Zero Squared #24: Open Thinking

Jun 24th, 2015 | By | Category: Articles, Zero Squared

zerosquared24C Derick Varn is the guest this week and we discuss Adorno's notion of “open thinking” as it's opposed to praxis. Varn is a reader at Zero Books, a poet, and a University Lecturer and what we really discuss is an essay I wrote as a way to clear my head. This was a draft of an essay that will eventually end up on Truthdig, but which for now I'll just include in this week's shownotes. The title of the essay is Open Thinking vs. Praxis.

The music and voices you'll hear in this episode will include Bryan Magee, Peter Singer, Pink Floyd on the Ukulele, a Ukulele version of the 1970 hit Popcorn by Hot Butter, Brendan Cooney, Anne Jaclard, Ricky Jervais, Stephen Merchant, Karl Pilkington, and Schoenberg's 3 Piano Pieces.

Open Thinking or Praxis?

The purpose that has fallen to them in a society based on the division of labor may be questionable; they themselves may be deformed by it. - Theodore Adorno, Resignation

There is nothing easier than to type up a list of the dangers, inequities, and injustices that appear before us everyday. We can find such a list in the New York Times, on yahoo news, or on our Facebook newsfeed, and without even looking we already know that today the police have murdered another unarmed black man, that another frog or fish or insect has disappeared as climate change continues unabated, and that there are at least six different ways poor people are being screwed listed on Buzzfeed. So, given this is the case, given the need for radical social change is as pressing and evident as ever, it may seem a strange to suggest that the thing to do is to turn to philosophy, or to advocate for what Theodore Adorno called “open thinking.”

Still, this is what's needed, precisely because, while another world may or may not be possible, the reasons to seek it abound. Philosophical thinking is necessary because only such open, undirected, impractical thought is free from the imperatives of the very system we're attempting to change. Anything practical, any thought connected to action or politics, any position that appears to be obvious, already fits into the present system.

On May 29th, Christopher Hedges spoke at the Left Forum. He introduced a panel entitled “Why Marx Was Right” with some observations of his own about how capitalism is supported by ideologies that appear to be obvious because they are useful for the reproduction of the current “means of material production” already operating, and in this way serve the ruling elites who own and control these means.

Hedges began with a quote from the preface of Marx's “The Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.”

No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.

Therefore, mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since looking at the matter more closely, we always find that the task itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist, or are at least in the process of formation.

This would, on it's face, appear to be an argument against “open thinking” or the posing of problems in the abstract apart from practical concerns or plans for action. However, such a simple reading of Marx would preclude social change from the start. In fact, reading this passage (and the rest of Marx for that matter) provides us with exactly the kind of opportunity for open thinking or free reasoning that is necessary for radical social change to have a chance.

Let us take a close look at this to see, first, what the passage means and then if it might be true.

No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed.

Historically this isn't true. All one has to do is look back at the history of warfare and, even more, genocide to see that social orders disappear before marshalling all their productive forces. If we think of the American Indians, for instance, we can see that the social orders of various tribes were wiped out by European settlers and did not reach a moment of transformation wherein the productive forces of, say, the Apache had been fully developed. So the unstated assumption here is that we are speaking of social orders that are self-transforming, where the change arises out of the social order itself. Marx covers the other kind of change, the change wherein capitalism destroys another social order by force, in Capital Volume One, Chapter 26 when he writes on primitive accumulation, but in this preface he covers less ground and focuses his attention more narrowly as he sets up an examination of political economy in the abstract or on its own.

New higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself.

This seems quite obvious almost a truism. It is simply saying that you can't make something out of nothing, or that what is materialy impossible is never realized in the world.

Therefore, mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since looking at the matter more closely, we always find that the task itself arises only when the material conditions necessary for its solution already exist, or are at least in the process of formation.

This follows from the truism that came before it, only it is important to mention at this stage that we're not talking about ideologies, opinions, ideas but tasks, or more still modes of production. So this is not claiming that mankind never sets iself problems that it can solve, but that it never sets itself tasks that it can't solve. Again, the keys here is that we're working on the level of the total society never setting itself a collective task that it doesn't have the ability to solve. A society does not invest its resources in preparing for a flights to the moon before there is any material basis for the building of rockets. Again, the key to this passage is the word task as opposed to thought.

So, this passage doesn't quite close down the possibility of “open thinking” quite as completely as we might have at first concluded. Marx does not say that all ideas have to have a material basis before they can be thought up or worked out, but that societies don't set themselves the task of solving problems in the world when those problems are entirely imaginary. Now, another word for a task that society has taken on, another word for these social formations or modes of production might be “praxis.”

Now, the temptation at this point would be to reduce the notion of a task or of praxis to the level of a simple thoughtless action, but this would be to tilt to far in the other direction. Marx is no more writing about action on its own than he is writing about thought on its own. These productive tasks are theoretical as well as practical. That's what the word “praxis” points to. A praxis is the kinds of thought or problem that can be acted out or solved in the world.

"The chief defect of all materialism up to now (including Feuerbach's) is that objective reality, what we apprehend through our senses, is understood only in the form of the OBJECT of contemplation; but not as SENSUOUS HUMAN ACTIVITY, as practice; not subjectively. Hence, in opposition to materialism, the ACTIVE side was developed abstractly by idealism... Feuerbach wants sensuous objects really distinguished from objects of thought but he does not understand human activity itself is OBJECTIVE activity." --Karl Marx

Now it's here that we might dare to speculate a bit more openly ourselves. That is, having determined that open thinking or philosophy as we're calling it and pure action can be separated out in thought but can not be turned toward social tasks except when deployed together and, even then, only so much as the tasks or praxis develops materially we might pause to ask to what use can either side be put if kept in isolation? That is, why advocate for “open thinking” when such thought is one sided, atomized, and unreal?

The answer is that such open thinking has a function as critique. Open thinking or unrestricted reason would be purely negative, limiting, defining and describing the world and our struggles in it, up until the point as thought is seized by active forces and turned into the world.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Comment