There is yet another spectre that plagues left-wing thought and that is hypostatization. Now in logic, we could call this reification, but given that this has a specific meaning in Marxist circles, I am going to avoid using that term. Hypostatization is attributing substance–as in whole object substance–to an abstraction. Now, I say spectre because hypostatization generally not total or explicit: total hypostatization would be to attribute material substance on a not material abstract. No, most of us are not that foolish.
The recent for this is not just the standard reification problems as implied in Marxist’s theories about alienation from human social relations, although this is definitely the case for everyone. The issue is more direct: the abstractions that the left thinkers must deal are processes and relationships of near infinite complexity, and so short hands emerge: ideology, culture, civilization, capitalism, etc.
For many of these things are vital: capitalism is a specific process–one which is not an ontological totality, but is a totality of perception and social relations. The tendency to move it from this spatial-temporal system of human relations to something with ontological value is a problem of hypostatization. Previously, I rejected a Hegelian conception of totality for this recent, but I no longer believe that is necessary. I was rejecting instead the hypostatization of capitalism.
Similarly other left-thinkers have had similar problems in the ideological frameworks: for example, Zerzan and Jensen’s attack on civilization. This treats the relationships implied in technology as a ontological whole to be rejected as a whole. One must fight “civilization,” but the more I try to get a primitivist to give to a clear conception what civilization is, Zerzan is the only one that will give me a clear answer: all abstract thinking. His vision of society would require the removal of frontal cortex. Yet, most people define civilization as the social structures around agriculture or around Western industrial economies or more often than not: it is a sublime enemy that is empowered by its vagueness. It is an abstract that is given substance in such a way that it no lower signifies anything.
Reading Ben’s blog I have to struggle with a similar problem when dealing with culture. Cultural essentialists generally have a culture as pattern of life somehow essential to a national character or a social relation. Yet this cannot be further from truth historically as cultural patterns are often only noticed in their absence and hypostatized in reverse. Ben asks the question:
Here is the core question: Are we merely victims of such over-arching cultural shifts or can we control them to a certain extent? If we are victims to these underlying cultural factors, then we are victims to all of society and any political action becomes mere blind fumbling. But how to convince people to take culture seriously? Everyone on some level probably knows culture matters and yet few people ever give it much thought. Unless this changes, we will continue to be victims.
To which I ask: how can culture be an agent as it is only a descriptor of the interactions of human relations? Culture does matter but it merely a description of the process interactions between social relations and ideas about social relationships in time. It cannot be an agent of social and political change because it is not a thing. Yet it is a descriptor of a valid set of processes so, yes, “culture does count.” Class for example is a similar descriptor of a set of social relationships: class war is a war—literally and/or metaphorically–between collective groups in a way determined by economic and political relationships. The antagonism between these groups and their interactions between differentiated sets is very much real, and thus the structure has an effect on people’s lives. Yet if you lose sight of the fact class is a abstraction description of the effects of economic and political processes between human beings, then you have missed the point.
Ben doesn’t use this language, but his attempt to define the way culture is used actually does get at this problem. However, he can’t find the language to go far enough: “I’m speaking of cultural paradigms. What is the cultural paradigm that makes some particular social/political/economic system or lifestyle seem possible and desirable?”
The question is hard to warp your head around and one can see the struggle there, but one of the reasons is that reality tunnels (a term I think Ben gets from Robert Anton Wilson) don’t emerge from abstracts but from the physical realities the abstractions describe. The social and political systems (life styles) are different ways of approaching human social interaction in the collective sense. They don’t over-determine each other because they are description of human relations and the predicated subjectivities that emerge from those interactions. Culture doesn’t determine that: it reflects it.