Georgic for the World-System
Fredric Jameson famously characterized the psychic life of late capitalism as bedeviled by “senses of the end of this or that (the end of ideology, art, or social class; the ‘crisis’ of Leninism, social democracy, or the welfare state, etc., etc.).” Frances Fukuyama branded the proposition that this sense was more or less true as The End of History. If this was decried at the time as phantasm and delusion, it now seems a clear presentiment of the entirely non-spectral ending currently buffeting the globe. The task at hand is to understand the end necessarily as a beginning, though of undetermined nature — and to grasp this doubled character as an occasion to abandon left melancholia for a total demand.
In his most lyrical moment, the young Marx wrote to his friend Ruge, “when everything is at an end, give me your hand, so that we may begin again from the beginning. Let the dead bury their dead and mourn them. On the other hand, it is enviable to be the first to enter the new life alive; that is to be our lot.”
So I will begin again from the beginning, or at least very long ago, more than twenty centuries ago, with Virgil, who was born the year after the crushing of the Spartacus slave revolt.
Part One: Always Totalize.
Always totalize! This is the majuscule axiom — the maxiom, let us say — for revolution. Revolution is a total thought, a thought of the totality; they are necessarily entangled. Reform, repair, regime change, recuperation: all of these are the politics of the partial, of isolating specific problems as if they admitted of independent solution. Ezra Pound said that the epic is a poem that contains history. What matter that we might amend the last word, a minor amendment at that, a swapping out of inseparable concepts? The epic is the poem that contains totality.
Totality is, after all, historical. The totalizing force we now confront did not turn out to be any great ideology or grand narrative but a very small diacritical mark, a seeming afterthought in the formula M-C-M ́ which compels the expansivity of capital. Moreover, we are in the midst of a crisis that is in some sense total: the end of the U.S. imperium’s “Long Twentieth Century” in a descending double-helix of hegemony unraveling and global economic crisis. The United States is a name which should be understood to designate a mode of capitalism, a regime of value extraction, managed by a nation-state of the same name. In Giovanni Arrighi’s account, it follows the proto- and properly capitalist cycles of accumulation led in turn by the Italian city-states, the United Provinces, and Britain. Like those long centuries, this has reached its limits; it tumbles from crescendo to entropic stasis. We are, as it were, between centuries — and there is no serious question for art or politics other than what stance to take in relation to this.
In the autumn of 2008 — and here we remember Fernand Braudel’s great description of financialization as a “sign of autumn” — in the autumn of 2008, as total crisis burst into panic, investors raced to re-locate their assets in safer havens, cash foremost among them, while creditors called in their debts. This is what constitutes a panic. Capital fled its own speculative catastrophe, grabbing what little it could and down to the ships and away from its cities on fire. But toward what did it fly?
The initial description of a “flight to safety” had the unfortunate implication that the situation was very dangerous, which was true, but precisely the knowledge that needed to be suppressed. So the name was swiftly changed in the financial journals — whatever any periodicals had claimed to be in the spring, by the fall they were all financial journals — and now they used the term “flight to liquidity,” which was meant to obfuscate, and did so. Nonetheless, this was shortly deemed too technical, and so the concerned parties settled on the name “flight to quality.” It took no more than a week or so, this evolving sequence that forgets its own course: flight to safety, flight to liquidity, flight to quality.
What is there to say about this sequence — other than that it offers, in fewer than 140 characters, a cogent summary of Virgil’s Aeneid? Of how Aeneas escaped the catastrophe of the Trojan war through various peregrinations around the Aegean and Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian seas — the cradle of Braudel’s “world-system” — and finally came to found a new empire. Or, as Virgil has it, in Fagles’ translation (which changes the first phrase, best known as “Arms and the man I sing”):
War and the man I sing—an exile driven on by Fate,
he was the first to flee to coast of Troy,
destined to reach Lavinan shores and Italian soil,
yet many blows he took on land and sea from the gods above—
thanks to cruel Juno’s relentless rage—and many losses
he bore in battle too, before he could found a city,
bring his gods to Latium, source of the Latin race,
the Alban lords and the high walls of Rome.
It’s all there in the first eight lines: flight to safety, flight to liquidity, flight to quality.
There is nothing here of coincidence. Under the heading provided us by Quint, Epic and Empire, various thematics are available for the genre: the temporal opposition of epic and romance, the poles of narrative and non-narrative, and then in Jameson’s revisiting, victory and defeat, winners and losers. Such thematics have resonated strongly with the meditations on defeat that have characterized the left over the last several decades. Enough of that. In our situation, the epic is revealed as the historical form given over to the particular problem at hand, which is the conceptualization of history and global order as a unity, a unity in the midst of systemic transformation.
We have observed this grasping after the epic amidst the last imperial transfer as well. What are Yeats’s visions of occult gyres, and his “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” but the epic decomposed into mysticism and lyric, respectively? His clearest displacement and registration of the problem remains “Sailing to Byzantium,” in which the poet, unable to orient himself either in space or in time against the disaster of his moment, compresses the epic, along with the pathos of its disappearance, into an impotent couplet: “and therefore I have sailed the seas and come / To the holy city of Byzantium.” Yeats’s former secretary Pound is, as ever, more forthright in his intentions. He was, after all, a citizen of Venice, London, and Idaho — anxious, it would seem, to reside in the home of each global hegemon in reverse order as if to make his way back to the dawn of the world-system, neglecting Amsterdam out of what could only have been some sort of oversight. Urgent to catch the dynamic of “the vortex” that was modernism, which is to say, the scale and scope and mad chaos of imperial transfer, he turned to the epic — “And then went down to the ship / set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea,” begins the Cantos — and discovered something else in its place, something monstrous and impossible. Modernity is the failure of the epic.
It is a failure keenly felt. We might say that the fundamental narrative problem of our historical moment is how to imagine transition. Not just transition but transformation, the leap from one cycle of the world-system to the next, or elsewhere entirely — the very problem the epic exists to confront. We have, in effect, abandoned the field of the epic, of the totality, to capital, an epic sans rêve et sans merci.
We have no aesthetic mode whose very thought is the whole, a mode that can accommodate totality. Moreover, we have spent the last few decades, under the aegis of various poststructuralisms, systematically undermining any such pretensions precisely as we have been in more urgent need of them — a double motion that we would have to name as bitter irony, if we didn’t know the name “dialectics.”
Part Two: Option-ARMs and the Man I Sing.
Flight to safety, flight to liquidity, flight to quality. I am interested in this sequence because it raises issues of scale, order, and destination, which I am bracketing within the category of distance.
Distance, in great vast gulfs, is a crucial formal characteristic of financialization, just as it is for globalization. Indeed, financialization and globalization are simply different aspects of the same attenuation. Globalization is the increasing spatial distance between the hidden abode of production and the din of the marketplace, between value’s leap into the commodity and its exchange for price — between valorization and realization, in short. Financialization is the increasing temporal distance between moments of valorization and realization: this is the nature of credit. For all its baroque artifices, its “option-ARM” Adjustable Rate Mortgages and securitizations and default swaps, finance capital is an array of credit schemes, tooled to address a situation where accumulated capital is unable to realize profit in the real economy of the present.
These increases in complexity and scale bring into being an expanded class of command-and-control workers charged with preserving some systemic efficacy over advancing distances. In this, global finance traces the curve of Toyotaization in the manufacturing sector, wherein the domination of the supply chain over the centralized factory space similarly rests on bendings both of technology and labor forces toward command-and-control, toward administering of communicational or informational flows which now set the pace for movements of material goods. Production and circulation have not been disarticulated but rather the attenuation of their circuits has grown so profound that it appears as a qualitative rather than quantitative change. This dual development — a newly elaborated stratum of workers and the attenuation of material processes — underlies the notional ascendancy of immaterial labor, and the seeming dematerialization of the production process.
We must put adequate weight on “seeming.” In some quarters, this transformation of the global circuits has been taken to signal a qualitatively new mode of value production, a new immaterial and linguistic production, a communicative or cognitive capitalism: either a mutation or supersession of what has been taken to be Marx’s ontology of value. This is the grounding logic of that revenant strain of neo-Marxism founded by the Italian autonomia movement, most famously in the texts of Hardt and Negri’s Empire and Multitude which organize themselves around a newly hegemonic form of work, “immaterial labor,” apparently able to produce value outside the familiar scene of Marx’s factorial Britain of the nineteenth century.
If this development is provisionally a characteristic of late capitalism, or post-Fordism (or any of the several other trade names under which the era has done business, each name emphasizing different characteristics and tonalities), so too is its thought. That is to say, the era includes within it both of these developments: the rise of immaterial labor as a lived experience in what we once called the first world, and the abandonment of theories of value by certain post-Marxian schools of political economy. And all of this depends on distance (this is not to say there aren’t all kinds of local effects and affects and intensities, from the experience of the helpline worker to the scandal of microcredit. But we might say that these new local spaces for capital are opened up precisely by distance, by systemic and systematic attenuation, in a classically dialectical development).
Indeed, a skeptical approach to the autonomist hypothesis might suggest that Hardt and Negri mistook a quantitative shift in distance for a qualitative shift in value’s nature --mistook, let’s say, this extraordinary attenuation of the global value circuits for their real dissolution, as one might mistake atmosphere for nothingness when long accustomed to the steel of the Fiat factory and to years of lead. The situation of labor, particularly in the metropolitans hubs where the cognitariat cluster, did indeed seem to have undergone a dramatic transformation, a great undoing, such that value production was at once everywhere and nowhere.
So matters must have appeared from the lectern at the Tate Museum in January of 2008, when Negri set forth his most succinct assessment of the place of art in this moment, the plainly titled “Metamorphoses: Art and Immaterial Labor.”
It is neither the first nor last periodizing argument oriented by the coordinates of post-Fordism. Here I think of, for example the various accounts of the dematerialization of the art object (a phrase from Lucy Lippard) which track so closely to the seeming dematerialization of certain labor sectors in the sixties and seventies. Against this story, wherein artistic mutations are understood either as attempts to grasp the changed situation or as mimetic capitulations to the same, we might consider not the fate of the art object, but the character of artistic labor itself, offering the artist herself as exemplar of this post-industrial change in the sphere of production wherein the dock worker has been superseded by the .doc worker. Jasper Bernes has written the first rigorous assessment of ways in which post-WWII art served, often against its own commitments, as a laboratory for developing ideas and practices that would help revolutionize labor and managerial organization for the post-Fordist era, “The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization.”
Art, thusly, both contributes to these transformations of the value circuits along spatial and temporal axes and endeavors to grasp them, either heuristically or representationally: an attempt to resolve precisely the problematic posed for it by Jameson under the heading of “cognitive mapping.” A Jamesonian slogan bears revisiting: “We can think abstractly about the world only to the degree to which the world itself has already become abstract.”
Negri’s own account shares vectors both with Lippard and with Bernes: the new art both expresses and produces the new value regime. And yet, in keeping with the autonomist wager, his claim is more ambitious: the very ontology of political economy has been remade in art’s image. Given the supposed new regime of immaterial production which has broken free from the mediation of labor power, the new sources of value turn out to be the very potentialities from which art is made: cognition, communication, affect, various modes of “symbol management.” The regimes of art and of labor collapse one into the other. “I have tried to understand the efficaciousness [sic] of immateriality (of cognitive labour) in relation to art. I have identified this transition with the turning point of postmodernity.” At this point he offers a qualification:
...the situation today seems to have stabilized. We are no longer going toward post-modernity. Or rather, we have gone beyond all the ‘post’, we are in contemporaneity, and contemporaneity has further deepened the transformation of labour. Labour — which as we have seen, was immaterial, cognitive, and affective — is in the process of transforming itself into bios, into biopolitical labour, into activity which reproduces forms of life.
The timing of Negri’s talk is truly unfortunate, coming just a few weeks before the Bear Sterns collapse, then Lehman Brothers’ failure and the global realization that a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, and the fundamental things apply. The crisis, that is to say, showed scant sign of pivoting around the reproduction of forms of life; it concerned, rather, the solvency first of certain economic sectors and then of sovereign wealth funds. The hollowing out of industrial sectors for “immaterial, cognitive, and affective” labor, to the extent that had happened at least in some places, turned out to be less of a transformation than promised. What we are now somewhat embarrassed to call “productive labor” in the “real economy” (terms that have been called into question for very good reasons, most significantly along the lines of a salient and unyielding Marxist-feminist critique staged by Dalla Costa, Fortunati, Federici and others) had not been left behind; there was no new mode of value production; and, without a sufficient rate of accumulation in the real economy, systemic crisis would have its say.
But we must be generous with Negri’s thought, must find its kernel of truth. If there was no new mode of value production, there was nonetheless a crisis of value, of accumulation and realization, building since the ugly époque of 1968-73, and bursting forth around 2008. Negri’s qualification about biopolitics means to register the way in which the political, unable to produce this economic content, is compelled to reproduce its forms otherwise, to hold open a space for future content. In order to do so, it must extend itself into every corner of social existence — a production of distance dialectically linked to the new distances of value circuits. This usefully limns the ascendant language of biopolitics as historical complement to declining efficacy of value extraction at a global level. Where accumulation was, biopolitics will be.
Within capitalism, accumulation is the content of all political forms (“Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!” wrote Marx); lacking this content, the political in our moment presents a situation of pure formalism.
Part Three: A Distance from the State.
So then: distance and political formalization. These are problems famously associated with Alain Badiou, for whom they also serve as a context for understanding the stakes of the aesthetic. But if for Negri the new form of the political proposes a distance between, gathering everything into its span, Badiou’s formalization demands a distance from. It is a pivotal conception for him, registered in the name of his former journal, La Distance politique, and its well-known call for a politics situated “at a distance from the state.”
The formulation proposes a politics of subtraction — that is to say, it wishes to conceive a new politics which is removed from present political forms rather than being formed against them. For politics, it is “an absolute necessity not to have the state as norm. The separation of politics and state is foundational of politics.” A failure to achieve this distance must result in any politics remaining a “prisoner of the parliamentary space.” Badiou wishes to dispense with an anti-state politics, doomed to preserve the very logics it opposes, for a non-state politics.
As a sort of koan, an idea which forces thought away from its habits, this is one of the signal formulations of our time. It signals across a distance, from hilltop to hilltop, in a moment when the actually existing state seems most vitriolically committed to asserting its power, and at the same time most decisively unraveling at the edges, like an old map from a previous age.
It provides as well an attunement of the political and the aesthetic. For Badiou, art also aspires to a formalized distance from. Echoing his claims from La Distance politique, he offers the following among his “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art”:
1. Art...is the production of an infinite subjective series, through the finite means of a material subtraction.
8. The real of art is ideal impurity conceived through the immanent process of its purification. In other words, the raw material of art is determined by the contingent inception of a form. Art is the secondary formalization of the advent of a hitherto formless form.
9. The only maxim of contemporary art is: do not be imperial. This also means: do not be democratic, if democracy implies conformity with the imperial idea of political liberty.
10. Non-imperial art is necessarily abstract art, in this sense: it abstracts itself from all particularity, and formalizes this gesture of abstraction.
“La Distance aesthetique,” let’s say: art at a distance from the state. This begins to coordinate modernist ideas about the autonomy of the aesthetic with our late modern hypothesis regarding distance as the character and crisis of contemporary capitalism. It would be gracious indeed if the story came to rest here, with the assertion that art, having made a mission in modernity of exploring distance from the state, can function as a formalization of that distance and thus be the beacon from which a new politics, which must perforce struggle more assiduously than art to achieve such a distance, can take its orientation. It is this possibility that Badiou invokes in The Century: that of “the poet-guide, with whom the absolute of art orientates people within time.”
If there is a paradigmatic figure of this absolute, it is surely Mallarmé. “Only one person has the right to be an anarchist, me, the poet, because I alone produce something that society doesn’t want, in exchange for which it gives me nothing to live on.” This is his great declaration of aesthetic distance. But we must note that it is a distance not simply from politics but from political economy — “exchange” is the giveaway — which allows for his “anarchy,” his non-statist politics.
It was this distance in which he believed: “There are only two ways open to mental research, where our need bifurcates,” he wrote in Divagations: “aesthetics, on the one hand, and political economy on the other.” My sympathy for this claim is considerable, not the least because it names the categories, les voies, with care: not quite art and politics, but aesthetics and political economy.
It is a bifurcation, a distance, consonant with Badiou’s own account, demanding a renunciation of the “politique unique whose present form is the declaration that the economy decides everything.” In Peter Hallward’s gloss of this passage from La Distance politique, “True politics can only begin at a distance from the economy.” This true politics, twinned now with a true aesthetics, stands at a distance thusly from both state and economy, or from political economy as such — thus Badiou’s much-remarked lack of interest in such matters.
But we must recognize the extraordinary limits that present themselves to such a conception. At the level of the concept, there is a risk of slippage between differing registers of the term “distance.” The distances that define the value circuits of late capitalism, those traversed by currency flows, term mortgages and container-ship routes, are not formal or abstract distances but material peregrinations in space and time. In this regard, political economy as an actually existing set of relations resists the operation Badiou demands for art, the distance of which is inseparable from its “purification,” equally its formalization.
Moreover, the distance between Badiou and Mallarmé is itself a challenge to the philosopher’s formalizations. Mallarmé’s bifurcation presents itself as an artifact of the fin de siècle. Two ways: one or the other. Capital's drive toward totality stands before the Atlantic and its next great leap; it has not yet truly inhabited its greatest bearer. It is perhaps the last moment one could think non-dialectically — could think of political economy as something from which one might stand at a distance — without that being a retreat into incomplete thought. The status of that bifurcation is quite different at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when the aesthetic has become economic, and the economic has been aestheticized.
This unification of aesthetics and economics has often been articulated as a loss of distance, a collapse of the high/low culture distinction (a figuration that itself assumes the old arrangement of base and superstructure). However, one who has encountered the most persuasive account of this unification, Guy Debord’s theorizing of the spectacle, is just as likely to register the epochal shift as distance itself: as part of the expansion and attenuation of capital so as both to encompass everything before it, and equally to occupy everything within its compass. This twinned outcome is effected by capital’s dissimulating itself as something less material, more conceptual or cultural, by way of cracking the defenses of capital’s others. In this view, late modern capital is something like the inverse of the Kuang Grade Mark Eleven virus in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a computer virus designed for cracking complex informatic systems not via the brute force of “bore and inject,” but by extending itself to mimic the system such that it eventually achieves a perfect covalence.
So we might say that the twentieth century oversees the annihilation of any separation between Mallarmé’s two voies. Aesthetics and political economy will henceforth have to be thought together. This does not stem from collapse into a single point but rather via extension, attenuation, generalization. If this is a tendency throughout the development of the current empire, it intensifies from the seventies onward. One might perhaps take a distance from the political state — it is, after all, a formal object. But there is no distance from political economy. Distance from now resonates with idealism, with a thought experiment lacking any material ground. Badiou’s formalism is in this sense the incomplete thought par excellence.
This dissolution of the finally modernist dream of formalization is a historical matter, just as dialectical thought itself is itself historical, non-ontological, the mode of thought proper to capital. It is a mode we bear with us wherever we go, even if we succeed in leaving behind the state and casting ourselves adrift on the seas of the world-system.
Part Four: The Walls and the Household Gods.
Let me return thusly to the Aeneid. I must first concede that it is a pre-capitalist document, and that to read it in our context is to tarry with allegory. We do know that Marx read Virgil, as did most everyone educated in 19th century Europe. He quotes the Aeneid repeatedly: in Capital, in “The Class Struggle in France,” in various newspaper articles. He is particularly fond of an epigram taken from Book II: quantum mutatus ab illo! (“what a great change from that time!”), suggesting that he too read the poem as a study of historical transformation.
So we might liken our task here, in reading the epic, to that of Aeneas in Book VI, descending into Avernus to make speak the shades of antiquity — both to bid them a proper farewell, and to make sense of the contemporary predicament.
That descent divides the poem. The two halves of the Aeneid have generally been read as versions of the two paradigmatic epics: six books of Odyssean naval wandering, six books of Iliadic land war, these two lobes becoming through their jointure a thinking machine, aggregating and formalizing “the epic” into a stable genre. But this misses something strange about the first six books. Or it can’t get at the curious extent to which, while the Iliad is more compelling than the Odyssey in almost every regard, the Odyssean first half of the Aeneid turns out to be far more compelling than the second.
What characterizes the first half? Walls. Walls discovered, built, and abandoned. It’s tempting to suggest that the Aeneid is a long poem about real estate, about construction booms and busts. That’s not quite right, but these things happen over and over. First in Thrace:
...the land of Mars, boundless farmlands tilled
by Thracian fieldhands, ruled in the old days
by merciless Lycurgus. His realm was a friend
of Troy for years, our household gods in league
so long as our fortunes lasted. Well, here I sail
and begin to build our first walls on the curving shore,
though Fate will block our way [III.16-22]
Then in Crete, where things first seem hopeful before going swiftly amiss:
Inspired, I start to build the city walls I crave.
I call it Pergamum, yes, and my people all rejoice
at the old Trojan name. I urge them to cherish
their hearths and their homes, erect a citadel strong
to shield them well.
Our ships were no sooner hauled
onto dry land, our young crewmen busy with weddings,
plowing the fresh soil while I was drafting laws
and assigning homes, when suddenly, no warning,
out of some foul polluted corner of the skies
a plague struck now, a heartrending scourge
attacking our bodies, rotting trees and crops,
one whole year of death... [III.160-171]
And so again they must hurl themselves upon the sea:
Leaving a few behind, we launch out from Crete,
deserting another home, and set our sails again,
scudding on buoyant hulls through wastes of ocean. [III.231-233]
Not long after, we encounter a curious rendition of the theme in Buthrotum, tiny simulacrum of Troy, a sort of microcosm of the old state:
As I walk, I recognize a little Troy,
a miniature, mimicking our great Trojan towers,
and a dried-up brook they call Xanthus,
and I put my arms around a cutdown Scaean Gate.
And all my Trojans join me,
drinking deep of a Trojan city’s welcome.
The king ushered us into generous colonnades... [III.414-420]
What else is there to do but stay? And that they cannot do. So it is on to the catastrophe of Carthage, beggaring all the previous episodes while preserving its generic similarity. Aeneas first watches the walls being raised:
he marvels at gates and bustling hum and cobbled streets.
The Tyrians press on with the work, some aligning the walls,
struggling to raise the citadel, trundling stones up the slopes;
Some picking the building sits and plowing out their boundaries,
others drafting laws, electing judges, a senate held in awe. [I.512-516]
Regarding this city-state-in-the-making, Dido offers the remaining Trojans not only shelter, but shared sovereignty:
Whatever you choose, great Hesperia—Saturn’s fields—
or the shores of Eryx with Acestes as your king,
I will provide safe passage, escorts and support
to speed you on your way. Or would you rather
settle here in my realm on equal terms with me?
This city I build—it’s yours. Haul ships to shore. [I.683-688]
Sure enough, Aeneas is shortly seen “founding the city fortifications, / building homes in Carthage.” [IV.314-315] Wall-building is state-making. This is made abundantly clear by the insistent and immediate association of said construction with marriages, “drafting laws” (on two different occasions), judges, and senates. The walls, if you will forgive my leaping ahead of the argument for a moment, provide the material form, the container, of the political.
As we know, this episode ends poorly: most of all for Dido herself, most wronged of women. Indifferent to her fate, destiny compels the Trojans onward, and so down to the ship / set keel to breaker, once again, now finally pointed toward Latium and the poem’s second half.
We can now remark on the extent to which this errancy through the world-system that comprises the first six books is not a version of the Odyssey but, rather, an inversion. Odysseus is captive to a true peripateia. Ithaca is the only state the story recognizes; every narrative event is a divagation from this return to the one state, an attempt by destiny to sequester king and crew in a non-state — as swine, lotus eaters, et cetera. (Here I can’t help but digress for a moment to note that the Mallarmé quotation earlier is from his book Divagations; in the Oxford American Dictionary, the example offered to explain this word is “Yeats divagated into Virgil’s territory only once.” Small world.)
In the Aeneid there is no thematic of return, no Ithaca. Flight to safety, flight to liquidity, flight to quality. They are off to found a new empire. Consequentially, rather than being lured toward non-states as are Ulysses and his men, they make repeated attempts to found states, to build walls — the form of the city-state — and it is this act that destiny, by which without doubt we can only mean history in the transcoding into modernity, refuses. And so, rather than being tempted to stay in non-states, the Trojans are drawn again and again into the founding of potential states, and just as unceasingly drawn away. They bear with them in their few ships nothing of note but for one great enigma: the household gods.
These are mentioned, we recall, in the opening passage of the poem:
War and the man I sing—an exile driven on by Fate,
he was the first to flee to coast of Troy,
destined to reach Lavinan shores and Italian soil,
yet many blows he took on land and sea from the gods above—
thanks to cruel Juno’s relentless rage — and many losses
he bore in battle too, before he could found a city,
bring his gods to Latium, source of the Latin race,
the Alban lords and the high walls of Rome.
They are gods, but peculiar gods, these statuary standing in place of the Lares and Penates. Both classes of deities are associated with Vesta: they belong to the hearth, to the eternal flame whose truth is the hearth. They are mentioned some twenty times, but it must surely be a matter of the greatest curiosity that we never see the household gods placed within any of these provisional walls that keep rising for the poem’s first half; they remain in the boats until the Trojans reach the Tiber.
They do not seem to have much, if any, power to influence events. They speak on one notable occasion, at Crete, when Aeneas has begun to build walls, given the city a Trojan name, urged his men “to cherish / their hearths and their homes.” It is at this juncture, necessarily, that the household gods appear to Aeneas in a dream:
We are the gods, with you at the helm, who crossed
the billowing sea in ships. And one day we shall lift
your children to the stars and exult your city’s power.
For a destiny so great, great walls you must erect
and never shrink from the long labor of exile, no,
you must leave this home. These are not the shores
Apollo of Delos urged. He never commanded you
to settle here on Crete. (III.193-200)
The household gods, in short, know for which state they are meant. They can come to rest only in the right walls, on the right hearth. Moreover, these must be walls and hearth that are not Trojan, in name or spirit. This explains the curious simulacral episode of Buthrotum, among other things; Virgil always indicates that the potential state is too much Troy. To inaugurate a new hegemony, we must reach a sufficient distance from Troy, the poem intimates. We must conceive of an empire which is not just the previous empire redone, but which has exceeded its previous form, which pivots around a new center — a center that can organize a new and enlarged world-system around itself.
But I think we can say more than this about the relation of the walls to the household gods. The various city walls that are flashed before us, one after the next, we might now hazard, are the form of the state: the political formalism familiar from Badiou, with its genealogical kinship to aesthetic formalism. They appear quite frequently during the long errancy of the epic. They are a barrier for soldiers, but for the epic they are just as well a container. They are ideal, a potentiality. The walls might be realized as something more than form — realized as the transformation from one historical order of civilization to the next — only with the right content. This content turns out to be the household gods themselves.
The lineaments of the final argument, I trust, will already have stood clear. They require little further beyond glossing the status of Vesta (Hestia in Greece): the ceaseless fire of the hearth. This is the heart of the oikos, the word that means both “house” and “household.” That is to say, the word directs us not to the physical stuff of the home but its content, the basic social unit. It is the word form which we take, as is well known, the word economy. Hearth, fire, social content, economy.
Thus my claim, perhaps by now self-evident, perhaps scandalous, perhaps both. If the great gods serve as destiny, which is to say history in its reified form, these household gods, which Aeneas and crew bear about the Mediterranean in search of a place to begin again from the beginning, are nothing other than the productive forces as such, rendered as things. The state is form as form. As form, it can be a place of rupture: the broken wall of Troy, the new walls entirely elsewhere. But this requires the thinking of continuity as well: without the productive forces borne one to the other, a new state cannot become the state, the new imperial core, new capital.
Or not. Perhaps this suggests that the household gods need to be destroyed, to end the cycles of hegemons. That the very category of “productive forces” as the rule of oikos needs unmaking. Perhaps they need to be transported into an entirely different context so as to free species-being from necessity. That is to say, “distance from the state” may be a necessity for transformation, for the adequately distinct political form, the new. But it is not sufficient. This is Virgil contra Badiou: the problematic of production is always with us. There is no distance from it. We bear it from Troy even if we leave all else behind. Without engaging the fate of production, we are really just talking about a bunch of rocks.
Part Five: Marx at a Distance from the State.
Flight to safety, flight to liquidity, flight to quality. Perhaps we can now offer a further suggestion as to why the first half of the Aeneid is so much more compelling to us, despite all the astonishing heroic figuration of the second half. The Aeneid prefigures Carl Schmitt’s argument in his brief text Land und Meer, an argument he himself leaves implicit: that the land is the place of politics, the sea an economic space. For Schmitt this is a fact and truth of empire, linked to the appearance of the first modern empire in full:
Henceforth, the dry land would belong to a score of sovereign states. The sea, on the other hand, would belong to nobody, or everybody, but in reality, it would belong to a single country: England. The dry-land order implies the subdivision into state territories. The high seas, in turn, are free: they know no state and are not subjected to any state or territorial sovereignty.... The primordial facts of the British conquest of the seas, and the separation of land from sea, need to be taken into consideration if one is to grasp the true meaning of the famous slogans and maxims so often quoted at the time, like for instance, Sir Walter Raleigh’s saying: “Whoever controls the seas controls the world trade; whoever controls world trade holds all the treasures of the world in his possession, and in fact, the whole world.”
The first six books, seen from our vantage point, are the economic half of Virgil’s economic and political manuscripts — in the sense not of household finances or the state purse, but imperial order. They form together a georgic for the world-system.
Let me now move swiftly toward closing. Perhaps I have already made my case: in our moment, we lack an epic form meant to confront the whole and historical transformation within which we find ourselves. We can nonetheless say that both the whole and the logic of transformation are entirely within the compass and problematic of political economy, of the actually existing totality of capital. It has opened up distances previously unknown, with the corresponding truth that there is no distance from it. Ignoring this is to invite formalism (and I do not hesitate to say mere formalism), or to invite the kind of partial thought that once seemed so necessary, and now seems so inadequate to the situation.
The original occasion for this meditation was the provocation, “can art and politics be thought?” The sole serious question is, when so formulated, can they be anythingelse? The Aeneid offers no less a verdict on this than does the present crisis.
So perhaps this is mere afterthought, returning once more to the matter of the state, distance, and Marx. I recently saw the movie Perestroika, a series of interviews with Russians who, having lived through the transition from communism, reflected ambiguously on what had happened. There is archival footage of one, from his high school days: a glowing boy named Dima. “There are two possible paths,” he begins. Shades of Mallarmé. This is from perhaps 1988. “One is that things will get worse and worse. The other is that the Party will finally commit to a more democratic path.” He pauses. He is wearing a nice sweater, a middle-class sweater. “I tend to be more optimistic....” And then he offers the gospel of liberal democracy, of self-reliance. “I’m getting used to forming my own values. In my life I’m probably going to rely on myself and not on some party or other political structure.” He thinks things will get better and better.
I don’t register democracy as a way out. At the same time, the forms of political organization offered by various communisms are saturated, and should not detain us.
What is curious is the idea that the name Marx is somehow inextricable from these saturated forms. It is an idea born of a strange history, a history without history, told as if there is some synecdoche between Marx and state form, certain state forms. To do one’s thinking at a distance from the state is to do one’s thinking at a distance from Marx. And here the curious thing happens: because Marx was a thinker not of state forms but of political economy and its critique, the distance from Marx becomes, behind the back of reason, a distance from political economy. As if such a thing were possible!
Indeed, it seems plain enough, if apparently necessary, to insist that the thought of Marx is itself at a distance from the state — now more than ever — given that the problematic of capital is total, while state forms are not. Marx designates the content of historical transformation and revolutionary possibility. In this sense I think it’s fair, accurate even, to categorize Capital, that book without a genre, as something very much like an epic. That is to say, it is a long and confusing book about a historically specific regime of the transformation of value into price, and the total transformation of social relations that both produces and is produced by this transformation — the remaking of the world according to this transformation, from its earliest beginning down to our own times.
I would not mention this but for the fact that we find ourselves within a global crisis not of politics but of the transformation of value into price. A crisis of accumulation, that is to say. No distance from this! This is the place of antagonism, of revolutionary possibility, about which I am an optimist. I think things will get worse and worse.