Historical materialism is a methodological approach to the study of society, economics, and history, first articulated by Karl Marx (1818–1883) as “the materialist conception of history”. Historical materialism looks for the causes of developments and changes in human society in the means by which humans collectively produce the necessities of life.
The question becomes this: have we reached a point wherein we simply do not have a materialist basis for emancipation? Or is the trouble ideological?
Also, this week marks the beginning of Douglas Lain’s “Think the Impossible” Kickstarter campaign to fund his upcoming podcast and book tour.
The book is entitled “Billy Moon.” It is due out from Tor Books in August, and it tells the story of an adult Christopher Robin Milne, the man known best for his childhood relationship with a stuffed bear, and his entirely fictional involvement in the French general strike of May, 1968.
The podcast, entitled Diet Soap, is a weekly interview show focusing on philosophy, surrealism, and what I think of as the problem of Late Capitalism. Guests on the program have included Penelope Rosemont of the Chicago Surrealist group, the radical author Michael Parenti, and Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping, and many others.
The title of the tour, the imperative to “Think the Impossible” relates to both the podcast and the novel. In May 1968 one of the slogans spray painted on the streets of Paris was this:
“Be realistic, demand the impossible.”
John Zerzan is an American anarchist and primitivist philosopher and author. He is a critic of civilization and especially agriculture and he wants to return to a more primitive collective life. He advocates the nomadic life of prehistoric hunters and gatherers as a potential future.
Zerzan was the guest on Pop the Left #4 where we discussed the idea of reification and took a close look at Zerzan’s own notion of nature. This month on Pop the Left C Derick Varn and I speak briefly about the Zerzan interview.
Clips from an interview with Steven Vogel on the radio program Against the Grain, of George Bush singing an REM song, and from Monty Python’s Life of Brian can be heard in this one, and Varn and I discuss potential future guests.
Nicholas Pell is again absent, but plans to return for a future episode wherein we’ll discuss historical materialism.
You can now leave a voicemail message for Pop the Left and participate in the show. Just head to speakpipe.com/poptheleft and leave us a message.
Pop the Left update: 911 Truth after politics Alex Jones cointelpro conspiracies conspiracy theories conspiracy theory endless war George W Bush Infowars patriot act reptilians
C Derick Varn and Douglas Lain return for the third episode of Pop the Left, a podcast dedicated to moving beyond the impasse in Left politics. This week we take a look at conspiracy theories, the psychology behind them, and the Left’s inability to cope with the prevalence of this approach to politics. Does the bourgeois left benefit from conspiracy thinking? Can we get beyond our own tendency to blame conspiracies for our ideological and political failures? Was 9/11 an inside Job? Did we ever land on the moon? What about entryism?
Three years out of the Zero years and the attendant Bush administration, are we finally ready to face up to the how the Left turned over radical politics to the likes of Alex Jones and David Icke?
Next time on Pop the Left Nicholas Pell will return. Possible subjects to mull over: What is Historical Materialism? What should we make of the Arab Spring? Marxist Humanism and the Self Thinking Idea.
The critical theorist Theodore Adorno, for example, didn’t like Capitalism even a little bit. Of course, he also disliked Jazz, television, magazines, suburban bungalows, and women’s bare breasts. In fact, after three German hippies bared their breasts and scattered flower petals over his bald egg head to protest one of his boring lectures on Dialectics Adorno was so shocked that he went and died of a heart attack just a few months later.
I’d bet that those topless protesters didn’t like Star Trek. I’d guess that neither Adorno nor those hippie girls bothered to watch the last episode of Star Trek (entitled “Turnabout Intruder”) when it aired at the beginning of Adorno’s last summer. They were in Frankfurt, Germany for one thing, and couldn’t have watched the show if they’d wanted to, but I think they would have avoided it even if Star Trek had been broadcast on the ARD.
But the common view amongst those who disliked Capitalism was that television, like religion, was a kind of opiate for the unwashed masses. A show like Star Trek was just another Technicolor spectacle with scantily clad green-skinned women in go-go boots, futuristic novelty toys, and rubber faced lizard men in orange and red metallic kilts. And the real point of it all was to make the viewer buy things. Or, as Adorno put it:
Let’s say that Adorno was right. Star Trek really did exist solely to sell Camel Cigarettes, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dodge Chargers, Cheer laundry detergent, and a load of other crap that nobody needs, but what was doing the selling? Gene Roddenberry’s vision of a communist future sold Pop Tarts to an America where McCarthy’s House of UnAmerican Activities committee was still subpoenaing guys like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin.
Adorno wrote an essay “How to Look at Television” and in it he goes about the business of hunting down latent messages in police procedurals and light comedies, sort of tracking down the subliminal messages, but he didn’t think that these latent messages were planted intentionally. Rather the police procedurals and light comedies put the subliminal messages in all on their own. He wrote, “As soon as an artist has set himself his problem, it obtains some kind of impact of its own; and, in most cases, he has to follow the objective requirements of his product much more than his own urges of expression when he translates his primary conception into artistic reality.”
And that’s the point. Adorno should have watched Star Trek because the objective requirements of a science fiction show forced sci-fi television writers to produce shows that embodied the very dialectical contradictions that Adorno was always lecturing about.
Adorno distrusted what was easy. Most everyone who dislikes Capitalism distrusts what’s easy. If you’ve ever read one of their magazines you’ll see how difficult they like to make things. They’ll take something entertaining like Avatar and drain the life out of it trying to use philosophy to explain it. But, that makes no sense. There’s no reason to write an essay explaining Avatar by referring to big ideas like Kant’s categorical imperative or Cartesian doubt. Avatar isn’t complicated. In fact, what’s needed are articles and essays that do exactly the opposite. Critics should be explaining Kant by referring to Avatar, or explaining something even harder, like Hegel, by pointing to Star Trek.
Here’s an example. Take the master slave dialectic from Hegel’s Phenomenology:
“The master is the consciousness that exists for itself; but no longer merely the general notion of existence for self. Rather, it is a consciousness existing on its own account which is mediated with itself through an other consciousness, i.e. through an other whose very nature implies that it is bound up with an independent being or with thinghood in general […] the master gets his recognition through an other consciousness, for in them the latter affirms itself as unessential, both by working upon the thing, and, on the other hand, by the fact of being dependent on a determinate existence; in neither case can this other get the mastery over existence, and succeed in absolutely negating it. We have thus here this moment of recognition, viz. that the other consciousness cancels itself as self-existent, and, ipso facto, itself does what the first does to it.”
So that’s gibberish, but think about this.
In the Star Trek episode “Shore Leave” McCoy, Kirk, Sulu and a few other members of the crew beam down onto a world that is supposed to be empty but that looks at first to be teeming with what Hegel would call “other consciousnesses.” The computer’s sensors weren’t wrong exactly, they just led people to the wrong conclusions. There is only plant life on the planet, but this plant life is entirely manufactured and can be twisted around and repurposed into anything a person can think up. And when people start encountering people and things that they themselves are thinking up the experience is unnerving.
SULU: Do you think the Captain will authorize shore leave here?
MCCOY: Depending upon my report and that of the other scouting parties. You know, you have to see this place to believe it. It’s like something out of Alice in Wonderland.
(As Sulu crouches down behind some pampas grass, McCoy turns and looks straight at a white rabbit in a check jacket, yellow waistcoat, and looking at a gold pocket-watch.)
RABBIT: Oh, my paws and whiskers! I’ll be late.
(It heads off down a hole. Then a young girl comes running up, wearing a blue dress with a white apron.)
ALICE: Excuse me, sir. Have you seen a rather large white rabbit with a yellow waistcoat and white gloves here about?
(Wordlessly, McCoy points in the direction the rabbit went. The girl curtseys nicely)
ALICE: Thank you very much.
(She runs off after the rabbit)
SULU: What is it? What’s the matter?
MCCOY: Did you see them?
SULU: See what?
Like Hegel’s master, McCoy is undermined by this encounter and reports himself unfit for duty after it. His problem isn’t only that he’s seen something silly, something from a children’s story, but also that what he saw fit too perfectly with his expectations and thoughts. He was already thinking about Alice in Wonderland when she impossibly appeared. Alice “canceled herself as self-existent.” That is, Alice couldn’t have been real because she was just McCoy’s daydream. McCoy saw her, recognized that he himself was the source of her, and figured he couldn’t trust his own mind. Put another way, in Hegelese, once the master negated his object he himself was undermined. The degree to which Alice wasn’t real was the degree to which McCoy lost himself in the very moment of recognition.
What other big ideas are illustrated in Shore Leave? Many, maybe too many. It starts with Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit and works its way to Marx, but there is some Freud in there too. The story is like Hegel at first because it starts out where Hegel started, with perceptions and ideas, but the episode ends on a Marxist and materialist note. It’s the story of a dream planet where the crew’s dreams and desires are instantly manufactured materially. Their ideas aren’t creating material reality, but rather the social and material conditions of the planet that they’ve landed on allow for the division between thought and action to be overcome. It turns out that an advanced race of grey haired extras dressed in sequined robes have bridged that gap and turned their world into an amusement park.
We get all the way to the end in Shore Leave. Hegel’s idea of the Absolute, or the realization of one’s self, is depicted:
McCoy realizes that the gap between thought and action has been overcome, and gets to choose. He can pick the two cabaret dancers wearing bras made from neon fur on his left or take Kirk’s red skirted Yeoman on his right.
And there’s a lot of stuff in-between the Master/Slave dialect and the Absolute: Kirk gets into a fist fight with his memory of an Irish space cadet named Finnegan, Sulu remembers and then finds an antique pistol and starts shooting, and Kirk’s Yeoman is nearly raped by Don Juan when the machines take her fantasies too literally.
So maybe there are a few problems in it. Maybe Star Trek doesn’t quite reach the end or solve the whole thing, but the ideas that guys like Adorno were wrestling with are there, and watching Shore Leave can help us try to think about them.
Another guy who doesn’t like Capitalism, an Adbuster named Kale Lasn, was recently asked about this idea he had called Occupy Wall Street. He was asked to describe just what it was and what the fuss was about, and he gave an answer that even a sourpuss like Adorno would have liked. An answer that shows just how important William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy will turn out to be.
The interviewer for Solutions Magazine asked: Imagine that the Occupy movement achieves everything you think it can. What does the world look like after this ultimate success?
And Kale answered: It’s all about producing a different type of human being. Like the Occupiers who slept in the park. Their cynicism dissolved and they were engaged and they merged into this different kind of human being.
Kale was right. If you try to imagine a world after Capitalism you’ll pretty quickly realize that what will be different will be the people who’ll be living in it. What that means is that in order to get past Capitalism we’ll have to change ourselves. And given how difficult losing a few pounds or giving up smokes can be, the kind of change we’re facing, the kind that goes all the way to the ground, can seem impossible. Maybe that’s why most people seem to have given up on the whole idea of anti-Capitalism. It’s so hard to even conceive of a life after Capitalism that even leftist intellectuals, the supposed troublemakers, don’t try it.
For example, the art historian and anti-Capitalist TJ Clark wants us to forget the idea. He wants to not only forget the idea of getting past Capitalism, but also suggests we give up on the idea of the future as well. In his recent essay For a Left With No Future he asked, “What would it be like for a left politics not to look forward—to be truly present-centered, non-prophetic, disenchanted, continually ‘mocking its own presage’?”
The answer to Clark’s question is already here. A present-centered and non-prophetic left looks pretty much just like the two Occupy Wall Street coma victims that appeared on Stephen Colbert back in November of 2011.
Ketchup and Justin Wedes had no idea about the contradictions they were carrying around. On the one hand they said they’d been selected by the general assembly at Zuccoti Park to speak to Colbert about Occupy, and on the other hand they were just two autonomous individuals and that the group had not given them any authority to speak on their behalf. Why they needed to go through a consensus process to be given permission to act autonomously was not explained.
Colbert made short work of them.
“Who’s your leader? Because a good cult needs one.”
“There is no such position,” Ketchup said.
“Let’s create one. I nominate me.”
Without any idea of a collective future, Ketchup and Justin were stuck. They had to make due with what was on hand, what was lying around in the present, and all they could find were childhood nicknames like “Ketchup”, strange Quaker hand gestures, and self-help aphorisms.
You have to sympathize. After all, big smart guys like Adorno fell down flat when they tried to answer, but what we should expect from activists like Ketchup and others is that they at least take a look at the problem squarely. And the easiest way to do that is to watch a couple of episodes of Star Trek.