Friday, February 27, 2009
Foreword to CRITIQUE & SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION: LESSONS FROM ANTONIO GRAMSCI, MIKHAIL BAKHTIN & RAYMOND WILLIAMS
[to CRITIQUE AND SOCIAL TRANSFORMATION: LESSONS FROM ANTONIO GRAMSCI, MIKHAIL BAKHTIN AND RAYMOND WILLIAMS
by E. SAN JUAN, Jr.
From 1898, the fall of the Berlin Wall, to September 11, 2001, seems in hindsight a period of relative stability and reconciliation. However, the 9/11 attack on the symbolic icons of pax Americana ushered a moment of reckoning that soon exploded in the Wall Street carnage of September 29 and October 7, with no end in sight. The crisis of global capitalism entered a pivotal stage less than a decade after the end of the Cold War and the Afghanistan/Iraq invasions. But there were already warning signs. At the height of the neoconservative celebration of triumphalist globalization, Robert Brenner anticipated finance-capital's meltdown in his article, "The Looming Crisis of World Capitalism: From Neoliberalism to Depression" (1998). And in his powerful Rulers and Ruled in the US Empire (2007), James Petras analyzed with sharp and lucid strokes the ascendancy of finance capital and the inescapable contradictions of the global capitalist system that would spell its catastrophic breakdown. But what comes after? Is it the barbarism Rosa Luxemburg predicted before the Wall Street collapse in 1929, or the outbreak of revolutionary struggles inaugurated by the Bolshevik revolution?
A recent commentary on the present crisis is the statement issued by the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism entitled "The Wall St. Bailout: A Socialist Perspective" (2008). It is an excellent summation of the diverse socioeconomic and political forces at play in contemporary US society, but it does not spell out the limits of the capitalist strategy and its possible overcoming. Critique is obligated to point out not only the contradictions but also the possibilities of transformation. While there is some criticism of particular legislation and policies, there is no adequate critique of the underlying norms and assumptions behind them. And while there have been countless prescient and acute analysis of what's going on, few have consistently used the method of totalizing critique exemplified by Marx's Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of the State (1843) and Grundrisse (1857-58). Lest we forget, Marx's critique of bourgeois political economy was ultimately intended to abolish it, to emancipate humanity from the rule of the economy (profit accumulation by intense labor exploitation; commodity-fetishism and the cash-nexus corrupting everything) and the domination of the privileged minority elite.
Karl Korsch noted that Marx subtitled all his major works "critique" to stress the fact that thought was not only preoccupied with the discovery of the laws of social development; it was also engaged with the subversion of bourgeois institutions and the categories that constitute it (Jacoby 1983, 524). This construal of critique as a systematic inquiry into the limits of a doctrine or concept partly derives from Kant's distinction between critical and dogmatic modes of thought. Kant held that a dogmatic view treated a concept utimately as validated by "a principle of reason," while a critical view considered a concept "in reference to our cognitive faculties and consequently to the subjective conditions of thinking it, without undertaking to decide anything about its object" (Critique of Judgment, section 74). For Kant, critique was an epistemological procedure of confining one's attention to the limits of understanding demarcated by space/time, bracketing the foundational premises of ontology. This is the sense in which critique is generally taken to be a reflective examination of the validity of the human capacity of understanding; an inquiry into the philosophical claims, conditions and consequences of employing a concept, theory, paradigm or methodology in order to ascertain its limitations and efficacy.
In Marx, however, the labor of critique acquired a different meaning. With the consolidation of industrial capitalism from the ruins of mercantilism, Hegel restored the inner movement of subject and object from an idealist perspective. Feuerbach reversed Hegel and posited a contemplative materialism which Marx corrected in his "Theses on Feuerbach" by reconceptualizing the object as "sensuous human activity, practice...." And this practice takes on a radical charge when Marx elaborates its implication:
The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that it is essential to educate the educator himself.... The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionizing practice (1978, 144).
By means of this "revolutionizing practice," object and subject reciprocally interact; humans change their behavior and thought while they alter their social relations. The two processes of change constitute a single whole. From critique in the limited Kantian sphere of cognition, we move to the sociological category of critique as transformative practice, "practical-critical activity," revolutionary practice conceived as "the unity of freedom and necessity, of men's subjective activity and the objective consequences of their activity" (Oizerman 1977, 349-50).
Given the dominance of the bourgeois world-outlook from Descartes up to Locke, the humanities and social science disciplines have foisted an empiricist and nominalist, generally idealist, mode of interpreting and judging events and experiences. Commodity production and exchange produced a pervasive reification of social life, the dissociation of appearance and reality, so that a mere empirical notation of phenomena can never yield a grasp of the whole situation and the truth of its internal relations. The task of critique is to demonstrate the mystifying nature of phenomenal forms in capitalist society, and in the process expose the immediate social forms of consciousness that spontaneously manifest specific production relations. Critique dialectically connects immanent and transcendental analysis of manifold forces constituting events and protagonists. Derek Sayers aptly formulates Marx's project as a rigorous critique of experience and everyday life in the alienated world of modern bourgeois society:
Marx's own theoretical concepts are grounded in a critique of appearances, of 'natural, self-understood forms of social life' and their corresponding categories....I see Marx's critique, analogously to Kant's, as entailing an excavation of the conditions of 'possibility or impossibility' and therewith the origins, extents and limits' of its object....Given [Marx's] materialist assumption of 'correspondence' between phenomenal forms and categories of thought, such an analysis of the conditions of 'possibility or impossibility' of the forms themselves is simultaneously an exposure of the 'origins, extents and limits' of the theoretical categories in which they are conventionally apprehended (187, 131).
Consequently, Marx's critique moves from the "imagined concrete," the given realm of phenomenal forms of culture and quotidian life, to the abstract, the domain of concepts embodying the essential relations explaining the phenomena. From this abstract level, the organon of critique then returns to "a reproduction of the concrete by way of thought," the term "concrete" here referring to the totality of historical determinations that constitute real living individuals and their interaction. Using this approach of critique in elucidating problems of alienation, racism, war, poverty, colonialism, genocide, and so on, we can begin to approximate the particular steps needed by the oppressed subaltern groups--women, peasants, workers, indigenes, people of color, and so on--to carry out the task of a wide-ranging revolutionary transformation of social life.
The three intellectuals chosen here--Mikhail Bakhtin, Antonio Gramsci, and Raymond Williams--do not need any introduction to an informed audience. All three are revolutionary thinkers who, each in their own specific historical milieux, fashioned their own singular styles of critique as they confronted diverse problems, resources, and agencies. Other thinkers in the Marxist tradition, such as Georg Lukacs, Bertolt Brecht, Walter Benjamin, or the members of the Frankfurt School (Adorno, Marcuse), have also contributed immensely to refining and developing the method of materialist critique, in particular the dialectical social criticism of the Enlightenment project of harmonizing reason and freedom (see Ingram 1990). But that requires another narrative of genealogy and investigation (San Juan 1972; 1995). Here I confine myself to the limited scope of investigating certain aspects of the works of Bakhtin, Gramsci and Williams that bear on the complex nuanced relation between the mode of production (what used to be designated as the economic "base") and the ideological/social relations ("superstructure") in disparate historical environments and conjunctures, this relation being the crux of grasping the vicissitudes of the class struggle in our time.
The discovery of Bakhtin's anti-formalist approach has been liberating for a generation of scholars indoctrinated by New Criticism and its sequel, Cold-War deconstruction and New Age aestheticism. Bakhtin was of course a marginalized, suspect and subterranean figure in the Stalinist Soviet Union. Given the entrenched orthodoxies of feudal Russia and its sequel (with its mirror-image, Western consumerist society of the spectacle), Bakhtin confronted authoritarian tradition with the logic of carnival and its parodic laughter, with the metamorphic and disruptive potential of masks in people's festivals. For Bakhtin, Rabelais can be refunctioned to outwit the police and the party apparatchik. Constrained by state censorship, Bakhtin refurbished the polyphonic, ironic, and dialogical discourse of Dostoevsky as a means of challenging the monolithic and official language of bureaucracy. Bakhtin's notion of dialogism, suspicious of all dogmatism and fixed hierarchies, can be utilized to analyze the linguistic nuances and rhetorical complexities of national-liberation discourses that defy the cooptative cosmopolitanisms and seductive transculturalizing ruses of the neoliberal era. No doubt Bakhtin can be adapted to serve neoconservative metaphysics, but I opt for articulating Bakhtinian critique in an emancipatory direction.
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, Gramsci, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, has served as the catalyst for a renewal of Marxism as a philosophy of praxis, a praxis immanent in the self-activity of workers' councils and peasant insurrections. For Gramsci, critique took the form of analyzing the shifting lines of political forces in any conjuncture in order to elucidate the dynamic process of hegemony, the simultaneously coercive and consensual ascendancy of a historic bloc of class forces at any given historical epoch. In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci emphasized the function of intellectuals in educating and directing popular consciousness toward a revolutionary goal. He subjected common sense--the mentality of subalterns--to critical reflection, valuing surrealist/futurist experiments as pedagogical devices in the strategy of a united front mobilized for a proletarian revolution. Gramsci's influence in the re-invention or renovation of cultural inquiry has been salutary and provocative, as witnessed in the writings of Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, among other practitioners in the ecumenical socialist tradition.
Raymond Williams is, by consensus, the founder of the multidisciplinary field of cultural studies in the English-speaking world. Perhaps the term "cultural materialism" is more appropriate since Williams examined both the conditions of production and reception of culture in history, analyzing "all forms of signification" in the context of their actual production. All cultural practice has political significance, and all writing produce meaning and value. These are key axioms in Williams' major texts, Culture and Society (1958) and The Long Revolution (1961); in the latter, he invented the phrase "structures of feeling" to refer to the lived experience of a community at a particular moment in history. This was Williams' inflection of Gramsci's notion of hegemony and of Bakhtin's heteroglossia. The phrase designates selective patterns of inclusion and exclusion that determine social reproduction and resistance, linkages and order among heterogeneous social practices.
Reacting to the language paradigm and the arbitrary sign of post-structuralist critics, Williams stressed the imbrication of all signifying practices with political and economic structures and experiences. His signal contribution to the archive of materialist critique, Marxism and Literature (1977), develops both Voloshinov/Bakhtin's "contextualized pragmatics of human communication" (Merrell 1997, 38) and Gramsci's idea of hegemony in a new way. Culture becomes the battleground of dominant, residual, and emergent tendencies/trends of forces interlocked at every moment of history, a theory of the simultaneous domination/resistance complex that Fredric Jameson reformulates, in The Political Unconscious (1982), as the fused combinatory of ideology and utopia. So far, Williams' massive inquiries into media, TV, film and theater have not been given the full appreciation they deserve.
Today, in the turmoil of disintegrating global capitalism, the necessity for critique proves itself more urgent and uncompromising. The always imminent danger of nuclear war, devastation of the eco-system, large-scale hunger, the legitimation of torture, genocide/ethnic cleansing, and other forms of transnational barbarism, accelerate every day under the guise of a universal, unending "war on terrorism" that continue to defy international law and the charter of the United Nations. It is an unprecedented time of pathological symptoms characterized by reactionaries as "the clash of civilizations," an interregnum between the old dying order and a new one undergoing enigmatic birth-pangs. Bakhtin, Gramsci and Williams lived in a time when they faced similar emergencies and their critiques responded to their historically specific needs and exigencies.
Our plight is much more perilous now than before. We need to beware the trauma of anti-capitalist revulsion that rendered the Frankfurt critical theorists paralyzed, unable to move from philosophical reflection to integration with the subversive praxis of the intransigent "wretched of the earth" (Therborn 1970). While ideology critique is necessary, as Teresa Ebert and Mas'ud Zavarzadeh have cogently demonstrated in their relentless attack on imperialist ideology, Class in Culture, they also quite aptly remind us that "it is more urgent...to also examine why such arguments, and their numerous variations in the writing of other critics, are received as arguments when their claims are repudiated every single day by the actual living conditions of the many" (2008, xxi). Our next task then, armed with the weapons afforded by Williams, Gramsci and Bakhtin, is to present in an incisive and irresistible dialectical fashion--"making hope practical, rather than despair convincing" (to quote Williams [1983, 240)--the actualities of a class-conflicted order the future of which we are all stakeholders.
Posted by Sonny San Juan at 6:58 AM