I’ve been wanting for the past several days to pick up on Sinthome’s wonderful post Of the Law as a Veil. In this post, Sinthome reflects on tensions between the Lacanian notion of lack as perhaps constitutive of our experience of intersubjectivity, and critical theoretic appeals to ideals that view lack as historically constituted – as something that can be overcome through social transformation. Sinthome builds toward a fantastic series of questions, left hanging and unresolved:
On the one hand, to what degree is it legitimate to see lack as constitutive in this way? Could this particular form of lack be the result of a historical emergence or development? And if so, how would we go about demonstrating this, without falling into narratives of the fall? On the other hand, supposing that Lacan is right, what would a Marxist informed politics look like that takes this into account.
These questions condense an enormous amount of complex content, and touch on issues that are very much “live” and unresolved for me, to the extent that I don’t actually feel that I have enough distance to comment meaningfully at this point. I’ll tuck a few scattered (and I really, really need to emphasise the “scattered” qualifier here) below the fold – but otherwise just point readers to Sinthome’s far more coherent and productive reflections.
In terms of very gestural comments: first, an affirmation. On the one hand, I share what I take to be Sinthome’s distaste for the tacit prelapsarianism expressed in some formulations of critical ideals – as though critical theory grounds itself in some eschatological potential to overcome all dissatisfaction or fulfill all desires. I view critical ideals as grounded in potentials we’ve constituted in historical time – potentials that include forms of subjectivity and practice, as well as “material” potentials as this term is more conventionally understood – and therefore as grounded in quite secular human practices to which I have no reason to assign eschatological status.
I often sketch a vision of critique along Benjaminian lines – where critical ideals represent a form of subjectivity that expresses our experience that more is possible in the here-and-now: where critique manifests our awareness of how we are holding ourselves back from realising potentials we have generated already. This vision of critique parallels Marx’s notion that humanity only sets itself problems it can solve, arguing that we resent specific kinds of deprivation because we experience them to be within our (collective) power to resolve. This is a secular, non-utopian vision – one that doesn’t, I believe, commit critique to some kind of eschatological ideal, but simply expresses the shock of recognition that more is possible in the present time.
At the same time, though, I don’t see all forms of dissatisfaction in this way – I don’t assume that, because we collectively dream of an outcome, that outcome can necessarily be realised. I think that an aspect of a context can suggest ideals that are utopian – in the sense of expressing desires that could never be realised – just as an aspect of a context can mislead us into dismissing realistic goals as unrealisable. Part of the point of working out the apparatus of a critical theory is to enable us to make judgments of this sort. So, while I often invoke the Benjaminian vision of critique as redemption, by itself this isn’t an adequate expression of how I think of critical ideals (and the Marxian notion of people only posing problems they can solve is even less adequate – appropriate only if the statement is interpreted in a highly specific and not terribly intuitive way).
Achieving a more adequate formulation parallels, in some way, something I’ve been posting on a bit recently, and which touches on the other majot strand in Sinthome’s questions: the question of what happens to more conventional notions of “truth” – which tend to have a transhistorical valence – within the kind of heavily historically-specified approach I tend to prefer. My sense is that a potential resolution to this issue would come from treating the concept “transhistorical” as another historically immanent normative ideal for us – as an intersubjective ideal, arising and becoming plausible for determinate reasons, that expresses the criteria a phenomenon would need to meet, in order for us to perceive that phenomenon to be validly characterised by the concept “transhistorical”. In this way, it becomes possible to understand and defend claims to transhistoricity for a range of concepts, even in situations where those concepts may not have been phenomenologically available to persons in earlier historical periods.
At a meta level, such concepts would probably have to be understood as true for us in a qualitatively different way than they would be true for persons living in other times – our ability to wield a concept as a moment within our own thought introduces a qualitative distinction that divides us from other times. To be consistent to an immanent framework, I think we would want to account for this distinctiveness – to recognise the difference it introduces into the phenomenon itself – and then to recognise that we are applying concepts in a more one-sided way, when we view other times through the lens they provide. This recognition, however, does not represent a debunking, but simply a specification of how and in what way the concepts can be understood as valid within the framework of an immanent critical theory.
All of this could potentially then react back on some of Sinthome’s questions – allowing us potentially to assert defensible claims about forms of subjectivity that might be constitutive, while also grasping why, on a phenomenological level, we have come to reflect on such constitutive experiences only now, and only in a specific way.
All of this is very gestural – very thought experiment – and even as such not really adequate. I’ll have to try to come back to the issue when I’m less close to the topic. In the meantime, better to read Sinthome’s piece, which takes the wiser strategy of posing excellent questions clearly, rather than making thwarted gestures towards answers in the most muddled form…