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Note on the presentation 'A. Kiarina Kordela's thought: real abstraction, historical blocks, meta-phenomenology'

17 February 2023

This is a note on a recent excellent presentation and ensuing discussion within STP. I only have a cursory understanding of Kordela's thought, and so the following is more my attempt at connecting certain (possibly misunderstood) ideas together, rather than a commentary on her work. Comments are welcome!

Kordela's "epistemontology" is the investigation into the homology between being and thought. Commodity fetishism is the condition that distorts this connection, making the two sides coincide only insofar as they are both posed in terms of value. Value is the "ubiquitous object of knowledge, from economics, aesthetics, ethics, and accounts of subjectivity and society, to ontology". Epistemontology studies the historical-political (in particular, "secular") mechanisms which contribute to this closure, but also what it leaves out, namely what Kordela calls the "power of self-actualization" that is the other side of the homology obscured by capitalism.

Kordela traces this closure through Sohn-Rethel's real abstraction: the effect of commodity exchange is to both provide the a priori categories of human thought and to hide their roots in the unconscious via the division between intellectual and manual labour. Here we are working with a materialist concept of the unconscious: not only are there "thoughts without a thinker" that could be bound and worked through within a clinical context, but social activity is itself a form of thought without a thinker. Žižek's definition of ideology, which is Sohn-Rethelian at its core, is also a starting point for epistemontology: "social reality whose very ontological consistency implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence". Here, we can translate "ontological consistency" to be what of being passes through the filter of value. And the "non-knowledge of its participants" is of the connection between social practice and abstract thought, as their separation is rendered as just a fact of history (or economic reasoning) rather than something continually reinforced.

The way that being appears to thought is therefore conditioned by commodity exchange under capitalism. In Kordela's account, structuralism, which she generalizes from the particular 20th century theoretical movement to the episteme of capitalist modernity, is privileged for its access to being qua value. Structurality for Kordela names a real, common aspect of reality and thought (the other being potential for self-actualization). She identifies it with modern science's absorption of natural phenomena into mathematical structures for example. However, capitalism makes use of structuralism to propagate itself, which leads to the question of the precise mechanisms at work[1]. This is of interest to us since the wager of STP on "organizational trinitarianism" seems to depend on the same mechanisms of structurality to be repurposed.

Kordela identifies commodification with discursive constructions, and ultimately with our accession to biopower. Everything can be seen and understood insofar as they can be commodified or turned into a sign - think of the intimate ties between marketing and surveillance. Jodi Dean's work on "communicative capitalism" is well suited to illustrate the point. The telos of communication today is not understanding (although this is also true for psychoanalysis) but the circulationism of the market. Messages disppear under their measurement by impressions, what matters is virality, or the potential for something to be shared in a network. Although this is presented as a kind of closure in line with Kordela's view of the present episteme, we could also identify the potential of self-actualization at work here. We can ask: why do some messages have the "correct structure" to circulate and become viral and some do not?

This question is similar to what a marketing executive might ask their ad department, but we would rather consider it in the terms of political organizing. In order to answer this question from Kordela's standpoint, which is a Spinozist position, we'd need to consider the corresponding "shape" of the message and how it fits with the "shape" of the episteme. One could ask the same regarding commodity exchange and production. What makes some commodities the proper shape to be composed together via exchange, production processes, supply chains, and so on? This type of question is both structural and about self-actualization, since it involves analyzing a shared structure (value) but also the potential of actualizing large scale social structures, of which commodities are only a part. Value specifies one particular type of link, but it does not exhaust the nature of composition in general.

In the Primer, a currently unpublished text written within the research program of STP, we put forward a reconstruction of Marx's concepts within the framework of category theory. We show that if we consider commodities in terms of "spaces of operations", we can enrich Marx's original insights with a much more powerful grammar, capable of grasping more phenomena than what is legible within capitalism itself. This could be called a Yoneda approach to political economy.

Also, in our presentation on Compositionality and Generative Effects we touch on ideas from Elie Adam which seem to correspond to the "potential for self-actualization" which in the sciences could be translated to emergence. In our series on Memory Evolutive Systems we analyzed an interesting formulation of this in terms of "the multiplicity principle" by Ehresmann and Vanbremeersch.

These various tools can be thought mathematically, but more importantly, they give us useful "intuition pumps" for rethinking politics today. Here we return to what Kordela calls epistemontology as well as Sohn-Rethel's thesis. From the STP standpoint, what should be done with regards to this flattening of reality in terms of value, where even basic categories of thought regarding being are conditioned by the exchange abstraction? First is to assert that the compositional and generative aspect of our most basic social operators are not well understood yet. It is possible that one can take two "simple" operators and produce a "complex" one, which is not reducible to value. Or one can find new ways to locally stitch together social space which look quite different than what would be recognized in the present episteme. I see this as something which STP attempts to vindicate by finding formal tools that are capable of expressing both structurality and novelty.

We can say (along the lines of Kordela's argument) that, within the space of compositions that are possible with value, there is a certainly a limit on our access to being. We can see this in the way communication technologies have warped society in the past few decades. But even these limits should not be taken as a given, something which tends to happen when you formulate these things in terms of an ontological closure. What STP strives to do is to evaluate ideas on the merit of what experiments they allow, rather than their ontological claims. With regards to Kordela's (or anyone else's) thought, this entails a certain caution on our part towards over-committing to positions which do not directly translate to organizational matters.

  1. Kordela puts forward the idea that with Marx and Freud/Lacan, we get glimpses of this alternate path through structuralist thought which would overcome the division. With Marx, to posit labour power as the source of use and exchange value is to assert that both types of value are manifestations of the same potency. With Lacan, enjoyment plays the same "monist" role with regards to subject and Other. From this, Kordela arrives at the following theses which are expressed on the one hand as ontological/temporal and on the other as political. The ontological thesis is the eternal aspect of being, where eternity ought to be distinguished from infinite regress. Labour power ought to be thought not only in its capacity to be concrete labour (diachronic) or as exchange value (synchronic), but also in its eternal self-actualizing aspect. Enjoyment escapes the subject-Other axis when it is thought in the eternal register as ethics, or Spinozist Joy. The political thesis is that biopolitics is the art of hiding finitude (concrete labour occurring diachronically) and commodifying eternity (pseudo-enjoyment). The outcome is something akin to Mbembe's necropolitics and Agamben's homo sacer: the human population today is partitioned along racial lines from the standpoint of capital-nation-state and its arbiters (which she associates with an illusion of immortality rather than any specifically biological or ethnic categories), with sub-races subject to a naturalized, decriminalized death. ↩︎