File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0106, message 26

Date: Tue, 05 Jun 2001 21:17:10 -0500
Subject: Re: [Fwd: Weeping in a Toyota Tercel]

Steve and all ---

I see your response as complementing rather than negating what I
previously said regarding the metaphor of social contracts.   I want to
focus here on just a few comments you made (and which I am probably
misunderstanding) in the interest of continuing this discussion and
perhaps extending its scope.

First of all, I don't believe that what I am proposing is "the dominant
left perception of the post-modern global economy."  I think most of
those on the left tend to fall into one of the following two positions. 

Those who are orthodox Marxists and others see capitalism as a kind of
Rube Goldberg machine, destined to self-destruct as a result of its own
unstable actions.  They see the internal contradictions being so great
capitalism cannot maintain itself much longer.  (They are perhaps the
secular equivalents of Christian fundamentalism.)  Others, the cynics,
Baudrillard pomos, followers of the Frankfurt school and the world-weary
lefties see universal co-option and a Juggernaut system of hyperreal
global management that has become invincible. These Cassandras see their
role as one of transgressively bemoaning our dark, limited, dystopian
future - 1984 Forever and all of us damned to the eternal return of the

The view I am presenting falls somewhere in between these two, I think. 
What I was emphasizing was that workers have a certain degree of
inherent autonomy and power. Capitalism only works if the workers show
up on time. Worker's actions force a response on the part of management
and this dynamic is hardwired into the underlying relationships that
constitute capitalism.  Call it the differend or class struggle, as you
please, but recognize this inherent conflict is what drives our
contemporary history.

According to my reading of Lyotard, I see him as also occupying a
similar position.  The political question Lyotard consistently presents
to us throughout his heterogeneous writings is this: How does one
continue to oppose capitalism in the absence of a revolutionary subject?

Lyotard sees us as singularities, rather than subjects or individuals,
negotiating our way between the human and inhuman.  We experience
ourselves as the figure that interrupts the discourse, the sublime
feeling that passively resists, but resists nonetheless, the totalizing
Empire of Signs.  We choose and act even where no rules or paradigms
exist, and by virtue of this reflective judgment each of us asserts his
or her own power and autonomy.

Kant also regarded the dynamically sublime as revealed to the mind in
those objects of nature characterized by might and dominance which tend
to inspire fear in us.  Here is what he said in his Critique of

"Consider bold, overhanging, and, as it were threatening rocks,
thunderclouds piling up in the sky and moving about accompanied by
lightning and thunderclaps, volcanoes with all their destructive power,
hurricanes with all the devastation they leave behind, the boundless
ocean heaved up, the high waterfall of a mighty river and so on. 
Compared to the might of any of these, our ability to resist becomes an
insignificant trifle .... we like to call these objects sublime because
they raise the soul's fortitude above its usual middle range and allow
us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist which is of a quite
different kind, and which give us the courage to believe that we could
be a match for nature's seeming omnipotence." 

As others beside Lyotard have said, what distinguishes the contemporary
post-modern sublime from this Romantic conception is that today
technology, capitalism and the planetary work machine have replaced
nature as the majestic objects capable of evoking the sublime. Perhaps
what I am calling autonomy is simply that part of us which resists
capitalism and which the planetary work machine can never fully absorb. 
What Kant termed the supersensible is the excess; what cannot be
encompassed unto the grid of representations, what remains after the
productivity is extracted and strip-mined from inside each one of us and
remains as an alien and an exile in the very midst of capital.

This leads us back to the old question - what is to be done. Maybe I
misunderstood you, but if you thought I was urging a return to the
politics of the sixties, this is not what I meant at all. I don't
believe in tie-dyed Utopias or paisley paradises.  I also don't want to
return to the thrilling days of the Welfare State, socialism or the
union of the soviets.  Politics is always more than just a program. The
old dreams of the past are now over and good riddance.  

My approach to history is an open and dynamic one. It attempts to avoid
metanarratives of emancipation and all forms of eschatology, whether
religious or secular.  As long as there is life, there will be history
and politics in one form or another - the perpetual disequalibrium of
spontaneous orders.  However, the idle hope remains that someday history
will be closer to play than to terror.

I do think that the following are among the more interesting long-range
possibilities available to us currently:

1. I agree with Gorz concerning the transnationals.  I am not arguing
for anti-globalism.  I want to contest instead what globalism means and
how it is received.  As one example of this, what if labor was allowed
to become as mobile as capital currently is - no visas, customs,
immigration etc. - Global citizenship.  Of course, this idea seems
hopelessly utopian today, but what about 100 years from now?
2. The resistance to work needs to be continued, not merely as a
strategy, but as a means of undermining the capitalist relation of work
as domination.  Whether this takes the form of a Guaranteed Annual
Income or some other form remains an open possibility to be tested and
3. As I have argued here before, the free exchange of information is of
paramount importance.  The whole idea of intellectual property is merely
the imposition of the old industrial forms upon the new economy. 
Outside the framework of capital relationships; i.e. work as the primary
form of legitimization, the idea becomes nonsensical.  This leads us
into the new contract of cybernetic potlatch.  One that is based upon
cooperation rather than competition as the basic paradigm - the
co-evolution of sustainability.
4. This also leads back into a consideration of religion and the idea of
a countervailing ethic as the basis of a new contract. This is a topic I
will defer for another post.


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