Readings: Beyond Capital

Michael Lebowitz’s 1992 classic Beyond Capital:  Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class established him as the most philosophically astute Marxist economist of his era.  Lebowitz argues that there is a tension at the heart of Marx’s work between the humanist values that ground his emancipatory vision of socialism and the mechanical scientism of Capital.   Lebowitz does not argue that the analysis of the dynamics of capitalist society in Capital should be rejected but rather that it must be read as one element within the totality of Marx’s work.  What is absent from Capital, according to Lebowitz, is just what is central to Marx’s work as a whole:  the understanding of working people as subjects, as active creators of their own history, as agents of their own emancipation.  In Capital, by contrast, it is the “laws of motion” of the capitalist economy that are the subjects, while people are treated as “but the personifications of the economic relations that exist between them.”(Capital, Volume 1, p.60).  Consequently, both the politics and economics of Capital are one-sided. 

Let us start with the economic problems.  In Marx’s presentation in Capital, the valorization process takes place as if workers were inert functions of the system of production.  Wages and the rate of profit are determined as if working people and their struggles did not matter.  Technically, the problem, according to Lebowitz, is that Marx assumed for the sake of his analysis that the amount of goods necessary to ensure the reproduction of labour-power was fixed.  If it was fixed, then the money-value of labour could be assumed to be constant (the money-value of labour is determined by the amount of labour time it takes to earn the money equal to that bundle of necessities).  “Marx’s discussion in Capital take the constancy of that set of necessary means of subsistence as given.  It is on that basis that we proceed to explore the production of  surplus value.”(p.16)  This seemingly innocuous methodologcal assumption on Marx’s part has profound political implications.

Marx’s assumes for the sake of his understanding of the production of surplus value that the cost of labour is fixed.  What this means is that the extent of workers’ basic needs is assumed to be fixed.  But this means that what we are dealing with are not real people and real societies in comparison with each other, but with an abstract methodological construction of a static theory-construct.  In real life, and in real economies, according to Lebowitz, that which is physically necessary is subsumed beneath what is socially necessary.  In the twenty-first century it is socially necessary to have access to computers, in the nineteenth it was not.   Since people are not inert functions of system-dynamics but socially self-conscious agents who see and feel what is happening to the world around them, they organize and fight for higher wages so that they can access that which socially necessary to life in the society in which they live.  Consequently, an adequate economic model must understand dynamic wages rates, and in order to understand dynamic wage rates, working class struggle must be taken into account.

Marx does not take workers’ struggles for higher real wages into account in Capital.  “In short, the existence of unfulfilled social needs underlies the worker’s need for more money, her need for a higher wage.  But, that, of course, involves a struggle for higher wages …. There is, however, no discussion in Capital about the struggle for higher wages.”(p.30).  Thus, what is missing from Capital is the political economy of the working class.  The political economy of the working class would centre on the struggle over real wages as the social foundation of the quality of life that workers are actually able to live.  Capital focuses exclusively on the political economy of capital:  on the production of surplus value through the exploitation of labour.  What it is missing is the economic impact of workers’ struggles against exploitation.  Viewed from the side of workers as human beings, these struggles constitute a production process as well:  not the production of money-capital, but the self-production of human beings as subjects: “what happens during free time is a process of production, a process in which the nature and the capability of the worker is altered. It is ‘time for the full production of the individual.’” (p.51).  Marx does examine workers’ struggles for a shorter working day in Capital, but not the other side of that struggle:  the struggle for higher real wages which is the essential condition, under capitalism, of people being able to realize themselves in the time they have outside of work.  In sum, “there is a critical silence” in Capital Lebowitz argues,which permits the appearance that, for the scientist, the only subject … is capital, growing, transcending all barriers, developing—until, finally, it runs out of steam and is replaced by scientists with a more efficient machine.”(p.11).  The problems with the economic analysis produce serious political problems, unless the arguments of Capital are situated within the whole of Marx’s work.

Like Gramsci before him, Lebowitz worries that Capital taken on its own implies a mechanical and necessary transition to socialism as a consequence of the inevitable breakdown of capitalism.  Gramsci saw the Russian Revolution as a revolution against the “naturalism and positivism”  of Capital, as an assertion of the creative power of human collective action against abstract conceptions of the “iron laws”  of capitalist society.  Lebowitz similarly worries that by ignoring struggles within capitalism for more free time and higher real wages, orthodox Marxists ignore those zones where workers are organized and actually fight.

Although he does not make this point explicit, I think it also follows from Lebowitz’ argument (and if I am right I think it is the most enduring philosophical-political contribution that it makes) that we need to conceive of the struggle for socialism not as an all or nothing battle leading to a revolutionary cataclysm, but as an open-ended process arranged along a continuum of better or worse lives for workers.  These struggles occur in multiple spheres and are led by many different organizations as workers struggle to satisfy their multidimensional needs.  Workers are human beings and human beings have needs.  These needs and people’s ability to satisfy them are modified by people’s concrete identity.  Lebowitz thus arrives at an expansive conception of class struggle as the multi-dimensional struggle of alienated, exploited, and oppressed human beings against capital as the systematic impediment separating them from the resources and institutions that they need.  A struggle for schools is just as much a class struggle as a strike; a struggle against racial profiling or police violence is just as much a class struggle as the demand for higher wages, because workers are not generic tokens of a type but students and black and women and gay.

Lebowitz thus rejects any antithesis between what were called at the time “new social movements”  (broadly, the struggles of the oppressed organized by identity and not class) and socialism:  “A strategy calling for ‘external alliances’ between workers and new social actors takes as its starting point the theoretical reduction of workers to one-dimensional products of capital.  Rather than an inherent opposition between ‘new social movements’ and the struggle of workers as a class against capital, the former should be seen as expressing other needs of workers, and as the development of new organizing centres of of the working class, functioning ‘in the broad sense’ of its complete emancipation.’ (p.147) In other words, a properly organized left would coherently include the struggles of all oppressed people, not as optional add-ons, but as an internally unified expression of the complex ways in which capitalism impedes the satisfaction of the totality of human needs as they are actually experienced by real (i.e., differently identified) people.

If anyone needs proof of the failure of the North American left to reinvent itself in a practically effective way it is that the oppressed continue to organize (and effectively, for example, most recently, in the Black Lives Matter movement) outside of and apart from a still moribund labour movement and socialist left.  Twenty five years on from Lebowitz, essentially the same arguments are being made on the left for internally unified struggles against multidimensional exploitation-alienation-oppression, still without effect.  The problem, I believe, is not the theoretical incoherence of the proposal, but the legacy of defeat:  the left simply has no credibility at this point to give people the confidence that they can put into practice that which they claim is theoretically possible.

Nevertheless, if we adopt Lebowitz’s (that is, Marx’s wholistic) conception of workers as human beings, and understand human beings (as I have argued elsewhere) as embodied, socially self-conscious agents, and embodied social self-conscious agents as requiring definite natural and social resources and relationships if they are to live and express themselves freely, and understand that people will always struggle in different ways to satisfy their needs, then short term failures of the left to produce a complete structural transformation of society are not fatal to the project.

Instead, the measuring stick of success should be the real conditions of workers lives:  The question is not whether struggles are “revolutionary”  in an insurrectionist sense, but whether they are demonstrably:  a) democratizing the workplace, b) enabling workers to better satisfy their physical, socio-cultural, and temporal life-requirements, c)  creating forms of non-alienated labour which enable the enjoyable expression of our talents and creativity, d)  in forms which are sustainable over the open-ended future, and e) overcoming systemic structures of oppression and political violence, at the local, national, and international level?  These are not all or nothing goals but can be more or less fully realized.  Cumulatively, they are incompatible with the rule of capitalist market forces and money-value over human life.  History suggests, however, that they cannot be realized at a single go.  It also suggests (as Lebowitz discovered concretely while working with the Chavez government in Venezuela), that anything less than complete success leaves past gains vulnerable.

There is no solution to the precarity of gains:  revolutionary leaders can be corrupted or undermined by events, reforms that leave the ruling class in power but improve lives can be rolled back.  There is only vigilance and collective effort to keep the line moving in the right direction; no social or natural force guarantees total and permanent emancipation.  Beneath stereotypes, class struggle is just the on-going efforts of working people in their concrete situations and identities fighting to reclaim as much time, space, and activity as possible from the forces of alienation and exploitation.  Twenty five years on, Beyond Capital continues to make that essential point with great clarity and humanity.

Fractals of Violence

Fractal geometry studies the ways in which certain natural structures appear to replicate the same pattern at different scales.  For example, the branching pattern that shapes the tree as a whole is replicated in the branching pattern of its major limbs, and the branching pattern of its major limbs is replicated in the smaller branches that grow out from them.  We can observe an analogous phenomenon in the world of political violence.  As fractal geometry helped mathematicians model irregularity in nature, so too can a close attention to scale help us understand the seemingly random and irrational nature of political violence today.

We live in a violent world:  a banality if ever there was one.  But what does it mean to say that we live in a violent world?  The world is multi-scalar.  There are global organizations and interactions, national states which are composed of formal and informal regions, cities, neighbourhoods, households, and individuals.  In order to understand what the term violent world means, we have to examine the world at each of these scales.  “The world”  is an abstraction which contains these different scales as subsets, but we cannot understand violence–  save in a politically ineffective moralistic way-  if we think abstractly.  We have to see how a global pattern is replicated in the smaller scales from the global and international down to the individual if we are to understand the meaning of “violent world” in any politically efficacious way.

To see the self-replicating structure of a tree we have to learn to follow its lines of branching with our eye.  To understand the self-replicating structure of violence, we have to learn to follow the lines of political division and opposition.  Wherever one finds violence one will always find a line of force that divides a potential whole (humanity, citizens, etc.) into opposed parties.  One party has, if not a monopoly on the means of violence (as Weber said of the state) a much higher capacity to impose its will by physical force, if decides to so use it.  The powerful nation state that unleashes its superior armed forces on a weaker adversary, the city that unleashes its police force against strikers, the gang that controls the streets of a neighbourhood, or the man who rapes a woman behind the wall of his house are all enacting the same sort of social script at a different scale.  The party that resorts to violence defines its interests in opposition to the interests of the target victim and decides that its interests alone count.  Since the other is constructed either as having no interests of its own, or the wrong sorts of interests, or “better off”  if it would adopt the interests of the stronger as its own interests, violence is seen not only as functionally legitimate, but normatively sound, the right thing to do.

In this way the violent agent can override sympathetic-empathetic fellow feeling that, when operative,  produce powerful psychic bulwarks against violent assault on others.  We only feel sorry for that which we care about and we only care about that which we think either a) has legitimate interests that must be respected, or b)  appears as an entity onto which we can project legitimate interests (as we do when we invest inanimate objects like works of art with intrinsic value that we then act so as to respect).  When people, acting as individuals or officers of some collective, deny or disregard the legitimacy of the opposed interests of others, they free themselves from the psychic bulwarks against violence and target their opponent for destruction.

Let us now examine the other side of this relationship.  Human beings, as Hegel knew, are subjects and not passive objects of nature and social power.  When they are treated as objects, they eventually resist.  This resistance to power takes the form of counter-power:  if someone tries to destroy me, I try to destroy him, not for the sake of removing the threat but for the sake of proving to the person who would reduce me to an object of his interests that I am a subject with my own interests, a free and not a dependent being.  Hegel was interested in the underlying dynamics and the conceptual form of struggle, not its political realities.  Hence, he treats every fundamental struggle as a struggle to the death, with no attention paid to the crucial issue of legitimation of the struggle.   Hence, he missed an essential imbalance in the discourses through which violence is justified:  the powerful not only have superior physical power on their hands, but superior communicative power (control over the means of communication)  and will use this to legitimate their own violence and demonize the violence of resistance.   In the real world of violence, the violence of the group or person with superior physical power (economic, political, and military) is always affirmed, the counter-violence of the victim is always demonized.

But not only demonized.  The primary tactic of de-legitimizing the counter-violence of the victims is to invert the real causal order:  the victim, i.e., the effect of the objectifying violence of ruling powers, is made the cause of their own objectification and targeting for violent assault.  The rape victim is made to appear as the cause of the rape, the anti-imperialist movement is made the cause of imperialist violence, and so on.

Take the recent example of the killings of police officers in Dallas.  As soon as that happened the focus of the corporate media shifted from a discussion of the long history of police violence against blacks in America to black violence against police.  Although it is not metaphysically possible for an event which occurred later in time (the killing of the police officers)  to provide the grounds for an event which happened prior in time (the police killings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis)  the media make it sound as if the fact that five police officers were murdered in response to the police killings somehow retroactively legitimated those police killings in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis.

This inversion makes the general pattern and causal texture of violence in the world invisible, and ensures that we remain trapped in revenge cycles.  Instead of understanding how general patterns of violence (colonial, racial, sexual, etc) are replicated at the scale of the individual as responses to their objectification and demonization, the individual as such is posited as the cause of violence which must be ‘dealt with’ by more intense violence.  The shootings of police result in more intensive and aggressive policing, terrorist attacks result in more ferocious military assaults.  Both tactics ensure that the cycle will continue, because the systematic causes are not addressed.

Let us test this proposition on the international scale.  Has the “War on Terror”  that began in 2001 with the invasion of Afghanistan stopped terrorism?  Not only has it not, it has actually caused it to spread to areas in which it was formerly absent, most notably, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.  What is the common element linking these states to the growth of terrorism?  Destablizing western intervention.  To point to destabilizing western intervention as the cause does not retroactively confer legitimacy on the autocratic rulers of those nations; it does condemn regime change imposed by neo-imperialist powers pursuing their own political and economic interest as incapable of creating stability and justice for local populations.  The collapse of central authority in the absence of unified pan-social democratic movements led to civil war and civil war to the creation of uncontrolled spaces where groups like Daesh were able to organize.  The application of ever increasing military force only exacerbates this problem, which means that it will not disappear even if Daesh is rooted from Raqqa and Mosul.

Even if this argument is true, it does not lead to the more hopeful political conclusions that twentieth century criticisms of colonialism generated.  One wonders what sort of victory or concession would satisfy a group like Daesh.  Consolidation of its territory?  But its odiously repressive politics would mean that it would exist in a state of permanent conflict with the local population, and never be accepted (as anti-colonial movements were) as the legitimate  expression of the popular-democratic and national will.   Once the American invasion had been finally repulsed, Viet Nam ceased to be at war with the United States and it set about he task of reconstructing its society.   So too with the post-colonial revolutionary regimes of Africa.  There was a coherent and politically and economically progressive goal which, once achieved, ended the formal hostilities between the parties.

It is difficult to understand Daesh along these lines.  At the same time, the Western means of dealing with it:  insect metaphors and vows to exterminate it– ensure that it can portray itself as the victim of imperialist violence and continue to recruit on that basis disaffected and racially and ethnically marginalized youth.  The global pattern replicates itself fractally at the individual level; individual acts of violence like in Istanbul give fresh impetus to the global pattern, and the sad bloody spectacle goes on and on.

What is absent here that was present in the twentieth century is a coherent democratic-nationalist alternative as the vehicle for a constructive anti-imperialist politics.  We can say the same thing in the domestic American case (although here perhaps Black Lives Matter can evolve into the overarching political movement that has been absent since the end of the Civil Rights-Black Power movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s).  The  only alternative to fractal replication of violence is constructive political movements that justify themselves by their success in building democratic alternatives as opposed to wantonly destructive acts that achieve nothing more than to bring down the ever more fearsome wrath of arms.

Clearly that sort of constructive politics (which we saw in the Arab Spring before the United States conspired with the Egyptian secret police to end it) can develop only over the long term.  And it is this long term that keeps the prophets of armed destruction and policing in charge of policy.  It is too easy for politicians to stand in front of the latest pile of bodies and declaim against the barbarians who caused it and promise revenge.  But revenge for Paris did not prevent Istanbul, and revenge for Istanbul will not prevent the next attack.  By all means, let us favour pragmatism over utopianism.  But pragmatism demands that the solution actually work.  Avenging individual violence with social and political violence simply has not worked.

What it has done and continues to do is to legitimate an arms race in which state power always emerges on top.  This arms race has led to the militarization of policing and the mechanistic autonomization of the military.  These interrelated developments have reduced the capacity for effective political resistance.  One cannot build barricades against drones and you cannot negotiate with bomb-wielding robo-cops.  There is no insurgency that can hope to succeed against the awesome killing power of the world’s most advanced military systems:  the inability of America to win its wars in the Middle East has not meant the people of the Middle East have won.  Instead, they suffer day after of day of life-destruction.  There will be political solutions to these conflicts or none at all.  If the shared life-interest is to prevail, new democratic political organizations with a coherent positive vision for transformation must emerge in these long-suffering states as in the black neighbourhoods and cities of America.

Fragments From Days Spent in Paris

Paradox of the World City

There is a paradox at the heart of every great world city.  Each occupies a specific geographical location and defines itself by a specific historical culture.  The culture draws visitors to the location, but as more visitors come, their spending has the cumulative social and economic effect of commercializing the historically evolved culture that attracts them in the first place.  The question is thus posed:  what does one come to experience, and what does one actually experience:  the living culture, or the commodified museum culture?  What is living and what is dead in the world city?

Educated sophisticates are tempted by arrogant and elitist distinctions:  I am not a tourist like those gauche Americans, I want the real city.  But he does not take the bus out to the banlieus where reality lives but stays in the historical centre.  She talks about elegance and grandeur and connects the history she has studied to the square where she sits to eat her baguette.  They ain’t fooling anyone:  try as hard as they can to roll their r’s properly, the locals can suss them out.

But then again:  is this not part of the show that everyone comes to see?  I mean, tourists are part of the world city, indeed, they make the world city, do they not?  The world city blurs the distinction between local and visitor. It is a city of flows (of money, of politics, people, ideas, spectacles).  The identifiable culture that serves as the initial attractor dissolves into these flows once you are in the midst of a world city.  Maybe this is the element that entices and excites:  to be part of this electric current of human movement before having to return to the decidedly more static world of the parochial local city?

Notes for a Philosophy of Sitting

If, as Frederic Gros argues,  walking slows the passage of time and deepens our experience, ought we also not affirm the value of sitting, and for analogous reasons?  To sit is to relinquish control over the sensory field, to give oneself over to what happens, to let thought work through and elaborate the ideas that emerge during a long stroll.  The clock ticks, inevitably, but, if one is solitary (as a proper sitter should be), it loses its mechanical rhythm and stretches out langorously, making an hour seem an entire afternoon.  To sit even when the world demands that you move is an affirmation of the joy of being-here over the accumulation of money-wealth, (think of a sit down strike).  It is a rejection of quotidian fussing about getting things done.  Sit, sip your beer, linger in the grotto while the rain taps the rhododendron leaves and  misty light gently envelops you; sit and think.  The world continues, it does not collapse.

Cell Phone– Sorry, Smart Phone– Apocalypse

If you are so uninterested in the art, if you are so indifferent to thinking or feeling anything you have not already thought or felt before, why bother visiting?  Do you think that you are producing a watchable video, walking furiously along the corridor pointing your phone at the paintings?  No, of course not. You do not expect anyone to watch the abomination your phone is recording, you just want to post it, not so that others will watch it  (in any case, watching it would demand the capacity to pay attention that your friends lack too), but just so that there is a document that you were here, that can be added to a list, that can later be compiled into a bigger list.  The more comprehensive list can later be reviewed by your network and a judgement rendered.  But you are the same as you were before, there is a record but no memory; an external event that you passed through but no internal transformation through which you grew.

Indifference reigns.

The Mona Lisa:  Why?

The Mona Lisa is in the Dennon Wing of the Louvre.  To get to it you first pass through a room of frescoes, including a crucifixion by Fra Angelico.  No one captures the human-hearted mourning that is the poetic core of the passion and death of Christ better than Fra Angelico.  The two standing at the base of the cross look in tender sadness at a tortured and dead friend, not the majestic Son of God, and the sombre feeling is emphasized by the muted tones of the fresco.

The next room is full of pre-Renaissance Italian work, including another extraordinary crucifixion by Giotto.  Giotto is all mystical complexity and awe, angles (are they visible to the people at the foot of the cross?) swirl about Christ’s body in its death agony.  The more spiritually charged atmosphere is reinforced by the vivacity of his colours.  Almost no one stops to look at either.  Instead there is a pell mell dash for Room Six.  For what?  For La Gioconda– The Mona Lisa.

Why?  It is as sentimental and uninteresting a painting as there is on earth.  The misty mountains romanticize in a thoroughly cliched way the Tuscan countryside.  And the smile, the mystery of the smile?  What is the mystery?  She is sitting for a portrait, why shouldn’t she smile?  And even if she is harbouring some secret, it would be thoroughly banal.  Maybe she has cuckholded her husband with Leonardo just before sitting for the portrait?  Maybe she is drunk?  Who cares? It does not elevate the painting to the status of masterpiece it somehow has attained.

Claude and Erik in Montmartre

Tell me, Erik, my friend,

Why you wallow here

Night after night,

in the stink and the drink,

amidst these obnoxious whores

draping themselves everywhere?

 

Claude, you have answered your own question.

As life gets harder,

the problems more dire

the answers get simpler,

more precise and sharp.

 

It slows the music,

makes it clear,

and lets the humour shine through.

What is Our Position on Fashion?

The fashion industry seems to concentrate all the problems of capitalism:  the elevation of priced style over substance, the “eternal recurrence of the new”  (Benjamin)  that keeps the money flowing, anchoring desire to the pursuit of unattainable ideals, normalizing an objectifying male gaze, and the super-exploitation of the labour that actually produces the clothes.  And yet, is there not an analogy to be drawn between architecture and fashion that complicates the picture?

If you think about it, a building and a jacket, for example, serve the same function:  to keep the elements out. Both functions could be served by the most utilitarian coverings, and yet no human civilization that I know of has ever rested content with pure function over form (the International Style, one can see now, was every bit as concerned with form and appearance as the art deco it replaced).  We invest our coverings, whether buildings or clothes, with symbolic value, which means style in excess of functional requirements.  To my knowledge, there are no socialist critiques of the stylization of buildings through architecture.  So why so many of fashion?

Brecht provides the answer.  In The Messingkampf Dialogues (about the theatre and problems of aesthetics and the politics of art generally)  he quips that sometimes “one must chose between being human and having good taste.”  Indeed, one must.  On the street around the corner from our apartment there was a pop up fashion show for Men’s Fashion Week.  Later that night, after the party ended, we saw a homeless man asleep in one of the discarded wardrobe boxes in the entrance way to the store.  When it is a matter of homes verses skirt lengths, homes win.

Certainly there are moments in human history when providing the basic necessities of life was of paramount concern.  But even in those circumstances, given the chance, people would reach for stylistic surplus.  There is a hilarious scene in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita when Mephistopheles rains sexy underwear on the crowd at a Moscow theatre, setting off a frenzy amongst the women desperate for fashionable lingerie.  I have spent a few nights in Stalinist apartments, I don’t want to think about what Stalinist underwear felt like.

My point:  we are not at  a moment in human history where it is materially necessary to reduce human life to the provision of bare physical necessities.  There are abundant resources and wealth, if only they were equally shared, democratically controlled, and governed by considerations of long-term sustainability.   We need clothes; if there are no objections to the exercise of imagination in relation to what our buildings look like, I do not see any reason to object to its use in relation to clothes, provided, of course, the basic necessities have been universally provided.

For a socialism of beauty across all dimensions of human life.

Five Friends Meeting in the Marais

First three, then two more join.  Young girls meeting for a night out.  Trying to look sophisticated, still a little self-conscious, smoothing skirts, checking phones, but eyes sparkling.  What is more beautiful then the eyes of the young, dancing towards a future not devoid of hope?  The whole secret of life-value philosophy is in young eyes:  wide open and alive to the adventure of discovery; longing to know but not yet knowing what everything is and feels like.  Over time the dusk of knowledge and experience will matte the twinkle, (the eyes of the old, who have seen too much, are harder and sadder); wrinkles born of the sharper focus the “realities” of life demand will form around their edges, the lids will droop with the fatigue of earning your keep.

Pay no mind tonight!  Look upon the world together wide-eyed and happy, and, if you would, permit me to gaze a moment on the joy of your anticipation, just a quick glance at those hopeful mirrors of the world when it is still unknown.

Two Old People Walk Down Boulevard St. Germaine

This is trust, this is love:  a tremulous hand, attached to a rotund but weak body, holds fast to his wife’s arm, the other on his cane.  The eyes are almost closed by age, and whether they can see anything through their almost clenched lids is open to doubt. They appear of modest means but proud, dressed for their promenade, and moving in the world like they still belong to it (as indeed they do).  They battle their frailties as they must have battled each other through the years, and they survive, shuffling like a single organism, he trusting her and she trusting her ancient memory to take them where they need to go.  The Boulevard St. Germaine is busy, for a moment they look confused, but she strides confidently (but slowly, so slowly) into the street.  A moment later, they are at their destination, embracing the restauranteur who has come down the steps to meet them.   Their eyes no longer sparkle but express a different beauty, the beauty of enduring life.

Books and Water

If this were all it would be enough:  les bouquinistes, their green book stalls lining the Seine, their patience as one browses the books, their persistence– 300 years– and their commitment to the patience of the written page in the age of the world distraction.  Yet the sellers seem almost as old as their wares; not as old as the tradition they maintain, but who will keep it alive after this generation?  In a few years will there be an empty bank where they once stood with an electronic interface where one can download and then project a hologram of what used to be?

Those future people, robbed of material reality, never having felt the pleasure of old paper, the rush of unexpectedly finding a volume for which they had long searched,  will think they have had a real experience, that the projection actually enables them to inhabit the past.  They will be wrong.  There will be no musty paper to really smell, no real person to take your money and approve, smilingly, of your purchase, no real social exchange.

If not for real and novel social exchanges, why travel?

Five Years

In an uncomplicated childhood the experience of time is stretched:  the anticipated moment seems impossibly distant, the wait for its consummation unbearable, but delicious. Life becomes more routinized the longer it goes on.  Or, if it does not become routinized, it becomes more difficult to anticipate the way a child anticipates:  one has done more, one has experienced more, there is less to truly look forward to because one knows, more often than not, what is coming.  So the sense of the passage of time accelerates and one can hardly believe a year has gone past.  Or five.  The blog has now been running for five years.  It really does seem like only last week that I sat on my back porch with a gin and tonic, fiddling with templates and terrified I was going to screw something up before I had posted word one.

When I began the blog it was to provide a convenient means of communication that did not have to answer to the formulae of academic writing.  As I look over the posts from the last year I can see that they have a more serious tone than my first efforts, a function, perhaps, both of stylistic evolution on my part and the seriousness of the global situation.  I wanted to free myself from academic conventions, not from serious content, and I vowed only to never force myself to write a post for the sake of posting according to some schedule.  I believe that I have remained true to that principle.

Five years seems an appropriate point to pause for a moment and ask what good the blog does.   Clearly, no individual voice is going to be able to turn back tidal socio-historical forces, and I often worry that the site is little more than a vanity project.  I suppose there must be some vanity in any creative act– one is not sharing generic data but one’s own position, in which one’s self is to some extent shared and reflected.  I do not believe anyone who says that they never look in the mirror.   While the blog is not going to change the world, I do think that it effectively intervenes in debates that could lead to movements that could change the world, and intervenes, I hope, in ways that are not identical to what one can find elsewhere, on other leftist, socially critical sites.  My aim is to think through and differently, to bring some philosophical nuance– and maybe give voice to ambivalence and doubts that are sometimes lacking from serious social criticism, but without giving into the temptation to simply be different for the sake of standing out.

For the rest, my evocations, take them for what they are, occasional wanderings in the forest of language in which I hope to trace a path that touches on an emotional and not conceptual level, but which instigates thinking too.

Thank you to all who have read and commented in the past year, and over the whole history of the site.  As has been my wont, I have collected last years posts as Thinkings 5.

The new header photograph is the French River where it meets Highway 69 North, an hour south of Sudbury, where Northern Ontario begins.