Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Molecular, shmoelecular

I often recall this statement of Fredric Jameson whenever the dissolution of the Left becomes too much to bear:

The critique of totalization in France goes hand in hand with a call for a “molecular” or local, nonglobal, nonparty politics: and this repudiation of the traditional forms of class and party action evidently reflects the historic weight of French centralization (at work both in the institutions and in the forces that oppose them) as well as the belated emergence of what can very loosely be called a “countercultural” movement, with the breakup of all the old cellular family apparatus and a proliferation of subgroups and alternate “life-styles.” In the United States, on the other hand, it is precisely the intensity of social fragmentation of this latter kind that has made it historically difficult to unify Left or “antisystemic” forces in any durable and effective organizational way. Ethic groups, neighborhood movements, feminism, various “counter-cultural” or alternative life-style groups, rank-and-file labor dissidence, student movements, single-issue movements—all have in the United States seemed to project demands and strategies which were theoretically incompatible with each other and impossible to coordinate on any practical political basis. The privileged form in which the American Left can develop today must therefore necessarily be that of alliance politics; and such a politics is the strict practical equivalent of the concept of totalization on the theoretical level. In practice, then, the attack on the concept of “totality” in the American framework means the undermining and the repudiation of the only realistic perspective in which a genuine Left could come into being in this country. There is therefore a real problem about the importation and translation of theoretical polemics which have a quite different semantic content in the national situation in which they originate, as in that of France, where the various nascent movements for regional autonomy, women’s liberation and neighborhood organization are perceived as being repressed, or at least hampered in their development, by the global or “molar” perspectives of the traditional Left mass parties.
-The Political Unconscious, page 54, note 31.

Looking back on the last decades of the 20th century, where we saw the rise of a neoliberalism (which translates to the rise of an effectively Libertarian Right, a Left that is often anti-Labor, and a far-Left that threatens to desert the Democratic Party [remember Bush got elected because so many defected to Nader, thinking him greener (!) than Gore] more than it compromises with a more moderate Left politics)--a neoliberalism that, we now plainly see, has utterly destroyed this country's infrastructure (and if it isn't plain to you, you need to look around), you have to wonder why theorists who prided themselves on their politics didn't pay more attention to statements like this. And you really have to wonder why Jameson got so much flack in the U.S. for making them at the time, from people who claim to recognize the force of his critique of the critique of totality, but who nevertheless go on to stick him in a long line of totalizers.

Because it is basically right on every single point. Getting behind people like Deleuze in the late 20th century without really adapting them to the American context made no political sense in the U.S. whatsoever. The only way it even seemed to make sense was precisely because of the state of the forces that Jameson here outlines: you denied the narrative was valid from the perspective of your particular group, concluded this meant the only valid totality was non-totality, multiplicity, a proliferating pluralism--and thereby subscribed to that narrative.

Of course, everything turns on what counts as a valid "adaptation." What I like about the quote is that it sets the bar for this so low: all Jameson asks for is some sensitivity to the resonance of the words, rather than what we might call their grammar: that is, their ability to cohere and build up a (non-totalizing) political ontology of whatever sort. But people in those days were better humanists than they thought they were, apparently, and loved their system-building: they argued, effectively, that merely "using" these theorists (as it was called) was precisely a mode of adapting them. Thus the popularity of Foucault: he's easier Deleuze.

But it is no accident that smarter theorists (Judith Butler is a good example) affirm the correctness of this Jamesonian narrative with very few reservations, because--well, a lot of them spent some time in France, and have some familiarity themselves with the resonance of the terms. To put Jameson's demand in a different way, all he is asking people to do is familiarize themselves a bit with the contexts in which these statements are made. It isn't even a demand that people familiarize themselves with the "original" context of the statement (just as it isn't the ideas of Deleuze or any of the Frenchies that Jameson is here indicting): it isn't translation, but simply reading the rhetoric (another word for this sort of resonance, which you would think would have resonance here, where Yale School ideas were popular) of the texts that is necessary, and picking up on the fact that that they come from, and address, a different situation.

In short, what I like about this quote is that is basically comes from experience, though it does not require that experience to be forceful: it doesn't take much to see that certain political concepts developed in France are meant to address a certain political state of things, and while plurality might work there, its near-inevitable result would be to further fragment a country where there has been nothing like a significant (post-Depression) Communist Party, where social issues have always been thoroughly divorced from economic ones because of the inexistence of a history of a landed aristocracy and the subsequent tenuousness of any class distinctions (a situation which is unfortunately changing today, as the lower-middle "class" of tax-paying baby-boomers screwed over by Wall Street bankers starts to develop something like the first serious class-consciousness in America since before the Depression), and groups and interests face nothing like the centralization in France.

Or, to put it more mildly--for I can't say this fragmentation didn't also provide a beneficial sort of shift of the situation in some ways (while the Labor and the Women's Movements were, however, both slaughtered in the 80's and 90's)--imported along with the ineffective political theories was a suspicion of centralization which had no practical application at all in the U.S., except as a way to protest the Vietnam War or something like the "corruption" (something so vague and unbounded it now hovers over things as banal and routine as occasional government overspending) of the Nixon administration. The repression of various groups, and a lack of means for forms of this repression to become visible, wouldn't end with the dismantling of this centralization--which, after all, has its roots in policy and could have been corrected or (but you never heard anything of the relation of theory in general to policy except by feminists and Marxists, though in the early 90's things started to turn more generally that direction under the pressure of events) retheorized.

It seems like a history of thoroughly short-sighted people: people who concluded that a sort of pluralistic local-government politics was the natural outgrowth of everything that started in the 60's, and so anything that seemed theoretically to push in that direction, or further develop that idea, was deemed useful. And there seemed no threat of losing various federal guarantees that created and sustained the environment in which such ideas could be fostered (it is especially depressing now to hear older academics remember the ample funds sluiced into universities in the 60's). But as the forces opposing everything that politics stood for grew and grew, and even used its ideas to oppose it (still happening: again, prior to an election, Republicans are making the Democrats into the politically-correct and pluralistic, concluding that the much vaunted "respect for the other" also means love of terrorists)... well, you have to be glad that things (at least in the humanities) seem to be turning in other directions: critical theory is dissolving, or rather expanding, into more focused, concrete endeavors, which nevertheless posit genuine totalizing concepts (the media of media-studies is one of them). Which also means Deleuze's rhetoric--and many other rhetorics--might finally be read, after all these years.

No comments: