There’s a very interesting discussion of the merits of Marxism and an Anarchist-Green politics set out in John Zerzan’s book Twilight of the Machines (which I’ll admit to downloading, not reading!) over at the (Dis)loyal Opposition to Modernity. As I understand from the gloss in the DOM post, Zerzan views technology as inherently alienating and destructive and proposes its relinquishment in the interest of human autonomy and the planet (this gloss may need nuancing, obviously!).
Unlike some technophilic left-liberals, I treat relinquishment as a serious moral response to the incompatibility of technical modernity and political transparency. This is because modern technological systems are post-geographic and post-cultural – that is, any invention or device can be replicated in multiple contexts with inherently unpredictable results on the rest of the system (think, for example, of the global impact of Tim Berners Lee’s invention of hypertext for cabal of physicists at CERN). If modern technological systems are inherently unpredictable, then they are inherently uncontrollable. So even if we replace capitalist forms of ownership with a more rational way of allocating resources we’ll still be “living on this thing like fleas on a cat” (to quote Dr Gaius Baltar,)
The only options to verminous status I can conceive are relinquishment or a kind of anti-technological theocracy that artificially restricts the dynamism of self-augmenting technological systems (SATS). Both solutions are arguably based on a self-defeating ideal of sovereignty or autonomy. As Martin Hägglund argues via Derrida, there is no decision without the spacing between now and then – meaning that we can’t live without chancing the worst. The Anarcho-Green is thus a wrong-headed, philosophically naïve death-obsessive but, as fantasies of self-immolation go, his a relatively intelligible one.
Étienne Balibar presents an illuminating synopsis of debates between French humanists and anti-humanists culminating in Foucault’s diagnosis in The Order of Things (Les mots et les choses) here.
Balibar sees Foucault’s book as a synthesis of two initially disparate critiques of philosophies founded on a conception of Man as the subject and object of philosophical reflection: Heidegger’s analysis of human finitude (stemming from his anthropological reading of Kant) and the formalist account of agency and indetermination in the structuralist anthropology of Levi-Strauss.
Link to an eText of Kant’s logic here.
For Balibar the central chapter is l’homme et ses doubles (‘Man and his doubles’) where Foucault criticizes the sublimation of data in the social sciences like psychology and history into attributes incarnated in each singular human individual. Balibar suggests that this position is formally akin to Marx’s criticism of anthropological essentialism – as in the sixth thesis on Feuerbach – with the difference that Foucault is interested in the projection of an abstract conception of a reflective ‘I think’ onto ‘quasi-transcendental’ conceptions of man as a living, labouring and speaking being. Finally, Balibar argues that Foucault’s text implies that Marx’s identification of the human with ’the open system or ensemble of all social relations’ can be critically re-engaged through confrontations with madness (psychoanalysis) and the non-European ’other’ (ethnography). Thus the death of man (qua abstract universal) does not imply the impossibility of a ‘critical anthropology of relations’.
Patrice Maniglier’s response makes some connections between the 60′s anti-humanism debates and Anglo-American interest in a teleological forms of ethics predicated on conceptions of humanly distinctive capacities (e.g. Nussbaum, Sandel, Kymlicka,etc). However, in view of claims made in my post on the ‘Category’ of the human, the most interesting claim is that Foucault’s project in OT derives from Ernst Cassirer’s assertion that transcendental philosophy is ‘conditioned by . . . transformations within empirical sciences’.
Maniglier claims that Foucault was attempting to neutralize the distinction between a naturalistic critique of transcendental thinking and a speculative history of being on the Heideggerian model by a) objectifying the structures (the epistemes) that putatively constitute our anthropological self-understanding and b) exhibiting the incompleteness of this frame. Thus anthropology is re-conceived as a method of soliciting the limits of humanist discourse.
Now, I find it hard to buy into the metaphysical project that Maniglier sketches here: in particular, it seems predicated on the doubtful claim that the difference between the human and the non-human falls out of a historical synthetic a priori which can then be subjected to some kind of deconstructive operation. There’s a covert anti-realism here that has tended to be passed over in most discussions. Moreover, there’s the ethical and political danger that those points of ‘otherness’ which solicit the limits of the human become mere figures of transcendence. Still the logic of the debate is of more than museological interest, if only because a similar line of argument actuates debates around the nonhuman and the posthuman in contemporary theory.
Levi has an interesting discussion here of the notion of autonomy in response to an article by Jeffrey Bell on the meaning of autonomous production in Marxist theory. The upshot, he claims, is that autonomy is not the passing absence of heteronomy. That is:
Autonomy is not the untenable idea that reason is a free and fully self-present self-direction.
but the absence of the kind of scarcity that forces people to work.
There are workable compatiblist conceptions of autonomy, so I’m inclined to think that the metaphysics of presence is a straw man here. It is possible to understand the capacity for autonomy in terms of deliberative capacities which allow creatures like ourselves to choose and act in accordance with our conceptions of the good. Being able to deliberate about what you want (or want to want) does not imply contra-causal freedom, let alone unbroached self-presence.
Such formulations are problematic, I’ll admit, since they are framed in terms of cognitive capacities and don’t address the emergence of autonomy among relatively heteronomous systems (those lacking metabolisms, say) or the ‘Nietzschean’ capacity to cultivate new modes of embodiment or value (which seems as performative and affective, as reflective). So formulating a viable metaphysics of autonomy is a huge philosophical challenge.
I don’t think the notion of the absence of necessity even begins to cracks this since only autonomous beings can be subject to the kind of coercive necessity that narrows down their options. Beings that are not autonomous don’t have options. Autonomous beings are better off in proportion to the range of live options available to them. Scarcity reduces options, so if we want to maximize the scope for the exercise of autonomy (political autonomy) we should minimize or expunge scarcity.
So does this mean that Marxist and other progressives should junk currently fashionable eco-bullshit and get down to thinking through the methods and import of post-scarcity economics?