Seeing the End in the Beginning I: Assembling Ideas, Composing, 22/06/2016

When I worked full-time in the academy, I met a lot of people who were trapped in very insular worlds of thought. They were worlds of scholarship. 

Academia is a profession where you have to establish yourself by building expertise. I tried a strategy of breadth – building networks across universities, across disciplines, across countries, and developing multiple research projects that draw on related research fields. That’s one way.

It's all too easy to vanish into the library
of babel called academic scholarship and
end up never writing anything of real
cultural importance again.
Others choose specialization. You pick a particular sub-discipline or debate within your field and develop complete knowledge of this narrowly focussed region. 

Nietzsche poked fun at this attitude in Zarathustra with his image of the biologist who knew everything there was to know about the brains of leeches, but nothing else. Not even anything about other leech body parts.

In humanities fields, there are some key figures where, if you want to be known as a specialist on the work of this particular person, simply putting in the required effort makes you a narrowly focussed hyper-specialist. There’s so much secondary material, so much commentary, that it’s barely possible to find any time to focus on anything else.

But the professional culture, especially in philosophy, could get so combative that the least gap in your knowledge of commentary could disqualify you from expertise and damage your professional reputation. 

When it comes to figures who have the most overwhelming commentary volume, I can think of a few easily. There’s Plato and Aristotle. Immanuel Kant and Georg Hegel. Martin Heidegger. Wittgenstein is one. Nietzsche, ironically, is another. Then there’s Marx.

I think Marx is worst of all. Two reasons. There an enormous amount of commentary on the works of Marx by both professional academics and equally respected intellectual revolutionaries from the past. But there’s also that weird hypocrisy of dedicating yourself to advancing Marxist ideas and politics from the position of a tenured professorship in a largely corporate-controlled university.

Now, I plan on using a little bit of Marxist thinking in Utopias. Not a lot. Just a few ideas about the material nature of history and what drives social change. I draw it mostly from Louis Althusser’s interpretation of his work. 

Maybe a little from Jean-Paul Sartre’s ideas about social change and group formation in his Critique of Dialectical Reason. Some critical remarks from Antonio Gramsci. A lot of ideas from the anarchist end of the tradition, like Mikhail Bakunin, Colin Ward, and Emma Goldman. I may head for some of Rosa Luxemberg’s ideas later on. 

And, as you can tell from the last couple of months, a hefty portion of Antonio Negri’s uptake of Marx-inspired philosophical tools into the era of the knowledge economy.

You have to be careful with any project involving Karl Marx’s thought because of the immense gravity of the whole corpus. The strength of vitriol and intensity of emotions that Marx’s work inspires in the wider political field only contributes to that gravity. 

German actor August Diehl played the young
Karl Marx in a European television film of his
early years as a scholar and labour organizer,
which was released only this year. I have no
idea if it's actually any good.
If you’re going to use any ideas or references of Marx in any project, you have to be very careful not to get sucked into the maelstrom of the Marxist tradition. Use a pinch, and the next thing you know, your entire project becomes about Marx and Marxism. 

Let’s not do that.

See, Utopias the book isn’t just going to talk about political principles and arguments, though that will happen throughout the manuscript. I’ll frame those political principles in an account of how people understand and interact with history and memory. 

The living human experience of time, basically. Experiencing the present moment or era in terms of the real or imagined past, or an ideal, dystopian, or conservative future. Understanding the past in terms of its future, either as a journey or a purpose. Understanding the future in terms of our past or our present.

And I’m beginning to notice – as I read Althusser’s For Marx, remembering some interpretations from Negri and critical points from Gramsci’s essays – a set of ideas about the human relationship with time. That relationship is a matter of how we understand the way we relate to our own history, and how our history relates to us.

Althusser made his reputation as a philosophy scholar with a series of essays that changed how people read Marx. It used to be there were two general takes on how Marx’s ideas developed. 

One camp saw a radical break between more idealist early works and a purely materialistic approach after the 1840s. Another read the early books and essays as preparatory material for his real culmination in Capital

Neither is right. The reason why lies in the nature of time, development, and change. . . . To be continued

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