these are some notes i took on reading Teresa Ebert’s (Untimely) Critiques for a Red Feminism. i like what the book is trying to do but i think it remains mired in a kind of “materialism” that is really just a replay of the old philosophical “mind/matter” problematic, which is profoundly unuseful and should be considered, in Wittgenstein’s terms, a pseudo-problem. i think Marx’s own materialism—but sadly, not the materialism of many of his avowed pupils—is a nice corrective.
— hm, this opposition between things and our ideas of them is untenable. ironically, the hard ontological distinction between things and our ideas of them is partially what led post-structuralism—the object of Ebert’s criticism— astray. far from being anti-science, as the lazy critique goes, the protagonists of post-structuralism were too positivistic and scientistic (as opposed to scientific). they ran aground in trying to resolve the apparent problem created by their dual filiation to structuralism and phenomenology (Warren Montag and Peter Dews have both pointed to this issue). in plain language, they were trying to reconcile the differences between an epistemology that takes the mind’s limits of the possible structures of experience as prior to any knowledge, and an epistemology that prioritizes the construction of that “knowing mind” by historical processes prior to—historically and logically—what that mind thinks. this meant that they tended to get caught up in how we could really know objects outside of ourselves (the scientistic impulse) while also admitting that the structure of the mind limits that impulse (the phenomenological impulse).
— the solution to this is to simply admit that our ideas—generated by discussion between people with bodies, and not brains in a vat—are just as material as our conceptions of them. Ilyenkov is good on this, and it’s implicit in Marx (insofar as he doesn’t engage in epistemology hardly at all). further, we have to admit that reality is produced through language; this actually does not force us into the position of a Derrida or an Althusser. in fact, it’s Marx’s own position as Jan Rehmann has shown.
— the fact that reality is produced through language does not mean that external reality does not exist! it simply means that reality is only simply composed of inanimate physical objects, and it does not exclude humans. humans constantly act on their own environment and thus construct it. if we generate an idea through language that causes us to, say, preserve a forest instead of chopping it down, this obviously affects what really exists out there in the world.
— Ebert protests against the materiality of language, but this is wrong. language is absolutely a material practice and there is no possible separation to be made between “material practice” and “language”. the only kinds of human interactions that might plausibly not involve some kind of language are violent ones, and even those often involve some kind of shit-talking. plus, the whole reason that we go to war in the first place has to do with the effectivity of propaganda, a fully-linguistic practice.
— where post-structuralism actually errs in focusing on discourse as a kind of praxis—official ideologies and popular theories—and not enough on discourse as it’s practiced—the way that it affects the space apart from where it’s expressed. someone writing in a journal is certainly engaged in a material, social practice. there’s no sense in referring to this as ideal, and referring a capitalist telling an worker to shut up as material. it rests on a bizarre understanding of language, mired in the mind/matter problematic. the obvious distinction here is between material ideas that have an effect on the rest of material reality, and ideas that don’t. Marx’s polemic in the German Ideology is not a polemic against language or against ideas. class domination is unthinkable without the languages and concepts that enforce it, as is nearly all human social reality. it’s a polemic against the self-importance of socially-ineffective ideas, ideas which are actually unimportant. Marx doesn’t say that what the Young Hegelians are doing in their journals isn’t material! he might agree that ideas, without being put into any kind of material form, aren’t real. and he might say that ideas that only one or two post-Hegelian philosophers read are hardly real. his conception of the material and the non-material here isn’t some hard line, definable in ontological terms; it’s a spectrum, definable in terms of the effectivity of things on other things. this is why he says his own polemic in the German Ideology “is of local importance”—Marx didn’t anticipate that his article would become a massively influential text, but instead assumed that it, like the writings he was reacting to, would be read by precious few people (unlike Capital). Marx is not arguing against the power of ideas to change the world in The German Ideology. he’s arguing that ideas do not automatically, in all circumstances change the world, and that there are some very large barriers to be overcome before ideas have a discernible effect on the rest of social reality. but they’re still “real”, at least so long as they are written, recorded, or remembered. (one might again ask about ideas that never make it out of one’s own head, here; Marx would probably say that it’s pointless to argue about whether these are real or not, since his conception of reality is not one that seeks to measure things against some kind of external metric for what constitutes reality, but rather an immanent criterion for what constitutes reality, generated out of experience of a kind of phenomenological experience of reality).
— generally speaking Ebert’s misunderstanding is that Marx, in the German Ideology, is engaged in the traditional mind/matter debate, and that he is solving the problem how they relate by saying that matter simply determines mind. this is why the anti-language polemic takes on a seemingly-Marxist hue—the orthodox reading of the German Ideology associates language with mind, and suggests that both are less material than other social relations; this is why Ebert dislikes not just the undue focus on language but the very suggestion that language is part of the material world.
— but what Marx is up to in GI is actually not a polemic against idealism in the sense of “ideas” but in the sense of “isolated ideas stashed away in unread journals”. As Derek Sayer, Jan Rehmann, Lucio Colletti, John Clegg and Simon Clarke have all argued, Marx understands “material” very broadly to mean something like “the production of basic social relations”. This, obviously, includes language and ideology. Marx is really involved in something subtler—distinguishing levels of social reality. The big diss in GI is that his opponents understand their works to be of great social import, when in fact no-one reads them. Marx is saying that these ideas are necessarily less real—and therefore derivative of—more fundamental social relations, such as the basic ideologies that hold together social relations.
— so, we should indeed reject a kind of crude materialism that suggests that physical things, bodies and their interactions, are “more real” than ideas and determine our ideas. instead, we should understand materialism as a theory that some relations—webs of ideas, language, human bodies, and non-human bodies—are more fundamental to social reproduction than others. Marx is saying that society can go on just fine without changing whether or not some philosophers are squirrelled away writing about the Geist; but if suddenly, everyone starts reading bell hooks and deciding that the workplace, the home and jails as they exist are bullshit, things will shut down sooner or later—people will act.
— so all of these silly attempts to determine the relation between base and superstructure are besides the point. first of all, lots of what traditional Marxism considers “superstructure” was understood by Marx to be part of the base! it’s funny that no-one ever seems to ask why Marx spent so much goddamn time picking apart what ortho-marxists and anti-marxists consider the superstructure—the beliefs of political economists and philosophers—if he thought that those were fundamentally unimportant social relations.
— thus, (some) art and (some) ideology are just as much part of the base as production relationships. in fact, if certain kinds of art or beliefs are essential to the maintenance of current social structures, they are then part of production relationships. Marx’s only claim is that some other kinds of art—let’s say something like free jazz—generally speaking does enter into the conscious or unconscious thoughts of the majority of society. the ideas that it generates are thus less socially real than others. since, generally speaking, ideas are generated from the encounter of thinking beings with things outside of itself, ideas that are less socially really will be dependent on ideas and relations that are more socially real. the silly songs that my partner and i sing to our cat don’t come from nowhere; they aren’t tunes or words or concepts that we haven’t heard before. in that sense, they are wholly dependent on the existence of other, fundamental social relations. those more-socially-real ideas, however, will not depend on the less-socially-real ones.
update after flipping thru later chapters-
later in the text, Ebert gets closer to what i’m saying, pointing out that Marx’s materialism explicitly refers to a world created thru human practice but she is still wedded to this odd economism. not economism in the Althusserian sense—Althusser accepted the view of “production” as “economic production” and then simply sought to give the “ideological” sphere more autonomy, thus being less “economistic” but also reducing “production of society” to “production of material goods”. this latter mistake is what i mean by economism.
maybe the most telling quote in the whole thing:
This does not mean that reality, as we have access to it, as we make sense of it, is not mediated by signifying practices. But the empirical fact that reality is mediated by language in no way means, as Engels and others have argued, that it is produced by language. Social relations and practices are, in other words, prior to signification and
i don’t see how one could possibly maintain even the abstract possibility of social relations and practices that exist without or before language. apart from being very different from what marx wrote, i can’t see the use in arguing for a “pre-signification” level of human sociality. this kind of argument, in addition, isn’t at all necessary to challenge what’s bad about post-structuralism—it’s not the focus on language and discourse, but the elimination or downplaying of certain kinds of discursive, linguistic relations (class). this doesn’t mean arguing that class is simply a result of people’s individually held ideas, of course, but rather that people relate to the means of production in ways that are necessarily-mediated by language and by concepts that convince them to accept these relations. class is the way that we physically and symbolically relate to the means of production. i don’t know what the difference between saying “i am denied literal physical food by capital” and “i am denied symbolic means such as money that give me access to food” is, and it seems really besides the point to me.
i was thinking about this today when i was lamenting the current state of a lot of cultural theory, and i think that the stuff that sucks about a lot of it illuminates what i’m talking about. the problem isn’t that culture or ideology is immaterial (forgive the pun) or unimportant, etc.,and thus shouldn’t be studied. the problem is that a lot of cultural theory tends to isolate the the ideology of a piece of art and assume that it is effective—that it influences people to think in a certain way—without actually investigating the popular reception of these kinds of shows. instead, we get people wanking about Spring Breakers or Snowpiercer, and reading all sorts of bizarre motifs about agency into them. These new inquisitors might fire back that there is no inherent meaning to be found in a text, which (obviously) there isn’t. That said, there are usually fairly socially-objective meanings clustered around texts. People understand that swastikas mean fascism, that sort of thing.
The issue with the dilettantes, as Marx very presciently suggested, isn’t that they’re concerned with culture and ideology; it’s that they assume a greater degree of social importance—social reality, even—to their writings than really exists. Reading Spring Breakers as a profound meditation on resistance instead of portentous middlebrow crap isn’t like unacceptable or something; but what’s the use of a reading that doesn’t grapple with the fact that other people interpret it very differently? i’m not trying to suggest that people shouldn’t contest popular readings of things—far from it—but just saying that the dominant readings of art and dominant perceptions of social life hold a lot of weight, and it’s very dilettantish/silly to pretend that one is some kind of thought-criminal simply by diverging from socially-valid readings of texts in a place that no-one will read it, in a way that doesn’t directly address and critique the dominant reading. it’s not that Marx thought that the Young Hegelians were literally incapable of having an effect on social relations—Marx was one of them, and he hoped that his writings would in fact have an effect on relations!—but that the manner in which they were going about it—assuming that their ideas had import rather than making them have import—is profoundly anti-materialist.