Thursday, March 23, 2017

Money for nothing: what on earth do people pay me for? posted by Richard Seymour

When you pay for writing, what is it you're buying? What if you pay upfront, for writing which you may never in fact read? It's well known that the average subscriber accumulates dozens of unread journals and magazines which promise an array of complex experiences and entertainments, but which are just too much work to actually read. The vast majority of Sunday supplements, bursting with colour pictures and writing, end up in the bin. What if you pay upfront for writing that may or may not happen, and which would in any case be available to you without the payment? What are you buying then?

Writing is surely one of those things that, by definition, you can't pay for. If you own a newspaper corporation, you can pay for a certain word count, on a certain subject, assuming the writer cares enough about the subject or the money. If you're a reader, you can pay for access to a certain quantity of words in a certain font with a certain layout. But money is just a condition of possibility, and beyond a certain point, you can't get more or better writing by paying more.

You can't pay someone to have a dream, to fall in love, to grieve, to have erotic fantasies, or form an attachment, or whatever else it is that might make them want to write. You can't pay someone to get into your head, or get out of your head, turn you off or on, or provoke a mood, or create a mental space, or lift your depression. Reading is work, an exercise of fantasy and the unconscious, and you can't pay anyone else to do that for you. It would be as if you bought a gym membership and paid for the trainer to do your workout for you: even if you could, you wouldn't receive any of the benefits. 

In fact, then, what you're paying for is the means with which to do a certain kind of work -- work which might be pleasurable, or even transformative, but it is work nonetheless. But that still leaves the question of why you should pay for this privilege when it is otherwise available without payment.

Payment, the Jesuit Michel de Certeau wrote, belongs to the order of belief. In paying, you make a claim on the future. You sacrifice something in the belief that you will get it back; that an other will recognise an obligation to give it back to you in some form. Of course, that means the other in whom you believe has to share your belief. In this sense, belief is always belief in the belief of the other.
But what if the other lets you down? There has to be another other who also beliefs, and who can act as a guarantor. Belief always refers up, to an ultimate guarantor, an ultimate reality -- one whose existence is supported by a 'secret network' of believers. Without such a secret network, neither God, nor money, nor the state, could exist.

To this extent, the economic crisis in 'old media' is linked to a crisis of belief. To keep the old media going, enough people had to believe in the guarantee, the certainty, that by paying the price one would get one's money's worth -- even though it was never clear what that could even mean, there being such a radical incommensurability between money and writing. The internet, and the entire new economy of interactions that it produced, shattered that old order of legitimate beliefs. No one really believes any more, that if they pay their money they will get their money's worth. People in the media often say that the public has to realise they need to pay for journalism; but that is the very belief system that has broken down.

This crisis obviously affects freelance writers, as it both transforms and in some ways diminishes their opportunities to make a regular living, a state of affairs which services like Patreon hope to capitalise on. But the model that Patreon works on is one in which you offer readers special perks -- early access, sneak peeks, first sight, etc -- which justifies their payment. It depends on the idea that people pay for services; that, even if it's never clear how these perks could be 'worth the money', you have to offer something as a quid pro quo, to make it part of a system of economic value.

But the fact that there can be no equivalence between what is given and what is received, the fact that there cannot be value for money, because the two sides are incommensurable, suggests that the 'perk' is just a fetish, just an empty signifier, which enables belief. 

For almost fourteen years now, I have written on this blog, at first compulsively and now episodically compulsively. 

I began to ask readers for 'donations' or 'subscriptions' back in 2009. Beyond some vague intimations of future work to come, I didn't offer any perks or services. So there was nothing to sustain belief, no reason to think that anyone would get their money's worth. And yet, I was surprised by how much good will there was. It seemed that for many people, there was at least initially a palpable sense of paying me back. As though a debt had been incurred merely because I had written of my own volition, because I needed to, and they happened to like what I had written. For others, no doubt, it was about putting me in their debt, which could be seen as another way of disposing of a debt, by displacing it. 

One way or another, what we are always paying off is debt; through belief, we put the future in our debt, but it is the past to which we are obligated. Winnicott once said that anyone who is sane and has a meaningful life owes a huge and unpayable debt to a woman. The labour involved merely in carrying a child to birth and tending it in the early months, is extraordinary and yet absolutely essential. At a more abstract level, we owe the Other a debt that we should never believe can be repaid; attempts to do so are apt to turn morbid.  As Freud put it, we all owe life a death. That is the only payment we can make.  And there, the incommensurability truly is radical: what you receive and what you give back, has nothing in common.

But another way of talking about debt is to talk about solidarity or, in an older idiom, kindness. It is a scandal today, an affront or a titillating revelation, to find that people actually enjoy kindness. Something about solidarity, when we are capable of it, gives people a decided satisfaction. This satisfaction would, within in a certain market metaphysic, be taken as proof of the ultimate selfishness of kindness. We could allow that argument, and even invert it and add that it is also proof of the ultimate kindness of selfishness -- viz., we are all, in addition to being highly individual, more or less identical shells. Except that we would have to add that satisfaction is never quite the same thing as getting your money's worth. As with most satisfactions, whatever money you might pay for it is a token of something else you are giving up, a necessarily failed attempt to put monetary value on a sacrifice -- and all satisfactions require a sacrifice somewhere. What one sacrifices is precisely a debt; to be in debt, for sure, is to be burdened with an obligation, but it is also to have an advantage which, in paying it off, one gives up.

But this brings us back to what it is you could be paying for. Lacan says somewhere, in one of his Ecrits, that speech and language are part of a gift economy; speech and writing itself, is a gift. The specific words spoken, or written, are less important than that they are exchanged. They create bonds; they create solidarities; they create kindnesses or likenesses. This is how writing puts you in its debt. It is part of a gift economy in which some sort of reciprocity is expected, and yet you mostly cannot repay in speech or writing. So, on the perfectly pragmatic and excellent grounds that if no one paid, the writer would not be able to continue writing, you put a monetary value on the debt you cannot pay, even as I put a verbal value on my debt, and get into ever more debt in so doing.

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"Woman Does Not Exist" posted by Richard Seymour

Chimamanda Adichie is a liberal feminist. She has never claimed to be anything else. Her coordinates are those of an ideology that has already been mainstreamed, viz. that gender socialisation and male privilege represent serious and iniquitous obstacles to the success and achievement of women. Gender, as she put it to Channel 4 News, is about sociology, not biology.

This is all, up to a point, completely unobjectionable. However, the fact that Adichie's terms led her, when queried, to seemingly dispute the status of trans women as women, is not an accident. Indeed, the fact that Adichie clearly has no malice in this, and seemingly has no desire to deny anyone rights, is indicative of how much it is the discourse that is limiting.

But Adichie is also far too good a writer, far too good at smoothing over the cracks that is, to let the discourse's symptoms appear too obviously. It is really her defenders, some of whom were far worse than she on this question, whose slips are most interesting. Just as an example, I want to mention this widely shared Feminist Current piece. If you read it, I don't think I will need to underline the point too much: it is, symptomatically, all over the place, sliding between the uncertain terms of sex and gender. It cannot decide whether the problem is with the idea that transwomen are "literally women" or the idea that they are "female". The strict separation and demarcation of sex and gender, one strongly supported in most transphobic forms of feminism, is seen here to collapse. Indeed, I think it is destined to.

One reason why transphobic forms of feminism gain an exaggerated influence, I want to suggest, is that they insinuate themselves into a serious analytical deadlock of this already mainstreamed feminism that I have referred to. Specifically, the strict separation and demarcation of sex and gender. In this partitioning of the sexed being, sex is the organic, the purely given, while gender is the social, and thus the domain of choice. This separation was, initially, made possible by the innovation of trans technologies and treatments, but it was taken up by feminists in the Second Wave. The problem it seemed to solve was that it made a sharp distinction between the accidents of biology and the huge apparatuses of exploitation and exclusion and violence that are pinned to this contingent facts.

But some radical feminists, like Monica Wittig, never had much respect for or interest in this opposition. Wittig's argument was that sex itself was the problem, the foundation of violence. Sex, she insisted, was more a type of relationship than a type of being. From this point of view, to reduce it to its organic substratum, which is always sedimented with power and discourse, is to participate in the essentialising strategies of sexist domination. But that is not the argument that was successfully mainstreamed, and it is not the argument that began to influence media presentation and policymaking. So, we have inherited a discourse according to which sexism exploits contingent facts of biology and physical reproduction, linking it through socialisation and the allocation of relative privilege, to the production of gender.

The problems with this discourse as a kind of 'common sense' begin with its deployment in a certain kind of 'Lean In' feminism. Both 'socialisation' and 'male privilege' tend to act as reified blob concepts within what I'm short-handedly calling liberal feminism. The problems with 'privilege' as a term are well-rehearsed and I won't go through them here. Suffice to say, it is one that we can only use sous rature, under erasure, while waiting for something more adequate The problems with 'socialisation', though, are less clear and less commonly talked about. Because, one thing that trans politics shows us, is that many many people resist their socialisation. Indeed, isn't that also, in a way, what feminist politics shows us? Would we be capable of talking about liberation at all, if we didn't all in some way resist socialisation?

And that raises the question, of course, of what we mean by socialisation. At most, we gather that somehow the way we are treated leaves an imprint on us. It's clear that social structures get into our souls, as it were. Somehow we are constituted by them, and yet at the same time we reject them. Somehow we are made into girls and boys by them, and yet somehow we never quite fully adapt to those identifications. Somehow we are split subjects, in our relationship to our socialisation. And sometimes, it fails completely. Sometimes, those the system wants to make into boys, and treats as boys, and gives every incentive and warning to be boys, turn out not to be boys; sometimes those assigned as girls, turn out not to be girls. Trans is a type of solution to what one is not, an art of becoming whose starting point is the breakdown of socialisation.

And all of this is to say that between the false oppositions of sex and gender, there is something else, another level of analysis that is missing. That level, I suggest, is unconscious desire.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Smash the Twittering machine posted by Richard Seymour

One of the ways in which a paranoid hermeneutics gains consent is that it is confused with rigour; anything more charitable appears somehow naive. Or, from the paranoid point of view, complicit.

Now this long-standing tradition of paranoid readings on the Left has been conjoined to the Twittering machine. The attack on Jacobin -- those snarky hipster social democrat Berniebro reformist liberal class-reductionist fancy typesetting designer leftist imperialist cop loving etc etc -- resembles nothing so much as what China Miéville has called "punitive schwarmerei".

The outrage, over a tweet, isolated from a series of live tweets reporting a speech by the Indian Marxist Nivedita Majumdar, is completely out of proportion to any specific disagreement with its content. The tweet contains a reference to "intersectional theory" trying to undermine Marxism by displacing the foundational, determining role of class.

No doubt, some of the nuance was lost in being condensed for tweet form. Even in that context, however, it is clear that Majumdar wasn't dismissing intersectionality as a trope, let alone downgrading the political salience of gender, race or sexuality. It was stating a position which, with greater or lesser sophistication and nuance, is probably the default among marxists, viz. that class is more fundamental to the reproduction of capitalism than other oppressions. I don't really agree with this argument, but it is hardly an outrageous position.

Most people responded as if the tweet was standalone, though clearly numbered and threaded, and as if it was a Jacobin editorial statement, though the thread made it clear that it wasn't. Far more importantly, they reacted as if what had been written was politically beyond the pale. As if it was outrageous, shocking, disgusting, that anyone would think that "intersectional theory" is anti-Marxist, or that class is more fundamental to capitalism than the other oppressions bound up with it. As if, moreover, theoretical discussion was reducible to a political instrumentality, so that to assign to class a foundational role at the level of theory must result in a direct diminution of 'non-class' struggles at the level of everyday politics.

To reiterate, one can disagree with this view without sharing the extraordinary, libidinised reactions of those calling it "disgusting," or claiming that Jacobin thinks that gay rights should be dropped from the agenda, or expressing outrage that Jacobin has yet again had to be "called out" or "confronted" on its "shit". One can, for example, think that "intersectional theory" is a straw figure, and that no such cohesive, univocal theoretical entity exists. One can align with any number of theoretical inflections of historical materialism which assign a more "fundamental", determining role to oppressions -- for example, social reproduction theory, or Roediger & Esch's "production of difference" model. But it's hard to see these theoretical differences as being that exciting.

There is, nonetheless, a grumbling in some quarters that Jacobin must have known what they were doing, and if they didn't foresee how it would appear, then they were unprofessional. Of course, it is established by now that the ambiguities of language are always exaggerated in the 140 character format. Polysemy catches people out all the time on Twitter, something we all have to be on guard about. But it does so all the more because quite a large number of people are only paying attention to the extent that it enables them to say something in turn, however inventively disingenuous, which will generate 'likes' and 'retweets'. This is how the Twittering machine works, and people use it at their own peril. Nonetheless, unless we make some fairly authoritarian/paranoid assumptions, users also have to be responsible for their own readings.

Therefore, the question is: is there any way of wording a point like that made by Majumdar, in 140 characters, which would not have led these people to react in exactly the way they did? For quite a large number of their assailants, the problem was merely that someone, somewhere had besmirched the name of 'intersectionality'. For others, it was their own projections about Berniebros and such. Others -- and we know how this works -- joined in without seeming entirely sure what the problem was. None of this really amounts to an engagement even with what was in the isolated tweet, let alone the speech being reported on. A secondary question: is there any way of wording a response to all of this that wouldn't sound defensive or double outrageous to some people?  I suspect the answer is 'no'. Once the wheels are turning, the train doesn't stop until it becomes a trainwreck.

This problem can surely only be experienced, ruminated on, and diagnosed so many times before we take the hint. At a certain level, and to a certain extent, Twitter is the organisation of stupidity, malice, paranoia and narrow-mindedness. Unfortunately, it is not the sort of machine to which we can take a Luddite hammer; not the sort of factory we can burn to the ground. We can only find ways to work with the grain of it, use it, or refuse it.

I don't want to tell Jacobin what to do about all this but, in general, it seems to me that the only sensible policy with regard to Twitter is one of disciplined refusal to debate, argue, or even engage beyond at most light conversation or minor clarifications. It can be used for narrowcasting, advertising events, and sharing links, but if people lose their shit, they should simply be ruthlessly ignored, as difficult as that is. If mistakes are genuinely made, they should be deleted and briefly acknowledged. If longer responses are called for, they should be written later, and not published in the form of a Twitter thread, on a separate 'timeline'. But the 'mentions' column should be ignored, and no one should be treated as if they're entitled to a response. People should be told in the bio line that if they want a response on a substantive issue, they have to email -- meaning, they have to put some effort and thought into what they say. This is not a long-term solution, but a coping strategy.

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Wednesday, March 08, 2017

The Left Needs Feminism posted by Richard Seymour

I wrote this for Strike Mag about two and a half years ago and republish it here on International Women's Day, and on the occasion of the women's strike. I would change a few things now, but not the snark about 'allyship' and 'male feminism', and not the emphasis on the fact that the old Brit left's comprehensive failure on gender politics, its refusal to take feminism seriously, contributed to its failure to meet the capitalist crisis creatively.

The Left Needs Feminism – by Richard Seymour

Every now and again, one catches an article by a sweet-natured, well-meaning, often gaunt and gentle-looking beta-male, explaining why men need feminism. And they are so, so precious. Be a feminist so that you can cry, so that you can be compassionate, so that you can be into cooking, and watch My Little Pony without embarrassment. If this doesn’t make you want to vomit into your own mouth, then I question your integrity and that of your parents.

Perhaps this is unkind. These articles also call one to a basic level of self-reflexivity, which is always a desideratum; and their demand that you ‘check your privilege’ can be useful. Shorn of the pleas to emote, and let emote, the desire to examine and take a share of responsibility for the micro-politics of gender can only be positive. Not only that but, as bell hooks suggested, the success of feminism depends on winning over men; if only women could be convinced of feminist analysis, it would stand little chance of succeeding politically, and could be comfortably ignored rather than provoking a backlash.

The problem is that the macro-politics can be lost in what usually turns out to be an individualised analysis in which the male desire to be an ‘ally’ or (Jesus fucking Christ) a ‘male feminist’ is both ratified by individual behaviour, and ultimately explained in terms of individual conscience and suffering. Not only that, but it leaves expediently nebulous the status of the term ‘feminism’. Hugo Schwyzer much?

I propose to re-pivot this whole question onto a different axis, and ask: can the Left get anywhere without feminism? And, how should male activists respond to the answer?

By now it is clear enough that we are amid a fourth wave of feminism. In the anglophone countries, this is driven by a particular demographic – 18-29 year old women, usually social media adepts. It has its own particular concerns, some of which are inherited from the third wave: media representations, the micro-politics of #everydaysexism, and the delicate politics of (class, racial, national, sexual) difference among women. Emblematising the latter concern, the term ‘intersectionality’ is at the fulcrum of contemporary feminist debates and the attempts, particularly by black feminists and women from the global south, not to be squeezed out of the emerging debates.

The question of what to do about this is not merely a tactical question prompted by the conjuncture. The fact of the global women’s insurgency is of huge significance, but it presents no surety of the future salience of feminism. The fact is that women, and women’s bodies, have actually been central to the dominant political narratives of the last decade or so, and are disproportionately leaned on in the context of austerity politics.

In the ‘war on terror’, women were used to provide what Zillah Eisenstein calls a ‘sexual decoy’, conscripted to war narratives in order to obscure the fundamentally masculinist nature of the imperialist drive under Bush the Younger, as well as to provide a vaguely progressive-sounding rationale for racist, Islamophobic repression. This purloined ‘feminism’ was always rather thin. Neither Malalai Joya nor Malala Youzafszai could be comfortably assimilated into such imperialist narratives; and in the imperialist countries themselves, women’s groups were generally in the anti-war camp. Nonetheless, the gender-conservative thrust of such war fables should be spelled out. The argument, then as now, has been that women in ‘the West’ have essentially ‘made it’. They have reached, through their achievement of the vote and the ability of a few of their number to scale the summits of industry and politics, the zenith of civilisation. Everything else is downhill. The only thing to do, in this context, would be to defend what has already been gained (against Muslims, chiefly), and rally to the Pentagon and the State Department as the sanctified defenders of women’s liberation.

The global recession has since changed the context and valence of such appeals. When the recession hit, it was women who suffered first and most. When the austerity solution was pioneered, it was clear that the effects – since a central component of it is an assault on the social wage, which covers the invisible labour of reproduction still disproportionately carried out by women – would fall harder on women. Increasingly, state occupants such as David Cameron fall back on the idea that ‘the family’ (meaning the unacknowledged labour of women) can replace the welfare state. This is not a plea to go back to the ‘male breadwinner’ model in any simple way: the idea is that women continue to participate in the labour market, and indeed should do so more eagerly given the penury of living on welfare. In essence, women should work more for less; thus, some of the costs of the recession can be allocated according to a moral economy in which women are deemed most blameful, and least deserving. In this context, the fusion of Islamophobia and nationalism takes on a new role, allowing the problem of women’s servitude to be represented as a pathology of foreign dogma, rather than a structural feature of advanced, neoliberal capitalism.

This is merely to mention a couple of the ways in which gendered politics has been essential to the forms of political domination, to repression, imperialism and exploitation, in the last decade or so. It is merely to gesture at the fact that politics can hardly be done without confronting the huge, invidious fact of women’s oppression; merely to hint at the material circumstances from which the fourth wave has emerged. So, how well has the Left acquitted itself in this context?

‘Manarchists’, or ‘brocialists’: does it matter what we call them? The fact is that there is something particularly incongruous about men of the Left, whether they are George Galloway, or ‘Comrade Delta’, or their many apologists and acolytes, or (in the case of Delta) the institutional forms that defend them, who betray their ostensibly egalitarian ideals with sexist behaviour. And in fact, the cited cases are merely the prominent tips of the chauvinist iceberg. From the horizontal networks of Occupy, to the more traditionally hierarchical organisations of the far left, case after case of sexist abuse has come up in which ingrained assumptions or institutional pressures led to perpetrators being protected.

To be absolutely clear: this is not more serious than the problem of sexism in the wider society; it is probably far less prevalent on the Left than on the Right. It is simply that the Left does not exist in splendid isolation from the oppressive society in which it seeks to operate. It is immersed in the world and is susceptible to its pressures. Sexism is not peculiar to the Left, but it is a problem for the Left, relative to its normative aspirations, and its aspiration to grow and assemble an alliance of forces capable of challenging capitalism.

The fact is that the discourse of a section of the Left around recent controversies about sexism is at its best strikingly conservative. In its most ostensibly serious form, this involves claiming that the focus on feminism and intersectionality is just identity politics, and a distraction from the real issue of class. This totally ignores the fact that, as feminists such as Silvia Federici, Selma James and Avtar Brah (or more recently Abbie Bakan and Brenna Bhandar) have shown, our understanding of class, labour and surplus value is totally transformed once the realities of gender (and race, and so on) are assimilated. This is hardly irrelevant to the age of austerity and the attacks on the social wage. What those talking about class in the unreconstructed sense want is not to defend class politics, but to conserve class as a kind of identity politics for a specific layer of white men.

This is an inherently minoritarian approach; white men, no matter what the television says, are not the majority of people on the planet by a considerable distance. They may in general hold more power and influence than others, but they cannot by themselves assemble the movement necessary to challenge capitalism. They are not necessarily even the most politically militant sections of the working class. Gramsci’s point about building hegemonic alliances holds. No authentic alliance is possible in which oppressed groups are expected to hold their tongue, and submerge their own interests and demands – indeed, using the language of intersectionality, this is exactly the problem that fourth wave feminists have been confronting.

The Left needs feminism, then, because it urgently needs to update its epistemological assumptions in order to analyse the situation in which it finds itself, and because it needs to be able to fuse together the interests of all the oppressed and exploited in order to be adequate to the political circumstance. But to get to grips with this challenge, it needs to combat its most retrograde elements, those who in fact represent at worst a pungent form of rape culture, or who are at best the left representatives of the backlash culture.

Either that or you can weep over My Little Pony. Your call.

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