Means Without End: A Paroxysm of Praxis

A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything. Nietzsche

Monday, October 30, 2006

Conversations with Laclau in an Historical-Materialist Dystopia

Report from the Rethinking Marxism Conference, October 26-28, 2006

The events depicted below are indeed true, and reproduced with the
greatest attention to accuracy as is humanly possible.

CONVERSATIONS WITH LACLAU: [Scene 1: Ernesto Laclau serendipitously
sits down at a table I am sharing with some Canadian Benjaminians.
Laclau's intent is obviously to talk to a Puerto Rican woman, Julia,
who befriended me earlier in the day after a brutal session on the
relevance of Foucault. I have had three beers on an empty stomach at
this point; Laclau enjoys big glasses of wine. Laclau strikes up a
conversation with me, since I am between him and Julia. Talk is
choppy because Laclau either does not understand English that well, or
he is hard of hearing; I did not ask him which one was the case.
Eventually, after a good, though intermittent conversation, I have to
ask him a favor.

Oliver: Ernesto, I need to ask you a question.
Laclau: A what?
Oliver: A question.
Laclau: I'm sorry, I did not understand.
Laclau: Oh, a question! [smiles] Yes, yes.
Oliver: Ernesto, do you want to be part of a joke?
Laclau: A what?
Oliver: A JOKE, Ernesto, A JOKE.
Laclau: Oh, you have a joke. What is it? I like jokes.
Oliver: No, no. Would you like to be part of a joke.
Laclau: [blank face]
Oliver: Ernesto, do you need some more wine? You are looking a bit
empty there.
Laclau: In a little bit, in a little bit, my friend. What is your joke?
Oliver: Well, I do not have a joke, per se. I am asking if you want
to be part of a joke.
Laclau: Oh, you want me as a joke? What is it.
Oliver: Well, listen, in my department, there are people who have
adopted many of your terms and seemingly unconsciously use them--or
pretentiously use them, I do not know which--in any case, they use
your terms in their speech…
Laclau: In my speech? I am not following.
Oliver: No, no Ernesto. I am not talking about your speech. LISTEN TO
ME. There are some people in my department who use some of your
phrases in their speech. They have a sort of Laclauian syntax-i-con,
if you will.
Laclau: I'm sorry, I did not understand that last word.
Oliver: Nevermind, nevermind. It probably comes from Zizek.
Laclau: [laughs, because him and Zizek are not on good terms at the
moment] Oh, he likes words.
Oliver: Well, who doesn't, besides Marxists. [Laclau laughs] Anyhow,
people use your terms a lot, which is not even my point. My point is
that I'm asking you to be part of a joke.
Laclau: Okay.
Oliver: So, I was wondering if you would write the following down on a
piece of paper…
Laclau: You want me to write something? [suspicious look]
Oliver: Well, I'm not asking you to publish anything. Come on. I am
asking for a kind of autograph.
Laclau: [looks around, possibly for an escape route]
Oliver: [picks up on Laclau's anxiety] No, no. I'm not asking for an
autograph. Please Ernesto, I am an anarchist; I don't ask for
autographs. Don't let the scarf and hat fool you. I like your jacket
by the way.
Laclau: Thank you, its a London Fog.
Oliver: Oh! I have a camel hair London Fog, but it looks terrible on me.
Laclau: [gives an agreeable head-nod, as if he understands the
tragedies of clothing]
Oliver: No, seriously, I'm asking you to write the following joke
autograph. Just hear me out. Can you write the following for me:
[Laclau listens] "Dear UK geography department: I am articulating an
autograph, and you can take that chain of equivalence to the bank.
Ernesto Laclau" Can you write that?
Laclau: [chuckles] No, I will not do that.
Oliver: [stereotypical Chomsky gestures are now flailing about the
table] Are you serious? You will not write that down.
Laclau: No, I do not do such things. [laughing]
Oliver: [raised eyebrows] Wow, well I know who's not making my
Christmas list this year.
Laclau: [laughs] You are a character, my friend. [gets up to get some wine]
Oliver: Hey Ernesto, can you get me a beer while you are up?

[Scene 2: Later in the evening, Laclau and I, both obviously
uncharacteristically inebriated, are in an unmoving elevator together

Laclau: Hey, what was [garble, garble]?
Oliver: Excuse me, I did not catch that.
Laclau: I said, what was your name again?
Oliver: Oh, Oliver.
Laclau: Yes, Oliver. Oliver, the elevator is not moving.
Oliver: Yes, I noticed. [looks at the floor button panel] Did you
press a button?
Laclau: No. I did not. I thought you did.
Oliver: No, I thought you did. You didn't press a button. Try
pressing something. Sometimes I fear touching things that could be
over-germed, if you know what I mean. Sometimes I use my scarf to
press buttons in the winter time.
Laclau: [Gives blank stare to Oliver; then laughs; presses 'ground
floor' button]
Oliver: [laughs, puts hand on Laclau's shoulder] Well, I guess that solves that.
Laclau: What? I did not understand.

CONFERENCE: I am not a Marxist. I have been saying this to many of
you for months now, but it is now apparent after two days at the
Rethinking Marxism conference in Amherst that I _really_ am not a
Marxist. Remember that scene from Brazil when the police open up the
ceiling of a family apartment on Christmas eve, and the family starts
screaming and frantically falling over themselves at the sight of the
police kidnapping the father of the family, thus ruining Christmas?
Well, it seems that I am (along with a couple of other younger
'post-Marxist/structuralists') the bad cop at this conference,
stealing Marx from pink old men who are frantically screaming and
falling over themselves at the sight of discourse and any theory
written after 1979.

This conference is an invasion of the tyrannical Old-Pink-White-Male
Brigade that also makes its appearance at SEEDAG and in the demography
sessions of the AAG, but with a strange twist: conversations are very
much concerned with whether one can actually have a commodity outside
of capitalist society; whether Mao is actually relevant or just
marginally relevant; whether the machines are going to kill us all,
and how should we prepare for them. All the while, we can
rhetorically assuring one another that we are definitely living in an
imperialist state that is merely resolving its contradictions of
capital overaccumulation in Iraq (which is, of course, partly true).
Capitalism is doomed, the socialized humanity of Marx will prevail.
Don't fuck it up by reading Deleuze and Guattari, you pomo panzy brat.
And what's up with your sheek glasses, and Euro-style? Are you
stylistically wearing a scarf and newsie hat even though it is 55
degrees outside? More importantly, is that a
@#$&^!#&*$*#!$^(*@#$@!%@#$%@&!@!@#&!%$*^@#$&^ IPOD?!?!? Next thing
you know, this Lyotardian (i.e., tea-cup Marxist) commodified chump
will be smoking a pipe to make a fashion statement.

The strata of C-M-C is ever present and the strictest of mottos here.
Flighty Benjaminians, misguided Foucauldians, and vulgar Hardt and
Negri readers should never forget the lessons of C-M-C. If you do not
know what C-M-C is, well, you are not working hard enough! I lucked
out by actually knowing C-M-C when it was thrown in my face (I knew
all that reading of Marx would come in handy) in my session on
sovereignty in Hardt and Negri. How it was relevant, I still do not

But, in a strange twist of fate, I am an unwanted breed [how did this
happen?]. Marx, Marx, Marx… that is what we are supposed to be
concerned with. For example, I was at a session today where a woman
presented a very pleasant paper on Foucault and Marx. She was
concerned with the connection of genealogy and critical theory, and
she tried to argue that in later Foucault, one can see that Foucault
is 'going back to Marx,' by focusing on the 'arts of governing'
involved in political economy. The famous chapter on 'The Working
Day' in Capital represented, to this woman, a good example of a
Foucauldian analysis… which if one were to be nice, one could say that
this kind of reading of Marx is absurd—again if you are being nice.

So, I briefly comment on this paper with the simplest of critiques:
Marx is interested in sociological description, whereas Foucault is
interested in genealogical techniques; two very different approaches
to social relations.; the gaze is not literally alert everywhere;
Foucault should not be conflated with critical theory. Without
getting into the particulars of the ensuing conversation (this was a
session on Foucault, Marx, and Benjamin), the woman eventually said
the following: "I'm fine with Foucault. But there are those people
out there who say 'We need LOTS of Foucault and very little Marx'
(obviously directing this statement to me, apparently the only
'Foucauldian' in the room), but I say 'no,' we need LOTS of Marx and
very little Foucault" [followed by a succession of ISO-esque
head-nodding from the crowd]. Genealogy is now historical
materialism. This, I believe, sums up well the conversations I have
had thus far at the conference. Please, do not ever call me a
Marxist again.

SYNOPSIS: Nevertheless, there have been some very, very good papers.
Some of the arguments, especially by the Benjaminians from the
University of Alberta, are admirably sophisticated. In fact, this
conference makes me think of geography as some what a tragic
discipline, since there are so many people (including myself) who want
to intimately work with particular theorists, but there is this
hegemony at work that forces us to always feel as if we have to
reference the keywords of geography whenever we are engaging in
analysis… to the behest, I think, of developing more sophisticated

Even though most of the sessions here are discussing topics that I
feel to be absolutely irrelevant, this is conference that has a great
amount of potential, and should be taken over by poststructuralists of
all stripes. Especially those poststructuralists who are fine
dressers, and enjoy elitism and bourgeois taste (you know who you are,
don't be ashamed! Lauren and I just stocked up 8 lbs. worth of
gourmet cheeses for the winter!).

AMHERST FOOD: The Amherst micro-brewery here is awful, but the
northeastern version of BBC (Barefood Beer Company) has a very good
ESB and pale-ale. I have not at all been impressed with the food,
though there is a good coffee shop, Lou's Coffee shop, where one of
the employees sported a "Process over Product" arm tattoo. I also
want to give a shout out to Domino's Pizza, who drove me back to my
hotel the other night when I could not get a cab. I will never forget
that I delivered my first pizza to myself in Amherst, MA.

AMHERST 'LANDSCAPE': Le Corbusier and Van der Rogh utopia. Nothing
seems to have been built before or after 1969. I have counted ONE
brick building on the campus, THREE in town.


  • At 6:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    its so difficult to the world beyond argentina to undestand that laclau is a peronist? i think it is dificult specially for the first world, you know the definition of politics but you dont konw what it is. marxist is impossibl here (argentina)


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