Monday, June 08, 2015
I still haven't got round to reading Vivek Chibber's critique of postcolonial theory. A few encounters I've had with the concrete politics of some on the postcolonial left have resulted in me wishing I had read it. Not because I expect to agree with the broad tow of it, but because even I run out of good put-downs every once in a while. Chibber, I am led to believe, has a treasury of unkind quips in his book - the only academic troll that Political Marxism has ever produced. Have I been misinformed?
Anyway, I am resisting reading the book, because I have read this, and it - being the theoretical core of the entire critique as far as I can tell - strikes me as totally unsustainable in its attempt to ground universalism in a needs-based rationality. And, frankly, I am unconvinced that Chibber needs to take this step. Class interests, I think, are properties of a social relationship, viz. the antagonistic relationship between the producer and appropriator of surplus. These interests, assigned by class location, determined within a horizon of possible actions limited by the conjuncture, seem to me be already satisfactorily grounded in the analysis of modes of production and social formations, without the need to bring the unpleasant human being into things.
The core of the argument is this. Postcolonial theorists, in their struggle against the parochial 'universalism' of empire, end up dismissing universalism as such. In refusing to accept that there are certain universal needs from which shared interests can form, they throw the baby out with the bathwater, and what we're left with is an extreme form of cultural relativism which is anti-marxist. The argument is that there are "certain basic needs", "universal basic needs", which provides the ground on which universal, cross-cultural interests can be formed. As such, Chibber's intervention amounts to an attempted defence of a universal, emancipatory project in an academic context where, so one is told, such commitments are not common.
Phrases such as "basic needs", "human needs", "basic human needs", "universal needs and interests", punctuate the text in an almost importunate way. Appropriately enough, they are accompanied by a dozen repetitions of the phrase "human nature". Given the centrality of such concepts in the text, the relative absence of positive substantiation, the extreme tentativeness of formulations intended to put flesh on the stick figure representation, can be treated as symptomatic. We are told that they include "regard to ... physical well-being", "concern for well-being", "food, shelter, safety, etc". How much work is being done by that 'etcetera' will be seen momentarily. In addition to "basic needs" are "other components to human nature" such as "the need for autonomy or freedom from coercion, for creative expression, for respect". These more exalted needs can be said aside for now, however, as Chibber effectively parenthesises them in favour of an argument about "basic human needs".
Since Chibber's depiction is so scratchy, it is necessary to elongate the lines and fill in the elements of his thumbnail, and ask: what is the etcetera of universal human need? The question is not how to complete the series (one could add hydration, orgasm, sleep... I cite these in no particular order), so much as, what is the principle organising the sequence? It is not that each term represents a discrete need linked to a specific biological capacity - something as specific as nutrition does not have the same relationship to organicity as something as nebulous as 'safety'. The organising principle, though, is survival. All of these "basic needs" come down to the survival of the organism. And it is true: if you don't eat or drink, you will die. A great deal of political power rests on this very simple fact. The most important point, however, is that you will die anyway. The question is when, how, and by what infirmities or injuries. So the question is, how long do you really want to hang around for? And for what? Who says that survival is the priority anyway? The mean, recursive ritual of getting food in order to get more food tomorrow? This is our telos: the glory of living for fish fingers and Ribena? Give death a chance.
This is not an abstract question. It is one that people grapple with every day. They choose enjoyment over survival, regularly. They choose meaning over survival. They will take drugs (proscribed or not) and slowly kill themselves, or go to war and do it a bit faster. Often we agree to political decisions that we know will result in more death, but which we assume will add to our enjoyment, like extensive road-building, or war. The calculus of political power is often one of how many probable deaths here, how many there, for an extra 0.0001% of growth - these decisions are taken 'behind closed curtains', out of public sight, but we know there is an exchange of death and enjoyment, and sometimes it might be our lives at risk. Who wants to live forever anyway?
If 'safety' is a "universal basic need", then one would almost think, based on widespread behaviour, that so is danger and the proximity to death. This is what led Freud to offer the 'death drive' as an explanation. Lacan suggested as an alternative that all drives are death drives; that there is something inherently excessive, relative to the almost utilitarian 'pleasure principle', in enjoyment. We find satisfaction in things that torment us, stress us, cause pain: from the petty pleasures of 'hot' food which activates pain receptors to the far more august lulz of being bummed with a traffic cone while cracked out of your head, the drive will be satisfied no matter how stupidly, and no matter how much it hurts. This is to say nothing of contradiction at the level of desire and affect - a normal situation acknowledged by psychoanalysis, albeit rather weakly as 'ambivalence'.
The problem here is that Chibber wants to balance the entire future of historical materialism on the thin reed of a minimum 'human nature' as conceived by Norman Geras. This 'human nature' is just a pet name for what is supposed to be biologically given, antecedent to and determinant of language and history. As Chibber makes clear in his essay, for example, that the development of modes of production depends upon and driven by the regard that agents have for their own physical well-being. Thus is the old historicism, with the human being, the species-essence, the soul, as the subject of history and its expressive cause, reiterated.
The foil for Chibber's argument is a caricature, an opponent for whom the body, in its biological capacities, has no role whatsoever in the determination of needs. The opponent for whom needs are exclusively discursive. Symptomatic in this respect is a rather flagrant misrepresentation of Arturo Escobar's constructivist argument, who is described as cleaving to the view that agents are "entirely produced" and "entirely constituted" by discourse and culture. In fact, Escobar's piece strikes a fairly typical mediating position between two bad positions, cultural determinism and biological determinism. It allows there is a body which is not entirely the product of culture, but it also suggests that the very dichotomies of nature and culture, body and discourse, are discursively produced, and that a great deal more of what we classify as nature is discursively constructed than is generally recognised. In a way, this is just a statement of the obvious. Every bodily experience, from the taste of wine to the orgasm, is in some way affected by language, by classificatory schemata, by the symbolic order. The body is always-already, even before birth, over-written by signifiers - of sex, nationality, class, etc.
This does not mean biological processes disappear. To speak of linguistic creatures capable of being involved in a symbolic order, is to speak of bodies capable of being affected by language; of metabolic and libidinal processes which are susceptible to the intervention of the signifier. A chance conjunction of signifiers, some sort of sing-song nonsense, lalangue, finds its way into the unconscious, and as a result you find yourself with a powerful nose fetish. With your libido thus cathected, you now have a definite need for a cute, shiny button nose in order to splooge. An equally absurd deposit in the unconscious leaves you with a terror of rats, or a cramped hand, or a burning desire to be a criminal. This is nothing less than biological, and yet it's hardly innocent of language. The body turns out to be the site where biological processes and symbolisations are always-already mutually articulated. It cannot be a case of a "biologically given" need which is then modified within given cultural and linguistic frameworks; rather, the symbolisation is one of the conditions of possibility for a need to be formulated. As such, needs are always relative to a given state of historical development and a given relation of class forces. The lonely hour of the biologically given never arrives.