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Ray Brassier

Final Repression & Reproduction, Presupposition and Struggle


Final Repression: Adorno and Marcuse on the Antinomy of Progress
Capitalist ideologues equate progress with technological advancement. Anticapitalists retort that this advancement serves only the accumulation of capital, whose cost is exploitation and immiseration. The identification of progress with the domination of nature provokes the counter-identification of nature with non-domination, which becomes antithetical to progress. At one pole, progressives identify civilization with freedom from nature; at the other, primitivists identify nature with freedom from civilization. Freedom is either progressing independence; or the regression to dependence. In either case, freedom’s negative definition vitiates its positive substantiation.

Freud subverts this attempted demarcation of positive from negative, as well as the antithesis of dependence and independence. He does so on two counts. First, through his suggestion that hominization is repression. Second, with his discovery of the return of the repressed. Just as culture can never rid itself of nature, nature can never be purged of culture – not because both share a common ontological substance, as postmodern monism would have it, but because each can only be grasped as the negation of the other. If all repression entails the return of the repressed, repression is what makes human freedom at once possible and impossible. Thus the progress of freedom is inseparable from the progress of repression.

This antinomy plays a fundamental role for two Marxist thinkers heavily indebted to Freud: Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse. But each tries to resolve it differently. In his 1961 essay ‘Progress’, Adorno suggests that progress is not cumulative advancement but the perpetually reiterated resistance to regression. By way of contrast, in ‘Progress and Freud’s Theory of Instincts’ (1968), Marcuse maintains that repressive progress culminates in the sublimation of repression, releasing creative spontaneity from blind compulsion. The question is how, in the case of Adorno, resistance breaks with repetition, and how, in the case of Marcuse, repression sublimates itself. These are the two questions we propose to investigate.


Reproduction,Presupposition and Struggle: Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval on Marx’s Two Logics

For classical political economy, capital is accumulated labour serving as a means for productive, living labour. Marx’s critique of political economy re-embeds this process of accumulation within the social relations that it presupposes. Capital is not just a means of production but a social relation wherein living labour becomes means for the accumulation of dead labour: “It is only the domination of accumulated, past, materialized labour over direct, living labour that turns accumulated labour into capital.”[1] The social relation of domination conditions the process of accumulation. It is this relation that turns accumulated labour into an independent social power subjugating living labour. Accumulation requires domination, but domination requires accumulation. Capital cannot reproduce itself without reproducing labour-power, but labour-power cannot reproduce itself without reproducing capital.

This dynamic of reciprocal presupposition has encouraged the characterization of capital as a system integrating (or ‘positing’) its own presuppositions in the form of labour-power and the class relation. The reproduction of capital reproduces the class relation as its precondition, but it reproduces it as an intra-systemic relation. Yet at the same time, the reproduction of labour involves historical practices that capital presupposes but does not produce. These practices contribute to the reproduction of the class relation even as their origins and ends diverge from it. Thus they constitute class as an extra-systemic non-relation. Chris Arthur’s observation that labour is both inside and outside the class relation extends into the suggestion that it is inside as a systemic relation and outside as a motley of historical practices.

In their reading of Marx, Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval distinguish capital’s conditions of genesis from its conditions of existence.[2] This is the distinction between capital’s systemic and historical presuppositions. The systemic reproduction of presuppositions is traversed by the historical production of presuppositions that remains external to the system. Consequently, Dardot and Laval distinguish two distinct but complementary logics at work in Marx’s thought: a systemic logic of reproduction, whereby capital posits its internal presuppositions, and a strategic logic of struggle, whereby humans produce the historical conditions of their own reproduction. Communism is neither the ineluctable negation of the contradictions inherent in the former, nor the affirmative goal towards which the latter necessarily tends: it names the irreconcilable tension between these two logics. We will examine the ramifications of these distinctions as well as the implications of this characterization of communism.

Ray Brassier obtained his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Warwick in 2001. From 2002 to 2008 he was a Research Fellow at Middlesex University’s Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy. Since 2008, he has been a member of the philosophy faculty at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. He is the author of Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Palgrave Macmillan 2007). He is currently writing about Marx, freedom, and fate.

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