The Question of Epistemic Materialism
I identify my general philosophical approach with the name of epistemic materialism.1 I simply intend thus to join the cultural workers around the world for whom the questions of knowledge and expression, of the conditions of learning and imparting, of the historical contexts and cultural experiences are central to the way they approach and perceive the possibilities of social transformation. A useful formulation was proposed, for his part, by the Uruguayan conceptual artist Luis Camnitzer: “the synthesis of a commitment for art with a commitment for a better life,” having in mind the “necessity for activating creative processes in non-artistic arenas.”2
Behind this formula stands a critical reception of the tradition of historical materialism, opened by Marx’s 1859 preface to Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie and extending to the various forms of social critical theory, as embraced, for instance, by the journal Historical Materialism and its annual conferences. Historical materialism, as important as it is, has remained haunted by Eurocentric progressivism, by a universalizing concept of the working class (even under the faces of the “multitude,” “precariat,” and “cognitariat”) and by a rather idealist and limited conception of culture itself, often restricted to either the superstructure of the nation-state or else reduced to the “subjective” and thus a less-important level.
Michel Foucault was famously one of the most influential thinkers who protested against the pervading idealist conceptions of culture, and who defined initially the epistemic object of his study in a basic materialist sense, as the “general organization of empirical orders,”3 or in other words the togetherness of domains or disciplines of knowledge, or the transversal coherence of their particular objects in a specified historical time and place.4 Now, Foucault was famously never satisfied with the formulation of his own metatheory, and in Archeology of Knowledge, the concept of archive took preeminence at the expense of episteme: by the archive of knowledge he understood quite simply the totality of statements and documents actually pronounced and recorded at a particular time and space, in particular institutions (the abbey, the asylum, the prison, the hospital, the casern, the school etc.). Foucault indicated thus his desire for giving a more materialist sense to his approach, moving against the tendency to imagine the episteme as a space of ideas and focusing on the documentary materialities and the intermeshing of power and knowledge. Since the historical references of Foucault stop sometime towards the end of nineteenth century, a small text written by Gilles Deleuze in 1990,5 at a time of major political changes, offered the needed political interpretation as well as an update of Foucault’s archeology of knowledge up to the contemporary era. Deleuze expanded the scope of Foucault’s studies and imagined at the end of this process the rise of a new type of society, the societies of control, which succeed in our historical present (“after the Second World War”) the transitory disciplinary age of the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries, which at its turn had replaced the age of sovereignty.6 Although they cannot be rigorously identified with Foucault’s Modern, Classical and Renaissance epistemes, the three ages correspond roughly to them. And if we follow Deleuze’s monographic interpretation, Foucault’s work, particularly since Discipline and Punish, further moved against cultural idealism, developing a mode of “thought of the Outside,” from without the vantage point of an authorial and self-transparent Subject, i.e. a method of thinking that strives to avoid falling into the trap of anthropocentric fallacy. Thus, Deleuze argued that in Discipline and Punish the episteme is reconceived as a historical correspondence, togetherness or co-presence of heterogeneous entities: forms of the enunciable (such as the Penal Code) and forms of the visible (such as the Prison)7—with implications at the level of the “distribution of sensibility” and aesthetics further elaborated by Jacques Rancière.8 Expanding, one can say that epistemic materialism seeks the historical ordering or slicing of reality, the arrangement of its finitude and borders, the general organization of the empirical orders, the “structures of feeling” (Raymond Williams), the symbolical icons, normalized perceptions and historical imaginaries, as recognized in the analyses of what is actually done and documented. However, this profiles only half of the picture.
For his part, Foucault gestured toward the idea of epistemic difference, but he did not really move into its most obvious places of application (in spite of a few attempts): the cultural spaces beyond the major ideological differences of his time, and the intercultural field (Raul Fornet-Betancourt, Catherine Walsh), beyond colonial difference (Anibal Quijano), or within a pluritopic hermeneutics (Walter Mignolo). In spite of his own metatheory, Foucault remained analytically in a purely temporal determination of epistemic difference that preserved implicitly a form of Eurocentric universalism. Consequently, epistemic materialism has to take seriously into consideration locality, positionality, and colonial difference—things that historical materialism also tends to ignore or diminish.9 Furthermore, with Foucault, the togetherness of empirical orders is not necessarily or even not at all perceived by the empirical subject, which raises doubts and a radical disconnect to phenomena like embodied or practical knowledge and historical consciousness. This is especially problematic for people like me, coming from the former socialist bloc, who can refer to the historical experience of a “society” or “social formation” engaged officially in a liberating transformation—with all its faults in practice and theory—and to a historical moment of revolutionary transformation (1989). In Foucault’s guise, the intellectual worker is one shade detached: sympathetic but never quite in relation, without intimating his or her own difference. Similarly, knowledge-formation alludes to but is not centered on resistance or even a commitment to social transformation. This stance is problematic and is contradicted both by the history of radical-democratic social movements, which always propose evaluations of the past, programs and countercultural visions, or by the way decolonial thought has been growing from memories and experiences of resistance and liberation,10 or even—proportions kept—by my own experience as a cultural worker in a period of quick and radical social transformations in the postsocialist transition.11
Accordingly, I proposed that epistemic materialism should start from a dimension of radical existentialism, by which I understand the affirmation of communal and relational existence against the absolutism of reality (the perception that the conditions of one’s own existence are completely outside control) and against the destruction of communal lifeworlds in the capitalist-colonial modernity.12 Such an invested epistemic materialism starts from the outset by actively claiming a particular historical consciousness or context, as humble, partial, and local as it may be, yet situated in an open epistemic field, at the crossing of multiple yet finite relations of power, under the assumption of existing and sharing knowledge in a dynamic reality in continuous and profound transformation. Epistemic materialism strives for a pedagogy of listening to and perceiving problematic areas, a pedagogy of crossing or world-traveling13 from one episteme to an other, from where “we” are in a collective or communal sense (whomever the “we” may be/come), to what is looming at the horizon or where we want to be, also communally, addressing the material constraints yet breaking the limits imposed to reality, beyond the existing relations of power. Just as in certain indigenous philosophies – which gave birth to the political concept of the “plurinational” state—there are already multiple civilizations inhabiting my body and mind, epistemic materialism assumes that we are already inhabiting certain sites of epistemic breaks. The experience of real socialism provides precisely the opportunity for such a crossing, for claiming regionally what the Egyptian political scientist Anouar Abdel-Malek called the “principle of historical specificity,” taking a measure of the depth of the historical field without reducing of all social phenomena, all national and social totalities, to a single model.14
A relevant example of the active interplay of historical consciousness and epistemic difference is provided by a philosopher from “behind the Iron Curtain,” who actually proposed, around the same time as Foucault, a revision of historical materialism against both idealism and economical determinism, one which entailed understanding the “future of communism” and of its “social formation” based on a critical conception of its political subject in its “practical life-context” and “relative cultural autonomy.” As a lesson drawn from understanding the limits of the social formation actually created by the experience of state socialism in East Germany (“alienation and the subaltern mentality of the working masses continue on a new level”), Rudolf Bahro called for a cultural revolution addressing not only the transformation of the surrounding social conditions, but a profound change in the human being and its relation to nature, which implied praxically a reduction to size or “degrowth” of economy and industrialisation15—topics that have returned today as a novel horizon of alternatives to the ecological destruction and killing of hopes inflicted by the extractivist nature of global capitalism.
The Socialist Resources of De-Westernization and De-Capitalization
Close to three decades after the fall of the socialist bloc, although the region basically disappeared as a stand-alone reference, one can argue that throughout the “former Eastern Europe” one can notice the common emergence of historical consciousnesses regarding the meaning of the historical period of fundamental changes that has just passed, the postsocialist transition. After the exclusively West-oriented efforts of the 1990s and 2000s, the integration into NATO, the European Union, and the economic world of the World Bank, IMF, and the international development agencies, in other words, after the successful re-integration of the region into the world of capitalism and coloniality—as a semi-periphery of the world-system and as “second-speed” areas of the European Union—from Slovenia, Croatia, Poland, and Slovakia, to Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, one can identify a certain disenchantment with the European dream and a predictable fallback of the European dream on the pre-existing cultural field of ethno-nationalism (often expressed by the same figures, formerly reform-oriented and pro-European), accompanied by a geopolitical discourse that continues to refuse regional meaning, knowing only the dimensions of the West (pro-European, pro-German, pro-American) and the East (pro-Russian). At the end of the transition, the region lacks in meaning, becoming a background for either NATO tanks or Russian shows of power. And yet I would argue that one also encounters a shared general subjective feeling that, in transition, shortly put, the people have been duped. This feeling was expressed politically in the popular protests against neoliberalism from 2012, which exploded from Slovenia to Romania at national levels for the first time after 1989.
Before 1989, the East was separated by the West by a curtain of epistemic difference. The West kept on studying and sending academics in the socialist East, trying to learn as much as possible about the mysterious local mores. After 1989, the epistemic difference was arguably reduced to a matter of colonial difference: the West saw the “developmental gap” and sent experts like Jeffrey Sachs to promote shock therapy, the selection of new elites, and the alignment of the former Socialist Bloc at the bottom-end of the ladder of Western modernity, with the familiar promise of a quicker catch-up (than the submissive parts of the Third World), at an admittedly terrible cost for the local population. A few decades later, in the absence of an institutionalized regional internationalism, the former Eastern Europe is already confronted with a regional internationalism of the problems: the 180º turning of communist dissidents into apologists of capitalist neoliberalism or even of Western militarism; the de-industrialization and devaluation of local economies, epistemologies, and peoples; the emptying effects of the privatization and retrocession of private property; the transformation of the local labor force in a reserve army of cheap labor for the international market of migrant labor; the commodification of sexuality and integration of East European women as “cheap white surrogates” in the Western markets of commercial sex; the emergence of postcommunist racism (particularly anti-Roma) and ethnocentric nationalism, with proto-fascist tendencies; the production of poverty, the feminization of poverty, and the widespread problem of home evictions and homelessness; the destruction of social mobility and local chains of value; the capture of sectorial and local economies, as well as mass media and culture industries by a handful of powerful capitalist oligarchs. If such problems are semi-peripheral or regional, they can hardly be dealt with at the level of the nation-state—legally, politically, and even culturally. In fact, the current trajectory of the states of Eastern Europe would have much to learn from the problematic experience of West-African countries in the 1970s (Guinea under Sékou Touré, Mali under Modibo Keita) and particularly of the Senegal of the 1980s, where the submission to the “good governance” and “decentralization” requirements of the World Bank and IMF in the aftermath of Senghor’s departure was followed by a stabilizing return of the “bourgeois nationalism” which actually weakened the state in the long run—as Amady Ali Dieng has shown.16
That is to say: the necessity for de-westernization (in the aftermath of the Eurocentric transition) and de-capitalization (in the aftermath of the primitive accumulation, mass impoverishment and establishment of oligarchs) is something which is in the air, so to say. Yet, filtering the answer through the lenses of the state only reiterates the confusion between the sovereignty of state apparatuses and popular sovereignty. However, the epistemic field of the historical experiences of people under socialism provide resources that speak volumes to such divergences, particularly if one unlearns the wholesale distancing from one’s own past and the projection of communism as a homogenous past, instead breaking it down into decades, and into regional divisions and chains of value. There are plenty of surprises to discover if one looks into the relations of solidarity developed between the “Second World” and the “Third World,” into the connections of the former Socialist Bloc to the Non-Aligned Movement, to the Group of 77, to the movements of liberation in the Third World, and their contemporary implications on local policies and cultural projects developed between different minorities and ethnicities. Thus, until the late 1970s, one can clearly find in Romania direct applications of the internationalist concept of the “friendship between peoples” in writing, painting, and music17. Under the hegemony of the idea of communism—and maybe at a safe distance from the governmental policies—the socialist experience has developed its own repertoire of transgressing class, gender, ethnicity, and colonial difference, of building solidarity economies and relative autonomies, which is yet to be mapped. Such empirical orders—as imperfect or in a perpetual state of emergence as they may be—have left traces and remain to be activated to their full potential. They are immediately useful, for instance, in countering the civilizational feminism or technocratic feminism imported after 1989, for retracing the trans-generational local histories of women and the particularities of the struggles and emancipations of women under the socialist experience. A cursory view of the practical magazines for women—especially the ones from the 1970s18—show not only concerted policies regarding the struggles of local women, but also responses from the level of the shopfloor and the domestic space. Such responses – like letters from women or autonomous initiatives – are articulated with varied means, which are certainly opening toward particular distributions of sensibilities which can be related, for instance, to the enthusiasms invested in the interior designs of the apartment after 1989. In other words, the cultural materialities of socialism remain a resource of transgenerational continuities that proved able to resists the ruptures of the transition and thus bring promise for rebuilding the communal anew. Refusing the complaints about the “inherent passivity of people”, the “culturalist” character of epistemic materialism seeks then the less visible areas where the creativity and energies of the people keep on being invested, the recurrent instances in which people have created divergent practices, taking into account that, in the grander scheme of things, the simple replacement of an economic system with another (say, non-capitalist) will still leave the political problem in place, and that the precondition for a successful social transformation remains an epistemic change.
But even at the level of state apparatuses and governmental policies one can identify diverging directions of hope. In the notoriously close-minded Romanian Communist Party one can identify a difference between the small dialectics focused on industrialization, output, reaching the next-level coefficients, on one hand, and the insinuating big dialectics distinguishing, for instance, the “aggressive primary spirit” of the 1940s and 1950s, from the experimental “new age of self-invention” and “self-management” of the 1960s-1970s; towards the end of the awful 1980s, one can find discussions about the fact that the process of material accumulation has gotten close to the point of passing through a moment of spiritual questioning, of changing completely the logic of communization. In the cracks beneath lurks a humble world of vernacular inventions and alluded epistemic revolutions which were silenced in the processes of the postsocialist transition—although some were turned into instruments of survival in the 1990s.
Rudolf Bahro saw in the late 1970s that “real existing socialism” has turned out in Eastern Germany into something completely different from the initial plans and visions, but focused immediately on the “big dialectics,” arguing that socialism needs to “stop hurting the Earth.” A few years earlier, the Chinese comrades had published the following scathing indictment: “the Soviet revisionist ruling clique has in recent years styled itself the savior of the oppressed people and nations. Innumerable facts, however, demonstrate that Brezhnev and his cronies not only enslave and plunder the third world countries and people but also bully and exploit a number of the second world nations. Soviet social-imperialism has become one of the two biggest international exploiters today. . . In the name of ‘selfless aid’ and ‘mutually beneficial economic co-operation,’ Moscow engages in large-scale capital exports, controls the economic lifeline of the third world countries, sells them outdated machines and equipment, and plunders their raw materials in order to rake in super profits.”19 In a movement rather close to the Bamako Appeal from 2006 or the language of the Declaration of Cochabamba of 2010, Bahro proposed breaking with the traditional belief in the emancipation of humanity as linked to a universal conception of the working class and the associated “infinite development of productive forces,” and resituating instead the ideal of social justice within the bigger frame of the relation of society to nature, and the multiple facets of struggle and emancipation which can be envisioned in different “life-contexts.”
For our part, maybe we do not need to invoke the next big thing and not even the revival of radical inventions or utopist imaginaries. A materialist and yes, in the epistemic sense a culturalist turn to the life of contradictions, to the concrete precedence of other empirical orders, to the vernacular voices, images and sounds of the socialist experience, could bring the promise of turning the current internationalism of problems into a countercultural resource of social transformation and hope.
About the author:
Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu is a philosopher and culture theorist living in Chişinău and Cluj, writing on critical social theory, decolonial thought, alternative epistemologies, and the cultural history of postcommunism. Studies of philosophy in Cluj, Strasbourg, and Binghamton, New York. PhD in Philosophy (Binghamton University) with a thesis on monolinguism, modern media and the archeology of knowledge at 1900, currently prepared for publication in English. Editor of IDEA arts + society (); collection coordinator at IDEA publishing house ( ). Editor of the online journal . Co-founder of the independent journal Philosophy&Stuff (1997–2001), and of the Romanian Indymedia platform (since 2004). Faculty member of the Decolonial Summer School Middelburg. Editor, with Konrad Petrovszky, of Romanian Revolution Televised. Contributions to the Cultural History of Media (Cluj: IDEA 2009, 2011). Editor, with V. Ernu, C. Rogozanu, C. Şiulea of Iluzia anticomunismului (Chişinău: Cartier, 2008). Forthcoming book: The Postcommunist Colonization. A Critical History of the Culture of Transition. Recent article: “Vampires in the Living Room. A View To What Happened to Eastern Europe After 1989 and Why Real Socialism Still Matters,” in Asking We Walk. The South As New Political Imaginary, , ed. Corinne Kumar (Bangalore, India: Streelekha, 2013).
- See Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu, The Graphic Sound. An Archeology of Sound, Technology and Knowledge at 1900 (PhD Thesis, Binghamton University, 2008), especially Ch.1, “The Episteme after Foucault.” ↩
- Luis Camnitzer, On Art, Artists, Latin America, And Other Utopias (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009). ↩
- Michel Foucault, The Order of Things (Paris: Gallimard, 1966, New York: Pantheon Books, 1970), 204–207. ↩
- For his part, Foucault sketched in his Order of Things three ages of modern Western knowledge, corresponding to the Renaissance, Classical, and Modern “epistemes,”separated by two “epistemic breaks.” Thus, Foucault argued that in the formation of the so-called European Classical Age, language breaks from representation, and the different emerging disciplines of the analysis of wealth, natural history, and general grammar appear to be governed by the “same conditions of possibility,” obeying the same configuration, order, or even “mode of being.” Categories such as labor, life, and language, otherwise belonging to different registers, seem to come together and are conceived in this epistemic field by using the same “thinking cap”—in stark difference to the workings of today’s inheritor-sciences of economy, biology, and linguistics. During the second epistemic break, and especially towards the end of the nineteenth century, Foucault argues, human consciousness becomes the original subject of virtually any practice and object of knowledge. In the context of this recent transformation arises the need to set and articulate the fundaments of a global history, and to reduce all the differences of a society to one single form. See also Michel Foucault, L’archéologie du savoir (Paris: Gallimard 1969), 22. ↩
- “Post-scriptum sur les sociétés de contrôle” was originally published in the first issue of L’autre journal, May 1990. ↩
- “Postscript on Control Societies” in Gilles Deleuze, Negotiations 1972-1990, translated by Martin Joughin (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), 177–182. In the original French, “Post-scriptum sur les sociétés de contrôle” in Gilles Deleuze, Pourparlers 1972-1990 (Paris: Éditions de Minuit 1990), 240–247. ↩
- Deleuze emphasizes that the connection or correspondence between these external series does not constitute a ready-made archive, but is a map, a processual diagram, an abstract machine. Deleuze’s insertion at this point of a flurry of concepts belonging to his own conceptual apparatus is symptomatic of the difficulty of conceiving that which constitutes the togetherness of a manifold. Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (Paris: Minuit 1986), 40–41. ↩
- Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible (London and New York: Continuum, 2004). ↩
- Generally, I think that contemporary philosophy and social sciences have to make principled gestures in order to move beyond remaining celebrations of Western triumphalism. ↩
- See Walter Mignolo and Rolando Vázquez, “Decolonial AestheSis: Colonial Wounds/Decolonial Healings”, Social Text, Periscope, 2013., https://socialtextjournal.org/periscope_article/decolonial-aesthesis-colonial-woundsdecolonial-healings/. ↩
- See also the retrospective dialogue between the editors of IDEA arts + society, #50, 2017. ↩
- Ovidiu Ţichindeleanu, Contracultura (Cluj: IDEA, 2016). ↩
- Maria Lugones, “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling and Loving Perception” Hypatia vol.2, no.2 (1987). ↩
- Anouar Abdel-Malek, Social Dialectics 2: Nation and Revolution (London: Macmillan Press, 1981), 151–154. ↩
- Rudolf Bahro, Die Alternative: Zur Kritik des real existierenden Sozialismus (Cologne, Frankfurt am Main: Europaische Verlagsanstalt, 1977. ↩
- Amady Ali Dieng, Lecture critique d’un démi-siècle de paradoxes (Dakar: CODESRIA, 2012). ↩
- The research exhibition The Veil of Peace, The Committee for Resurrection, tranzit.ro/Bucharest, 2017. ↩
- See for instance Ecaterina Oproiu, Enciclopedia căminului, Bucharest, 1975, and Romanian artist Irina Botea’s ongoing project investigating the relatively autonomous activities of women at the Houses of Culture throughout the country. ↩
- “Record of a Plunderer,” unsigned, Peking Review 13 (March 28,1975): 18–19. ↩