Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Fearing communication for the sake of communism

Levi Bryant writes:
For years I’ve been hearing off and on that there’s a school of thought that argues that the rhetoric of texts should be enigmatic and elusive so as to interrupt the logic of exchange characteristic of communicative capitalism.
I'm not sure who would actually argue this but it’s exactly the kind of thing ‘lost down the rabbit hole’ / ‘disappeared up their own arse’ academics come out with but I’m unfamiliar with any specific instance of the argument. (I’ve heard the one about how stating definite opinions or facts is committing ‘violence against the other’ but this seems to be another variant.) It’s rather a mad prescription. Capitalism isn’t ‘exchange’ itself, it’s a particular form of exchange. While it’s ‘capitalist’ to think of one’s communicative utterances as products to be distributed or conveyed like Amazon packages that neutrally ‘transmit’ a message, severing the social relationship between interlocutors, it’s not ‘capitalist’ to think in terms of exchange in general.

The essence of a capitalist exchange is that it abstracts from all other kinds of social relation besides the narrowly economic and legal ones. If you sell me bread today you’re under no obligation to sell me it at the same price tomorrow, only to ensure that the product you provide is as advertised and that I get what I pay for. Once the transaction is concluded to the satisfaction of economic and legal standards our relationship ends and any further transaction must (in principle) be negotiated as a new contract. This can be contrasted with other kinds of trade and exchange like, for example, gift giving where you give me a loaf of bread and, since we are bonded by this exchange, you can later ask for one of my chickens, or whatever.

Exchange can sever or bond, can be capitalist or communist (or anything else). Capitalism doesn’t own ‘exchange’ any more than it invented trade. Nor should it own clarity, honesty or straight-forward communication. Yes, you can’t have différence without différance and translation without transformation, blah blah blah. But whether or not one should write declaratively or suggestively has nothing in particular to do with capitalist ‘exchange’, even if that is the dominant mode of exchange in our societies.

Good writing can be beautiful in its elegance and simplicity or mesmerising in its depth and polyvalence. The best writing combines these virtues in varying proportions. There are some philosophers who are also good writers but they are few and far between. Most of the obscurantists remain stuck in a single mode that transcends any given situation and is fetishised, reified into being ‘what philosophy is’. It becomes an end in itself — and it’s not.

Rejecting communication qua exchange for fear of capitalist forms of exchange is cowardice. It may involve the discourse of the master but he’s a cowardly master, unwilling to take the much more radical and difficult step of engaging in a better form of communicative exchange, one that binds and builds and nourishes and flourishes according to its own economies and ecologies. The cowardly master renders undo Capital what does not belong to it. It’s the cowardly master that reinforces discourses of capital, precisely by granting it aspects of human existence that it dominates but cannot possess. The cowardly master concedes capital’s hegemony over everything that actually makes human life function, everything that actually keeps our bodies moving and breathing — everything except the nebulously intangible, the mystical, the religious, the ideal.

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