May 20, 2024

On Neoliberalism And The Politics Of Divination – An Interview With Joshua Ramey

The following is an interview The New Polis conducted in May 2018 with Joshua Ramey. It largely concerns his influential 2016 book, Politics of Divination: Neoliberal Endgame and the Religion of Contingency.  The intereview was conducted by NP general editor Roger Green.

TNP:  In the final chapter of Politics of Divination, you argue for “a divinatory wisdom tradition that can be decolonized beyond its neoliberal authoritarian chicane. Divination is one of the primary traditions that works with individuals as ‘dividuals’ to produce sociality.” You then say, “We must learn to adopt the archaic and perennial conception of human persons as singular ‘dividuals’ – contingently organized bundles of affordances (and disabilities) that not identify themselves once and for all, but are identified by shifting relations with numerous others” (147). Can you explain to the readers on The New Polis a bit more of what you mean by this “archaic and perennial conception”?

JR: In his essay “Postcript on Control Societies,” [Gilles] Deleuze argued that the contemporary world, the world of post-Fordist capitalism, what we call the neoliberal era and what Foucault called the society of control, considered people not in terms of their individuality but as “dividuals,” that is, in terms of aspects or traits of people that can be separated out from any conception of them as “whole persons.”

Your bank account balance, your social security number, your passport record, the data Google holds on you, your credit score, any measure of your health—all these aspects of your life can be separated out from who you are as a mother, sister, lover, as being from some particular neighborhood or tribe or culture, as having some ambition or proclivity or passion.  These traits can be abstracted and aggregated and sorted and packaged and distributed across government and corporate and security data bases for various purposes and used to survey, direct, persuade, and control action and behavior and limit human expressivity.

But in many ways, the logic of this situation is uncannily similar to how many tribal groupings organize people according to certain traits or capacities and use this organization to control or at least segment and utilize processes of individuation for the goals of the tribe.

We know that the “division of labor” that Adam Smith and other classical political economists thought was the basis of all social life is not in the first place for efficiency or productivity but is totemic in nature—women are basket weavers or men hunters not because this produces some maximum GDP for the tribe but because gender roles are impressed upon certain bodies through initiation rites, custom, tradition (and it is clear, as Clastres’ studies of the Guyaki and many other field studies show, that queer and aberrant bodies do not always “take” (receive) their role in the normal or normalized way.

So we have this phenomena of “dividuation” in many pre-modern or pre-industrial or “archaic” social formations (I’m aware it’s a matter of serious importance what we call these “non-modern” groups, and our generalizations across cultures are highly problematic).  People are organized, enlisted, pressed into service of various activities and for various purposes not based on some conception of who they are as “unique individuals” or in terms of their “total personality” but based on specific capacities that are selected and grouped by the tribe, not simply to ensure its survival but in order for it to express itself in some way that is a matter of complex aesthetics, ritual, agony, dream, and so on.

In a way, modernity’s idea of an “individual” as say a bearer of rights or as party to a contract, or as having a certain kind of sovereignty might in the long run have to be seen as an aberration, a temporary departure from a more consistent pattern in human cultures.  Arjun Appadurai has shown that the modern idea of the individual is a very complicated legacy of Judeo-Christian concepts of the individual soul, Cartesian concepts of a mind separable from a body, Lockean conceptions of personal identity as linked to continuous memory, and probably above all a legal tradition of jurisprudence attempting to delimit and define individual responsibility in terms of reasonableness, adulthood, agency, and so on.

What Appadurai shows in Banking on Words, a book I drew on heavily for the concluding arguments in Politics of Divination, is that the explosion of the derivatives market and its increasing power in global political economy may in fact spell the end of the usefulness of the modern concept of the individual for even legal purposes, because the “individual responsible” for the contracts written in the derivatives market are no longer individuals contracting with other individuals.  They are individuals who have themselves somehow bet for and against themselves, as the major banks did with the housing market—it was as if banks treated themselves as dividuals so they could then bet on dividuals (the interest rate changes or other fluxuations on which they could place complex bets).

Determining who is responsible for catastrophes like 2007-2008 is almost impossible using normal legal mechanisms.  That’s why Appadurai calls for a deep rethinking of responsibility along collective lines and ultimately a re-writing of law along those lines as well. And this would place modern civil society in a situation that would ironically be pre-modern if we by modernity we mean a certain kind of separable individuality and its responsibility and rights.

TNP: You argue for Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s description of Amerindian perspectivism. According to Viveiros de Castro in The Relative Native, “perspectivism supposes a constant epistemology and variable ontologies, the same representations and other objects, a single meaning and multiple referents” (59). The accepted language of multiculturalism, on the other hand, assumes a static ontology with varying epistemologies, which downplays embodied notions of difference.  As he explains:

This cosmology imagines a universe peopled by different types of subjective agencies, human as well as nonhuman, each endowed with the same generic type of soul, that is, the same set of cognitive and volitional capacities.  The possession of a similar soul implies the possession of similar concepts, which determine that all subjects see things in the same way. (59)

This produces a perspective that is mono-cultural but “multinatural”:

Such a difference of perspective – not a plurality of views of a single world, but a single view of different worlds – cannot derive from the soul, since the latter is the ground of being. Rather, such difference is located in the bodily difference between species, for the body and its affections [. . .] is the site and instrument of ontological differentiation and referential disjunction. (58-59)

Can you explain in more detail how this concept plays into forms of divination that you argue ought to be embraced as an affront to the “pseudo-science” of authoritarian and neoliberal risk-management?  What does it look like as dividual practices? As, in Ghassan Hage’s term, “alter-politics”?

JR: I like this tag, “alter-politics” but I’m not familiar with Hage’s work (and will get on it).  What I would say is that maybe the pseudo-divinations of the market–which really are attempts not to read or respond to uncertainty, but to strategically introduce uncertainty in a way that can be gamed in advance, so as to produce profitability—these pseudo-divinations might correspond to what’s problematic in a mono-naturalist/multi-culturalist view of the world.

This might be a bit of a stretch.  But if you’re a hedge fund manager you’re in the same “world” as all the other traders, you don’t have a disagreement about objective reality (about ontology), what you’re trying to do is confuse someone or exploit confusion (at the epistemic level) in order to capture a reality of profit that is (supposedly) out there objectively.

But Elie Ayache has argued that in fact what traders are doing (willy-nilly, they are not necessarily aware of this) is actually re-creating reality, bringing the market into being with each trade (ontologically), and that there is a shared “epistemology” (or shared practice) of sensitivity to the market, performativity, persuasiveness, a whole rhetorical and participatory art or praxis that anyone who is a true trader must be schooled in.  Ayache is pushing the idea that derivatives trading is this radically open possibility, that it can be totally democratic, that anyone can join in.  For him it’s a contingent, not a necessary feature for him that futures markets are dominated by the kinds of people they happen to attract or who happen to be good at the game.

But like any other feature of capitalist culture, to play this game you have to be willing to treat value in terms of price, you have to be willing to play the game of making judgments in terms of money prices.  Again, Ayache thinks this is contingent, that really what derivatives contracts are, are “contingent claims,” claims about what may happen in the future, that happen to be in the form of prices, but don’t have to be expressed in that form.

But I’m suspicious of this, concerned about what Bill Maurer calls the suppressed violence of quantification, the “repressed” of the market (not simply the repressed of the exploited labor embodied in money, but the repressed of the social agreements money enchants/fetishizes).  So for one thing, any genuine divinatory practice or social process of engaging with genuine uncertainty would have to surrender, at least partially, the need/demand for the rights/interests of the groups and individuals to something that would be emergent from the process of inquiry. This would involve trust and risk and something like sacrifice, in the ancient sense of giving something in order to receive something that can only be received through that process of reciprocity, and whose results are on some level unforeseeable.

Derivatives trading, the creation and re-creation of the market in Ayache’s sense, has all the trappings of a “genuine” divinatory rite, but is constricted around purpose and meaning, it all reduces to who wins and who loses in each trade, who profits and who does not, with each turn of the screw.  The motive force of the whole thing is still competition.  For genuine divination to take place there has to be a kind of willingness to lose, or at least give oneself away in a certain way to a process that one trusts, a ritual or ceremony that de-individuates and then trans-individuates us.

But of course this sounds utterly terrifying to most people, at least most modern, alienated, impoverished, precarious people, because something like this has already been done to them, they have been asked to sacrifice with no expectation of return or reciprocity. This is the hell we live in, or die in.

What I’m trying to do is to shift our perspective, to stop denying that social life is built around these myriad sacrifice rituals and initiatory rites and divination rites, to start making this more explicit so that maybe law and public policy could be abolished or re-written around actually existing sociality instead of in such profound denial of its real, bloody, ecstatic, joyous, terrifying, exhilarating texture.

TNP: You take issue with Wendy Brown’s “nostalgia” for rights-based liberal subjects. Where she is pessimistic, you appear to be optimistic.  Brown’s work is largely a close reading of late Foucault, whose description of governmentality is largely historical and built out of a turn to asceticism in “the West.”  One could say that the recognition of neoliberalism as an ideology does little to change the unconscious rootedness of the deep structure.  In calling for a turn away from rights traditions based on individuals, especially in counter to groups traditionally marginalized from dominant politics, could this not be read as an evasion tactic by privileged white men?  Or, to put it in racialized terms that my Osage friend Tink Tinker uses, now that white people have no need for race, they can claim we don’t need the distinction anymore.  Is there not a risk of covert universalizing and evasiveness at stake in your rejection of the rights tradition itself? How do you defend your argument against such claims?

JR: Basically the idea here, which is again something I’m indebted to Arjun Appadurai for, in Banking on Words, is that it’s not a question of “turning away” from a rights based tradition, it’s just a question of how we’re going to deal with the fact that the kinds of social agreements we are making and unmaking are eclipsing and undermining the logic and power of rights.

I’m not for or against rights language in general, and I would think that marginalized groups and oppressed peoples and yes, basically anyone who isn’t in the systematically privileged position of white able bodied property owning cis males should continue to use rights talk.  But we have to remember that the rights discourse and rights tradition is all about the sovereignty of the state in relation to individuals who have certain claims to be able to limit or curtail the right of the state to violence and expropriation.

What is happening in the neoliberal era (or what happened, and is now in some kind of endgame that we don’t understand well yet) is that economic competition, the ability to compete economically, has completely absorbed the meaning of political sovereignty or the meaning of citizenship.  This is the situation Brown laments (and I agree that there is something to be mourned and grieved, here, so maybe it’s not that I’m optimistic, it’s just that I don’t want the mourning to become melancholia).

But I supposed that I just don’t think we can retrieve sovereignty and the sovereign individual even if we wanted to, at this point, and ultimately I don’t think we should try, even if we have to be in a kind of awkward transitional field for a while where, as you rightly point out, rights language and rights claims (like race language) needs to be used to address real violence and real expropriation. But the future, I don’t think, is with modern conceptions of sovereignty or nationalities, or even with traditional borders, but with much more complex and shifting conceptions of inter-relationality and group formation and collective patterns of identification and individuation.

This is already happening socially, but it’s of course being suppressed or co-opted by the behemoth of financialization and the authoritarianism that entails.  But we can’t put the genie of subjectivization and individuation back in the bottle of traditional conceptions of discrete individuals and nations in the way that current law and policy enshrines.

This is especially clear with things like what I just mentioned, e.g., the unenforceability of contract violations (essentially, broken promises) in the context of “complex” derivative trading—which isn’t really all that complicated, at the end of the day, it’s just contradictory:  you can somehow bet against yourself, and divide yourself into “dividuals” none of which are really responsible for the bet because you’ve hedged against yourself, as it were.  The bearer of some “right” to grievance or redress (say, the customer of a bank, or the American people after the “bailout”) is systematically screwed by this situation.

What we need is a way of being responsible differently in different context for different purposes, and allowing law and policy to reflect the specificity and shifting assemblies of interest, desire, and need.  Appadruai’s great example at the end of Banking on Words is how in the slums of Mumbai people came together to build toilets, and how this one aspect of everyone’s personhood/individuality became a site of collective enunciation and collective identification (“we are not shit, we matter, we too can be clean”) identifies them with one another not as “complete persons” or as “bearers of rights” but simply as people who can and will collectively gather together, at least around one dimension or one facet of who they are.  And they can make a statement about their dignity and autonomy and worth and the meaning of their lives this way without asking the state or the wealthy for permission.

That’s part of what’s wrong with the rights tradition, it’s always this orphaned subject demanding a seat at the table of the family that orphaned them in the first place—as Arendt put it, in order to demand human rights you have to be a member of a nation state that grants human rights to its citizens, so essentially any demand for rights is a demand for citizenship (which, say, the Jews were denied by the Nazis or Native Americans and to this day black and brown bodies are denied systematically). So the whole question of the ultimate legitimacy or need for rights turns on the legitimacy or existence of the nation state, its perpetuation, and whether that’s the framework for politics we really want or need.

My sense is, I think partly derived from Marx, and more probably from Deleuze, that the social processes unleashed within capitalism are pushing “beyond” the nation state, even if I want to be very careful about what we affirm or select from this beyond, which is also potentially devastating and dangerous. My advice in Politics of Divinationis that we attempt to learn, sit at the feet of cultures that have more experience with living with and dealing with more fluid forms of discrimination and judgment (that are often bound up with divination and other ways of deep listening to non-human others).

This is not the same as appropriating from them (though there’s a ton of that going on unfortunately in neo-shamanism and the spiritual industrial complex), in fact if anything I would want to see some kind of subsumption of current forms of authority under indigenous and earth-informed authorities, as was the case at Standing Rock, where I spent time.  This is not because doing this will solve all of our problems, I think it’s rather that this is the route to taking on the true problems of the social in relation to the non-human or transpersonal that is currently captured in financial speculation as the de facto form of (sham) divination.

TNP: One might claim in your reading or neoliberalism that the university, especially since the late 19thcentury, in taking on the norming of biopoliticized demographics, is the neoliberal apparatus par excellence. In such a reading, the chicanery of corporate takeover was seeded in the processual building of the institutional structure. What are your thoughts on universities and public education in your reading of the collapse of liberal subjectivity or the emergence / recovery of dividuality?  Is it an archaic model for instruction?

JR: Basically yes, I agree completely that the university is the key neoliberal institution, and that it’s probably the case that neoliberalism itself only actualized potentials already latent in the whole idea of “public” education as a disciplinary apparatus that Foucault probably should have analyzed along with the prison and the clinic and the factory.

Melinda Cooper’s Family Values has a great chapter on the rise of student loans in the 90’s as a normalization process and an apparatus of capture—if students have to take loans they have to be closer to wherever the assets are, namely in their families, so they have to be or become more conservative, have lives that resemble “traditional” families, and/or even be property or asset owners themselves.  But as you’re suggesting we could and should push back this usage of public higher education as a way to discipline subjects much further.

Obviously the modern state university in the US was created as a by-product of the need in the Cold War era for massive research centers for military and agricultural and industrial competition.  Having a “well-educated” population was a part of the need to compete with the Soviet Union.  But even the fact that a philosopher like Hegel in the 19thcentury was a “man of the state,” and that such a far-reaching philosophy could be so ultimately deeply conservative, already indicates how universities were set up as normalizing and disciplinary apparatuses.

The work most of us have done that has subverted that in any way—particularly those in area studies like gender studies, critical race theory, and so on, have largely done so to the extent that the university was able to be turned into at least some kind of temporary if fleeting space of refuge or harbor for people to try on and try out vulnerability and intimacy and grief and difference in ways impossible in other spaces (or few other spaces).

At this point, it seems more and more to me that the margins for “study and planning” (as Fred Moten and Stephano Harney call it in The Undercommons) are growing smaller and smaller, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to use the university against itself, as many of us have been doing for most of our careers.

I myself had to resign my tenure-track appointment for geographical and logistical reasons, which in terms of the logic of the market essentially just make me a loser.  I’m a loser because I couldn’t give up my life for my job, even after I had tried to do this for 7 years on the market and for another 3 years on the tenure-track, working 1,000 miles from my son.  I essentially had success beaten out of me.  I managed to do a lot of good work, wrote two books, designed dozens of classes, wrote lots of articles, did all the conferences and speaking tours, and the result or “reward” was social isolation, mental illness, slow death.  No thanks.

So now I’m in some more marginal position, on a one year contract but closer to where I want to live and who I want to live with.  I decided I didn’t want to be dividuated in the way that I had agreed to when I accepted actually existing market conditions as a condition for following my intellectual passions.  I’m allowing those passions to evolve and re-emerge or continue in some way, but that’s not really something that is a five year plan or a business plan or even a career plan.

It’s a kind of continuous divination because I’m trying to remain sensitive to many subtle changes in my environment, in my self, in the rolling catastrophe capitalism has unleashed on this planet, just looking for the next niche, the next place of convergence with energy that makes me feel enlivened or seen enough to connect and communicate further.  This seems to be as much about grief and relinquishment of what were worthy efforts (to use the university or the alchemy of previous relationships or whatever) as it is about opening up to what’s new or next.

I’m sort of constitutionally suspicious of people who want to be “change makers” or “innovation leaders” or “disruptors,” because that generally means trying to cut ties or break with the past whereas a divinatory path is more about listening to what the past is trying to offer to the present, in the form of ancestrality or energy or just presence. I think for example the tutorial model from Oxford/Cambridge is really powerful, I’m really enjoying doing a lot more of my teaching along those lines and just working in really intimate ways with students—so much of the culture of higher ed right now is about destroying intimacy, substituting all kinds of contractual and rule-based principles for the kinds of belonging and identification that’s necessary for learning to happen.

But that can probably happen better in other places than the university, so we’ll see what happens, where else study and planning and genuine divinatory inquiry keep cropping up, like a mushroom colony growing at the edge of the forest, transmuting its life and re-seeding it.

Joshua Ramey currently teaches at Haverford College and is author of Politics of Divination: Neoliberal Endgame and the Religion of Contingency (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).  Until this past spring he was Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Grinnell College.  His well-known research and publications are in contemporary continental philosophy, critical social theory, political economy and political theology. His first book was The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (Duke University Press, 2012).  He is also co-translator of François Laruelle’s Non-Philosophical Mysticism for Today (with Edward Kazarian, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). He has published articles on a range of thinkers and artists including Adorno, Zizek, Badiou, Hitchcock, Warhol, and Philip K. Dick. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Villanova University.

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