Three hours (dialectics)

[As some of you know, last month was swallowed up by my qualifying exams for my Ph.D., to allow me to go on and write a sprawling tentacled mess of a dissertation. The exams involved me being locked in a room for three hours, writing off-the-cuff essays with no references on prompt questions I hadn't seen previously. Thought I'd share these sloppy unedited unpackings here, albeit with some images added because I cannot help myself: first this one on dialectics, then one on misanthropy. The focus in this question was on the notion of the concrete as it relates to my work on dialectical expression and negation as construction. Starts off heavily philosophical, moves towards some more concrete remarks on Debord and Eisenstein.]

Les théories ne sont faites que pour mourir dans la guerre du temps.
- Guy Debord, In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni

Concrete negation

The term that marks my thinking on dialectics – and my dialectical thinking – is the concrete, insofar as it is taken in the sense of concrete negation. In what follows, I argue for the productive specificity of the term as reinflection of, and counterpoint to, previous Marxist theory.
The first step, then, is to determine what exactly is the “other” term of concrete: what is the dialectical negation of “concrete” (or of what is it the dialectical negation)? The ultimate candidate, and horizon-point of this line of thinking, is abstract, but this is only thinkable in accordance with passage through the non-options that mediate this very opposition of concrete – abstract.* As suggested in the question, the designation of concrete – [abstract] as dominant sign of this dialectics calls to mind other pairings: particular-general, singular-universal, conceptual-sensuous. As such, two questions need to follow from this. What might be excluded via my emphasis on the concrete (through the implicit devaluing of these other pairings) and what might be gained from the elevation of this specific term?

An initial approach: the problem in thinking concrete alongside these oppositions is that in each of the pairings above, concrete seems to map onto: particular, singular, sensuous. And given my consideration of dialectal art, to speak of concrete expression indeed seems to be to speak of the world of particular, sensuous objects that strain to declare, particularly in the context of the commensurability of the value form, their singularity (or exemplarity, to raise a term relevant to my thinking through Eisenstein alongside Lukács). However, the conspicuously absent opposition – positive-negative, or to think it actively as positing-negation – is the vital one at hand. In part, this might be seen as the consequence of my desire to think concrete expression as an expression of the negative.

However, a turn toward Adorno (the late Adorno of Negative Dialectics and Aesthetic Theory) gives a foothold here. Most explicitly in Negative Dialectics, Adorno conceives of the work of negative dialectics – the more total form of critical theory – as a necessary weapon against the dominance of identitarian thought and its fundamental exclusion of the non-identical, of what concepts cannot conceive. The work of negation becomes vital, as such, not as the production of “better” syntheses but of the “thinkability of what cannot be thought,” not of the noumenal that is beyond thought but that which positive thinking (which reaches its position as the very thought form of the capitalist epoch in late capitalism) undermines, via a declaration as non-identical. Adorno here can only be understood as thinking through the basic contradiction between use-value and exchange-value: the non-identical is that which is not identical to all other commodities, which cannot be evaluated according to ultimate commensurability of all objects under the capitalist totality.

In this way, we begin to grasp a different set of associations, not of the positive “things as they are”, which would seemingly involve a reification or at least elevation of the particular, singular, sensuous, but of the gesture of expressive negation, in which what is fundamentally excluded from positive thought is the concrete, particular, singular, and sensuous. Concrete expression, as I think it here, is the active negation that exposes the incommensurability of that “material” underside of the pairings.

To the proper negation, the abstract. How does abstract function, both in terms of the dialectical “tradition” out of which my work comes and in my work proper? We might think of abstraction as the work of totalization (to be grasped in the Sartrean sense as distinct from the fact of totality, which, we might argue, is the sum total of concrete effects on the world, insofar as the “abstract” forces of capitalism can only be detected as part of the totality of effects). However, this would need to be fleshed out, particularly in the terms of a Sartrean model: if “the boxing match is the totality of boxing,” abstraction clearly has a different function.

More productive is a return to the basic Marxian schematic of labor, value, and the development of capital. At the seeming bedrock:

Labor (under capitalism) = at once concrete labor and abstract labor
Concrete labor as the production of use value
Abstract labor as the production of exchange value

Following this, the model I propose would seem to function as the dialectical assertion, through art and historical-political conjunctures, of the “return of the repressed,” the “ontological realness” of use value coming back to haunt spectral capital. We just need to get back to real life, real things…

This is almost diametrically – if not dialectically – opposed to what drives my work on this. For such a position is, in its borderline primitivism and nostalgia for “simpler times,” the non-productive antithesis of dialectical thought. While dialectics at a standstill may find its fantasmatic visions in the archaic, as Benjamin argues, any coherent intersection of politics and aesthetics, as a capture of a historically situated moment, cannot fall into such a trap.

However, we encounter a different trajectory of thought if we map this concrete-abstract opposition back onto the labor process itself and the development of capitalism, as written by Marx. This could be thought in terms of the move from formal to real subsumption, or, more pointedly here, as the move toward the total “abstraction” of labor, from the machinic assemblages of developing industrial capitalism to the Fordist interchangeability of objects, in its Taylorist privileging of the repetition of motion over the difference of tasks, to the full abstraction of labor (pseudo-cyclical time and the rendering of labor’s products as-if cultural) in late capitalism. However, and this is the key point, the abstraction of labor – as historical tendency – is distinct from the fact that under capitalism, all labor is, in a sense, both abstract and concrete labor. It is the former which gives shape to my thinking here, as I am more interested in the real abstraction, in this case, concept of abstraction writ system-wide, the utter commensurability not only of products but of labor itself.

We approach a clear sense of the veiled terms here:

concrete [negation] as the negation of [real] abstraction

However, not all negations are equivalent in their relation to the “object” – if we can call a real abstraction an object – on which they perform the hard work of bringing out its unthinkable constitutive excess/exclusion. What is the relation in this case. A real abstraction is a universality that produces structural effects which, in turn, produce real material consequences and give expressive shape to the totality of which that real abstraction is itself an expression. We might think of Debord’s striking formulation : ideology is the “abstract will of the universal.” Conversely, the concrete is the singular negation which reveals the structuring capacities of the universal. In this case, to borrow and repurpose my favorite Leninist metaphor, the concrete is the exposure of real abstractions.

What, though, is the status of this concrete negative? Quoting the prompt, is concrete “a rhetorical and / or aesthetic characteristic or an ontological one”? Yet there is a missing combinatory logic here that is crucial: might the concrete not be a rhetorico-ontologica l or aesthetico-ontological category? To double back on the claim before and answer this thorny question of this blurry status: it is a rhetorical (insofar as always functions as if deployed, as if tactical) and aesthetic (insofar as it is always the exposure, the coming to be seen) of the ontological status of abstraction. However, could one not ask the following:

What, then, of the ontological “realness” of abstraction of capital as a dynamically structured totality? For if that can already be detected somehow, in the commodity, for example, why do we need the concrete? Or is the concrete just another way of saying that one can find ways to think totality via the single object, the “particular singular conceptual” instance?

However, this imagined opposition includes its own dissolution, for what is at stake is not the ontological realness of real abstractions, but the ontological realness of abstraction that capitalism has as a totality. The proper response, then, is two-fold. First, concrete negation – as expressive instance – is a tactical gesture against the real abstractions of capitalism. Second, following this, it is tactical precisely because it is the excavating and cutting apart of the pseudo-unity of real abstractions, their production and status as product of capitalist totality, the unfathomable complex of interconnections that shows itself to us as if Leviathan, that causes its celebratory apologists to tell us that the world is flat again. Against this, concrete negation raises, and begins the dirty, slow, fitful work of answering, the necessary question: how do you strike a totality?

Negative expression

If the preceding thoughts are on the conceptual blueprint of my dialectics, the following are the resultant architectures, the uneven consequences retroactively drawn out from the “dialectical” works this topic considers. In other words, if the preceding thoughts were the very un-Adornian work of formulating the concept of concrete negation, we pass here to considerations of how this really looks and works, and the transpositions of dialectical thought to dialectical expression,, through the two texts perhaps most emblematic of my project, Debord’s La société du spectacle and Eisenstein’s The General Line.


Any account of this text, which stands for me as the great work of political philosophy of the century, and the endless misreadings of it require far more space than here. I focus, then, on the concept that dominates both the conceptual framework of Debord’s analysis and that marks, again and again, his prose, namely, the notion of the pseudo. In addition, an issue not to be addressed here but held in abeyance, is the alarming points of contact in Debord’s writings of this period and those of Adorno in the same period, most powerfully on this conception of the pseudo, the un, and the false.

To enframe the dialectical concepts here is to enframe the work of the pseudo, but it is simultaneously to recognize it as that which is historically marked and cannot be thought otherwise. Like Adorno’s argument in his lectures on negative dialectics that given the history of the 20th century so far, philosophy cannot afford to support any dialectics that sees the negation of the negation as a positive/affirmation, the conditions of possibility of Debord’s thinking in this period are also the conditions that threaten to close off that thinking. For they are fundamentally marked by the fact that dialectical thought runs into the nearly irresolvable question: what is the work of negation in a world that has negated itself?

It is here that the category of the pseudo emerges as symptom of and weapon against this condition, the condition of a “pseudo-world”, of “pseudo-use”, and “pseudo-totality.” What is the pseudo? I would claim that it is non-dialectical dialectical negation. Why this excessively doubled formulation? The pseudo is not simply non-dialectical negation: he is not claiming that the general condition of the society of the spectacle is that of a non-world, or that objects are marked by having no use value. Therein lies a basic misreading of Debord as just another Baudrillard or thinker of the simulacrum or of mediatization: the key point of Society of the Spectacle is not that the world is made of images or that the world is now an image, it is that the world is like image, the world remade as if image. Literal image culture and the profusion of visual media is, at best, one backdrop for the book, but it is definitively not its subject.

Rather, the pseudo is that condition of falseness or untruth that is particular in that it does not evacuate or destroy that which has been negated. As such, it has the appearance of a dialectical mediation, of thought having passed through its opposite and guarding it, as the and/or (this and that, yet which is also the impossible of the two at once, either this or that) which is the basic mechanism of the dialectic. However, it is guarded in place as mere appearance, as the false inversion of what it was. And so we face late capitalism, the period constituted around the simultaneously overcoming of itself and the burying of the possibility of that overcome: plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

How does this register in Debord’s writing? (His films are another question, and I might argue that they paradoxically undo some of the work of his writing, but that is another issue.) It is in his prose style that this registration of a new world order – the pseudo-new order of late capitalism – comes most to the fore and becomes somehow graspable. Two qualities in particular come to mind: the use of the prefix – including pseudo- itself – and the form of the chiasmatic.* The former has been gestured to, in that it marks precisely this uncanny hanging around of that which should have been superseded yet which persists: not a revenant but a never-gone, the pseudo- prefix implies at once the condition imposed on late capitalism by itself (in which its toolbox of appropriated avant-garde movements, innovations in strategy borrowed from the Left, resistant forms of urbanism to be repackaged) in order to self-perpetuate and, conversely, the work of concrete expression – and of détournement, properly – which does not create ex nihilo but which, by marking graffito-like the unspoken and unwanted supplement to the terms of capitalism’s discourse, shows a fidelity to the residual power left to be mobilized in its words, deeds, objects, and thoughts.

The chiasmatic tendency of Debord’s writing performs related work. Take the following example, paraphrased: As long as necessity is socially dreamed, dreaming will remain a social necessity.* If the pseudo is a form of marking that which is already marked (Debord notes that many objects need no détournement, as they already stand as such), the chiasmatic is a fully traversing of this pseudo, in that it brings forth as a condition of style and expression a logic which, paradoxically, runs no deeper than the expression itself.


In the case of Eisenstein, the conceptual enframing of his dialectics can be found best in what he thought his films did, in his theoretical writings on film itself. And it is also here, in the tension that occurs when these models and descriptions run up against how the films actually function and express, that we can grasp the logic of translation, of the move back and forth between concept and image-thinking. (There is perhaps no filmmaker so heightens this tension, both in its political and aesthetic form, and entirely annihilates the seeming opposition between theory and praxis as Eisenstein: the theories are odd, expressive bits of constellational thought and the films include, via sprays of cream and gunfire, dead horses and jutting beards, complicated models of the perceptibility of tectonic historical shifts.)

In Eisenstein’s theory, the core concept to be addressed here is that of the pathos of objects, the larger system being what I designated as pathetic materialism: the bringing to bear the ecstatic core of objects not in-themselves but as registrations of and stores of historical energy to be released. In addition, this has to be thought alongside the methods intended to bring them forth, namely, the move toward full overtonal composition, in which it is no longer a single formal device or repeating diagetic motif that gives shape to sequences but to the mass of stimuli (audio, visual, and the tensions between each and within themselves) taken as a whole, organized as a set of calculated physiological effects. The core of this is the dialectical jump of his editing, for Eiseinstein’s notion of montage goes explicitly against the Kuleshovian notion of montage as addition, of bricks adding up: this plus that equals this plus that. For Eisenstein, montage is a series of collisions that result from the aforementioned dialectical jump, a sort of quantity to quality leap. As he puts it (paraphrasing), “the short is a montage cell. The dialectical jump in the single series: shot – montage.” In other words, the collision is the overleaping of the rational, although brought about by heavily controlled, manipulated, and “rationalized” modes of composition, and brings about the pathos of objects and conjunctures.

However, in order to comment on how this functions “on the ground” in his films, a rather odd comment from Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin is worth considering. For thinking Eisenstein alongside the other filmmakers who dominate my project (Vertov, Debord, and Godard), what is striking is that Eisenstein alone, along with the pre-Dvizga Vertov Group-era Godard, does not work with material that is “found” and collaged. What is at stake is that his work is composed: filmed, then arranged, the kino-fist that creates itself, not the kino-eye that looks around and composes its viewing onto the already-there. However, Eisenstein is dominantly thought of as the great director of editing, of montage, of knowing where to cut and where to splice. However, Godard and Gorin claim otherwise, that it was Vertov who, in his selection of material available in the world as a out-of-camera mode of editing was the great Soviet editing director. What, then, is Eisenstein’s distinction? He is the “creator of angles,” not literally high and low angle shots, but, as Godard and Gorin describe, of new cuts into the stream of life, radical new perspectives that, like a revolution, cut against a grain, force new lines of sight and thought.

What might it mean to take this seeming misreading of Eisenstein seriously? I would argue that they are on to something vital, namely, that the dialectical expression particular to Eisenstein’s films, especially The General Line, is not how he puts together his sequences according to dialectical montage but rather how his montage brings out the angles/cuts that were already there, available cracks and misfires, excesses of libidinal energy and hidden alliances, that constitute the unseen totality of a historical moment.

Consider, for example, the fantastic bull wedding sequence, in which the careful cross-cutting leads the viewer to complete in her or his mind the obscene conclusion of the bull’s copulation. Like a Griffith train robbery that ends with somebody getting pregnant, the unseen money shot is the pathos of the object, the bull, becoming more than just commodity or promise of generation, becoming instead a concrete use-value, an ecstatic expression that spills over into – and seemingly absorbs – the libidinal excess of Marfa and those staking the collective farm on this mating. However, the dialectical particularity of this sequence is the bull-vision, the fact that we inhabit, in one of the cuts, the sight-line of the bull charging toward his bride.

In other words, it is the rigid and meticulous rhythmic cuts that reveal the newness of this angle, the dialectical jump therefore not solely in the frames flickering between shot and montage, but between that mode of seeing that has been there all along and is brought out by the work of negation, of knowing when to start and when to stop.

* This will be touched on later in my discussion of Debord, but we should stress the historical specificity of this opposition – it is utterly particular to capitalism, especially late capitalism, and one might consider whether the very opposition of concrete-abstract might be formulated as that of concrete-pseudo.

* Also to be noted here is the tendency toward negative definition: the opening section of the book is heavily marked by the tendency to write, “the spectacle is not x, it is y.”

* The “dream” is an important concept in Debord and again should be differentiated from some broadly simulacral thought. In another place or discussion, it would be worth thinking through the dialectical dream, running from Benjamin’s dream image through the “baleful spell”/bane of Adorno through Debord, and perhaps Sartre as well, for what is the logic of dreams if not the full becoming of the practico-inert?


Giovanni Tiso said...

Okay, I'm going to try to find one of my old three-hour exam scripts and then reread this post of yours and cry.

I'm waiting for Wyn Evans' works to be exhibited in New Zealand. How do you like my chances? You really should start captioning your pictures though.

And finally: I think you should get rid of Eisenstein altogether and focus your dissertation just on Debord, Vertov and Godard. Purely on account of the wordplay.

ECW said...

Wordplay tempting, but mostly, my dissertation won't really be much on any of them. Going to be writing the misanthropy project. So they do reappear, but in different guises.

I don't know the New Zealand art scene, but if you make a big enough fuss..

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