Thursday, February 18, 2010

the indefinitely postponed real

In the history of the professionalization of philosophy in the Anglo-sphere since the beginning of the Cold War, one notices that there are periodic crises of realism, in which its enemies are warded off in one way or another. In the division of intellectual labor that organizes the universities, the philosophers have taken up the vocation of defending the real. Still, there is the problem of what the real is and how it can be attacked in the first place. On the one hand, there is the inclination to make the real synonymous with what there is – the universe, say. And yet, few realists would say, I think, that the real began with the big bang. If the real is the universe, why not dispense with the term real as a superfluous and confusing lable? Yet one feels that the realists are uncomfortable thinking of the real as having a beginning or end, or having dark matter in it, or black holes. These things are real, but they aren’t in the real. Then there is the tendency to make the real the objective, as opposed to the subjective – thus a black hole is real and a thought is not. But again, this seems an oddly bent way to talk – how could a thought not be real? Is there a domain of irreality? And can I have a ticket to it, please? One way – cause I’m not coming back.

No doubt, the real – reality – is an odd term.

There is an excellent riff on the philosophical use of the real in Engel’s small book on Feuerbach. Engel’s suffers from the self-inflicted wound of never quite being real himself – his commentators will forever compare him to Marx, and take Engel’s writings to be either a translation or a distortion of Marx. This is, however, what Engels wanted. Inevitably, if one member of a dyad is to play the role of the sage, the other must be the fool. If one is the knight, the other is Sancho Panza. If one is Bruno, the other must be Bruno’s ass. And, indeed, Engels is the sensual man compared to the ever harassed Marx. Marx, at one point in his desperate attempt to change the world and not simply understand it, applied for and was refused a humble job as a railroad station accountant; Engels, on the other hand, was apparently a successful manager of a branch of his family’s business in Manchester. It was Engels who turned Marx on to the political economy, not vice versa. It is as if Sancho Panza loaned the romances of chivalry to Don Quixote. Otherwise, Engels seemed to see himself in this dyad.

Engels, who attended lectures at the University of Berlin as a soldier but never took a degree as a student, never imbibed that obsessive stylistic tic of Marx’s that Benjamin (in a different context) calls la culte de la blague. Often, in Marx’s writing, when the reader feels the roof being lifted off the house, we are in the presence of that tremendous, even prophetic sarcasm that makes Marx so pre-eminently a writer, a man of textual strategies. Engels likes a little Hegelian word play as much as the other guy, but when he tells a joke he is sure to label it a joke – not for him Marx’s habit of throwing all his genius into a joke, so that it becomes Satanically, sublimely not funny.

Engels begins his book on Feuerbach by discussing a well known maxim of Hegel’s: all that is real, is rational, and all that is rational, is real. He notes that his has been seen as Hegel’s blessing of Prussian despotism. But Engel’s disagrees. Those who quickly rush to make Hegel a bootlicker of the Prussian court forget that for Hegel, the real is the necessary. It is not “… arbitrary regime measure – Hegel himself adduces a certain ‘tax adjustment’ that counts, without anything further, as real. But what is real shows itself in the last instance also as rational.

But what is necessary, shows itself as rational in the last instance, which, applied to the Prussian state at that time, means, according to the Hegelian proposition, only: this state is rational, that is, corresponds to reason, only in so far as it is necessary; and if it appears terrible to us, and yet, in spite of its badness, continues to exist, the badness of the government finds its justification and explanation in the badness of its subjects [Untertanen]. The Prussian of that time had the government they deserved.
Now, reality – according to Hegel – is not an attribute that a given social or political arrangement retains under all circumstances and times. On the contrary. The Roman republic was real, but so was the Roman empire that crushed it. The French monarchy of 1789 had become so unreal, that is, so robbed of all necessity, so irrational, that it had to be destroyed through the great Revolution, that Hegel always spoke of with the highest enthusiasm. Here, the Monarchy was the unreal, the revolution the real. And so it goes that in the course of development, all that was earlier real loses its necessity, its right to existence, its rationality; a new, lively reality steps into the place of the dying real – peacefully, when the old state of affairs is rational enough, without striving to be carried off by death, and violently, when it holds out against this necessity. And so the Hegelian proposition is inverted through Hegelian dialectic into its opposite: everything which is real in the domain of human history will become unreasonable with time, and thus is already according to its pre-determination irrational, is qualified by the irrational from then on; and everything, which is rational in the heads of men, is predetermined, to be real, may it contradict existing reality in ever so many ways. The proposition of the rationality of all the real is dissolved according to the rules of Hegel’s conceptual method into its other; the value of everything that exists is the fact that it dies. [Alles was besteht, ist wert, dass es zugrunde geht]"

I interpret this wonderfully uplifting, almost surrealist credo in terms of the sense of reality. And any newspaper reader of the past ten years must have noticed the loss of this sense of reality in the Americanized part of the world. This loss comes through in two ways: a deep failure of the mechanisms of social cause and effect, and a profusion of symbols that become issues. The three most recent events in which one feels the deep mechanism, the machine, has jumped the track were the invasion of Iraq, the Great Slump, and the earthquake in Haiti, where we witnessed obsessive acts that seemed to respond not to cause and effect on the ground, but to a whole other set of status making motives that failed to recognize or in any way integrate what was happening on the ground. As for the politics of symbols – the Engel’s real certainly generates symbols; the unreal, however, can only deal with symbols. Symbols define the politically possible, which nobody even pretends is a response to or solution for the politically impossible, that is, real social problems. The left and right still debate, for instance, the invasion of Iraq without any sense at all that the invasion had to do with a whole broken structure, going back to the double sanction policy against Iran and Iraq, that had everything to do with navigating the great problem of maintaining a feudal oil supplier, Saudi Arabia, and an irredentist state that is way too small for its irredentism, Israel. Iran is still unrecognized, Osama bin Laden and the magic pygmy pony by which he escaped Tora Bora is still at large, Israel is still irredentist, and D.C. will spend 800 billion plus on war this year with no questions asked. These are the lineaments of dysfunction. They go deep. They sap the real. The earthquake is coming. How long will it tarry?


N. Pepperell said...

Sorry - I really should respond more substantively, but I'm massively pressed for time this weekend. Just wanted to say this is a fantastic way of describing something I keep hitting around about Marx's work, but haven't, I think encapsulated anywhere nearly as nicely:

Marx’s habit of throwing all his genius into a joke, so that it becomes Satanically, sublimely not funny.

I've just written something offline on the joke involved in starting Capital with the commodity: Hegel says you need to start your system with something that will ultimately be demonstrated as a product. Marx obliges. Ba-boom-tish! etc.

Dan Hirschman has a recent post up asking why sociology isn't funny... The fact that it normally isn't goes a long way to explaining the most common interpretations of Marx... ;-P

I really want to say something about the "real", but too groggy and rushed... Apologies for limiting the comment just to digression...

Roger Gathmann said...

No, excellent digression! Although I am wondering if Hirschman could possibly be right that economists are funny. Somehow, a standup economist comedian at THE AEA strikes me as my vision of not funny.

Marx, though, was way beyond Andy Kaufman in the comedy of not funny. It is partly Marx's genius, partly going to the University of Berlin and hanging out with a grad student crowd that transformed everything into sarcasm (an experience that I can relate to, since the same thing happened with me - in fact, this is one of the constants of grad school), partly Heine. When the table dances in Capital, we are definitely in the presence of excess. But - as I have learned from you, Nicole! - the joke is not just as surface phenomenon, but is a way of seeing, sublimating, perhaps, a certain despair.

N. Pepperell said...

Yes, the grad-student thing is really just spot on with Marx. German Ideology, for me, almost reads like some sort of nineteenth-century version of The Office for graduate students - I can hardly read it for cringing in remembered recognition of the sort of affect Marx and Engels seem to sharing with one another in that work... The thought of them trying to get that thing published is just extraordinary...