Sunday, April 24, 2005

Book Blogging: 'Chaosmosis'

I reached up on my nearest bookshelf and randomly pulled out another of those cultural studies books that I bought on an intellectual tangent. This one's by Félix Guattari:

chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm (1995; originally published in French as Chaosmose, 1992)

Let's see if it's worth reading:

"In the Eastern bloc, the fall of the Iron Curtain didn't happen as the result of armed insurrection but through the crystallization of an immense collective desire annihilating the mental substrate of the post-Stalin totalitarian system. This is a phenomenon of extreme complexity, since it intermingles emancipatory aspirations with retrogressive, conservative -- even fascist -- drives of a nationalistic, ethnic and religious nature. In this upheavel, how will the populations of central Europe and the Eastern bloc overcome the bitter deception the capitalist West has reserved for them until now?" (pages 2-3).

Basically, this says that the Eastern Europeans liberated themselves from totalitarian subjugation through a "desire for freedom" -- except that the text doesn't say "freedom," since that might connote a desire for the "bourgeois freedom" of legally defined political and economic rights in a capitalist democracy. Rather, the text says "emancipatory aspirations." The Iron Curtain was brought down by a desire for emancipation, with its strong connotation of revolt. For the left, true freedom is found and felt in a moment of emancipation from repressive structures. Emancipation is never a state to be maintained but a moment to be forever sought anew. Thus, leftist politics is always a politics of revolt.

Granted, Guattari is right to focus on the emancipatory aspirations here, for the Iron Curtain's fall was an emancipatory moment -- a revolt against totalitarian structures that presupposed a desire to set oneself free. He's also correct in noting the "nationalistic, ethnic and religious nature" of the revolt. There was the danger here of renewed authoritarian structures arising to replace the totalitarian ones. That's always a danger where civil society has been hollowed out by a paranoid political state.

But what is this "bitter deception the capitalist West has reserved" for Central Europe? Guattari doesn't immediately say, but we can infer that he means that while the West promises freedom, it imposes a new enslavement. But what sort of thralldom? At this point, I'd normally refer to the index to see where in the book I could quickly turn to find out. Guattari, cleverly, has not attached one. Clearly, he wants us to read his book, not quickly decode it. But he does have a table of contents, so let's try that:

1. On the production of subjectivity

2. Machinic heterogenesis

3. Schizoanalytic metamodelisation

4. Schizo chaosmosis

5. Machinic orality and virtual ecology

6. The new aesthetic paradigm

7. The ecosophic object

Hmmm . . . I'm stumped. These point obscurely in several directions. Like Lewis Carroll, Guattari is a man in love with portmanteau words. Does he take them as seriously as Humpty Dumpty did? Would he also say: "When I use a word, . . . it means what I choose it to mean. Neither more nor less." To answer would entail reading more carefully, but let's just skim.

What luck! From page 121, jumping out at me, spring these words:

"The masses of the Eastern bloc threw themselves into a kind of collective chaosmosis in order to free themselves from totalitarianism, to live differently -- fascinated as they were by Western models" (121).

Clearly, we're back to "emancipatory aspirations" and "bitter deception." Good, I might find out what the deception refers to. The very next page says:

The [left's] objective would no longer be to simply take control of State power in place of the reigning bourgeoisie and bureacracy, but to determine with precision what one intends to put in their place" (122).

Thinking ahead is always a good policy, and one worth adopting by the left after some 70 years of totalitarian failure. Note that Guattari seems to be treating the statism of the Marxist left as little different than the statism of the capitalist right, for he implies that the left merely took "control of [a] State power" that was already there to be taken.

At any rate, he sees little difference between the two systems. Both tend toward centralization:

"Bureaucratization, sclerosis, the slide of State machines towards totalitarianism do not only concern the Eastern bloc but also Western democracies and Third World countries. The withering away of State power, once advocated by Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, is more relevant than ever" (122).

Ah yes, the promised "withering away," that eschaton of early Marxist utopian socialism. Guattari would seem to be a variety of Marxian anarchist.

Okay, I think that I've skimmed enough to broadly understand Guattari's critique of the left and the right (the right being just as deceptive). I don't know what positive program Guattari "intends to put in their place," but given the obscure object of his desires (if his chapter headings are any indication), then I can wait till some other time.

Call it my delayed gratification.


At 10:10 PM, Blogger Michael Turton said...

Man, Jeff. That's some staying power you got there. I pity the poor translator on that one.....

At 3:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Given my interest in intellectual history, I suppose that I'm required to plow through a lot of this stuff. I find some grains of wheat, but there's really a lot of chaff.

At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you.

I mean it.

Thank you for reminding me why I left academia.

I burned all my books like that when I left.

The capitalist in me wanted to at least recover some of the loss by offering them on E-Bay --

-- but I couldn't bring myself to subjecting others to the torment or reenforcing something I hate so very much...

At 4:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

usinkorea, I hope that I didn't resurrect any bad memories.

For me, reading stuff like this isn't a total waste of time. Texts like these have their place in the history of how ideas link up to social movements. Nobody said that the ideas have to be good, just influential.

If nothing else, such books provide humorous grist for my blog mill.

At 11:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, you really know how to crap on someone's work. Still, I refuse to believe that democratic access to knowledge has been a complete failure.

Jennifer H.

At 6:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Jennifer H. wrote:

"Wow, you really know how to crap on someone's work. Still, I refuse to believe that democratic access to knowledge has been a complete failure."

What did I say that deserves this scatological affront?

Anyway, since I fully agree that "the democratic access to knowledge has [not] been a complete failure" -- indeed, no failure at all -- then I don't know what you imagine me to have been 'crapping' on.

My criticism was directed toward Félix Guattari's book and the romantic left's vision of 'liberation,' not toward the actual liberation of the previously communist world, which was long overdue.

Jeffery Hodges

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