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Who speaks? by Dylan Riley

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Microverses comprises over a hundred short essays inviting us to think about society—and social theory—in new ways. Lockdown created the conditions for what Adorno once termed ‘enforced contemplation’. Dylan Riley responded with the tools of his trade, producing an extraordinary trail of notes exploring how critical sociology can speak to this troubled decade. For the first week of October, we'll be publishing an excerpt a day.

Who speaks?

The problem of representation is perhaps the problem of politics. The ambiguity of the term—to portray, and to act as the agent of—has been the focus of a great deal of attention. Perhaps the most valuable part of Bourdieu’s sociology deals with this issue. What has not been sufficiently emphasized is the centrality of the critique of representation from the standpoint of the humanized society. The representative, especially of a subordinate group, always stands in an ambiguous position. She tries to speak on behalf of the group’s interests. This raises the whole well-chewed complex of arguments about how the principal (the group) can control its agent (the representative). But there is a more basic problem that needs addressing. This is the interest that the agent has in the preservation of the group as it positively exists. The phenomenon is the reverse of what is usually called “vanguardism.” Through this interest the agent is bound to the existing social order just exactly to the extent that only in the existing order does the group exist as a positivity.

Lenin described the phenomenon as “trade-union consciousness.” What he meant is that the trade union leader, as an organizer for increasing the value of labor power, only has a function in a system of wage labor: that is, where labor power is a commodity. To that extent, the union leader has an interest in the maintenance of capitalism through his interest in maintaining the group called “workers.” The role of the revolutionary in Lenin’s thought is, in contrast to the trade unionist, to represent not what the class is (possessors of the commodity labor power), but rather what the class might be (the core of the humanized society). Du Bois discusses the formally very similar problem of the “race man”: the representative of the race whose interests become bound up precisely with the reproduction of the race as it exists, and therefore of the entire society that produces it. Booker T. Washington might be thought of, in this sense, as a conservative “trade unionist” of race.

One can hear already the cry of “vanguardism” in relation to what has been said above. But the charge is based on a dogmatic understanding of groups: particularly the idea that group existence is exhausted by positivity. But social existence cannot be equated with positivity, since it is shot through by what is not. The positive view regards the social world as a collection of two-dimensional totems with names such as “class,” “race,” “capitalism,” and so on. But all such social realities contain their own negations as part of what they are. The working class in Marxism, for example, is crucially also potentially the negation of the working class, and indeed the negation of class as such. The question of which dimension of the class is to be pursued—its positive interest as a group of owners of the commodity labor power, or its negative interest in the self-dissolution of the class in the humanized society—is ultimately not a scientific but a political question. Similar points could be made in relation to any social category. Should the positive interest of the race be pursued, or rather its negative interest in not being a race? Should one speak on behalf or as the representative of women, or rather against the category of gender? Questions such as these show how the apparently most general and abstract ontological issues are in fact of burning political urgency.

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