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If you were in a charitable mood, I suppose you might describe my intellectual project as moving analytic philosophy to its Marxist moment — with the understanding that this project might not go off without a hitch. At any rate, one of my core intellectual principles is something like a Marxist theory of truth, and I’d like to explain what that entails. Although I think it’s a minor scandal that “new theories of truth” like Kripke’s and the revision theory are not widely studied for their philosophical implications, as opposed to going around and around disquotation, I don’t myself have anything clever to say about them at the moment and so my remarks here will be “philosophical” rather than formal.
Donald Davidson once tried (rather unsuccessfully, in the eyes of most) to show that “coherence implies correspondence”, that the idea of truth as adequatio falls out rather trivially from a logically well-integrated web of belief. However, I think the implication in the opposite direction is not quite as trivial as people make it out to be: getting any use out of the idea of true statements as mirroring facts actually requires going quite far into “ideological” features of discourse. Why? When we assess an utterance for its truth or falsity, we are interested in “what is said” — not just the surface form of the words, but the concrete and relevant meaning of them. In formal theories what is said is stipulatively clear, but in natural language a whole host of “pragmatic” phenomena combine to make figuring out the contribution of a statement to communication difficult.
Principles for dealing with these phenomena model social life — what it is rational to think someone said in a context depends on one’s model of their position within society and one’s model of their understanding of that position. So much so, in fact, that I think there is some point to simply identifying the real meaning of a statement with its role as a “move” within society, as a contribution to social action. This is not a “sceptical solution to sceptical doubts” along the lines of Kripke’s interpretation of Wittgenstein: although custom obviously plays a role in the role of words as an element of practices, we are very far from being required to view tradition as the fundament of “social meaning” and to exclude the role of novelty (think of Wittgenstein’s picture of language as a city, with narrow old streets and regularly plotted suburbs). We are also far from having to view language as “smooth and homogenous” in the words of Richard Rorty: the structure of “social practice” involving meaning is not any simpler than the structure of society in general, with its various divisions and conflicts.
Obviously, for communication to occur an utterance must coordinate ego and alter: someone making an “offer you can’t understand” is subverting the function of communication for “reasons” that are at least eccentric. In traditional Marxism and sociological theories following on from it, this coordination is the function of ideology, and what I am saying is that there is not another “alethic” dimension beyond communicative coordination — truth is good ideology, which coordinates people in constructive ways. This is a redefinition of traditional problems of truth and truth-telling, not a restriction of it to a particular “materialist” province; it’s not any easier to see what will really constitute a good ideological program at a particular point in time than what is “really real”. But it is at least coherent to look at things this way, and to think that there are no “politically incorrect” truths, or politically correct falsehoods.
(An Historically Materialist Analysis of the “Elitism” Flap, With Very Limited Apologies to Merle Haggard)
A few days ago the blogworld was aflame with concern regarding Barack Obama’s “misstep” at a San Francisco fundraiser, where he said working-class voters frustrated with economic hardship turned to “values” politics as a coping mechanism; the New York Times column where William Kristol helpfully explained this in terms of a Political Science 101 reading of Marx added more fuel to the fire. People seemed to have moved on to the “boy” comment, but since one of the things I have managed to successfully be in my life is a Marxist I’m still concerned. The “Marxist” charge has legs: but in a way it’s very unfair, and in the way it’s not unfair it should be no discredit to Obama in the eyes of anyone.
If elected, Obama would be the first president to have received his schooling after the tumult of the ’60s had institutional effects: and since he has always been a left-leaning person, part of the effects on him were almost certainly the effecting of a fairly thorough acquaintance with Marxist theory. But his choices as an adult and politician are not “Marxist”: no variety of Congregationalism views itself as an opiate of the people, and his advisers Austan Goolsbee and Samantha Power have never been Marxist heroes (to put it mildly). Obama has not opted for a life on the radical left, which is why he’s acquired the clout and support that has gotten him so far in the presidential contest; and to suggest that his convictions are a throw rug concealing a two-way radio to Moscow is McCarthyite garbage.
But there is a sense in which Obama has clearly profited from acquaintance with Marx and Marxists, although I won’t have to get out my East German copy of the Grundrisse to discuss it. Like Marx and the better sort of socialist politician, Obama is a grown-up in his analysis of society: what he was really doing in saying “It’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations” was challenging the maturity of political discourse concerning the woes of the “heartland” (which as an Illinois politician he has a much greater connection to than either Clinton or McCain).
This strikes a nerve, since the arrogantly-useless product of nepotism W. has set the cause of mature American leadership back immensely, and the sedulously adolescent message-tweaking of Clinton and tantrum-throwing of McCain are unlikely to offer major improvements in this area. The US can ill afford to have another intellectually and emotionally immature president who sells us and the world idealistic garbage in tandem with pointlessly killing people abroad and undermining our society at home; and even if you like guns or God or nursing a grudge, you should recognize the “Marxist” Obama is the one who will try to be “as radical as reality itself”.
I was recently rereading the 1794 Wissenschaftslehre (in translation, but it just seems wrong to call it the Science of Knowledge); although it’s certainly an interesting and important work, Fichte is not a very convincing guy by the standards of this era — and probably those of his own. All the careful work Kant does in establishing the essential order present in spatiotemporal appearances, familiar to the analytically-informed from Strawson and Gareth Evans, is tossed out in favor of a heavily voluntarist theory of cause and effect. But one thing is “sun-clear” to me: German Idealism was part of a profound revolution — not necessarily in ontology, but in the semantics of personhood. I say “part of” because the revolutions in German literature around the turn of the century were just as important as the philosophical advances, and closely intertwined with them: relatively a lot of people will know about Hegel’s carrying-on with famous writers like Goethe, Heine, and his friend Hölderlin, but all the German litterateurs of that period were very philosophical (though it probably would have helped some if the philosophers were more literary).
That’s actually a pretty uncontroversial assertion; but what might it have to do with Marx’s relation to the German philosophical tradition? Marx started out as a “left Hegelian”, and retained some key phraseology (“subject-object”, etc) into his maturity, but what does he really have to do with Romanticism and the idealist vision of self-consciousness? I think one could say that his transposition of the “expressive” power of the language of the self into a materialist theory of society takes this form: society is an expressive totality. In a manner similar to Luhmann’s definition of society as “the totality of communications” (though without its idealist tenor), Marx posits that the total workings of society form the ultimate bound of the power of the human mind to act and think in a “free” way; there can be no real Robinsonades, everything that an individual can accomplish takes the form of social praxis. Perhaps this serves as an anticipatory critique of that other legacy of Idealism pointed out by Horkheimer and Adorno, that fascist assimilation of social life to “willpower” and “resolve” which had a quite pointedly Fichtean disregard for the “non-self”.
I sometimes talk to people who want suggestions for reading material in politics or philosophy; a great resource for both categories is the Marxists Internet Archive. Run by volunteers, the MIA was started to transcribe and make available the vast amount of printed material from Marx and Marxist politicians that had effectively entered the public domain as a result of the Soviet bloc’s collapse: but it’s since expanded to be something of an omnibus introduction to modernity, stretching backwards in time to the Enlightenment and forwards to the present day, offering material in a wide variety of languages. Their main site was recently disabled by Internet attacks emanating from China (some speculated that the wealth of material on Mao and other Chinese Marxists not favored by the current regime played a role), but everything appears to be back on track. Check it out.
“Analytic Marxism” is usually disappointing to me on two counts. Firstly, analytic Marxists don’t generally seem to have taken the advice about changing the world to heart — instead, they write books imagining questions being put to them like If You’re an Egalitarian, How Come You’re So Rich? It’s a good question, since all observers are agreed that there are lots of ways to come in contact with the contemporary economy without coming away healthy, wealthy and wise — and shouldn’t the perils be so much more for someone espousing any variety of Marxism? But I more peculiarly also feel let down by the “analytic” ambitions of the genre. A lot of works in this vein think that standards of logical stringency and careful linguistic explication of terms will do the trick to be analytic, but this is really the analytic philosophy of forty years ago; granted, the main texts of analytic Marxism were written not so long after that, but history, intellectual and political, has continued apace without there being an effort to keep pace.
So, sometimes I wonder what an assessment of Marx using contemporary analytic tools would look like; and here is a very small part of what I imagine such an approach might amount to. In contemporary metaphysics of modality, there is a position called “actualism”; this is not related to the “Actualism” of the fascist Giovanni Gentile, but does share some features with an “actualist fallacy” Roy Bhaksar decries in Marx. Modal actualism is the belief that only the actual is real; possible things and states of affairs (in the area of time, the past and the future) can only be constructed out of actual ones (the present). On an actualist view it makes no sense to say that mythical beings like unicorns are “possible” though not real, because we have ruled them out of our picture of what actually exists: whatever does exist in our world is by definition not a unicorn.
As a general explanation of what it means for something to be possible, actualism has its defenders. But I think that it is especially applicable as a principle for interpreting several of Marx’s key theses about the social world and its functioning. Marx certainly did not have the tools of contemporary metaphysics available to him, but he was well-acquainted with the philosophy of Aristotle and other ancient thinkers who employed modal reasoning; and although some may suggest that modality plays no important role in the philosophy of Hegel, Marx’s “chief influence”, I think this fails to allow for Marx’s own innovations as a thinker. (I have gradually come to the view that Hegel’s influence on Marx was primarily “cultural”, Hegel having provided a matrix in Germany within which social critique could take place, rather than primarily “theoretical”).
“Ordinary” economic thinking, including the marginalism that is supposed to have superseded Marx, relies on a model of agents choosing between possible alternatives in action — in some Bayesian models, choosing from what they subjectively perceive to be possible alternatives. And in mainstream political philosophy, we are encouraged to weigh the benefits and drawbacks of certain possible forms of social organization from behind a “veil of ignorance”. Now, compare Marx. Marx denies that individual preference ranging over possible alternatives is the root of economic activity: rather, the entire structure of capitalism determines the individual’s real options, sometimes at variance with their ideological construal of the matter. Furthermore, the proletariat — who are less prone to being confused about the real situation — “have no ideals to realize” as a political force, because they simply represent the inherent potentials of modern industrial production.
It seems to me that these are actualist positions. In fact, I think that the issue of economism can be partially resolved by so viewing them. Perhaps economics as Marx practices it — full of detail about every element of social functioning, certainly a far cry from the airless game theory and econometrics of contemporary orthodoxy — is really something like a science of the actual, and historical materialism’s dependence on it is equivalent to the principle that only the actual affects the actual; that there are no “irruptions” from religious ideals or utopian visions into history which cannot be explained as concrete this-worldly realities (the reality that theory becomes when it grips the masses, etc.) If viewed in this way, the difference between Marxist precept and the idealist systems that preceded it becomes especially sharp, and the complaints that widget production could hardly be the determining factor in an era’s aesthetic values appear less convincing.
It seems that above all, the question of postmodernity — which question is now several decades old, as the term first appeared in a C. Wright Mills essay in the 1960s — is the question of style as constitutive. The notion “constitutive”, as it is used today by analytic philosophers, first appeared in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as “regulative principles of reason”: under this heading Kant included notions pertaining to causality and materiality without which everyday observations about the world could not be coherently thought. It is used to good effect by Donald Davidson in discussing the philosophy of psychology deriving from Bayesian decision theory/marginal-utility economics, but has also appeared in a more sinister aspect as a dike against the “fashionable nonsense” associated with the French intellectual Sixties and Seventies. Without seeking to completely “overdetermine” the apple cart, I will begin by saying that this seems to completely miss the point of that period’s “new Nietzsche”, which was to point out the amalgam of modernism and mass culture had already made style an integral part of the cognitive environs and that existentialist plainsong fell back behind its own object. But what is this to us today? Honestly, nearly everything, and in no very pleasing way; but there are a few cultural landmarks (and recent aesthetic techniques) which suggest that a bit of aesthetic apperception is still possible, and I would like to suggest that something more rewarding than “reconciliation of the spirit with itself” can be on the agenda as a result. With what does consideration of “post-postmodernity” have to begin?
The answer I can come up with is “the reflexive closure of futurity”, but this requires some explanation as it is unlikely to please anyone. The philosophy of time is an abysmal subdiscipline, from which tense logics deserve to thoroughly liberated; but in this essay I will develop these themes by considering the work of Niklas Luhmann, whose work is still not as well-known in the United States as his work deserves to be. This is partially because, like Juergen Habermas, Luhmann was a follower of the sociologist Talcott Parsons, who has been almost completely forgotten: and although one relevant essay of Luhmann’s is “The Future Cannot Begin”, we cannot even begin with this until the power of Parsons’ scientific vision is understood. Parsons’ best-known work, The Structure of Social Action, is a compendium of the views of “classic” sociologists: but even then Parsons was a systematic thinker, not a systematizer, and the architectonic dimension of his work increased over time. In fact, it seems to me illuminating to say that the mature “systems theory” of Parsons is nothing but architectonic, in contrast to the “anti-systematic” approaches that were arising at the end of Parsons’ life; Parsons’ aim was to develop the structures of social life, right down to the level of individual experience, out of operations performed on formal automata which play a constitutive role in social interactions. Although the end result is often decried as arid and meaningless (and if you feel this way about Parsons, you shouldn’t read Luhmann), Parsons actually developed many powerfully explanatory models of trans-interactive social phenomena (structural features that cannot be subsumed under the exchange of information and other delights between individuals).
Where Parsons’ theory fails is in explaining “what it’s like” to engage in practical behavior in society (which encompasses both works and days), unlike the “ethnomethodology” of the sociological Sixties in America and Bourdieu’s “reflexive sociology” of practice. Various theories of the “micro-macro link” between social systems and interaction were bruited in the 80s; but to me it seems that Luhmann’s Parsonsonianism is the most fruitfully considered one, because Luhmann’s program incorporates popular reflections on the “postmodern condition” into structural-functionalism in a way sociologists in general failed to do. For the curious, Luhmann was Hegel after Derrida; and thusly examining what he has to tell us in the light of postmodern aesthetics may be informative, if not quite as exciting.
In Germany, where he is well-read, Luhmann is often accused of being technocratic: a very popular book containing a series of discussions between Habermas and Luhmann was titled Systemtheorie: Theorie der Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie?. But “social technology” in this sense does not mean technology in society — rather the understanding of society as a sort of machine, of which the instrumental manipulation of physical machines forms only one part. Luhmann avoided Wittgensteinian objections to “super-rigid machines” as models of meaning not only by not talking to Wittgensteinians, but by decentering “social physics” from a “great chain of being” centered on the individual humanistically considered, and constructing microsocial systems out of operations performed upon larger ones (the largest, society in general, being a nearly perfect analogue of the Derridean text: it is simply what no communication is outside).
As a result, the individual that counts for social purposes — and this in a “constitutive” rather than “constructionist” sense — is a composite of characteristics acquired as stipulated parts of social systems: not only “labels”, but also relational properties: in the terminology of analytic philosophy, we learn to attribute counterfactual properties to people based on their utterances and beliefs ascribed to them. We must for the purposes of social interaction attribute some such properties, on pain of not being able to communicate at all: this problem, posed by Parsons as “double contingency”, forms not the explicatum of Luhmann’s theory of interaction but its explicatum. The problem of double contingency is what is preserved in observing social interaction; and preserved, not “sublated”, sublimated, or subliminated it often is in interaction itself.
This is all very enlightening to me, but a feeling people often have reading sociological treatises (a feeling they should probably have more often) is “What can that possibly mean?” And this is the problem of double contingency, which I mentioned first in the high-sociological style. Why? Well, as I said Luhmann’s point is not that “socialization” is the only way we can come to know other people — perhaps we can’t — but in fact that the question of any other way does not even make sense. From the perspective of Rousseauist concern with the authentic voice, this seems “bass-ackward”; and this is rather clearly the intent of Luhmann and other writers who employ such “front-loading” techniques. Are they “problematizing” concepts, questioning widespread assumptions? No, they are trying to get you to think of the issue in a certain way, and by means which are devious on the printed page. So it’s really bad, even if intellectually empowering. But is there a remainder beyond that?
Yes; what “closure under interaction” guarantees is not that you never learn anything new, but that there is a dimension of linguistic power beyond information communicated directly or indirectly — “perlocutionary force” — which can be coherently thought about. And so what the widespread realization of such a phenomenon would bring about would be the coming of Fichte’s fourth age, the age of will to power or science; and this would be postmodernity. But Luhmann goes this one further, and excludes another possibility: the concrete future. This is not the actual future; pure postmodernists maintain surprisingly stable beliefs about the continuity of time and institutions, and make statements about what it is they expect will happen in a more-or-less despairing tone. But Luhmann argued very seriously that modernity could only persist, not be replaced, on the grounds that thought without real abstractions gathered from social systems could not occur; this is the future which cannot begin. (Horkheimer and Adorno’s prescription “the only cure for enlightenment is more enlightenment” appears positively Brechtian in this light.)
Well, what would such real abstractions be in a period where eternal fixities have subsided (known to Marxist theoreticians as “late capitalism”)? Styles, but Luhmann’s point is that even this “aestheticist relativism” cannot be done with cognitive questions on account of micropower, and I would like to expand that out by considering a hopeless case: the music of the band Royal Trux. Formed out of the ashes of the shock-art band Pussy Galore, Royal Trux are not what you would call popular (although they had their shot); and they have not been “much-loved”, especially during their highly experimental phase which produced such masterpieces as Twin Infinitives. What they are is much-listened-to, such that their tours are very popular, and furthermore controversial; there has always been some stink about Royal Trux, from a $100,000 record advance spent on heroin addiction to Jennifer Herrema’s retirement from recording.
What is the aesthetic effect of the music, though? “The Trux” is canonically trashy; Herrema and Hagerty travel back to their tidewater roots so often you’d think they hadn’t left. And they really haven’t, but that’s not the point: the experience is such that it is clear the style is detachable, and as a result young people have probably known a undistinguished white kid or two who acted real bad for no apparent reason. But is more going on with Royal Trux’s music than that? Yes, and the shift back and forth between author-function and “authorial persona” is critical here. In their self-dubbed “Intensionality Triad” Thank You/Sweet Sixteen/Accelerator, the rock landmarks of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties are “blown up” to levels of figuration you would not have believed possible before hearing the records, but in the meantime an immensely realistic narrative about the present day runs through Jennifer Herrema’s “falsetto tenor” and Hagerty’s conceptualism (the band has explicitly claimed a harmolodic focus).
These are enormously unsentimental records, extremely useful for riding things out; but before “toughness” is taken for the mark of the productive style — which enables social interaction to take on a new conformance, such as Luhmann declares the “language of romantic love” appearing in the early-modern era to have done — I invite the reader to consider another artist, to my mind the initiator of this tendency in American popular music, Curtis Mayfield. Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions had a number of crossover hits in the 60s, but today few people remember him as a major figure except for those who can’t forget his songs (and it is notable that the music of Superfly, his best-selling solo record, is eminently forgettable). Mayfield’s role in the black cultural field was that of creator: unlike most R&B artists he composed nearly all his own songs this was a selling point, such that he was sued for incorporating part of a Holland-Dozier-Holland composition into “Can’t Satisfy”), and unlike James Brown there is a great deal of thematic variety and pointedness to Mayfield songs.
Is “We’re A Winner” message music? Not quite, and this point is underscored by stage patter captured on live recordings. Is it intended to have a formative effect? Not on the dedicated listener, but indeed it is: and his solo recordings shift away from the onward-and-upward thrust of Impressions records, towards a consideration of the black community in its totality (although Mayfield is fairly well-known among whites, it is patent that his “interlocutor” is in truth never one such) and the black man qua individual. Mayfield is highly regarded for the reason that he didn’t just “have something to say”, but something worth saying to the point that repetition would be superfluous; Mayfield lyrics are not catchphrases, but rather formed part of the “intuitive” cultural framework of their period. So, both acts demonstrate that another aesthetic goal beyond “exact imagination”, perfectly capturing the essence of a particular: “effective reception”, working a self-chosen change in people’s mindedness beyond the level of information communicated by making figures available for personal use, either in language as vehicle or language as medium of thought. And frankly, although the implications of some work in this vein are frightening indeed, I could not imagine a more extensive ambition for art.