In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Global Ontology of Separation
  • Edgar Illas (bio)

Like alienation or commodification, separation is a figure that we have inherited from the Marxist tradition to describe the logic of capitalism. Yet in globalization this critical figure has come to define the conjuncture in more central and immediate ways. Fredric Jameson already pointed at this shift in the early 1990s when he remarked that "the logic of separation may have become even more relevant for our own period, and for the diagnosis of post-modernism, in which psychic fragmentation and the resistance to totalities, interrelation by way of difference and the schizophrenic present, and above all the systematic delegitimation described here [regarding the contemporary rejection of metadiscourses and ontological truths], all in one way or another exemplify the proteiform nature and effects of this particular disjunctive process."1

In this essay I explore how separation has indeed become a structuring logic of global capitalism. I claim that whereas in modern capitalism systemic antagonisms revolved around the opposition between the separation of capital and the unity of labor, in the global world the immanent struggles over all types of separation assemble the regime of production without the dialectical opposition of labor units. Separation defines at once the main form of exploitation, the content of conflicts, and the actuality of change. I argue that for this reason, the modern model of unity, built on the project of education and Bildung, no longer embodies the possibility of individual and collective emancipation from the system. [End Page 188] In globalization, separation struggles against separation itself in a self-destructive but also productive way. As a result of this internal self-referentiality, the economic logic of the system has confl ated with the political disputes over lines of enmity and spaces of difference. In short, the mode of production has also become an order of global war.

From Bildung to Labor to the State to Capital (and Back Again)

Let us first examine the dialectics between unity and separation in modern capitalism. Marxism has shown how capital pursues the unification of labor and at the same time the dispersion of labor. Capital creates units of labor production but must also counteract the strength and collective power generated by these units. Michael

A. Lebowitz refers to these dialectics as a contradiction between "the combination of labour as the source of social productivity and the separation of workers as the condition for their exploitation."2 Capital, in other words, relies on the unification of labor power, but given that this unification quickly engenders modes of resistance and class consciousness, the collective force of labor must also be kept at bay. The system draws workers together and simultaneously promotes their dispersal, since, as Karl Marx puts it, "the workers' power of resistance declines with their dispersal."3 At a structural level, these dialectics take the form of a system that conceals its own systematicity by appearing as a free, open, and nonsystematic mode of production. The system manifests and conceals itself as a non-system made of separate agents: autonomous entrepreneurs, free laborers, private entities, and all types of economic competitors.

A fundamental aspect is the function of education. Individual and collective formation constitute the central space to mediate the unsolvable dialectics that unify and tear apart the spheres of the social in capitalism. The birth of modern education as the practice of subjective formation—the famous Bildung—has the primary function of bridging the irreducible gap opened up by the capitalist dialectics of unification and separation.

G. W. F. Hegel's thinking on the modern subject and society in Elements of the Philosophy of Right helps us understand the mediatory function of education in modernity. For Hegel, Bildung is the process of liberation of the subjective will from particular and natural desires through the objectivity of work. Freedom is the result of the educative process by which one learns to "do everything as others do it."4 Freedom does not occur in some state of natural innocence, [End Page 189] as with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but instead arises through the formation of the subject as a social creature. This process of learning and socialization involves the concrete mediation...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 188-207
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.