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Reading Camus Politically
This will be the first part of a series of essays seeking to rejuvenate absurdism in a revolutionary context.
Unity is dead. Unity remains dead. This is not because we have killed it, but because it was never more than a golden calf built by the recesses of the human psyche, which prostrated before it so long that in delirium, the calf seemed to speak. What wonderful stories did it tell, that of a watery arche, of a plane of eternal forms, and primarily that of a human and interpretable world. It was easier to bow before the calf and let reason subjugate perception to the calf than it was to stand and walk into the endless desert. The kneeling man may be plagued by doubt and uncertainty, but subordinates himself to the idol. To the standing man, the situation is utterly absurd.
Too often, Marxists present the philosophy of Albert Camus as either irrelevant, or a handmaiden of the capitalist order, serving to direct an alienated proletariat away from the goal of communist revolution, and to some philosophical position of pacification. I do not deny that the politics of Camus certainly left much to be desired, but his political conclusions are often achieved by a subordination of his philosophical work to a burning hatred of “Socialism of the Gallows”. I do not lay claim to any sort of “true absurdism”, but just as Marx turned Hegel on his head to produce a vulgar materialist, in this essay I will strive to bring out the elements of absurdism that have value to a worker’s movement.
I will begin with a recapitulation of the basic tenets of absurdism. The absurd is not a condition of the human mind, nor is it an innate fact of the world. It can only exist as a confrontation and a difference between man and the world. The absurd simply put is the clash between the “irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart” and the simple fact that “this world in itself is not reasonable”. It cannot exist without either. However, it is foolish to say it is merely the sum of human reason and an unreasonable world. To illuminate this, I would like to bring into focus Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas of “the whole”. The whole is not the sum of its parts they say, the whole is grafted onto the parts, and it is what links them and organizes the ways they can relate. An example of this is the family unit, which is not made of just the mother, the father, and the children, but exists as their roles and organizes how they behave. The children must respect the authority of the parents. The parents must provide for the children. None of this is made manifest in their inherent characteristics, it is all contextual. The Absurd is similar. Camus reminds us “for the moment [the Absurd] is all that links [man and the world] together”. The Absurd is a disjunction between Man and World, and the whole they form, but it is not an exclusive disjunction. It spawns its own distances we must fly over, as D&G remind us an inclusive disjunction must.
If we accept this as the basic character of the Absurd, how do relations between man and man work? Other men exist in the world, this is the first clue. The Other is simply all that is outside of oneself. Men do not appear to act or think in accordance with one’s own reason and predictions. Others can thus have this quality of unreasonableness that is one of the two components that generate the Absurd. The Absurd then exists as the element of uncertainty in every social relation, and can always be found in a double-bind: I may be uncertain of another’s actions, and similarly, they are uncertain of mine. The realization that others have lives outside of your own is always one of the most profound in the life of a young child. As the series finale of Neon Genesis: Evangelion reminds us, the only way we have a self concept is by differentiating ourselves from our internal representations of other people. However these representations are a flawed copy of others who are going through very much the same process. Because of this, we can never discover unity in our relations with others, not even the fascicular unity.
However, society continues to function. Billions of dollars circulate each day built on predictions of what others will do. Workers go into work and labor just like their boss demands of them. How is it that this uncertainty is subordinated? It is through the use of power. In Futurability, Bifo defines power as that which excludes possible futures. Power is the antidote to uncertainty. Power however cannot be absolute, and the political automaton can not account for everything. It can never ward off the Absurd fully, and it can never replace the rhizomatic nature of human connections with an arborescent set of hierarchies and commands. There will always be uncertainty and that which escapes capital. The Absurd can never be exorcised from this world as long as humanity yet exists. No set of universals can ever kill it either. It is in the Absurd we must renew our struggle, outside of the peripheries of the state.
In the next essay, I will discuss how the rhythms of life and poetics as described by Bifo in Breathing and how they can constitute an absurd way of living.