Sunday, November 23, 2008

On Theory and Practice::

Spectres of Marx

A spectre is a ghost; a spook. Marx is dead, so the title is apt in the primary sense[i].

This raises the question, or, rather, it invites our attention to the times when Marx was not a spectre, or Marxian principles ruled society[ii], or were moving forces of import. (We are past the age of revolutions, and, even, rebellions[iii]. A rebellion exists only in those un-policed territories where the rebels themselves are the police: in this sense, a terrorist outfit may be seen as a rebellious group. But we’re digressing.) The point is that, there is a distinct dislocation—a definite dissociation of the two spheres of thinking and acting. Life—as dictated by actions—seemingly is not influenced by thought. In other words: thought has been packaged and commoditised by, as my friend rightly calls it, the academic mafia. Thinking (with the associated by-product of writing—in the archaic sense, of course, and you’re encouraged to bring to your mind the spectre of a pen and a bottle of ink, and even a piece of blotting paper, if you can manage)—thinking, is what they (the academics) do. Normal people like you and me don’t think, we merely watch TV and act and eat and doze. But thinking—goodness me, no!

If exploitation is the chief weapon employed by the hegemonic capitalist[iv], then thinking, thoughts, and philosophy have been the chief tinker-toys of the indolent socialist. I categorically say socialist because for the dedicated Marxist, philosophical domination is not even a prerequisite for success[v]. It is at least a whistle if not a bell, but in any case not much more than that. The time is a bit odd to have to talk about revolutions[vi], so we can just concentrate on the issue at hand (permit me, kindly): the approved Marxist way (historically speaking, and otherwise) is to act first and justify later. Why? Because the ends must justify the means. The other way around, the end will never come. (I invite you to pause a bit on this, you’ll get it, I’m sure.)

But what a way to gloriously signal the end of an era and to simultaneously usher in a new one! What hope, what sunshine, unmitigated joy! In one masterful sweep of passion, everything is legitimised, even massacre, even martyrdom, even the most obscene horror which in an other context would just be an obscene and horrifying act of vanity. Why? Why is this possible[vii]? Why does a revolution legitimise even extreme bloodletting?

I guess I’m not that good a theoretician to use the tentacles of theory (literary or otherwise) to pull me out. But I don’t think we need to use a any theory. Even if I were, I daren’t use any theory, because the very mention of it would invite a polarisation that would limit the readership to perhaps one in ten-thousand (I’m not forgetting self-indulgently the fact that what I write may indeed be read by less than a dozen. But so also will be the case of Deleuze and Derrida, a few years from now). People hate theory, even theoreticians[viii]. A theory is a photograph over which we gloat—but always from a distance, always at a later date. Or, quite simply, a theory is a book which we can satisfactorily peruse at out leisure a few years from now. When that theory actually lives—I am directly using the analogy of Marxism—people don’t usually see it as a theory, it is a living force, and is thus undifferentiated from a living organism[ix]. Perhaps, more than a living organism: it is articulate, and it radiates its limbs and touches all people. It connects in more ways that one, and it connects more than one. It is a magical, even mystical, call to action which finds its champion—often one too many—who serves to distil its message (often a messianic personal interpretation of a praxis which is as yet nonexistent) and thus found a new movement.

Yet in all these respects, Marxism is singular. It often happens that the movement is often identified with its champions—and though Marx has given perhaps the solidest foundation imaginable to an ideology that has since his time pervaded everything from space science to sports culture—his most visible contribution has been that alluring and strangely haunting (spooky) name, ‘Marxism.’ From any assemblage of ideologies, this particular ‘ism’ is marked from the beginning, from the very first intonation of the word. The utterance marks its difference[x]. Marx’s name is, so to say, the birthmark of the most successful political ideology.

Which brings us back to the point, from the early 20th century and revolutions and all those films: to these ugly efforts at romanticising an imagined past of revolutions, and lamely trying to adapt those gross effects, those atrocities—which we have since then retrospectively branded as heroic and barbaric in turn—our depraved attempts at imagining heroism, which we have since then forgotten how even to define. In spite of all that has happened, we still forget that history is cyclical: there are excesses followed by benign periods of tongue-lashing and mass-hysteria, all directed at the idiotic enterprise of branding the current ‘age’ as the truly enlightened one, one of sunshine humanism. We have forgotten[xi], above all else, to even think that we have a history[xii], and that history is always human history, and which has meaning only when we think about history in the first place. Think, talk, write about history: at all other times and occasions, history lies dead in the textbooks, it is always dead history. When we participate in history, when we responsibly measure ourselves up to it, and include ourselves in it, when we choose to view ourselves as a part of it: that is when history comes alive, and that is when social life assumes a meaning separate from the contrivances that science has devised for us as dangerous drugs, the handmaidens of hegemonic capitalism. That is when we—lay persons, informed outsiders—stop dreaming…and get a life.

And we connect with reality.


[i] And, much as I’d hate to disappoint you, this essay has nothing to do with Derrida’s book whose title, if I remember correctly, has American spelling.

[ii] Let us not, at this time, waylay our enquiry by investigating what actually made Marxism so successful: this is a perversion peculiar to post-structuralism wherein we attempt to ‘explain’ the birth in terms of the death. Or, translating Shakespeare to modern English (current as on 22.11.2008 as spoken in London around Trafalgar Square). Perhaps there was no alternative, perhaps it was forced on the mob…but that is not important here; what is always important is the main fact which changed history. History is not a chronicle of what might have been. And, truly enough, history is never written, only accounts of history can be written.

[iii] Post-structuralism has a very effective means of philosophically disintegrating all forms of intellectual resistance, or intellectual justification of resistance: you simply contextualize the rebellion, and just make them feel powerless in the relative obscurity of the act, so that even the act of rebellion is nullified—the very practice of rebellion explodes and implodes at the atomistic level. While it’s a joy to speak about dying fighting in a group, dying is always in the singular: and it certainly ain’t no fun dying. This is a trend: individual acts of rebellion are increasingly viewed as aberrations, and not as a symptomatic of a diseased society. (We can always build nice sanatoriums for the mentally deranged, it’s easier that way and looks a lot cleaner, too.)

[iv] An oxymoron, because the nation in question, along with its ebullient citizens have of late, found themselves, curiously, without money—cash (archaic)—to be exact. (No paper, no print, no bang-bang?)

[v] Generally, no other form of domination is required in Marxism other than total proletarian domination. ‘Workers in power’, so to say. When you have the power, no other form of domination is required, and none indeed are even present. It’s the last word in domination.

[vi] And in any case all my ideas of revolutions stem from the brilliantly edited montages of those Soviet films which are superfluous to name—a derived notion, really—so there’s no immediacy in my urge in any case, any more than the thrill I used to get as a kid watching Rambo level the huts from telescopic range with those incredible explosive-tipped arrows flung from that iconic refashioned competition bow (Ram-bow?)

[vii] I’m not hinting that it should be possible again; as we’ve seen, we’re safely past that stage of youthfulness when the world was still expanding; we’re now in the process of shopping around to see if there are any serviceable parts left, to see if there’s any more juice in the squeezed pith.

[viii] An individual can only work with so much quantity of air, you know—not much more than a lungful.

[ix] Like all things invented or envisioned by human beings, a theory has a life cycle. More importantly, a theory has a life before it becomes a theory; in that life it proves itself as a worthy organism. It goes around recruiting people. Nowadays, theories sell themselves, and spend their time looking for buyers, or spend idle on the bookshelves, gathering dust (cosmic).

[x] Of course, my use of the term difference is the lay use, not the high-winded one.

[xi] Permit me to lament, without falling into the trap of romanticizing a past that I can only imagine: I haven’t experienced a war, but I don’t think that could have helped, any way. War forges individual destinies and frames it in collective atrocities. War gives a fitting memorial to Lilliputian social achievements by turning a community into a mass grave.

[xii] A fact noted by most contemporary Marxist thinkers, notably Fredric Jameson. I suspect that television— the advent of which effectively cleaves the 20th century into ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’—has a more than casual say in this. Television, by bringing us images and sounds of happenings from around the world in seeming real-time, has conclusively truncated any real sense of space and time. It brings fantastic things right to your living room (or bathroom) and forces you to participate in an unreal world—and worse, makes you believe it.



vrinda said...

surprise!! :)

Zeinab said...

Surprised. (Yes.)

Blue Eyed Boy said...

Oops, I thought it was brain teaser. But knowing you was my strength. By the time I reached the last line, I remember the famous "loop theory" - you know who proposed!
Aru Eta - (In Assamese 'One more' -I mean, write more).
Finally, I could post a comment.

Zeinab said...

Dhoir jyo. (Patience, my beauty, patience!)

Zeinab said...

By the by, that was a crushing comment. In the end even I was confused about the 'paternity' of loop theory. But I guess it's a historically recycled I'm not really enthusiastic about bandying it any case what matters more is that it should become a part of your being. I live that cycle. In fact, everyone else does, but few register it. What's tragic is that most of us (even I occasionally) are under the illusion that our actions are authentic...