Thursday, January 3, 2013


Experience presents a peculiar problem for both philosophy as such and any critical theory in particular.  The scope of the problem is covered in as complete a manner as one can do in a single book by Martin Jay's Songs of Experience and I read it with the idea of working through the problem in a more systematic manner.  Sadly, I think that the book is not quite adequate for such a task.  It is not per se unhelpful or lacking in scope so much as it is too committed to not being committed.  I believe J.M. Bernstein has a sufficiently insightful review of the book and its limitations here.  I would only add a few small comments.

The first is a nit-picking issue, which is that in his discussion of mourning and melancholia, related to Freud, Jay manages to have the discussion in almost the exact same terms as those of Gillian Rose, whom he knew and eulogized after her death, but he does not give any credit to her nor take the problem as far as he could have if only he had recognized her.  The second matter is that his treatment of Hegel is too perfunctory and shallow.  The Phenomenology of Spirit is literally a phenomenology, a book dedicated to the experience of spirit.  Merely mentioning the introduction and then giving a brief gloss seems a little weak in comparison to the extensive coverage of Schleiermacher or Dilthey, never mind the eve less interesting secondary writers.  However, I believe this lack of attention goes hand in hand with Jay's own problems which lead him to the morose end of the book, as Bernstein notes in his review. 

Not only is experience a significant concept for Hegel, however, but it plays the central role in classical pragmatism and in the eyes of Marxists who read Hegel and Marx via pragmatism, most recently and of interest to me, Nicole Pepperell.  Experience is also not a small matter for Critical Theory.  Jay notes it, talks about it, but never invests it with any real excitement and it is hard to find in his discussion the importance it takes on there.  Maybe part of it is that Jay seems largely fixated on Walter Benjamin and I am not particularly enthralled by Benjamin, while the entirety of the problem of one-dimensionality enunciated by Adorno and Marcuse is about the loss of the capacity to experience in a way that would lead to a mass challenge to capital, but also maybe the opening up of something else.  Moishe Postone's discussion of one-dimensionality in Frankfurt School critical theory, following on their theory of state capitalism is important here because Postone lays a ground for salvaging its insights without giving in to what John Holloway and Werner Bonefeld have referred to as the Frankfurt School's "Cassandra call".  

This recourse to Postone's critique of labor dovetails with Pepperell, and it is of course over philosophical issues that Pepperell is most at odds with Postone.  Further, I believe there is a discussion flowing from Gillian Rose's critique of an adequate conceptualization of the subject and subjectivity in Marx.  This is most evidently worked out in her Hegel Contra Sociology, but I believe other sources for this working through can be found in her collections of essays as well.  

If I am correct, then an adequate thoerization of experience remains a project.

A few notes on how I conceive of experience will have to suffice for the moment.

Firstly, I agree with the general problem presented by Adorno and Marcuse that something frustrates the capacity to experience capital's domination systemically.  However, I think that they have recourse to something that is both too transhistorical in the notion of the "dialectic of enlightenment" which finds its roots in antiquity, and also which falls victim to a traditional Marxist notion of labor and the critique of political economy.  On the latter, I believe that Moishe Postone's critique of Friedrich Pollock's theory of state capitalism as the underlying source of the notion of "one-dimensional man" is both correct and largely adequate.  Postone does not link the question to experience, which is fine.  I think there is a point where one realizes that only so much can be done in one book and by one person.  Nonetheless, Adorno and Marcuse provide a wealth of material to begin thinking through the problem.

Secondly, if there is a wealth of material in Marcuse and Adorno for taking up this problem, Hegel and Marx both have an immense amount to contribute that is not merely reproduced by or even taken up by the Frankfurt School.  Hegel's Phenomenology has to be rediscovered in its experiential dimension by critical theory.  Marx's Capital also has to be revisited, both in how we read the development of the categories, and on this Postone and Pepperell are both important to reclaiming a notion of experience in the work.  Most critical to a rethinking of experience is Marx's critique of commodity fetishism.

Thirdly, I do find some value in the separation of Erlebnis and Erfahrung because the kind of experience we are interested in is not simply that of what happens to us, but what we do with what happens to us.  Experience and thought go hand-in-hand.  If I read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit seriously, then I should reflect on what has happened to me, how what I am reading applies to my life and to the world I inhabit, and my comprehension of those thing should be transformed.  If that happens, then I have had a new experience, a new erfahrung.

Such a thing happens in the process of social struggle.  I knew a guy from the Staley workers' lockout in the 1990's in Decatur, Illinois who was one of the top union activists in the strike.  He had been special forces in the Vietnam War, very patriotic, the kind of guy today who might have been a Tea Party type, except in the course of the strike his whole outlook was transformed.  Most of this was the strike, some of it was who he met from the people doing strike support work, but he did not merely consider his immediate situation, but how he understood his past and what he was going to do going forward.  His experience was not merely the strike, but the transformation of his comprehension of his past, present and future.  Old experiences, erlebnis and erfahrung, came under a new erfahrung and thus under a new comprehension in which many of his old concepts of his experience, his very conceptual categories, changed.  He became open to, was, one might even say, compelled towards, a critique of capitalism as a whole.

This is what I understand by experience, and yet, like Adorno and Marcuse, I feel that there are things about capital and its phenomenological expression which impede the capacity to experience in a way that opens up a 'we' who require for our practice and can comprehend because of our practice a systemic critique, a critique of capital as such and not merely this or that moment.  These things are bound up with Marx's comprehension of the fetish character of the commodity and the abstract nature of domination qua capital, the indirect domination by pseudo-objective relations rather than the direct domination by persons.  However, as capital develops, the phenomenological forms of this domination change and, in my opinion, these new phenomenological forms, such as the concrete labor process and formation of lived space, do not merely develop the material possibility for the overcoming of capital, for the abolition of labor, but also impede the experience of the phenomenological forms as just that, as forms of capital as a mad totality.

1 comment:

  1. 'Thirdly, I do find some value in the separation of Erlebnis and Erfahrung because the kind of experience we are interested in is not simply that of what happens to us, but what we do with what happens to us. Experience and thought go hand-in-hand. If I read Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit seriously, then I should reflect on what has happened to me, how what I am reading applies to my life and to the world I inhabit, and my comprehension of those thing should be transformed. If that happens, then I have had a new experience, a new erfahrung.'

    The problem seems to be that of imposed constraint, apperception and interpellation. We can only experience that which we can experience. And yet there is a possibility for experience to recalibrate (to use an ugly mechanical term) our capacity/quality of experience. But this cannot be predicted, it is convulsive and unlooked for. We cannot authentically announce that we are going to a concert in order to learn to like the composer and thus 'raise' ourselves spiritually... that treats experience acquisitively (like Tumblr blogs which pile up quotes, music and images as namechecks).

    At the salon we have discussed 'umwelt', there are obvious limitations but even so. The slogan we might have arrived at through this is something like, 'the subject must work itself out to the point of exhaustion' (exhaustion hunting being a current motif).