xbn .
eyes by Nikos Mouras CC BY-NC 2.0   
The Brink

The Rupture of Desire: An Interview with China Miéville

The following is a small portion of a longer interview with China Miéville in the journal Political Theology.

China Miéville is a writer whose awards and recognitions include a fellowship in the Royal Society of Literature, a Guggenheim Fellowship for fiction, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Hugo Award, the British Science Fiction Award, the Edge Hill Short Story Prize, and more. In 2001 he received a PhD in International Law from London School of Economics.

Miéville has long since been active on the intellectual and political Left. He is a founder and editor of Salvage, a journal of revolutionary arts and letters, and an essayist who has written widely on Marxism, art, and politics. His most recent book is A Spectre, Haunting, a work of non-fiction which expounds on the Communist Manifesto.

The following is a small portion of a longer interview with China Miéville in the journal Political Theology.

NS: Many people take this religious dimension of Marxism to be a critique, and oftentimes just an outright dismissal, of Marxism; indeed, it is a critique from people on the Left and the Right! Nonetheless, the idea that Marxism sublated Christianity and took some bad aspects of Christianity, namely, trying to immanentize the eschaton, is debated by Marxists. Moreover, if you study Cold War Christianity and its relation to United States foreign policy, you find abundant references to Marx as a leader of a religion with its own sins, sacred texts, and, of course, its own eschaton. Similarly, Enzo Traverso’s Revolution, discusses how Trotsky was so frustrated, owing to his own anti-clerical wishes, that [Vladimir] Lenin’s body was embalmed. As you know, embalmment was imagined as a religious exercise that clashed with Trotsky’s atheism.

Now, you take this quasi-religious structure of Marxism to have some positive attributes and aspects. In A Spectre, Haunting you look at workers who requested that they do not be buried Bible in hand, but with the Communist Manifesto in hand. Again, this is a religious practice and I want to hear why you appreciate that. And, perhaps, offer a response to those who say Marxism should be something entirely other than a religion.

CM: Well, I suppose there is, broadly speaking, a thin and a thick version of my answer. And the thin version is one of which I think is hardly going to be news to the readers of the journal. One of the things that’s become very prominent in the last few years is the notion that many of our political categories are, indeed, theological categories. And you can invert those terms as well. But the point is, there is no hard line between one and the other. Now, I have an argument with the way this is often formulated—again, I don’t want to overstate that there are certainly exceptions—but this is often formulated as if the reason such and such happens politically is because, occultly, this is a theological category that has been transplanted. And because that theological category requires a certain belief, people suppose this is why certain political phenomena are going on.

I would say that’s two different claims. (And, of course, I think that the slipperiness between the categories of the theological and the political seems to me to be just straightforwardly true, really interesting, and worth investigation.) First, I do not think that theological categories demand certain beliefs—I think that those beliefs are always contested. Second, often times that causality of the theological to the political is the other way around; certain politics, which is to say, in our context, certain a political economy predicated around accumulation, demands certain actions which tend to suppose or encourage certain beliefs which can then be justified with the occult theological. With regard to idealism (and I’m not a Philistine when it comes to idealism), there is a smuggled in and rather unconvincing idealism about causality in some of the discourses about political theology.

I want to put that out there as something that needs to be very carefully watched. Theological categories are mostly or very often justifications or aftermaths or resonances or contributors to, but they are very rarely causes. So, there’s a thin category, and as a thin category, why would we think that Marxism as a political phenomenon, as a political movement, or a very heterogeneous political movement, would be immune to that? Of course [Marxism] is going to be rife with theological categories, and those are surly worth investigating. There is, if you like—and there is nothing wrong with this—a history of ideas and of common sense that can be done here and you’ll obviously find there is going to be theological categories in Marxism. What’s more, what goes further, I suppose, is the thicker sense, in which you’re right. It seems to me there is, call it an elective affinity, call it a resonance, around Marxism’s relationship to rupture, revelation, and revolution….

All of which is to say that it’s a question of the causality. Because theological categories are so prevalent and so pregnant throughout our history, we can too easily glom onto them as causes. But why don’t we put it a different way? Why don’t we say people who are oppressed, people who are exhausted—and it’s tiredness that recurs to me as a heuristic for thinking about the unbearableness of the world, how exhausting it is, and how exhausting it’s been for so long—who throughout history, these signifying monkeys called humans, were exhausted and miserable, and had no power of themselves, would not hanker on some level or another for radical alterity. And then it’s no surprise, given the prevalence of religious institutions, and I could provocatively say a certain kind of desire for enchantment in humans, that this desperate desire for alterity will take on a religious form…

Hence, we can bring it back to your question. If you hear about a miner who is at the end of his life in the early part of the 20th century, who knows he is about to die, and he says to the doctor, “Don’t let the priest put the Bible in my coffin and make them put the Communist Manifesto in my coffin,” you can have two relations to that—well, you can have as many as you want—but on the one hand, you have some, maybe a leftist, who says, “Well, that’s illogical, you know you’re going to die anyway, it doesn’t matter what is in the coffin with you.” Or you can say, “That is one of the most profoundly moving and inspiring moments of utopian censored, cleaving towards emancipation that I have ever heard.” It seems to be the height of an intellectual, let alone spiritual, but even just an intellectual miserliness and point missing-ness, to simply say, “Well, there is no God, so there’s no point about what goes in the coffin with you.” That seems to me to be a deeply powerful moment, at which, as you say, cannot be read as other than a religious urge, an urge for the end of exploitation and for a rupture worthy of the name.

NS: For those who have neither read your work nor Marx’s, it may be is very helpful to delineate between what you take to be apophatic Marxism, which we’ve been hinting at, and what you call ‘cataphatic Marxism’—obviously rifting off of these theological categories. How is your apophatic Marxism different than these explicitly cataphatic Marxisms?

CM: … I suppose the brief version would be that there is a certain tradition of what I think of as orthodox cataphatic Marxism, which is about making pronouncements like the universe is knowable, the social universe is knowable, this follows from that, we have our engines of understanding, this is why that has happened. And there’s very little room in cataphatic Marxism for uncertainty or aporia (except to the extent that [cataphatic Marxism] considers it may not have enough data).

I don’t want to sound like I’m parodying this tradition; in the essay I quote Herbert Apthekar, the Communist Party leader who gives a very clear annunciation of this tradition…I feel very fortunate because in the essay and the exchange that followed, I debate with a couple of comrades named [Harrison] Fluss and [Landon] Frim and we completely disagree. However, I’m really grateful to them because they were very clear and comradely, it was not vinegary. I’m grateful for their clear and honest representation of this [cataphatic Marxist] tradition in its modern form (which comes out of the radical enlightenment). They say, for example, “reason must be totalizing or else the game is lost.” They say, “all limits to knowledge are merely provisional.” And they say that such an approach is “wholly necessary to develop a coherent emancipatory program.”

For me this corresponds a bit to what [Ernst Bloch] called the cold and warm streams of Marxism. So, this [cataphatic tradition] would be connected with scientism and economism. But there’s a real danger in reducing it to that; which is to say, “Hey, we’re all hip humanity graduates here and we know that economics is really kind of clunky and it’s all about humanism.” I don’t want to sound like that at all. I come out of and am inspired by the radical enlightenment, I’m inspired by the notion ‘ours is not to reason why,’ the idea of uncovering truths, it is all deeply empowering. Where I differ from that particular school of cataphatic Marxism is in thinking that that’s the end of the story… I don’t want to dispense with the rational elements at all, but I think that element has been stressed overwhelmingly…

The work of Rudolph Otto is so crucial and one of the most elegant ways of breaking the binary model of rationalism and irrationalism. Fluss and Frim, to their great credit, because they’re very clear about this, essentially say you have rationalism and you have irrationalism. And what Otto says is that you have rationalism, you have irrationalism (which he is a big opponent of), and then you have the non-rational…

I simply don’t think that the human agent works on that binary model. I think we work on a trinary model; the non-rational is not in the middle or between the rational and irrational, it’s on a different axis. There is an element to which I find this quite difficult to argue, because to me it is so absolutely self-evident… I won’t keep quoting them, but Fluss and Frim are very, very clear about the idea that in the absence of the rational you have the irrational. And when someone says something like that, one of the things I want to say—though again, I really want to stress these are comrades, I don’t mean this in a pissy way—“What is your favorite color? Why is that your favorite color? Is that rational?” But then, conversely, is it irrational? If I prefer red over green or I prefer blue to brown, clearly that’s not rational. But it makes no sense at all to say that that’s irrational, it is neither of those things. That’s obviously a very glib example, but you can extrapolate from that. And in your questions you mentioned bread and roses. If you have a binary axis, it’s very easy to know why you would want bread, but it’s really hard to understand why you would want roses. Is it irrational to want roses in your room? No, but it’s hardly rational, either. It’s not going to give you any more calories or whatever it may be. So, that is one of the bases of apophatic Marxism for me; it redresses that balance and brings in various elements like psychoanalysis, and so on…

NS: … Regarding these notions of the rational, irrational, cataphatic, and apophatic: there are important debate going on, at least in the American left, concerning desire versus interest. These very rational Marxists, to the likes of the Vivek Chibber and others, are insisting that you can only organize around one’s given material interests—which there is certainly some truth to. However, the question other comrades on the Left are raising is that though people often act according to their material interests, they at time do not act according to their material interests. Thus, there is also another notion some scholars call desire, which is less empirically articulable and perhaps more even libidinal. Indeed, some of the important debates, too, on afro-pessimism and traditional Left politics are pointing to this libidinal aspect of political economy. There are, of course, as we’ve both mentioned, Marxists hesitations to embracing this libidinal economy tout court, but nonetheless the notion of desire and libido does point to this important distinction regarding rationalism and irrationalism, interest and desire, cataphatic and apophatic…

CM: As you would imagine, I completely agree. And this is something that both my work has been doing but also more generally what we’ve been trying to do in Salvage. We’ve tried to relate to these issues concerning the politics of desire (and to try to be generous while doing as much, because I’m really not interested in hip-checking). But it’s perfectly understandable why people on the Left would be very anxious about the idea of organizing around desire. Famously and obviously, fascism is a libidinal politics of aesthetics and desire as much as anything else… And I think that a socialist would be a lunatic if they were not careful and concerned about the idea of tapping into the libidinal economy. But I would turn, if you like, orthodox Chibberism on its head and say you cannot organize only on the basis of shared interest. This doesn’t mean you’re throwing interest out the window; this doesn’t mean interest is not important; however, it does mean acknowledging and pointing out that this paradigm [of desire versus interest] is bullshitting itself.

There are always desire and libido in any politics, so you might as well acknowledge that and work out your relationship to desire and libido. But the idea that you’re this pure sort of mechanistic Chibberite and you’re just going to turn up and explain the interest while not getting involved in politics and desire, you’re kidding yourself. Of course, you’re relating to desire in a certain way and desiring to be a perfectly cool, rational, or whatever it might… Again, I’m not casting as much as at Chibber himself, but I’m saying this particular paradigm is rather enthralled by its own notion while kidding itself about its particular investments…

But when you say you don’t have time for these bourgeois indulgences and niceties or that what is important to you is just the sheer facts in which you’re explaining your shared interests—all of which is why you just default to a picture of a strike on the cover and twelve-point Times New Roman—or that you’re not doing aesthetics or that you’re not invested in a certain type of no- nonsense socialist aesthetic (I mean, you have no duty to use any particular aesthetics, I don’t care about that), but let’s stop kidding ourselves about the idea that there is a clear and straightforward and unlibidinal socialist politics and then there’s the bad socialist politics that gets caught up in libido…

It’s just to say, in the same way as you and I agree that there is no human being without this arational sphere, that there is no human being without the sphere of desire, libido, et cetera. So, how the fuck are you supposed to bracket that element of yourself in a mass movement when you’re talking to other people? I mean, if you can do that, that’s true Promethean superhuman, that’s some Übermensch shit. So, there is a very obvious level in which we should sort of get over this, but I would go further because I think it is an absolutely pressing element of socialist politics to relate seriously to and work out our strategic and ethical relationship with desires and libido. And there are certain points of principle [regarding desire] that can never be; it can never mean lying to people, it can never mean tapping into the reactionary, let alone fascistic, it can never mean denying the complexities of life, it can never mean prioritizing desire to the exception of other socialist pillars, and so on. But given how much of politics exists and happens on the [level of desire and libido], it would be a complete political dereliction if you were not taking that level seriously as part of your political strategy and way of dealing with people politically.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!