Confessions of a Facebook Leftist

by Douglas Lain on July 6, 2013


Skimming my Facebook newsfeed today, I find a series of complaints from defeated and demoralized “friends”:

One complains:

“my exhaustion and contempt for the left milieu grows with each day, something continually surprising and astounding to me”

Another links to a video entitled, “Man Takes 40 Shots Of Jager, Gets What’s Coming To Him”

with the comment:

“Heroes do exist”

Meanwhile, I post one link after another to my Kickstarter campaign called “Think the Impossible” and if my posts are different from my friends’, it’s only because I don’t have the luxury of appearing demoralized as I attempt to raise funds.

All I’ve got that maybe my friends don’t is a problem. I’m not confident that people will take it up, but the humble fact of it remains, and I aim to take this problem on the road.

One easy way to conceive of Marx’s project, and maybe it’s too easy, is as an attempt to erase the division between action and thought. This leaves many things out.  It seems to says nothing about class struggle, political economy, or Marx’s labor theory of value. It leaves out issues of distribution, primitive accumulation, imperialism, race, caste, and gender. In fact, in some ways, it seems to ignore Marx, both his conclusion that society is already thought put into action and his critique of philosophy as the ideological misconception of consciousness or thought as something that can stand apart from lived social activity. However, this is the place to start because, despite the fact that we all have the idea that thought and action are connected, we act as though the two domains are separate.

In other word, despite Marx’s ideas, the problem remains. In fact, it remains in Marx’s ideas.

Consider the following:

In Marx’s sixth thesis on Feuerbach, he writes that the trouble with Feuerbach’s critique of religion is that he conceived of it in individualistic terms.  For Feuerbach, the reason people allowed priests and kings to dominate them was because the people projected their own best qualities, their own human essence, onto the heavens.  What Marx pointed out was that this human essence wasn’t something that resided in the body or minds of human individuals at all but was really “the ensemble of the social relations” that mediated life between people.  In other words, Marx suggested that the very way people conceived of their best qualities was shaped by the power relations in society, was shaped by the ruling ideas of the priests and kings.

However, Marx goes on from there and, in the eighth thesis, writes:

“All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice.”

Marx’s mistake is that he turns the practical into an essence. He posits a species being that is equivalent to social life, not a human nature embedded in individuals but that which can be found in sensuous lived experience, a lived experience that is unmediated by religious sentiments, theoretical mysteries, or anything other than what is practical, and with this move he separates thought from action once again.

The idea or problem that I’m working on, that I’m trying to think through, is the idea that theoretical mysteries, religious sentiments, fetishes, and ideologies are required if there is to be any lived experience, and even more, that any attempt to put the comprehension of these ideologies into practice will end up changing forms of social ideologies rather than finding the real or the practical itself.

If this is too abstract, let me give you a pop culture example.

Consider the police detective and how he’s evolved.  Think of the shift from the brilliant and aloof detective to the hard-boiled detective who gets snared by the mystery he’s solving and who uses his fists along with his wits in order to solve it. Consider the possibility that this hard boiled detective was produced by an attempt to comprehend the mystery inherent in lived experience as something that ultimately can’t be made utterly self-transparent. From this perspective, the insufferably self-aware meta-detective, the detective as a man-child who mugs for the camera and besieges the viewer with self-referential jokes, can also be seen as the product of an attempt to understand the necessity of theoretical mysteries and unjustified formulas.

What Marx misses is how social life and sensuous experience are always attempts to cope with the impossible, attempts to comprehend it.

Take the American television program, Castle. The show stars the nerd icon Nathan Fillion (whose rise to prominence in a certain sector of nerdom is the result of the slow accumulation of a cult following for a Joss Whedon program called Firefly) as Castle.  Castle isn’t a detective, but a mystery writer. The actual detective on the program, detective Beckett, is played by Stana Katic.  Beckett is Castle’s partner in detection and his love interest.

In a recent episode, the fifth season finale, Detective Beckett traveled from New York to Washington, D.C. for a job interview at the Attorney General’s office. In a previous episode, she’d attracted the attention of a special investigator for the Attorney General by solving a particularly difficult murder. In the finale, this attention bears fruit as she is offered a chance to solve crimes on the national stage.

“If all you think you are is just a homicide detective then we can cut this short now,” the man in the expensive suit tells her.

This plot premise was impossible.  Why?  Because it was inconceivable that Beckett was going to take the job. To do so would end the program that made her pursuit of the job possible.

The first move the program made was to stall the suspension of disbelief and it became more metafictional and impossible after that. The plot rolled out, became more and more absurd, and in no time at all the fourth wall disappeared. In the next to final scene, Beckett interrogates a suspect and tells the murderer that the room they are in, which is by this time is obviously the TV screen itself, has been her whole life for five seasons…er, make that years.

With this episode of Castle, the police procedural is transformed into a Brechtian thought experiment and yet it still stands.  The police procedural has not been overturned.

How is it that what ought to be a critical procedure, an undoing of the form, ends up as a confirmation? This occurs because of an unstated expectation or assumption. The expectation is that the aim of exposing the contradictions in a literary form, the goal of tearing aside all the veils, is to discover the truth underneath.

Marx penetrated Feuerbach and exposed species-being as the truth that Feuerbach hadn’t seen.  The television program Castle exposed its own fictional status in order, in the end, to expose the true human values that support such fictions. The narrative dissolved, the mechanism of the plot was left exposed, and what was left, what remained, was sentiment.

“Katherine Houghton Beckett, will you marry me?” Fillion asked in the final scene. And with that it was clear that Beckett wouldn’t be doing the impossible after all.

Hegel calls this a bad infinity. Things break down, dissolve, get torn apart by their own contradictions, but nothing new comes of it. Instead, the old fictions are reestablished on a firmer foundation.

However, there is another option, which is to seize the impossible itself rather than to instrumentalize it. To recognize that the way thought and action are unified is through the contradictory or impossible and to abandon the quest for a ground or, better still, to accept the impossible as the ground.

Just how to do this, what the implications of doing it might be in practice, is what I’m trying to think about.

With the “Think the Impossible” Tour Douglas Lain is aiming at promoting both his new novel and the idea of “the impossible” or of contradiction. Taking his philosophy podcast Diet Soap and his novel Billy Moon on the road, he’ll be interviewing Andrew Kliman from the Marxist Humanist Initiative, Margaret Kimberley from the Black Agenda Report, McKenzie Wark author of the Hacker Manifesto, Daniel Coffeen sophist and pop philosopher, and a few others about what, for structural reasons, can’t usually be discussed in a capitalist society.  Support his tour via Kickstarter

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

KMO July 9, 2013 at 9:55 am

FYI – The embedded video has been removed from YouTube and doesn’t play.


Alon_A December 3, 2013 at 8:08 pm

“Just how to do this, what the implications of doing it might be in practice, is what I’m trying to think about.”

The blinding irony of this final line gave me whiplash – right in the solar praxis.


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