Friday, 4 September 2009

The necessary inertia of philistine invention

I was looking back on my earlier "Melissa Gregg" post, and it got me thinking about possible positive connotations to the Foucauldian "technologies of the self" I had referenced there in only a fairly negative way. Suddenly I remembered Thomas Osborne. His work is highly attractive to me as it marks an escape from the cul de sac I see the aforementioned Harman and his defenders in the blogosphere trapped in, and the same might be said of their detractors, at least to the extent that they too play the game of subjectivism: i.e. this is at base a struggle to decide who has a monopoly on the creative energy needed to avoid disenchantment of the world. It logically follows, according to the fatuous standard of reasoning favoured by this select group of speculative realists, that those with the highest [sic] productive output have the requisite enthusiasm, meaning their opponents can only be parasites (or rather, "vampires").

Osborne in effect simply refuses these oppositions. Although the logic behind his argument is too complex to detail in full here, I can at least mention how Osborne speaks in terms of "philistine invention" rather than "creativity", and why the meaning and value of inertia, in his estimate, must also be rethought:

"One might observe at this point that not the least thing about the activity of inventiveness is that it is difficult, and that because of this one cannot necessarily see it happening at the time. Inventiveness is more often than not untimely –hence the critical import of the verdicts of posterity and, correspondingly, the necessity of a certain ‘negative’ aesthetics of creativity, the humility of acknowledging that even in acknowledging creativity itself we do not know what creativity is as such. What looks like inertia for some comes to a more objective, later generation as evidence of a breakthrough. And what might seem like a breakthrough can come to seem just like further inertia when viewed from a later more objective perspective. So, in the terms given currency by Stanley Cavell, it is precisely acknowledgement rather than knowledge that is the only orientation we can take towards inventiveness itself. In the light of history, in the light of reflection, the experts can tell us that Cezanne was a subject bearer of various powers of inventiveness. But was he a creative person? No matter. Such a question is an irrelevance, an effect only of our psychologism."

Suffice to say, this discussion becomes suffused with irony when speculative realists start to defend themselves by resorting to psychologism! Is a little methodological consistency simply too much to ask for? Speaking as someone who was trained as a sociologist, I can at least console myself with Osborne's observation that "sociologists make better philistines than most". I can't expect "philistine invention" to feature in the aforementioned epistemic wars. Part of the problem here is the medium of the blogosphere itself, the "clusterfuck" immediacy of which has proven especially receptive to that theoretical imbroglio known as "cultural studies"- an anti-discipline defined in part by consciously distancing itself from sociology.

But even in cultural studies circles there is growing recognition of the virtue of a sensibility somewhat comparable to "inertia", as Osborne defines it; in these rare cases it is acknowledged in all but name that Weberian disenchantment is a product of the increasing rationalization of academic labour. There is a difference though in the academy because the problem is not so much that academic journals are adapting to the shortened economies of attention that blogging and Google searching have accustomed readers to, but rather how academics are routinely expected to "multitask". Irrespective of the medium they engage with, (books, print journals or e-journals), what is greatly diminished is the reading time, (i.e. the inertia), required to evaluate and respond to the work of other scholars. To be sure, the fast food analogy Bowles uses to make her point is already familiar from Fuller's book on the transformation of universities by "knowledge management" principles, but it would go against the grain were a cultural studies scholar to cite a sociologist. In any case, her point still appears valid, and also further ratifies Ben Agger's argument that the "publish or perish" mentality is really a symptom of what he calls "fast capitalism".

I'm puzzled, however, why some bloggers (again, as referenced in my Melissa Gregg post) would attempt to present necessity as something of a virtue i.e. when you are destitute because of precarity you are obliged to keep moving, but this mentality merely engenders the dilemma Simmel once described:

"The frequent changes in fashion constitute a tremendous subjugation of the individual and in that respect form one of the necessary complements to social and political freedom."

There may be one final twist to this tale. By extension Osborne teaches us that a careful reading is necessary to understand that creativity is more than just an ideology. Indeed, this is his primary justification for rejecting the category of creativity and replacing it with the more inertia ridden idea of inventiveness. For an example of a contrasting perspective though, one need look no further than Ben Watson's rush to judgement:

"So I was forced to leap up and seize the microphone to voice my criticism of the way French philosophy, ever since Kojeve's lectures on Hegel, has hobbled along with a flawed dialectic; Sartre, Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze, Bourdieu, Badiou...they're compromised rubbish, and for very concrete reasons: France having had the most reactionary Communist Party on the planet...craven aspiration to bourgeois academic fame; the inability to think beyond the mind/body dualism of Descartes...which dualism immediately manifested in the conference as a stand-off between explanations of spectral music as a result of 'nature' or science'."

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