Chapter 1 – The Scream

Submitted by Django on April 29, 2011

In the beginning is the scream. We scream.

When we write or when we read, it is easy to forget that the beginning is not the word, but the scream. Faced with the mutilation of human lives by capitalism, a scream of sadness, a scream of horror, a scream of anger, a scream of refusal: NO.

The starting point of theoretical reflection is opposition, negativity, struggle. It is from rage that thought is born, not from the pose of reason, not from the reasoned-sitting-back-and-reflecting-on-the-mysteries-of-existence that is the conventional image of the thinker

We start from negation, from dissonance. The dissonance can take many shapes. An inarticulate mumble of discontent, tears of frustration, a scream of rage, a confident roar. An unease, a confusion, a longing, a critical vibration.

Our dissonance comes from our experience, but that experience varies. Sometimes it is the direct experience of exploitation in the factory, or of oppression in the home, of stress in the office, of hunger and poverty, or of state violence or discrimination. Sometimes it is the less direct experience through television, newspapers or books that moves us to rage. Millions of children live on the streets of the world. In some cities, street children are systematically murdered as the only way of enforcing respect for private property. In 1998 the assets of the 200 richest people were more than the total income of 41% of the world's people (two and a half billion). In 1960, the countries with the wealthiest fifth of the world's people had per capita incomes 30 times that of the poorest fifth: by 1990 the ratio had doubled to 60 to one, and by 1995 it stood at 74 to one. The stock market rises every time there is an increase in unemployment. Students are imprisoned for struggling for free education while those who are actively responsible for the misery of millions are heaped with honours and given titles of distinction, General, Secretary of Defence, President. The list goes on and on. It is impossible to read a newspaper without feeling rage, without feeling pain.

Dimly perhaps, we feel that these things that anger us are not isolated phenomena, that there is a connection between them, that they are all part of a world that is flawed, a world that is wrong in some fundamental way. We see more and more people begging on the street while the stock markets break new records and company directors' salaries rise to ever dizzier heights, and we feel that the wrongs of the world are not chance injustices but part of a system that is profoundly wrong. Even Hollywood films (surprisingly, perhaps) almost always start from the portrayal of a fundamentally unjust world - before going on to reassure us (less surprisingly) that justice for the individual can be won through individual effort. Our anger is directed not just against particular happenings but is against a more general wrongness, a feeling that the world is askew, that the world is in some way untrue. When we experience something particularly horrific, we hold up our hands in horror and say 'that cannot be! it cannot be true!' We know that it is true, but feel that it is the truth of an untrue world.

What would a true world look like? We may have a vague idea: it would be world of justice, a world in which people could relate to each other as people and not as things, a world in which people would shape their own lives. But we do not need to have a picture of what a true world would be like in order to feel that there is something radically wrong with the world that exists. Feeling that the world is wrong does not necessarily mean that we have a picture of a utopia to put in its place. Nor does is necessarily mean a romantic, some-day-my-prince-will-come idea that, although things are wrong now, one day we shall come to a true world, a promised land, a happy ending. We need no promise of a happy ending to justify our rejection of a world we feel to be wrong.

That is our starting point: rejection of a world that we feel to be wrong, negation of a world we feel to be negative. This is what we must cling to.


'Cling to', indeed, for there is so much to stifle our negativity, to smother our scream. Our anger is constantly fired by experience, but any attempt to express that anger is met by a wall of absorbent cotton wool. We are met with so many arguments that seem quite reasonable. There are so many ways of bouncing our scream back against us, of looking at us and asking why we scream. Is it because of our age, our social background, or just some psychological maladjustment that we are so negative? Are we hungry, did we sleep badly or is it just pre-menstrual tension? Do we not understand the complexity of the world, the practical difficulties of implementing radical change? Do we not know that it is unscientific to scream?

And so they urge us (and we feel the need) to study society, and to study social and political theory. And a strange thing happens. The more we study society, the more our negativity is dissipated or sidelined as being irrelevant. There is no room for the scream in academic discourse. More than that: academic study provides us with a language and a way of thinking that makes it very difficult for us to express our scream. The scream, if it appears at all, appears as something to be explained, not as something to be articulated. The scream, from being the subject of our questions about society, becomes the object of analysis. Why is it that we scream? Or rather, since we are now social scientists, why is it that they scream? How do we explain social revolt, social discontent? The scream is systematically disqualified by dissolving it into its context. It is because of infantile experiences that they scream, because of their modernist conception of the subject, because of their unhealthy diet, because of the weakening of family structures: all of these explanations are backed up by statistically supported research. The scream is not entirely denied, but it is robbed of all validity. By being torn from 'us' and projected on to a 'they', the scream is excluded from the scientific method. When we become social scientists, we learn that the way to understand is to pursue objectivity, to put our own feelings on one side. It is not so much what we learn as how we learn that seems to smother our scream. It is a whole structure of thought that disarms us.

And yet none of the things which made us so angry to start off with have disappeared. We have learnt, perhaps, how they fit together as parts of a system of social domination, but somehow our negativity has been erased from the picture. The horrors of the world continue. That is why it is necessary to do what is considered scientifically taboo: to scream like a child, to lift the scream from all its structural explanations, to say 'We don't care what the psychiatrist says, we don't care if our subjectivity is a social construct: this is our scream, this is our pain, these are our tears. We will not let our rage be diluted into reality: it is reality rather that must yield to our scream. Call us childish or adolescent if you like, but this is our starting point: we scream.'


Who are 'we' anyway, this 'we' that assert ourselves so forcefully at the start of what is meant to be a serious book?
Serious books on social theory usually start in the third person, not with the assertion of an undefined 'we'. 'We' is a dangerous word, open to attack from all sides. Some readers will already be saying 'You scream if you like, mate, but don't count me as part of your "we"! Don't say "we" when you really mean "I", because then you are just using "we" to impose your views on the readers'. Others will no doubt object that it is quite illegitimate to start from an innocent 'we' as though the world had just been born. The subject, we are told, is not a legitimate place to start, since the subject is itself a result, not a beginning. It is quite wrong to start from 'we scream' because first we must understand the processes that lead to the social construction of this 'we' and to the constitution of our scream.

And yet where else can we possibly start? In so far as writing/ reading is a creative act, it is inevitably the act of a 'we'. To start in the third person is not a neutral starting point, since it already presupposes the suppression of the 'we', of the subject of the writing and reading. 'We' are here as the starting point because we cannot honestly start anywhere else. We cannot start anywhere other than with our own thoughts and our own reactions. The fact that 'we' and our conception of 'we' are product of a whole history of the subjection of the subject changes nothing. We can only start from where we are, from where we are but do not want to be, from where we scream.

For the moment, this 'we' of ours is a confused 'we'. We are an indistinct first person plural, a blurred and possibly discordant mixture between the 'I' of the writer and the 'I' or 'we' of the readers. But we start from 'we', not from 'I', because 'I' already presupposes an individualisation, a claim to individuality in thoughts and feelings, whereas the act of writing or reading is based on the assumption of some sort of community, however contradictory or confused. The 'we' of our starting point is very much a question rather than an answer: it affirms the social character of the scream, but poses the nature of that sociality as a question. The merit of starting with a 'we' rather than with an 'it' is that we are then openly confronted with the question that must underlie any theoretical assertion, but which is rarely addressed: who are
we that make the assertion?

Of course this 'we' is not a pure, transcendent Subject: we are not Man or Woman or the Working Class, not for the moment at least. We are much too confused for that. We are an antagonistic 'we' grown from an antagonistic society. What we feel is not necessarily correct, but it is a starting point to be respected and criticised, not just to be put aside in favour of objectivity. We are undoubtedly self-contradictory: not only in the sense that the reader may not feel the same as the writer (nor each reader the same as the others), but also in the sense that our feelings are contradictory. The dissonance we feel at work or when we read the newspapers may give way to a feeling of contentment as we relax after a meal. The dissonance is not an external 'us' against 'the world': inevitably it is a dissonance that reaches into us as well, that divides us against ourselves. 'We' are a question that will continue to rumble throughout this book.
We are flies caught in a spider's web. We start from a tangled mess, because there is no other place to start. We cannot start by pretending to stand outside the dissonance of our own experience, for to do so would be a lie. Flies caught in a web of social relations beyond our control, we can only try to free ourselves by hacking at the strands that imprison us. We can only try to emancipate ourselves, to move outwards, negatively, critically, from where we are. It is not because we are maladjusted that we criticise, it is not because we want to be difficult. It is just that the negative situation in which we exist leaves us no option: to live, to think, is to negate in whatever way we can the negativeness of our existence. 'Why so negative?' says the spider to the fly. 'Be objective, forget your prejudices'. But there is no way the fly can be objective, however much she may want to be: 'to look at the web objectively, from the outside - what a dream', muses the fly, 'what an empty, deceptive dream'. For the moment, however, any study of the web that does not start from the fly's entrapment in it is quite simply untrue.

We are unbalanced, unstable. We scream not because we are sitting back in an armchair, but because we are falling over the edge of a cliff. The thinker in the armchair assumes that the world around her is stable, that disruptions of the equilibrium are anomalies to be explained. To speak of someone as unbalanced or unstable is then a pejorative term, a term that disqualifies what they say. For us who are falling off the edge of the cliff (and here 'we' includes all of humanity, perhaps) it is just the opposite: we see all as blurred movement. The world is a world of disequilibrium and it is equilibrium and the assumption of equilibrium that have to be explained.


Our scream is not just a scream of horror. We scream not because we face certain death in the spider's web, but because we dream of freeing ourselves. We scream as we fall over the cliff not because we are resigned to being dashed on the rocks below but because we still hope that it might be otherwise.

Our scream is a refusal to accept. A refusal to accept that the spider will eat us, a refusal to accept that we shall be killed on the rocks, a refusal to accept the unacceptable. A refusal to accept the inevitability of increasing inequality, misery, exploitation and violence. A refusal to accept the truth of the untrue, a refusal to accept closure. Our scream is a refusal to wallow in being victims of oppression, a refusal to immerse ourselves in that 'left-wing melancholy' which is so characteristic of oppositional thought. It is a refusal to accept the role of Cassandra so readily adopted by left-wing intellectuals: predicting the downfall of the world while accepting that there is nothing we can do about it. Our scream is a scream to break windows, a refusal to be contained, an overflowing, a going beyond the pale, beyond the bounds of polite society.

Our refusal to accept tells us nothing of the future, nor does it depend for its validity on any particular outcome. The fact that we scream as we fall over the cliff does not give us any guarantee of a safe landing, nor does the legitimacy of the scream depend on a happy ending. Gone is the certainty of the old revolutionaries that history (or God) was on our side: such certainty is historically dead and buried, blasted into the grave by the bomb that fell on Hiroshima. There is certainly no inevitable happy ending, but, even as we plunge downwards, even in the moments of darkest despair, we refuse to accept that such a happy ending is impossible. The scream clings to the possibility of an opening, refuses to accept the closure of the possibility of radical otherness.

Our scream, then, is two-dimensional: the scream of rage that arises from present experience carries within itself a hope, a projection of possible otherness. The scream is ecstatic, in the literal sense of standing out ahead of itself towards an open future. We who scream exist ecstatically. We stand out beyond ourselves, we exist in two dimensions. The scream implies a tension between that which exists and that which might conceivably exist, between the indicative (that which is) and the subjunctive (that which might be). We live in an unjust society but we wish it were not so: the two parts of the sentence are inseparable and exist in constant tension with each other. The scream does not require to be justified by the fulfilment of what might be: it is simply the recognition of the dual dimension of reality. The second part of the sentence (we wish it were not so) is no less real than the first. It is the tension between the two parts of the sentence that gives meaning to the scream. If the second part of the sentence (the subjunctive wish) is seen as being less real than the first, then the scream too is disqualified. What is then seen as real is that we live in an unjust society: what we might wish for is our private affair, of secondary importance. And since the adjective 'unjust' really makes sense only in reference to a possible just society, that too falls away, leaving us with 'we live in a x society'. And if we scream because we live in a x society, then we must be mad.

From the time of Machiavelli, social theory has been concerned to break the unbreakable sentence in half. Machiavelli lays the basis for a new realism when he says that he is concerned only with what is, not with what things as we might wish them to be. Reality refers to the first part of the sentence, to what is. The second part of the sentence, what ought to be, is clearly distinguished from what is, and is not regarded as part of reality. The 'ought' is not entirely discarded: it becomes the theme of 'normative' social theory. What is completely broken is the unity of the two parts of the sentence. With that step alone, the scream of rejection-and-longing is disqualified.

Our scream implies a two-dimensionality which insists on the conjunction of tension between the two dimensions. We are, but we exist in an arc of tension towards that which we are not, or are not yet. Society is, but it exists in an arc of tension towards that which is not, or is not yet. There is identity, but identity exists in an arc of tension towards non-identity. The double dimensionality is the antagonistic presence (that is, movement) of the not-yet within the Is, of non-identity within identity. The scream is an explosion of the tension: the explosion of the Not-Yet contained-in-but-bursting-from the Is, the explosion of non-identity contained-in-but-bursting-from identity. The scream is an expression of the present existence of that which is denied, the present existence of the not-yet, of non-identity. The theoretical force of the scream depends not on the future existence of the not-yet (who knows if there will ever be a society based on the mutual recognition of dignity?) but on its present existence as possibility. To start from the scream is simply to insist on the centrality of dialectics, which is no more than 'the consistent sense of non-identity' (Adorno 1990, p. 5).

Our scream is a scream of horror-and-hope. If the two sides of the scream are separated, they become banal. The horror arises from the 'bitterness of history', but if there is no transcendence of that bitterness, the one-dimensional horror leads only to political depression and theoretical closure. Similarly, if the hope is not grounded firmly in that same bitterness of history, it becomes just a one-dimensional and silly expression of optimism. Precisely such a separation of horror and hope is expressed in the oft-quoted Gramscian aphorism, 'pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will'. The challenge is rather to unite pessimism and optimism, horror and hope, in a theoretical understanding of the two-dimensionality of the world. Optimism not just of the spirit but of the intellect is the aim. It is the very horror of the world that obliges us to learn to hope.


The aim of this book is to strengthen negativity, to take the side of the fly in the web, to make the scream more strident. We quite consciously start from the subject, or at least from an undefined subjectivity, aware of all the problems that this implies. We start there because to start anywhere else is simply an untruth. The challenge is to develop a way of thinking that builds critically upon the initial negative standpoint, a way of understanding that negates the untruth of the world. This is not just a question of seeing things from below, or from the bottom up, for that too often implies the adoption of pre-existing categories, a mere reversal of negative and positive signs. What has to be tackled is not just a top-down perspective, but the whole mode of thinking that derives from and supports such a perspective. In trying to hack our way through the social theory which is part of the strands which bind us, there is only one compass to guide us: the force of our own 'no!' in all its two-dimensionality: the rejection of what is and the projection of what might be.
Negative thought is as old as the scream. The most powerful current of negative thought is undoubtedly the Marxist tradition. However, the development of the Marxist tradition, both because of its particular history and because of the transformation of negative thought into a defining 'ism', has created a framework that has often limited and obstructed the force of negativity. This book is therefore not a Marxist book in the sense of taking Marxism as a defining framework of reference, nor is the force of its argument to be judged by whether it is 'Marxist' or not: far less is it neo-Marxist or post-Marxist. The aim is rather to locate those issues that are often described as 'Marxist' in the problematic of negative thought, in the hope of giving body to negative thought and of sharpening the Marxist critique of capitalism.

This is not a book that tries to depict the horrors of capitalism. There are many books that do that, and, besides, we have our daily experience to tell us the story. Here we take that for granted. The loss of hope for a more human society is not the result of people being blind to the horrors of capitalism, it is just that there does not seem to be anywhere else to go, any otherness to turn to. The most sensible thing seems to be to forget our negativity, to discard it as a fantasy of youth. And yet the world gets worse, the inequalities become more strident, the self-destruction of humanity seems to come closer. So perhaps we should not abandon our negativity but, on the contrary, try to theorise the world from the perspective of the scream.

And what if the reader feels no dissonance? What if you feel no negativity, if you are content to say 'we are, and the world is'? It is hard to believe that anyone is so at home with the world that they do not feel revulsion at the hunger, violence and inequality that surrounds them. It is much more likely that the revulsion or dissonance is consciously or unconsciously suppressed, either in the interests of a quiet life or, much more simply, because pretending not to see or feel the horrors of the world carries direct material benefits. In order to protect our jobs, our visas, our profits, our chances of receiving good grades, our sanity, we pretend not to see, we sanitise our own perception, filtering out the pain, pretending that it is not here but out there, far away, in Africa, in Russia, a hundred years ago, in an otherness that, by being alien, cleanses our own experience of all negativity. It is on such a sanitised perception that the idea of an objective, value-free social science is built. The negativity, the revulsion at exploitation and violence, is buried completely, drowned in the concrete of the foundation blocks of social science just as surely as, in some parts of the world, the bodies of sacrificed animals are buried by builders in the foundation blocks of houses or bridges. Such theory is, as Adorno (1990, p. 365) puts it, 'in the nature of the musical accompaniment with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims'. It is against such suppression of pain that this book is directed.

But what is the point? Our scream is a scream of frustration, the discontent of the powerless. But if we are powerless, there is nothing we can do. And if we manage to become powerful, by building a party or taking up arms or winning an election, then we shall be no different from all the other powerful in history. So there is no way out, no breaking the circularity of power. What can we do?

Change the world without taking power.

Ha! ha! Very funny.



9 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by IlanS on October 21, 2014

It is true that "we do not need to have a picture of what a true world would be like in order to feel that there is something radically wrong with the world that exists"... but when we have a picture of what a true world would be like we are more determined and more persuasive: