The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.
The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.
Marx consciously stood Hegel on his head: the absolute Idea now becomes an ideological superstructure above economic relations. The spiritual is no longer the moving power, but only the function of given social conditions.
This process…characterizes the whole 19th century and determines the structure of the entire historical being [Dasein] in which we still stand today.
Martin Heidegger, On the Essence of Language (172-3)
It is clear why Marx must and does question the concept of an “epoch,” even as he must already (but in another sense) take the being of ages for granted. The facticity or materiality of history is necessarily affirmed in advance, but so too is the immediate and ethically compelling interconnection between various struggles in the present. Nor is this convergence in and through social struggle as the two-sided question of the nature of the “age” merely incidental, perhaps arising because Marx recognizes so clearly the “archaeological” causes of social strife (normally so difficult to elucidate because they are so intimately related to division and dissolution at the heart of civil society itself.) The cause for struggle dissolves into substance and property, then the substances evaporate into air: the embodiment of energy-relations as human relations, in other words the effacement and enslavement of the human to ideas, technologies, practices — this “negative condition” is for Marx a springboard, an evident inequality and barbarism, which invites and indeed makes inevitable a revolutionary transformation of social practice; furthermore, in a wider historical sense, all this is an unwinding of tensions that continue to drive us as though hidden deep within the chaotic memories of human societies.
The confluence of these difficulties as the question of the nature of an “age” is important not only because of Marx’s epistemological or scientific revolution — which is critical in another sense — in other words, his recognition of the radical contingency pervading the history of human ideas and decisions. Rather, we will find Marx’s critical incision into metaphysics to be embodied in his refusal to accept the naturality of any age, in other words, to accept the absolute determination of the social by ideas, to deny “ideology”; on the contrary, we understand Marx to be positively and triumphantly asserting the urgent necessity for radical transformations in both theory and practice, and indeed for a critical movement beyond this provisional and artificial division between thought and the world.
Here is the beginning of the real “deconstruction.” This is a movement far beyond the heavy philosophical reflection that being has a history. Marx intuitively understood that religion (or classical metaphysics) will not dislocate itself from its (illusionary) past without a past, its radical decision on the absolute, on the truth of the truth. This illusion destroys any real conception of time. After all, how can one introduce any new concepts into the truth, how can a timeless truth in any way transform practice, how does this veil yield any insight into our age? “History” has a history, and the very concept of an “epoch” must be questioned as such, as a historically determined concept; however, we cannot and should not abandon the being or notion of an age, but rather explore the ways we can transform both. For Marx, neither matter nor ideas are absolutely determined, but fragmentary expressions, relative productions. Thus we find in Marx not only a political but even a properly metaphysical inversion of Hegel: the recognition that time itself is a chaos and not a unity. The languages of memory (histories, philosophies) in human society are self-composing, auto-divisional. (Again, the difference between history or genealogy and (classical) philosophy, i.e., ontology, is exactly a substantial science — yet, somewhere these alternating “essences” of the age (human and natural) are ‘synthesized’ by historical-material thought into a ‘whole’ vision of time without lines or abstractions, a purely substantial immanence. After Marx, action and idea, being and historical revolution, can no longer be clearly distinguished: philosophy seeks in a purely immanent way to critique and diagnose, to introduce important changes in thinking, to promote radical transformations in social practice — these effects, which are also necessarily affective, are in other words indistinguishable from “thinking,” from having ideas.
In the classical sense, an “age” distills, in a succinct and all-encompassing way, a specific historical essence: not merely of a site or duration but a network of events and processes: people, materials, practices, technologies. The laboring of men and the grinding of machines, the chatter of senators and the whispers of revolutionaries. The silent but widely-dispersed “writing” of computer networks. The formation of these networks of production and communication, far from being taken for granted, are explicitly traced by Marx through a close historical analysis of social struggle, a history with which these productive and communicative networks are intimately intertwined.
The history of the conditioning of conditions: in each of the various revolutions which conditioned a given assemblage of political and economic problems, Marx never finds “the” key, never discovers pure continuity beneath the surface of events, or discerns a smooth movement of history as though it were engendered from the outside. It is precisely the case for Marx that History writes itself, it comprehends itself. The world is a heterogeneous expressivity, through which societies struggle against themselves in a manner both gradual and disruptive. Marx highlights always the discontinuity of the social relation to time: evolution is chronically fractured, a punctuated equilibrium, a shifting turbulence moving beyond and between ages. Instead of spirit, there is darkness (exploitation, slavery, despotism) and light (revolution, practice, critique.)
The movement of history is the movement of breath, the production of production, the expression in expression. The heterogeneous field of all the thoughts, gestures and labors of human beings collectively engenders society as such, as languages, or complex assemblages of absolute and relative struggles. The social is produced collectively as expressivity, a relation without relation, liberated from universality, grounding the essence of the human in the struggle for self-transformation, the modulation and revolution of individual-collective forms of expressive-production. Our being itself is a one-way circuit, fragmentary as such, expressed by social expression, animated through a repetition which is not a determination but a difference. For if we affirm determination, for example of history, we standardize the being of history as a certain image of events, thereby limiting the production of language to universal relationships, that is, to an essentially false principle of resemblance. Analogously, if we affirm determination, social production is restricted, it becomes machinic, anarchic, non-democratic; thus determination allows the enslavement of the metaphysical field of human existence to the shackles of similarity, to the principle of identity, to a philosophy of presence and Common Sense, in short, to the horizons of a false image of reality.
To treat a man in this way, to “determine” him, is cruelty itself, the operation of history, man fully transformed into apparatus. Our slavery is the first machine; Marx teaches us to practice its deconstruction — and not only to perform analyses and critiques. The being of history appears like a comet between historical epochs. Hence: time itself is only a symptom of self-transformation. The essence of history is not theories or stories, it is the revival of practice. A fundamental and generative turbulence underlies the essence of humanity, indeed of being as such. It is the case that our historical being as such is revealed through the revolutionary transformation of social practice.