Is Walmart Utopia? Restated, might Walmart serve as a contemporary model for a post-capitalist future society? Both formulations of the question sounds equally absurd. Few people actively champion Walmart, and almost no one would depict it as their ideal place. Indeed, according to a recent survey it is “the most-hated retailer in America.”[i] This is not exactly a new sentiment, but nevertheless in Valences of the Dialectic, Marxist literary theorist Frederic Jameson looked to Walmart for “the shape of a Utopian future looming through the mist.”[ii] Pressing into the power of the dialectic to reconcile with inherent contradiction, Jameson argued that it was possible to look past Walmart’s failings for the seeds of its utopian potential. If you’ll follow me across the fold, I’ll discuss Jameson’s utopian recuperation of Walmart and look at its potential inversions. Taking Jameson’s Valences and Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project as inspirations, I’ll attempt to trace the crystalized phantasmagoria of post-Fordist capitalism. I’ll ask–what is our contemporary analogue to the Parisian shopping malls of the nineteenth century? Put differently, I’ll try and liberate the dreams of an escape from capitalism that can be found paradoxically imbedded in the heart of certain capitalist structures. But first we’ll look into the dystopian “mist” that clings to Walmart. Continue reading
[Note: I imagined a weeklong gap between posts, but the work of chairing a department and writing a book got in the way. Sorry. Now that the academic year is over, I’m back at it. To get unblocked and back to blogging, I had to remind myself that I didn’t want these to be a series of articles, but more like a set of quick thoughts/unpolished first drafts. Also, I had originally planned a two-part blog-post about the persistence of utopia, but I was struck by responses to the last entry that challenged the idea that we would want to move beyond contemporary capitalism. So, I want to tarry in dystopian-darkness before returning to utopia.]
Where the last post left it: we seemed to be caught in the coils of a particular repetition compulsion — constantly (re)imagining the end of the world, but unable to imagine a possible future that doesn’t include capitalism. (PART I- Post-Apocalyptic Capitalism is here: it asked “Is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism?”).
My main objective in this series of posts is to overturn this line of argumentation by uncovering seeds of utopia and tracing alternatives to modern capitalism. But first I want to go in the opposite direction by painting a pessimistic picture of the contemporary capitalist world order. If you are already up on the case against global corporate capitalism you can wait a month or two for a later utopian post. But if you want to understand the contemporary allure of dystopia then read on.
Before settling down to business I want to mention the standard critiques of capitalism – corporate neo-feudalism and increasing wealth inequality; never-ending cutthroat competition; the violence of economic imperialism and oppression; capital’s ability to subvert democracy; money’s role in mediating and cheapening our most personal relationships; the alienation resulting from a life of repetitive specialized labor; the inherent psychological instability resulting from the inevitable boom and bust cycles of the marketplace; and so on. As descriptions of the current-world system these are all fair, but they won’t really connect for many readers and will instead appear to be nothing more than empty abstractions. In the posts that follow, I want to see if the horrors of the current capitalist world-system can be distilled into apprehensible images – like a world reflected in a dewdrop. Restated, I’m looking for concrete symbols by which we can begin to grasp the dystopian inherent in the totality of the current-world system.
Over the next three posts (which starting June 16 I hope to post every other week on Mondays or Tuesdays )—I’ll confront the Janus face of contemporary global capitalism (including both corporate dystopia and the dreams of anti-capitalist utopia frozen in capitalist structures), I’ll explore technological junkyards, I’ll ask what Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can tell us about Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, and I’ll excavate Post-Fordist nightmares about flexible labor, automation, unemployment, and the loss of sleep. Then I’ll return to the deferred issue of contemporary utopia.
One reoccurring charge against postmodernism and poststructuralism alike is that they are unable to think utopia.
At first pass, this certainly seems plausible, after all postmodernism in Lyotard’s famous formulation was defined as “incredulity towards metanarratives.” For another example, in all of Derrida’s work on deconstruction, did he not (perhaps admirably) refuse to offer an alternative to logocentrism? To be sure, he privileged writing over speech and praised grammatology. But by and large Derrida resisted utopia’s allure. Plus, aren’t classic postmodern works like Naked Lunch, The Crying of Lot 49, or Blade Runner deeply pessimistic?
Indeed it is easy to paint that entire period of philosophy and art as the culmination of skepticism or cynical reason—or in other words as the withering of modernist utopianism or perhaps as nothing less than pure crystalized dystopia. As one of the characters in Woody Allen’s 1997 Deconstructing Harry, charged the protagonist
“You have no values. Your whole life, it’s nihilism, it’s cynicism, it’s sarcasm and orgasm.” To which he replied: “You know in France, I could run on that slogan and win.”
But of course, even in France he couldn’t. As it would seem at least a hundred political theorist have observed—it is hard to organize a politics around cynicism and nihilism, people need something to believe in and work toward, and hence the inability to think utopia is supposed to be precisely why postmodern and poststructuralist theory have failed to transform into easily recognizable political projects. As Žižek has argued, totalitarian regimes maintain their hold by encouraging cynicism. All they need to forestall revolution is to convince the masses that every politician is a bastard and all politic is corrupt. The people think why bother? and they continue supporting, with ironic distance, the mechanisms of a state in which they no longer believe. The promotion of postmodern skepticism would therefore seem to disable politics and prevent its ability to mobilize against the exploitations of global capitalism.
This critique of utopias absence has be sharpened recently by the British philosopher and blogger Mark Fisher. Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? (2009) was inspired by the insight (attributed to Slavoj Žižek and Frederic Jameson) that
“it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”
This too certainly seems plausible and if you’ll follow me over the fold, I’ll layout both Fisher’s case AND in the next blog-post I’ll argue against this thesis by looking at a few seeds of anti-capitalist utopia
“Are you abandoning Japan?” This is a question I’ve been getting a lot lately.
I tend to hear it right after I explain that my second book–The Myth of Disenchantment–is basically European intellectual history (for a taste) and that the project following that– Absolute Disruption: The Future of Theory after Postmodernism–is an attempt to articulate new research models for Religious Studies in the wake of the collapse of poststructuralism as a guiding ethos in the Humanities.
At the moment, I’m probably best known for a monograph – The Invention of Religion in Japan – and a series of articles that explore the history of Japanese religions, science, and politics (my professional page). So it makes sense that often when I’m chatting with colleagues about work-in-progress I’m greeted with an expression of surprise. Scholars of Asian Studies in particular often tend to put it in the most intense terms and ask me if I am “deserting Japanese studies?”
So in this very short blog-post I want to provide an answer: in a word “No!”
Extended explanation below the fold for those who are curious.
Readers of the blog might be interested to know that I’ve organized a small workshop on Theory After Postmodernism here at Williams College on May 16-17, 2014.
It is free and open to the public. More details can be found here:
I’ve been lecturing about and, even calling for, what I term “Reflexive Religious Studies” for some time. My comments about it will be appearing in print in the near(ish) future in greater detail, but I thought a small note about the idea here might prove useful.
As I have been arguing for a long time, the category “religion” is transformative. [i] Various entities become “religions.” I want to emphasize that this is not a teleological or transhistorical process, but one that came out of a particular logic at a particular moment in Western Christendom, and its globalization was necessarily selective and to some extent arbitrary. It should also be noted that this was a modern process, articulated in various stages, but in essence coinciding with the formation of globalization or transnational modernity.
This process is always incomplete. Christianity, Buddhism, and so on always retain remainders that are not fully brought under the category. Moreover, this process of becoming a religion is still ongoing. Indeed, in a certain sense it may be seen as having permeated the whole intellectual stratum of modernity. Even in modernity, “religion” cannot be taken as a self-evident category. Religious Studies must therefore be the discipline that suspends its primary object of inquiry, never taking for granted religion’s meaning.
To put it in different terms and to indicate this non-universal category, one might say that: things become religions. At the risk of skirting typographical silliness, I want to use the strike through here (evocative of the Lacanian barred subject) in order to indicate religion as an impossible object, something like a term “under erasure” (Sous rature) in the Heidegger/Derrida sense, which for our purposes we might identify with a de-essentialized process. By this I mean more than the reification of an abstraction. Irrespective of any “essential” nature, to designate something a religion is to place it into a series of relations with other “religions.” Various entities become religions by being linked up to the world-system in a way that transforms them. Here I mean to gesture toward the insights of both Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems analysis and Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory (as well as those articulated more recently by Peter Beyer). According to a synthesis of these accounts, our current world-system came into effect along with the formation of a system exchange of knowledge and capital, which began to encircle the globe over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In so doing, it produced global systems of self-reinforcing discourse.
Once this insight has been granted, it provides an opening for a new vantage in Religious Studies that would study these processes of becoming, a way to study the term “under erasure.” Not as a universal or essential part of human nature but in its transformative effects.
What I have in mind is what I call “Reflexive Religious Studies.” I model this on a movement in sociology, which notes that you have to have different kinds of sociological techniques to examine those societies in which sociology as a discipline is itself an influence.[ii] You need a new “reflexive sociology” to take into account the way that people’s social identities are shaped by “sociological surveys” or transformed by governments that have already internalized some form of the discipline of sociology. Put differently, there is a place for a higher order sociology that recons with the fact that academic sociology is in a sense porous and tends to seep into the societies that it purports to study.
I want to extend this move to Religious Studies. Reflexive Religious Studies would examine those societies in which religion and its attendant differentiations (e.g. secularism) have begun to function as concepts. It would trace the continuities and disruptions that this category produces in older conceptual orders and aim for precision. And it would also necessarily take into account how the discipline of Religious Studies shapes and produces religions.
I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’ve been overwhelmed in trying to simultaneously finish a manuscript (Dialectic of Darkness) and with the business of chairing a Department for the first time (more work than you’d think). Still I did want to make a quick post because my first monograph The Invention of Religion in Japan has won a major book award “The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion: 2013 Distinguished Book Award.”
I’m honored that my book has achieved this kind of recognition and from such an august academic society. A million thanks are due to my wonderful friends and colleagues whose suggestions and critical comments helped make it a better work! Also, don’t worry: I haven’t forgotten about this blog, but I seem to post most when I’m in the early phases of a project and still casting about for ideas….Still, I hope to free up some time this Spring for some more reviews.
Malabou, Catherine. 2008. What should we do with our brain? Trans
by Sebastian Rand. New York: Fordham University Press.
Original: Malabou, Catherine. 2004. Que faire de notre cerveau? Paris: Bayard.
The Rise of the New Ontologists
Recently, political theory has moved away from epistemology and toward ontology; in effect, swapping the obsessions of post-structuralism (the limits of knowledge and language) with a renewed emphasis on the ground of being as such. If the post-structuralists reduced everything to discourse, the “new ontologists” (as they are coming to be called) reduce everything to an issue of existence. In so doing, they privilege things over concepts, or, we might say, supplant idealism with materialism. Yet the new ontologists also double down on postmodernist anti-humanism by displacing the human as the center of political theory. In effect, they describe being in new ways in order to suggest the possibilities of reading agency into the non-human world.
I haven’t updated the blog for over a month. Apologies. Don’t worry. “Absolute disruption” is not dead.
My free time of late has been spent obsessing over the American Presidential election and doing some minor politicking. But now that this is done, I expect to return to blogging in a day or two. Please stay tuned.
Under the encouragement of a friend, I’ve spent the last six months reading a lot of Žižek. This has been simultaneously pleasurable and infuriating because while I love Žižek’s style (and even agree with him on many issues), I find the politics implied by his more recent turn to Lenin and praise of “divine violence” to be profoundly troubling. (I also radically disagree with Žižek’s analysis of religion, but I’ll save that for a later blog post). My interest was piqued when Žižek condemned the British born, New School-based, political philosopher Simon Critchley, stating that Critchley’s work was “an almost perfect embodiment of the position to which my work is absolutely opposed.” When I then heard that Critchley had made a recent foray into Religious Studies that was getting a lot of attention, I knew that I had to add Faith of the Faithless to my reading list. Having done so, and having cajoled friends and colleagues to read and discuss it with me, I am now in a position to report back some observations.
At the most basic level, Faith of the Faithless is premised on Carl Schmitt’s claim that all significant modern political concepts are really secularized theological concepts (103). In Schmitt’s day an older theory of secularization held sway and many scholars likely imagined that even these theological remainders would be purged over the course of modernity. But in today’s so-called “post-secular age” it appears that instead of increased differentiation, politics and religion are becoming even more deeply intertwined. As Critchley puts it:
“Somehow we seem to have passed from a secular age, which we were ceaselessly told was post-metaphysical, to a new situation in which political action seems to flow directly from metaphysical conflict.” (8)
In effect, Critchley considers all politics to be religious. He suggests that theological concepts are so heavily intertwined with political concepts that in order to have a functioning politics, politics must escape itself by articulating a relation to the transcendent. As a committed atheist, this puts Critchley in a bit of a bind, which he tries to solve by constructing a kind of atheistic political theology. Basically, Faith of the Faithless is an attempt to think about how to organize a new Left politics in the face of the Death of God (or the confrontation with relativistic nihilism). Interestingly Critchley tries to conjure this new political community not by drawing attention to society’s injustices (classic liberal guilt), but through appropriating an explicitly theological language.