encourages us away from a singular magic bullet approach and toward a plural strategy of initiatives and methods responsive to diverse conditions. Oppositional consciousness is not an existing thing but, as John Law says in explaining ANT, the contingent product of network-ordering relationships among objects, “better seen as a verb — a somewhat uncertain process of overcoming resistance — rather than as the fait accompli of a noun.”

There are ways in which the blog medium, which in itself encompasses “a wide range of conditions and initiatives,” is well-suited to the work of resistance-overcoming network construction, if not the construction of homogeneous collective consciousness. And there are ways it’s not. But that’s for a following post. Any thoughts?

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October 29, 2009

ANT/Gramsci, pt. 2

by Carl Dyke

This is the actual title and proposal as submitted to RM.

ANT and Blogging as Gramscian Praxis

Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks were not written for public consumption. Nevertheless, they often read like blog posts, little condensed nuggets of information and analysis linking to a wide range of observations, readings and reflections. As praxis, they point to Gramsci’s understanding of the operations of hegemony across an immense and crosslinked field of structures and relations and the need patiently to respond in kind. Nevertheless, in their current form the notes are not easily ‘activated’ as praxis because their targeting is distorted by their removal from context.

In this paper I propose to participate in the growing conversation between Marxism and Actor Network Theory by thinking through what Latour’s concepts of alliance and network might offer to an understanding of how to activate Gramscian noting as praxis through the blog medium.

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October 28, 2009

ANT/Gramsci, pt. 1

by Carl Dyke

Over the next week I hope to do a series of posts setting up my talk on Actor Network Theory, Gramsci, and the practice of blogging at this year’s Rethinking Marxism conference. The current post will describe some rules and methods I’ve settled on for this project.

*I will not be writing a formal paper at this stage. I’ve always thought there was something almost catastrophically hilarious about academics going to conferences and reading canned prose at each other as fast as possible, often going over their time and using up the discussion period, leaving the productive dialogue to happen by accident around the edges. Oral communication is a different rhetorical form than written text; how do we of all people not know this? The answer, as usual, is to be found not in the manifest but in the latent functions of these events.

*My purpose is not to report finished work but to think out loud. My presentation will be brief, and oriented toward giving the audience enough to go on to think along with me.

*I have something like a point to make, but I will not ‘close’ the point in my presentation. My aim is a real discussion, not a socratic deathmarch to a predetermined conclusion.

*I may try to suggest connections with my fellow panelists’ work, although because I submitted a solo proposal I’m on a Sunday morning whatsis panel so those connections may not be obvious.

*In line with the theme of the project, I am working mostly from blog and other e-sources. The talk will be like a blog post with links.

*I will preview as much of it here on this blog as possible, and I invite discussion of all of it, including this outline of my plan.

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October 28, 2009

The left intellectuals and the God trick

by Carl Dyke

I’ve had bits of a thought on some recent blog exchanges on intellectual activism and the role of the left intellectual stuck in my throat for the last little while, and since I’m now right up against my deadline for the Rethinking Marxism talk I have to prepare I’m just going to hack them up in a little pile. Pardon the mess.

Dysphoria is currently a theme for radical exploration – ‘a loss of symbolic attachments’ – really? How is this not just routine existential crises, anomie? In modern life someone who hasn’t had at least one existential crisis yet isn’t even in the game. That’s like an ante.

But it is interesting to think that it takes the shape of an simple intensification of the anomie and alienation that constitute modern experience in general, the very anomie and alienation that make collective politics difficult to establish – and it might, thus, lead one to suspect, because of this, that it is an unlikely place to set forward as a basis point for a radical politics. But strong arguments general start from unlikely places – this is what makes them arguments and not simply restatements of conventional wisdom.

As ads without products goes on to say, it would be cool if this diagnosis then turned toward an unexpected new cure. No such luck so far: first we figure out what’s wrong, get militant, then maybe we can figure something out. Is the anti-energy of angst politically tappable? For sure: see Fascists, Nazis, al Qaeda. Teh question is whether it can be channeled appealingly.

There’s trouble with the moralizing that animates the Left when it relies on Big Principles, so that the theoretical push tends toward the Big Problem, Big Enemy and Big Solution, a whole theology. There’s always the danger of producing and reproducing the Big Other to sustain our sense of the Big Us. This God trick may give revolutionaries the leverage to act (in part by creating what they fight against). Along the way it may generate Orthodoxy struggles – who’s on the side of the angels, who’s a dupe, a shill, a renegade, an enemy of the people.

Further, if the Other construct and the Us construct are mythologies, it’s a gamble whether the messier assemblages of real situations and processes can be horsed into a close enough approximation of the model to get it to work. More likely the projective everywhere of the Big Other and the functional nowhere of the Big Us are just paralyzing, leading to a spastic cycle of spectacular gesture and dysphoric despond. This is especially true if anything short of the Big Revolutionary Gesture is stigmatized as complicity with The Man.

I don’t find very productive the kind of analysis where ‘capitalism’ (or ‘patriarchy’, or ‘white supremacy’, or ‘Satan’) turns out just to be a name for everything that pisses us off. Nor do I think every malaise and dispepsia is potentially a little slice of revolution. How they might become so needs some work that isn’t just a smokescreen for self-validation. And therefore I agree with Duncan that “if intellectuals want to be politically useful in some way, as intellectuals, some of the more useful things they can do are 1) provide an adequate analysis of current social, economic and political conditions; 2) start generating concrete proposals [based on 1)] for social, political and economic alternatives.”

Again, my apologies for the mess.

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November 7, 2008

The art of the possible

by Carl Dyke

How to tell the leaders from the led in political discourse:

…[I]f the concrete political act, as Croce says, is made real in the person of the political leader, it should be observed that the characteristic of the leader as such is certainly not passionality, but rather cold, precise, objectively almost impersonal calculation of the forces in struggle and of their relationships…. The leader rouses and directs the passions, but he himself is ‘immune’ to them or dominates them [in himself] the better to unleash them, rein them in at the given moment, discipline them, etc. He must know them, as an objective element of fact, as force, more than ‘feel them’ immediately, he must know them and understand them, albeit with ‘great sympathy’ (and in such case passion assumes a superior form…).

— Antonio Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere [Prison Notebooks], notebook 26, § 5, 2299, my translation. (In this note Gramsci goes on to discuss irony and sarcasm as political stances; sarcasm is both a form of advanced consciousness and a passional means of criticizing contradictions in order to elevate consciousness in others.)

As many others have noted, Newsweek is currently doing a smashing job of documenting exactly what this kind of leadership looks like in practice in a series of reports on the Obama campaign.