Commodity fetishism and object liberation

A wooden box containing a wine glass, an egg, a bubble pipe, a map of the moon, and other objects.
Do Joseph Cornell's boxes imprison objects, or liberate them from use?

One of the criticisms of object-oriented ontology which has some currency is the suggestion that it is a form of, or a philosophized alibi for, commodity fetishism. I don’t want to violate the rigid Leninist discipline of AUFS by coming to OOO’s defense here, but I think this criticism is likely to mislead us about commodity fetishism. In fact, object-oriented philosophy might provide a way of analyzing commodity fetishism which we could use to provide a Marxist corrective to the banality of much leftist critique of reification (such as that of Axel Honneth).

The kind of critique I have in mind is one that sees the problem of capitalism as the “spread of the inert,” the way in which the growing concern with inert objects harms human intersubjective relationships . This line of thought tends to lead into a moralizing critique of consumerism in which the problem with capitalism is our over-absorption with consumer goods (with revolution being, presumably, the symbolic violence towards Ikea furniture in Fight Club). Continue reading “Commodity fetishism and object liberation”

Kicking the archefossil

It’s brave of Meillassoux to begin After Finitude with the argument from the archefossil, because it’s such a terrible argument. Indeed, Meillassoux admits that it is a terrible argument, which the correlationist will have no trouble dispatching; the reason for this, though, is that the discussion of the archefossil isn’t actually supposed to be an argument at all. When I first heard of it, it seemed to be a strange updating of Johnson refuting Berkeley by kicking a stone, with the curious addition of a complicatedly constructed hypothetical stone. But that’s not really how the discussion of the archefossil is supposed to work: the archefossil isn’t supposed to present an example of brute reality and thereby disprove idealism. It is presented and refuted as such during the course of the first chapter, but this argument is really preparing the ground for the real use of the archefossil, which is not to prove something about reality, but rather to raise a question about the relationship between thought and reality.

The point of the example of the archefossil is to “raise the question of the emergence of thinking bodies in time,” which is also “the question of the temporality of the conditions of instantiation, and hence of the taking place of the transcendental as such” (25). The archefossil is an example of ancestrality, but the real problem of ancestrality is, if space and time depend on thinking beings, how would we understand the fact that thought first arose at a specific space and time? However, this is only a question at all if there was indeed a moment at which thought first arose, that is, if thought and being are fundamentally distinct. Meillassoux accepts this inasmuch as he points out that ancestrality is only a problem for the transcendental idealist, not the speculative idealist; but he does not consider that this ancestrality is, for the same reasons, not a problem for the materialist, either. Continue reading “Kicking the archefossil”

Defending the right to mediocrity

As many of the people involved in the inspiring protests in Wisconsin are teachers, and as teachers’ unions are the right-wing’s favorite target for union-bashing, the protests have inevitably brought attention to the increasingly toxic American discussion of education. A number of protesters and spokespeople have made arguments rooted in praise of teachers, focusing on their hard work and dedication to students. While this looks like an argument that would have popular appeal, I think  in the long term this kind of argument has had perverse and damaging effects. The more that teachers defend their profession with descriptions of noble self-sacrifice, the more people seem to believe that teachers’ self-sacrifice is a necessary condition of quality of children’s education; and then, of course, the way to improve education is to increase the suffering of teachers. This is, I think, part of the explanation of why, whenever politicians praise teachers, what they are actually saying is “let’s fire all the teachers and pay them less.”

On a slightly more general level, the moral defense of teachers is appealing because it fits with the model of education as salvation which is so popular in America (and increasingly so in the UK). This also probably means that it ends up reinforcing this model, which is unfortunate, because the model is damagingly individualist, in two ways. Continue reading “Defending the right to mediocrity”

Working in Marx’s margins

There’s a fine line, when you encounter work close to your own, between the excitement that someone else considers your little area worth working on, and the worry that they might already have written the work that you are struggling to put together. This happened for me most recently when reading Kevin Anderson’s Marx at the Margins. As I’ve been trying to write about ways in which class reductionism misrepresents Marxism, Anderson’s detailed investigation of Marx’s writings on race, nationalism, and non-Western societies looked like it might render my gestures in that direction irrelevant. Luckily for me, Anderson’s book is actually the best sort of work to encounter, as it contains a huge amount of material on which one could build, while leaving enough theoretical space for others to do that building. Indeed, it is this combination of Anderson’s great aggregation of material with his comparatively sparse theorization of it that leads me to some thoughts about methodology for those of us attempting to construct theory through close dialog with particular texts and authors. Continue reading “Working in Marx’s margins”

Googie apocalypse

As I have my finger on the pulse of pop culture, I watched Wall-E on ABC Family yesterday. There’s an interesting aesthetic choice, which it shares with another 2008 cultural product, Fallout 3: the intro of each introduces the post-apocalyptic landscape accompanied by a soundtrack that recalls the pre rock and roll music of the 50s (actually, Fallout uses an Ink Spots track from the 40s,  while Wall-E uses a song from 60s musical Hello Dolly; the post-war, pre-neoliberalism “long 1950s,” as it were). This inserts us in a future world in which the apocalypse somehow took place in the 50s, or at least, in the aesthetic of the 1950s, as we see in the decaying Googie architecture and atomic-age trash that clutter the landscape in both. Continue reading “Googie apocalypse”

Are the liberal arts free enough?

By formal disciplinary classification, I’m a political scientist, so I was at this year’s American Political Science Association meeting. As well as attending a number of panels on political theory, and giggling at what the “science” side of the discipline is studying, I went to a number of panels about the political challenges facing universities. This included Cary Nelson, President of the AAUP, talking about the association’s call for tenure for all “long term” teaching staff. This is good as far as it goes, but that doesn’t seem to be very far; everyone (and not just academics) should be protected from being arbitrarily fired, but simply expanding tenure to all academics employed for more than six years would largely leave intact the casualization of academic work and the managerial relationship to students that are characteristic of the neoliberalization of universities (though Nelson does say that tenure for adjuncts must include the right to participate in faculty governance, an aspect of tenure which, to the extent it still exists, is a site of resistance against the administrative take over of universities). More generally, it seems to me that when valuable institutions are under attack, it’s rarely sufficient to simply defend the status quo, especially when, as with universities, that “status quo” has existed more as some kind of perverse regulative ideal than as a reality for, what, thirty years?

This defensive stance was also in evidence in a paper by Wendy Brown on the importance of the liberal arts. Continue reading “Are the liberal arts free enough?”