Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Alienation of Theory

“How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life” --Wittgenstein

Granted, there is not much money to be made doing theoretical work. Which makes it all the more difficult to explain why theory turned into something that looks more and more like a feverish commodity market. Like the latest electronic gadgets, today’s concepts and subjects quickly rise and fall as they enter and exit the discourse of speculative exchange in the marketplace of ideas.

At the same time young financiers consult their Bloomberg machines in an attempt to decide whether they should invest their available capital in crude oil futures or sub-prime morgages, young philosophers attend scholarly conferences and read blog posts in an attempt to figure out what people talk about in today’s theoretical landscape, and where they should invest their available brain cells. Biopolitics? Animal philosophy? Speculative realism? Anarchism? Hauntology?

This is certainly a fun little game. It makes us think that the world of theory is alive and kicking. Like fashion, it creates the exclusive feeling of the in-crowd, the exciting sense of hype, and the exaggerated belief that some understand something that others simply don’t get.

The downside to all of this (the “collateral damage,” to use the right buzz word) is the alienation of theory. We talk about concepts the way a Wall Street analyst talks about stocks, or the way a Burger King employee flips burgers. Ideas have only exchange value for us, but no use value. Our philosophical labor feels more and more foreign to who we really are. The only thing we really care about is not the work that we do (the arguments we make, the books we write) but its surplus value (the invitation to present a paper, the prospect that others will cite it, and, ultimately, the tenure job).

Philosophy used to function according to the formula C-M-C: you developed a new Concept, which led to the gathering of Minions, which helped you to develop other Concepts, and so on. But today’s philosophy functions according to the formula M-C-M: you gather around you Minions, with the help of which you can disseminate your Concepts, which leads to the attraction of new Minions, and so forth.

It is rather strange to see how so many thinkers who love to talk about Marx (at least since he made his spectacular comeback in Derrida’s Specters) fail to apply his most basic idea about the alienation of labor to their own lofty practice. While all around us people try to reintroduce un-alienated labor (the “artisanal” bakery that replaces the factory bread), in theoretical work any investigation that defies the cosmopolitan production of jet-set ideas is treated as a marker of low intellectual capacity.

No one in particular is to be blamed for the alienation of theory. Neither Derrida, nor Zizek, nor Agamben, nor their minions, is more responsible than others for this predicament. We all carry this blame together. Once we realize this, we could begin to cure ourselves from the depressing effects of this alienation, no matter what faction or school we belong to. Then, perhaps, the notion of “lifework,” where one’s life and one’s work cannot be told apart from each other, will return to inform who we are and what we do.


Graham said...

I tend to respond to hipster intellectuals and complaints about the lack of remuneration for philosophizing (both of which I think will only become worse in the future), with a quotation by Sade, which I recently published here.

I particularly adore the reference to Capital, by the way.

Your essay also reminds me of a question that I've been puzzling over for some time, which I think might interest you: what would On The Poverty of Student Life be like if it were to be rewritten for a contemporary audience (keeping in mind that it should be reasonably accessible)? I found it somewhat tragic to see a castrated version of it here, but that is precisely the difficulty level that such a pamphlet would have to aim at for a relatively mainstream audience (i.e. one which, unlike the French, does not treat their intellectuals like Americans treat their rock stars). I'm curious to hear your thoughts (as well as whether you think such a rewrite would even be desirable).

-Graham Joncas

rad zebra said...

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Criminal Anarchy said...

"state of exception" was all the more meaningful after it got boosted from the local B&N (did the alarm at the threshold not go off because we're in a permanent state of exception!?!). reading "Identity without the Person" while watching a friend go through court proceedings was fucking psychedelic (had to boost nudities too, sry bro. state of exception!). for what it's worth there are at least a handful of non-student,non-academic broke ass losers who truly appreciate the work you do, and we're kinda jealous you get paid for it, even if we have no intention of trying for that ourselves. bummer that being a professional intellectual doesn't give you a corporeal connection to the ideas you're working with.