Freedom Not Yet: Ch. 2 (an interaction)

This second chapter can be seen as a response to the criticisms, or alternative reading, I offered regarding the first chapter. To my claim that the “revolutionary subject” cannot be configured at the site of “the human” but in the person of “the slave,” Surin can be read as offering two responses.

In the first response, Surin argues that capitalism should be seen as having two components, the mode of production and the mode of regulation. Production involves all those things we usually take as central to a Marxist critique, more or less the economic system (from production to consumption with all the finances in between). The mode of regulation involves all the forces, structures, and systems that socialize me into accepting and functioning within capitalism.

With these two coordinates in mind–mode of production and mode of regulation–Surin argues that revolutionary attacks against oppressive forms of social formations, even if not configured in capitalist terms, must be included in any vision of Marxist liberation. So, in effect, Surin says, yes, Black life is in the position of the Slave not the Laborer and yes this social formation must be overturned, but Marxists don’t need to subordinate the revolutionary action on this front to revolutionary acts aimed at the mode of production. The whole thing–production and regulation–must go and we must encourage and support any movement that tries to undermine or overthrow any aspect.

The second response is much more complicated and takes Surin into deep theoretical territory. One could press Surin on this first point, saying, “I hear you Ken, but really, I see no reason to privilege a Marxist reading of the world at all, let alone allow it set the agenda of liberation.”

Surin’s response, most simply put, is that we can’t settle this disagreement on this level but have to move to a higher, more theoretical level. Our discussion centers on the question what is liberation? Behind, or at the basis of this question, is a more fundamental question: who is the subject who desires this liberation? As Surin says, “the cornerstone of the project of liberation is a prior ontology of human constitutive power or desire” (54). After the collapse of God (classical age) and Man (modernity), desire is seen as that which

constitutes human subjects, and desire exists only in exteriority, in the surpassing of itself in the always changing movement. That is the basis for a conception of liberation, one that can never find adequate figuration but that hopefully is likely to be satisfactory because it opens its subjects to the urgency and bareness of the never predictable event, “the new” (63).

So, the question of what theoretical framework to adopt will be handled at the level of this ontology of desire (and, as a Marxist, Surin will argue that this ontology must have its basis in the actual historical world–so chapter 3 will examine the world of late capitalism).

I’ll end by quoting two different points in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks.

  1. “Ontology does not allow us to understand the being of the black man, since it ignores the lived experience. For not only must the black man be black; he must be black in relation to the white man…The black man has no ontological resistance in the eyes of the white man. From one day to the next, the Blacks have had to deal with two systems of reference” (90).
  2. “I ask that I be taken into consideration on the basis of my desire. I am not only here-now, locked in thinghood. I desire somewhere else and something else. I demand that an account be taken of my contradictory activity insofar as I pursue something other than life, insofar as I am fighting for the birth of a human world, in other words, a world of reciprocal recognitions” (193).
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2 Responses to Freedom Not Yet: Ch. 2 (an interaction)

  1. Matt Elia says:

    Tim, just wanted to note my appreciation for this post, as I just finished reading chapter 2. In particular you helped me understand how this chapter serves as a turn between chs. 1 and 3.

  2. Tim McGee says:

    Thanks Matt. I’m hoping to start back on the book now that I have some time again.

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