wapping on thames, james mcneill whistler.[0]

the dream

(elsewhere titled circumstances directly encountered)

11 november 2021

The Dream

The title of today’s presentation is Circumstances Directly Encountered: Althusser and Marx’s political theory of the economic; it’s based off of a paper I’ve written, entitled Well Said, Old Mole. The paper primarily treats some highly abstracted historical forms; it’s an argument about concepts that might not be totally, readily familiar – I’m not interested in reconstructing that argument today.

Instead, I’d like to treat some more familiar concepts here: I’d like to start with the concept of people, and what it means to know people – and what it means, especially, to know people’s history.

Is anyone here familiar with Henri Rousseau? He’s a painter, a really great painter, who depicts these very lush natural scenes, nude figures reduced to their most basic shapes reclined against these verdant landscapes, punctuated by lounging macaques or tigers, bundles of bright tangerine bulbs.

I don’t intend to talk about art history, though – I’d be unqualified, anyway. I start with Henri Rousseau because our theories of a political history start with him: with the “state of nature.” The model is familiar: a broad expanse of forest, the horizons of which are mostly unavailable to you (you, being the single person in the forest), where as far as you can see – forest. Nothing humane, no other people, just – forest.

I start here because we might call this a real prehistory, or non-history. It’s non-history in the same capacity that the experiences, the memories, of a macaque or tiger – into which we have no insight, expansive and totally unreachable – are non-history. There is nothing happening yet.

So, what happens?

Potentially, nothing – nothing has to happen. You could wander the forest and die in the forest, and nothing happens; but this non-happening did not happen. Instead, history has an encounter. Louis Althusser begins his theory of the encounter with a simple illustration taken from Epicurus: it is raining.

The “state of nature” is rain in a forest, each droplet a person – these droplets sit in freefall; people might wander past each other, maybe catching each other’s gaze, but they are mutually nameless, really alone. The encounter can be short: it doesn’t have to take. There doesn’t have to be history, there doesn’t have to be recognition between people, between droplets.

The beginning of history is then the encounter as it takes. It is a beginning of names: or more, a beginning of recognition. You catch a gaze, and the gaze holds – there is someone else, something other than you and forest. At first, this person is a concatenation of their objective aspects: they are maybe tall, maybe slender, maybe have brown eyes – you apprehend this however strangely you might without the tools of language, but you apprehend it, anyway.

As in Henri Rousseau’s images, you might have before this humane encounter seen a macaque, a tiger, so many tangerine bulbs – these things permeate you, but you do not know each other. You only partly know yourselves, inasmuch as you know the world is for you. For the tiger, the world is his; for you, the world is yours – you prove your view on the state of affairs by killing the tiger. The tiger proves his by killing you. The impetus of each of your lives is the continued affirmation of this view, reaching outwards to prove it always.

But between you and the tiger, only you can know the world; maybe only insofar as you can think about knowing the world. For the tiger, knowledge extends as far as his paws and maw. Yours is less bounded – and so is that of the other person with whom you have caught gazes.

You could kill the other person, and nothing could happen; you would know yourself no better than had you killed a tiger, still needing to eat the tangerine bulb to prove it’s one with you, to see the macaque die to know you live. But history – and we have history, or I wouldn’t be here today talking about it – begins with you both living. It begins with recognition.

You catch the gaze of another, and your mutual recognition of being something capable of knowing you, something capable of proving that you both exist – this is where history starts – and continues with the sustenance of this recognition through the channels of creation and procreation. You encounter another, and others ­– and you live together.

But where living together happens from the capacity to know each other, we quickly learn we do not know each other, at least not in the ways we would like. We couldn’t really comprehend the objective aspects of another person without language, except as streams of phenomenal inputs; but the beginning of language (words like tall, slender, brown eyes) doesn’t help too much, either. Even calling someone by adjectival properties doesn’t get us to who they are –more an approximation. Many people are tall, many slender, many have brown eyes. Who’s the person?

Maybe we could gesture to the person, say this person – that person; but my this person and your that person are entirely different. If I turn around, this person could be an entirely different person; we haven’t gotten any closer to an exact notation of who someone is objectively and haven’t even yet treated their interiority – the knowledge of them unavailable to us by merely gazing at them.

We could maybe engage some infinite enterprise of language, have a concerted effort to give each person a name, recorded and noted as theirs: the first person is person, the other person prime, then person prime, prime, etc. We wouldn’t glean much from the note of person prime, though, without it having some ascribed attributes; so maybe we could take out a piece of paper and notate all of the attributes of person prime, as unique as their very spot in space, such that the attributes could only be theirs, person prime – but then, apart from the difficulty of this, we would still not have a person; only a negative deduction of a person, a list of things which we use to specify the person, but aren’t really the person – just the criteria for noting them, still unknown.

Language isn’t very kind to us, although we’ve created it ourselves; we hardly say what we mean, if only because we hardly know what we mean. We have this outlay of symbols, and an outlay of referents, but our symbols and our referents don’t really correspond; they’re quite oblique, actually. We look to each other to recognize one another, but we are unsure of how to do this: how to know each other. We don’t know how to know history.

Karl Marx begins work on the manuscripts which would become The German Ideology in 1845; the name mordantly references his interlocutors in Berlin, the uneasy (but noteworthy) grouping of philosophers known as the Young Hegelians. He works among four authors, the other three of whom spend their words on critiquing those Young Hegelians; he isn’t very interested in doing this, himself.

Instead, Marx here begins a theory of history – a way of knowing, of recognizing. While he is young, he would like to marry the glyphs and their meanings; he would like to build a mode for solving the riddle of people, of history. He would call this the materialist dialectic.

Among the forest, we cannot know each other how we might like to; together, we are without the tools capable of the task – but the want to prove ourselves, to be known and recognized, ourselves, persists, coinciding with us sustaining ourselves, being and doing and creating and procreating.

Marx in the German Ideology distinguishes the ways we try to know and think, and the ways we act & are – our language is of the superstructure, like the cloud emanating through and about the forest, concepts comingling and becoming our politics and culture and religions and philosophies, in sum, our ideology. Our doing and being, creating items and procreating our people, is of the base – they are all the economic.

The riddle of history would here sit among the superstructure, its solution in the economy: our language, as crystallized in the annals of ideology, is really referring to the interactions of people through the prism of the economic. Our solution to this non-correspondence sits in working to know the economy, such that the cloud of confounding words and ideas rolls on and we have only the clear knowing and recognition of each other, as people. History is here really the economic relations of people; we just misunderstand them, these unavailable relations, through the opacity of a thick fog of ideology, of circumstances directly encountered.

Marx by 1867 would himself be confounded by the thick fog; in Capital, he would tell us instead that the social relations between people, shrouded in the relics of language and non-correspondent concepts, appear (erscheinen) as what they are.

Louis Althusser by 1960 would himself, reading Marx, tell us that the riddle of history has no solution; the cloud never lifts, is never swept with Minerva’s wind. I should like to tell you today: if the riddle of history has no solution, if we cannot really know people, then there is no riddle of history at all.

Henri Rousseau is a fantastic painter, but his images are just that: fantastical. Just as much as the “state of nature,” that lonesome forest, did not sustain itself, as proven out by history – rainfall had its interweaving droplets – people didn’t ever not have their non-corresponding concepts; the encounter is the emergence of a non-correspondence of symbols and referents. This is not a causal relation: they are the same thing. What happens before the encounter is non-happening; it is unreal and means nothing to us. All we have available are the artifacts of a language, however deficient we might think them, which we have dug from the earth and worked since the moment the forest’s horizons were seen by us.

Plainly: the symbols we adopt are not the truth of things; but they are the essence of things, and they bear a meaning whose activity is identical to that of whatever we might suppose (only through a maneuver of abstraction) to be that of their referents.

Every day, day after day, we are named and recognized – but we are given misnomers, we are taken for someone else; though we act according to these names and recognitions, anyway. I am not, by some truth, a worker – someone is not, by truth, black; but we are called these names and respond to them, and they are really indicative of the way we relate to each other, the way we relate to the world. If we operate always among the fog, then as good empiricists we must say: there is nothing but the fog.

There is no distinction of the economic and our thoughts, no gulf between our referents and symbols; you are named worker insofar as you are a worker, insofar as you relate to our economy and the world-stage of history as worker. You are not named black by choice: you are given this name, and inherit the social characteristics, the racial modes of domination this name entails – you are given this name at every reprising overture of the great theater of the globe, like a hastily-produced high school production where the director’s seat sits unoccupied.

Our politics cannot deal with finding the concealed truth of these names. We have only their essence, and their essence is their very activity; simply saying this person, behind the interlocking layers of identity and words and names, does not reveal this person; if only because, so far as the fog sits where it might, there is no person.

The political theory of Marx cannot be a decoding, a hermeneutics of the world through the Rosetta Stone of a materialist orthodoxy. We deal with a malleable mist which encompasses us, where understanding it is as useful as simply seeing it: saying there is fog.

With all of our language, all of our co-being, all of our enterprises of language and creation and infinite reprises of that world-play, we might never see beyond the fog; we might sit unsure always of something outside of it, something underneath it which might realize its meaning.

But the meaning is before us: it appears as what it is, in the form of activity. We sit behind veils about that forest, bearing the names of someone else, though we understand it well. We know our wrong names in various ways; we know the forest as it sits about us. The fog is understood – the point, however, is to change it.


[0] All images c. WikiArt.