On the necessary vision, or why we need (better) historigraphy

The question of the demand for an alteration of the world brings us back to Karl Marx’s often quoted statement from his “Theses on Feuerbach.” I would like to quote it exactly and read out loud: “philosophers have only differently interpreted the world, what it comes down to is that it be altered.” When this statement is cited and when it is looked at, it is overlooked that altering the world presupposes an alteration in the representation of the world. A representation of the world can only be altered by adequately interpreting the world.

That means: Marx’s demand for an “alteration” is founded upon on a very certain [or determinate] interpretation of the world, and because of this, this statement is shown to be without weight. It gives the impression that it speaks decisively against philosophy, though the second half of the statement presupposes, unspoken, a demand for philosophy. – Martin Heidegger On Marx

 
On may think this is a refutation of Marx, but I have never read Heidegger that way.  His parsing is almost more “dialectical” itself than Marx’s original statement.   Regardless, the strong sense of what Heidegger says here that without a necessary vision and understand of the processes of history, the demand to change the world falls into naught–for without a fix demand about what the world should be and without an understanding about what the world is, the changing of the world is not possible as one is just reacting to images and images of images.   
 
In this Heidegger echoes his supposed arch-nemesis Adorno, whose distrust of calls for action for action sake actually led to supporting the very systems on is want to oppose. Think of the counter-culture?  Was the that not a way to re-brand popular culture?  Can this to be said to be a counter-tendency or a way to revitalize both the economic and political system the counter-culture opposed?  Well, then again, look at Hot Topic’s existence for that.   The fixed point this must be philosophical and historigraphical for those who want to draw lessons from history or create models on which to analysis the past.  Heidegger acknowledged that the Marxist conception of history was probably the most advanced even though his actual politics led to almost diametrically oppose it.   The reason was that Marxian analysis took teleological assumptions from idealist philosophy and tried to ground them in testable material. 
 
This is not to say that history of “Marxism” is particularly strong on this point:  a lot of the typologies produced under USSR and the CCP have been laughably bad to the point of being nearly secular dispensationalism.  I have been having discussions with an internet friend on the theories of Jairus Banaji on the theories around modes of production as well as the “Political Marxist” historical work of Timothy Brennan and Ellen Meiksins Wood.   I have been torn between these two visions, although I think reading Mike McNair’s three part treatment of the subject of Banaji, has convinced me that fear of teleology on Banaji can be problematic.  Still, it seems like all the vulgar Marxist talk of base-superstructure, ignores that “modes of production” are not discretely separated from the state or cultural structures.
For example, whether you accept Banaji’s thesis that capitalism developed off of the latent merchant trades of the Byzantine courts and the Catholic expansion or Wood’s thesis that capitalism emerged out of a culture the English kingship which never fit, exactly, the mode of feudalism that characterized the regions we now call Italy, France, and Germany, it is clear that relationships of power and ideas of politics and religion have material effects on “the modes of production” as they effect them.  As McNair says, “The point I am making is that the ‘base’ is the total material division of labour in the society, not those forms which are immediately analogous to the capitalist ‘economy’.”
Furthermore, either Brennan or Wood’s theories or Banaji’s indicate that the “Asiatic despotism” of Marx was a “here be dragons” moment in which “modes of production” not understood in other cultures were not quite ignored.    The development of the Qing does not fit feudal patterns nor is it explainable in the same way that one can see in the 18th century liberal revolutions.  Even in Europe, explaining why Sicily maintained a feudal structure 200 years after the rest of Europe, even those under monarchies, had abandoned this particular social relationship.  The “modes of production” and the periodization of the relationships within the larger abstracts that we use to describe economies are vital, but they are also vital to be subtle and nuanced enough not to collapse real difference in economic and social functioning.
In recent trends in ultra-left, communization has gone on to use theories of real subsumption to periodize capitalism and discuss why various attempts at both revolution and reform have seemingly failed, or, at least, not worked out as planned.  I think these discussions of historigraphy are vital if anything of that kind is attempted.  There are too many questions and distinctions not understood: what is the exact distinction between skilled and gang slavery, how did this effect early modern chattel slavery:  what are the implications for robotization?   What forms of political arrangements led to the feudal collapse? What are the roles of merchant and guilds in capitalist organization? Is late antiquity almost arriving at a kind of proto-capitalism that collapses from the inability to move away from a slave economy and by terrible currency manipulation, or is this a moment of more primitive relationships?  Does Calvinism change the culture of work enough to effect capitalist development, or is it unrelated?    These things would matter for dealing with theories of real subsumption as the kind discussed in Endnotes and Theorie Communiste. 
 
It seems vital to any real attempt to periodize capitalism to understand its early emergence, and the fact we can’t decide whether it is unique to England and then spreads or it was already developing in Byzantine empire?  Why did it not develop in Sung dynasty where the material wealth was probably there?   Is China’s mode a new form of capitalism or a development that is clearly in line with prior theories of state capitalism?   Our models must be able to explain this if one is act.   To change the world, one should be damn sure one understands it.
 
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What I am not saying about Facts, or Ideas really do have consequences… (Narrative Cop-out part 2)

Let me be clear, while I am bothered by a narrativizing trend, in no way I am implying that one can have a non-narrative or non-theoretical understanding of empirical fact. Even the selection of what counts as a fact and the typologies around that.  This is a tautological and fundamentally about definitions.  My issue is simpler than that and yet harder to articulate clearly, one has a set of typologies that lock out any possible outside data, paradigms and models cannot change and cannot come anything closer to useful or true.  We cannot ignore that all knowledge is situated in a theory, even if it is just some implicit theory of mind.

This is the tricky thing about language though and about metaphors in our models.  I may imply some kind of naive realism about facts because I am pushing my language to try to talk to a general audience about two fundamentally separate but related issues: one) the way psychological heuristics can be used to disengage and disarm any criticism and two) when a paradigm, historical methodology, teleological stance, or something goes wrong and can no longer adapt to new facts.  To use a metaphor, when this happens, ideas become brittle and break.  In politics, this is PARTICULARLY common, and especially when politics stand in for moral positions they way one used to treat religion as being.

Let’s look at this in other places, however, as politics isn’t the only limit. I  was reading an excellent post at edge,

But the rhetoric of science doesn’t just risk the descent into scientism. It also gives science sole credit for something that it doesn’t deserve: an attention to the construction and operation of things. Most of the “science of X” books look at the material form of their subject, be it neurochemical, computational, or economic. But the practice of attending to the material realities of a subject has no necessary relationship to science at all. Literary scholars study the history of the book, including its material evolution from clay tablet to papyrus to codex. Artists rely on a deep understanding of the physical mediums of pigment, marble, or optics when they fashion creations. Chefs require a sophisticated grasp of the chemistry and biology of food in order to thrive in their craft. To think that science has a special relationship to observations about the material world isn’t just wrong, it’s insulting.

Beyond encouraging people to see science as the only direction for human knowledge and absconding with the subject of materiality, the rhetoric of science also does a disservice to science itself. It makes science look simple, easy, and fun, when science is mostly complex, difficult, and monotonous.

A case in point: the popular Facebook page “I f*cking love science” posts quick-take variations on the “science of x” theme, mostly images and short descriptions of unfamiliar creatures like the pink fairy armadillo, or illustrated birthday wishes to famous scientists like Stephen Hawking. But as the science fiction writer John Skylar rightly insisted in a fiery takedown of the practice last year, most people don’t f*cking love science, they f*cking love photography—pretty images of fairy armadillos and renowned physicists. The pleasure derived from these pictures obviates the public’s need to understand how science actually gets done—slowly and methodically, with little acknowledgement and modest pay in unseen laboratories and research facilities.

The rhetoric of science has consequences. Things that have no particular relation to scientific practice must increasingly frame their work in scientific terms to earn any attention or support. The sociology of Internet use suddenly transformed into “web science.” Long accepted practices of statistical analysis have become “data science.” Thanks to shifting educational and research funding priorities, anything that can’t claim that it is a member of a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) field will be left out in the cold. Unfortunately, the rhetoric of science offers the most tactical response to such new challenges. Unless humanists reframe their work as “literary science,” they risk getting marginalized, defunded and forgotten.

Hence all the “scientific skeptics” I met with undergraduate degrees in the humanities. I used to think it was rare, but when I was involved in that I noticed it was actually quite common because people who work deeply in scientific thought realize how precarious some of these ideas are, and ones who are particularly reflective realize that rhetoric matters.  That is not  just because it convinces the public to fund science.  Rhetoric matters because it has subtle effects on our typologies and methods.  It banks on things we see and don’t see, and like the vulgar Marxists I was talking about earlier, often this enthusiasm for “science” is dangerous to any idea of science itself–it romanticizes it while also emptying out the relationship to other areas of life.  It may damage the funding in the humanities but even STEM itself won’t always be safe. In fact, ask the B.S. in Biology how much work they have in their field.

When you no longer can adjudicate and adjust to changing inputs and the world around you, the metaphors that color your dealing blind you to facts that would, when your model is adjusted, make your theory stronger–in the sense of more useful.   When that cannot happen, things fall apart.

That is what is wrong with the narrative cop-out: it is not we should become naive realists about facts and values. To imagine that we don’t have an ideology. We are always situated: the bigger problem is can our worldviews adapt to our historical and physical circumstances, can they process information, and can they help us bring about what we really want. If a worldview can’t deliver on its end, what do you think it will deliver you personally?

Thanksgiving and Ambivalence (2011)

“Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanised work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again. But at the same time mechanisation has such power over a man’s leisure and happiness, and so profoundly determines the manufacture of amusement goods, that his experiences are inevitably after-images of the work process itself. The ostensible content is merely a faded foreground; what sinks in is the automatic succession of standardised operations. What happens at work, in the factory, or in the office can only be escaped from by approximation to it in one’s leisure time.” -Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer,  The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception

Thanksgiving is today in the United States, a holiday that I enjoyed due to the family time and the relative peace. I forgot until this afternoon that it was Thanksgiving when I was talking to my depressed girlfriend who was spending her first Thanksgiving in Korea.  The rhythm of my life had moved so completely away from the holiday that while it was one of my favorites in its celebration (but not what it celebrates) that I literally forgot about it. But my fondness for it is  simple: beyond the family time, it is Americans only major mostly secular holiday that is actually celebrated by most people in the US, yet the mythology around Thanksgiving is hardly worth recounting as it is up there with Columbus Day in  misleading and highly problematic celebrations.  In fact, I have a hard time squaring the actual history with my enjoyment of an otherwise secular and fairly decent family holiday.  For example, Mike Ely’s writings on Thanksgiving at Kasama:

In 1641 the Dutch governor Kieft of Manhattan offered the first “scalp bounty”–his government paid money for the scalp of each Indian brought to them. A couple years later, Kieft ordered the massacre of the Wappingers, a friendly tribe. Eighty were killed and their severed heads were kicked like soccer balls down the streets of Manhattan. One captive was castrated, skinned alive and forced to eat his own flesh while the Dutch governor watched and laughed. Then Kieft hired the notorious Underhill who had commanded in the Pequot war to carry out a similar massacre near Stamford, Connecticut. The village was set fire, and 500 Indian residents were put to the sword.

A day of thanksgiving was proclaimed in the churches of Manhattan. As we will see, the European colonists declared Thanksgiving Days to celebrate mass murder more often than they did for harvest and friendship.

Or this bit of information from the Speed of Dreams:

he pilgrims are glorified and mythologized because the circumstances of the first English-speaking colony in Jamestown were frankly too ugly (for example, they turned to cannibalism to survive) to hold up as an effective national myth. The pilgrims did not find an empty land any more than Columbus “discovered” anything. Every inch of this land is Indian land. The pilgrims (who did not even call themselves pilgrims) did not come here seeking religious freedom; they already had that in Holland. They came here as part of a commercial venture. They introduced sexism, racism, anti-lesbian and gay bigotry, jails, and the class system to these shores. One of the very first things they did when they arrived on Cape Cod — before they even made it to Plymouth — was to rob Wampanoag graves at Corn Hill and steal as much of the Indians’ winter provisions of corn and beans as they were able to carry. They were no better than any other group of Europeans when it came to their treatment of the Indigenous peoples here. And no, they did not even land at that sacred shrine called Plymouth Rock, a monument to racism and oppression which we are proud to say we buried in 1995.

The first official “Day of Thanksgiving” was proclaimed in 1637 by Governor Winthrop. He did so to celebrate the safe return of men from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who had gone to Mystic, Connecticut to participate in the massacre of over 700 Pequot women, children, and men.

About the only true thing in the whole mythology is that these pitiful European strangers would not have survived their first several years in “New England” were it not for the aid of Wampanoag people. What Native people got in return for this help was genocide, theft of our lands, and never-ending repression. We are treated either as quaint relics from the past, or are, to most people, virtually invisible.

The end of the day there seems to be more myths than not:

Myth #7: The Pilgrims invited the Indians to celebrate the First Thanksgiving.

Fact: According to oral accounts from the Wampanoag people, when the Native people nearby first heard the gunshots of the hunting colonists, they thought that the colonists were preparing for war and that Massasoit needed to be informed. When Massasoit showed up with 90 men and no women or children, it can be assumed that he was being cautious. When he saw there was a party going on, his men then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys. (8)

In addition, both the Wampanoag and the English settlers were long familiar with harvest celebrations. Long before the Europeans set foot on these shores, Native peoples gave thanks every day for all the gifts of life, and held thanksgiving celebrations and giveaways at certain times of the year. The Europeans also had days of thanksgiving, marked by religious services. So the coming together of two peoples to share food and company was not entirely a foreign thing for either. But the visit that by all accounts lasted three days was most likely one of a series of political meetings to discuss and secure a military alliance. Neither side totally trusted the other: The Europeans considered the Wampanoag soulless heathens and instruments of the devil, and the Wampanoag had seen the Europeans steal their seed corn and rob their graves. In any event, neither the Wampanoag nor the Europeans referred to this feast/meeting as “Thanksgiving.” (9)


Myth #8: The Pilgrims provided the food for their Indian friends.

Fact: It is known that when Massasoit showed up with 90 men and saw there was a party going on, they then went out and brought back five deer and lots of turkeys. Though the details of this event have become clouded in secular mythology, judging by the inability of the settlers to provide for themselves at this time and Edward Winslow’s letter of 1622 (10), it is most likely that Massasoit and his people provided most of the food for this “historic” meal. (11)


Myth #9: The Pilgrims and Indians feasted on turkey, potatoes, berries, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and popcorn.

Fact: Both written and oral evidence show that what was actually consumed at the harvest festival in 1621 included venison (since Massasoit and his people brought five deer), wild fowl, and quite possibly nasaump—dried corn pounded and boiled into a thick porridge, and pompion—cooked, mashed pumpkin. Among the other food that would have been available, fresh fruits such as plums, grapes, berries and melons would have been out of season. It would have been too cold to dig for clams or fish for eels or small fish. There were no boats to fish for lobsters in rough water that was about 60 fathoms deep. There was not enough of the barley crop to make a batch of beer, nor was there a wheat crop. Potatoes and sweet potatoes didn’t get from the south up to New England until the 18th century, nor did sweet corn. Cranberries would have been too tart to eat without sugar to sweeten them, and that’s probably why they wouldn’t have had pumpkin pie, either. Since the corn of the time could not be successfully popped, there was no popcorn. (12)


Myth #10: The Pilgrims and Indians became great friends.

Fact: A mere generation later, the balance of power had shifted so enormously and the theft of land by the European settlers had become so egregious that the Wampanoag were forced into battle. In 1637, English soldiers massacred some 700 Pequot men, women and children at Mystic Fort, burning many of them alive in their homes and shooting those who fled. The colony of Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay Colony observed a day of thanksgiving commemorating the massacre. By 1675, there were some 50,000 colonists in the place they had named “New England.” That year, Metacom, a son of Massasoit, one of the first whose generosity had saved the lives of the starving settlers, led a rebellion against them. By the end of the conflict known as “King Philip’s War,” most of the Indian peoples of the Northeast region had been either completely wiped out, sold into slavery, or had fled for safety into Canada. Shortly after Metacom’s death, Plimoth Colony declared a day of thanksgiving for the English victory over the Indians. (13)


Myth #11: Thanksgiving is a happy time.

Fact: For many Indian people, “Thanksgiving” is a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land and seed corn, extermination of many from disease and gun, and near total destruction of many more from forced assimilation. As currently celebrated in this country, “Thanksgiving” is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal returned for friendship.

So there is nothing much to celebrate in the reality of the situation. You may ask, “Skepoet, so if we dropped the mythology, we refocused on the natives and perhaps reparations, and kept our turkey and dressing and family holiday, would so think it was salvageable?”

The short answer is related to the Adorno and Horkheimer quote above is that the time demarcation around the holiday makes it seem draining and artificial as it is just a reminder of the work as alienated time. Now this is no where near as serious as the signs of colonialism hidden in the holiday, but it is very much a part of our experience of the holiday. It is almost a reminder of the destruction of the traditional family not by emancipatory choice but by the literalized alienation of factory life, then service sector economies and the transience imposed on our daily life.  So Thanksgiving ends in a orgy of consumption which increasingly supports a large chuck of the bloated retail sector, so the holiday becomes a prelude not for a reminder of family, but an orgiastic web of spending for another deracinated and secularized religious holiday. The spectre of that alienation also reminds us of much.

In my heart though as a man born in the lower-middle class with working class parents, I do actually enjoy the simple family meal at the heart of this otherwise shameful celebration.  However, through the critical eye,  one sees all the problems in our rendering of the holiday.  So I will have a nice meal with my girlfriend and write a letter to my family, but I will go on my normal daily life.  The possibility and joy of giving thanks is worth having another day for, but this is hardly what Thanksgiving is actually about.