or, another rejection (this one, from the Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, theme: Errans)
Abstract: In contrast to the importance placed on acting in theories of the revolutionary subject in the twentieth century, this project explores the errantry of contemplative activity. Going astray “in the mind” leads, both in political and in psychoanalytic theory, to the philosophical problem of preferring and “preferring not to,” to preference, the mediation of freedom and necessity, of unconscious and conscious desires. The project aims to highlight forms of activity that have been historically marginal in traditions of revolutionary thought and action, such as contemplation, spectatorship, the private realm, aesthetic judgment, and reproductive labor. The project takes up the central question proposed by the core project Errans: how can the negative capacity of errantry be maintained without its being valorized as negativity and thus reinserted teleologically? In answer to this question, I propose to explore the aesthetics of preference, which encompasses various attitudes of contemplation and spectation that are employed in the realm of political activity and can be seen to underlie actions or movements described as errant.
Beginning in the 1970s, Marxist theories of revolutionary transition have tended to emphasize the importance of what I call “negative preference,” a moment that is supposed to escape, through a form of negative agency, subsumption into the system of capitalist production. Theorists of negative preference, such as Deleuze, Hardt and Negri, and Ranciére, have frequently applied Melville’s Bartleby’s utterance “I would prefer not to” as one of its absolute instances, but I argue that this version of negativity is also a form of errantry, a truth statement that produces further questions about freedom and necessity. During the last fifty years, feminist Marxists who argue for the importance of reproductive labor, including Maria Mies, Silvia Federici, and Selma James, have provided ways for thinking about freedom from the reproduction of circumscribed choices within gendered institutions. Taking up the problems of freedom and necessity marked by these traditions, contemporary thinkers of revolution craft a space for contemplation as a condition of praxis, but the tendency of theories of change is to convert the tension between the voluntaristic (or contemplative) subject and an involuntary negativity into a form of necessary action or the necessity of practice. More often than not, passing over moments of spectation and contemplation reflects gendered assumptions about the priority of practice, dismissing depoliticized forms of life that become equated, through the idea of preference as personal choice, with liberal and neoliberal dispositions and with deliberation about “means” rather than about “ends.”
In contrast to the importance placed on the necessity of acting in theories of the resistant or revolutionary subject, this project explores the errantry of contemplative activity. It provides a counternarrative to these stories of the resistant or revolutionary subject by looking at the subject’s tolerance—rather than its sublation—of the conflict between voluntary and involuntary activity. Going astray “in the mind” leads, both in political and in psychoanalytic theory, to the philosophical problem of preferring and “preferring not to,” to preference, the mediation of freedom and necessity. The project aims to highlight forms of activity that have been historically marginal in traditions of revolutionary thought and action, such as contemplation, spectatorship, the private realm, aesthetic judgment, and reproductive labor. This project takes up the central question proposed by the core project Errans: how can the negative capacity of errantry be maintained without its being valorized as negativity and thus reinserted teleologically? In answer to this question, I propose to explore the aesthetics of preference, which encompasses various attitudes of contemplation and spectation that are employed in the realm of political activity and can be seen to underlie actions or movements described as errant.
Although not herself a Marxist, I turn to the texts of Hannah Arendt, written during the sixties and seventies, to work through the problem of freedom and necessity as it pertains to judgment, contemplation, and the gendering of these faculties within the Marxist tradition. The project develops a theoretical framework based on the Arendtian notion of “preference,” which Arendt introduces through the Aristotelian term proairesis (literally pro-airesis, a “choice before choice”) to describe a “proto-will” involving the ambiguity and mediation of freedom and necessity. In her 1970 The Life of the Mind, Hannah Arendt describes proairesis as a faculty that modifies willing, meant to establish an alternative to the development of willing as the realization of thinking into action.
Arendt does not develop preference as one of her central terms, but it returns in her discussion of the importance of judgment, where preference refers to the desire to “go astray”: “I prefer before heaven to go astray with Plato rather than hold true views with his opponents [Errare mehercule malo cum Platone…quam cum istis (sc. Pythagoraeis) vera sentire].” Preference is thus an articulation of the voluntary-involuntary nature of willing in general, and of the role played by aesthetic judgment in thinking and acting. I argue that insofar as it represents the problem of the voluntary-involuntary subject, preference underlies contemplation and errantry. Its claim to validity departs from accepted or normative truths, but rather than being a purely active negation of the truth, this departure signals an acceptance of the ambiguity in acting and spectating, and in the production of truth and error.
Turning from Arendt’s formulations of preference as an aesthetic activity that tolerates the ambiguity of spectating and acting, I explore the problem of the voluntary-involuntary subject in work that seeks to rearticulate the terms of private life in order to produce a resistant subject. I consider how writers have sought to transform literature into a forum in which an automatic resistance to capitalism can be theorized as a matter of aesthetics, and as a poetics. I explore this politicization of literature in several different contexts: the problem of “coerced freedom” in global feminist work of the 1980s (Maria Mies, Rosemarie Trockel, Silvia Federici, Selma James); the construction of the “other” in European poetry of migration (Zafer Senoçak, Zehra Çirak); and contemporary anticapitalist poetry’s intolerance of “apolitical” poetry (Jennifer Moxley, Joshua Clover). Methodologically, the project examines how literary form as poetry has borrowed from sociological models of political agency, but has also complicated sociological notions of history and subjectivity by giving poetic form to the epistemological aporia of the voluntary-involuntary subject.
In bringing together Marxist discourse, Arendt’s writings on preference, and anticapitalist poetry, I focus on two main theoretical issues: the concept of transition, or how necessity is overcome to yield freedom, and the priority of action as a mode of subjecthood. Arendt’s thinking about revolutionary transition and her critique of Marx form an important point of tension with post-Marxist ideas about the immanence and the immediacy of revolutionary transition, because while Arendt also critiques the idea of the transformation from necessity to freedom implicit in the transition, she helps us to think about how making the transition immediate, or doing away with it, does not solve the problem about freedom—or how, in modern thought, freedom is surrendered to necessity. Safeguarding freedom in periods of transition becomes important in the literatures I explore, which think about how contingent needs and desires are the first things to be destroyed in moments of crisis.