Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Monthly Archives: April 2007

A Few Shared Subjects and Objects

For those who haven’t yet discovered it, I wanted to post a pointer here to the wonderful philosophy and critical theory blog Grundlegung, whose author has begun outlining an exciting and deeply thoughtful approach to issues near and dear around these parts: how to reposition the critique of capitalism within a framework that points beyond a subject-object dualism, via a self-reflexive and immanent grounding of normative claims. The latest post translates a rather hasty and incomplete question of mine into a much more systematic and well-articulated set of reflections on how we can best move beyond the conventional “functionalist” vision of critique:

It is a familiar trope of critical discourse to ask of the object of analysis whether–and if so, which–interests are served by that object. Thus, in my post, I ask of the formation of emotivist subjectivity what ends it helps achieve, suggesting that it reinforces a certain utilitarian logic that smoothes the operations of the social form of capitalism. We can consider this form of critique in more detail, examining the problems that it tends to get entangled in with respect to the legitimacy of the standpoint it presupposes as well as going on to point to some systematic blindspots it can encourage.

The post goes on to break down the problems with functionalist analysis in detail, as a stepping-stone for conceptualising a more promising alternative approach to critique: the post – and others at this site – is well worth a close reading in full. Time unfortunately doesn’t permit me to riff off this post as I’d like to do – but I thought I would at least put up a pointer, so that others could wander by and have a look.

Whereof We Cannot Speak

N Pepperell: I’m sure that regular readers of this blog will sympathise with the notion that “what the hell does NP mean” is a somewhat popular game locally, with the reading group members in particular often dedicating more time than my project likely deserves to piecing together what I’m trying to say and whether I’m making any sense. In this collective process of trying to make sense of my work – a process in which I’m all too often involved on a par with the others, rather than as someone with a clear concept of what I am trying to do – L Magee has proven exceptionally generous, providing detailed critical feedback on fragmentary writings, and workshopping concepts with patience and critical curiosity that I view as a kind of radical advance of faith that there might actually be something “there”, something “to” this theoretical project, if only one could work out what lies underneath my often confusing or ill-formed presentation.

It is impossible for me to express adequately the value of this kind of patient critical attention to work at best in pre-draft form. Even against the background of LM’s consistent generosity, however, I was stunned and deeply humbled to receive the extended critical commentary I’ve spliced below, in which LM attempts to translate into a more systematic form the main points from the Counter-Factual Immanence post, as well as from some of the conversations we’ve held in person around this piece of writing. This kind of detailed critical response provides me with an invaluable sense of how some of the points I’m making are being heard – and therefore an opportunity to clarify (and refine) what I’m attempting to say. I’ve asked LM’s permission to reproduce the extended commentary here. On the main page, I’ve left LM’s comments to stand on their own, so that readers can get a sense for how this extraordinary response reads in its own terms. Below the fold, I’ve reproduced LM’s observations once again, but with my own clarifications and responses interpellated into LM’s text.

L Magee:

NP’s argument in pseudo-propositional form (“Counter-Factual Immanence for Dummies”)

1. “Critical theory” is the attempt to articulate a theory of the social, as well as a position from which the social can be critically appraised.

1.1. As a tradition, it develops from Hegel and Marx, through Durkheim and Weber, to find its most explicit articulation in the first generation Frankfurt school (Benjamin, Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse).

1.2. Habermas deviates the Frankfurt School with a resurrection of particular Enlightenment ideals and a more optimistic, rationalistic and “problem solving” approach to the problems engendered by capitalism and modernity.

2. “Immanence” is an aim of critical theory to explain both the observed object and the observing subject within the theory. Phrased otherwise: the critical or normative outlook deployed by critical theory must be explained via the same categorial framework as the object of criticism, if theory is to avoid performative contradiction and asymmetricality.

3. Purely descriptive theories – Weber, Bloor – aim to describe the object without normative standpoints, and can therefore claim “immanence”. However normativity is retained tacitly; its’ lack of explication results in such performative contradiction.

4. Positive theories – variants of Marxism, Mannheim – can posit normative standpoints which are generated by the same conditions as the object of critique. For variants of Marxism, forces of production are generative of both criticised “dimensions of social context” – domination, exploitation, alienation – and the critical standpoints. For Mannheim, historical points contain potentials which theory and practice can fail to realise – and theory can point to this failure normatively without contradiction (there may be other contradictions between the descriptive and normative “modes” within Mannheim’s own account).

5. Positive theories nevertheless suffer from the failure to account for enough of the social context they critique. Consequently historical efforts to implement the positive elements of such theories fail to satisfy the utopian aspirations of such theory, and in fact frequently result in a sacrifice of the positive dimensions of the social context.

5.1. Critical theory arises from such failures:

5.1.1. It retains the aim of positive theory towards immanence. Critique must therefore be determinate.

5.1.2. It refutes the “positive” aspect of theory, by stating critique must also be negating – to negate the dominating impulses which were not sufficiently explicated under positive theory.

5.1.3. Critique is thus theorised as determinate negation.

6. Critical theory must, as an attempt to account for social context broadly, engage in discussion with theories and philosophies of particular and distinctive features of that context. Within modernity, science is one such feature.

6.1. Popper radicalises classical theories of science as teleologically oriented towards what is. What characterises science is its critical tradition. Criticism does not verify; it falsifies. Science therefore progresses, not towards truth, but towards precision, through endless falsification.

6.2. Critical theory (Adorno) posits that this critical capacity is suggestive of the existence of counter-factualism within the context that engenders it. Popper’s view of science is largely commensurable with critical theoretic formulations, which view critique as negation. However it fails to explain how negation is derived from the very context that allows itself to be criticised – it is therefore not articulated as determinate negation. (Popper himself cares little about whether his critical standards are commensurable within a historicising tradition like Marxist-engendered critical theory).

6.3. To explain critique as determinate negation, deductive reasoning – still the standard of critical reasoning for Popper – is insufficient. Dialectical reasoning is required. Nevertheless, for Adorno, even dialectics fails to quite account for the objectivity – within social contexts – of critical capacity. What is it about social contexts which determines the tension between the is – the factual existens – and the ought – the counter-factual that is equally determined by context? [I find this paragraph particularly hard or unclear; on the one hand, it sounds like a radicalisation of a perfectively normal, and long-observed feature of societies – that they produce conditions for their own change; on the other it suggests that dialectics is required but still insufficient. Surely this is simply aporetic – neither positivist nor dialectical reasoning is sufficient – so what then can be said of the grounds for Adorno’s own normative standpoint? It seems a grandiose incoherence, as expressed here… If so, it is not clear why you would care to use Adorno as a useful launching pad for theoretical speculation.]

6.4. Habermas embraces the diagnosis of critical theory of capitalism and modernity, but combines speech theory, a revived form of rationalism and a theory of communication as the grounds for the production of counter-factual within a social context which nevertheless has far from ideal “dimensions”.

7. Immanence, and by extension, self-reflexivity, are not therefore simply the ideal aims of a systematic exposition which retains symmetry and non-contradictory properties. The presence of these concepts as aims of critical theory is in fact suggestive of the broader social context which engenders them. [Assuming this is an adequate re-articulation: I’m not sure why it follows. Could they not instead be the kinds of ‘aleatory’ characteristics, produces by perverse individuals, and therefore in no great sense ‘determinate’? What justifies the claim that “these concepts actually provide important substantive clues about the nature of our context – about what our context is”. This, at worst (I know you say ‘incompletely’) begins to sound like over-determination – the very presence of certain concepts at certain times suggests those concepts matter for an explanation of the times. What, then, about: schizophrenia, trace, differance, episteme, discursive formations, mirror phases, base and superstructure, simulacra and a host of other conceptual terms? What do these say, if anything, about their engendering context?]

7.1. Failure to adequately conceptualise “immanence” – qua concept which resonates within a social context – and immanence, as an embedded property of the conceptualising theory leads back to the aporetic moment of Frankfurt School critical theory.

7.2. A consequence: all concrete social institutions can be radically understood as strained between tensions between the descriptive and the normative, the factual and the counter-factual, the is and the ought.

7.3. Counter-factuals – which now include immanence and self-reflexivity – are therefore embedded within social contexts as more than philosophical idealisms, but as partially constitutive of collective practices.

7.4. Immanence and self-reflexivity can therefore be understood as historically derived categories, rather than features of logical systems and theories. Goal-oriented theories – liberatory, emancipatory – which conceive only of the concrete social dimensions, without considering the counter-factuals which are partially constitutive of the social context – will potentially repeat the same failures of positive theories (and possibly not). [My sense is that, thus expressed, ‘immanence’ and ‘self-reflexivity’ look reified – conceptualised as things rather than properties, to put it one way. It is hard for me to see how collective practices can be immanent and self-reflexive, in other words adjectivally, in the non-trivial way you seem to be trying to get at here. But I may be misunderstanding this].

7.5. Without adequate articulation of immanence and self-reflexivity, which sees these concepts embedded within theory in order to arrive at symmetry without positing extra-contextual standpoints – the negativity of theory risks being misunderstood as “pure”. What is “pure” is what remains when determination is stripped away, therefore what is asocial and natural.

7.6. By foregrounding immanence and self-reflexivity as historically grounded and counter-factual ideals that are as much determined by context as any object of criticism, what is conceived as “natural” can be brought back under the microscope of critical theory as “social”, if operational at a level of abstraction which is hard to “see”.

7.7. Since it is social, it is something which can be criticised and potentially transformed by theory, which can therefore overcome the aporias of previous critical theoretic efforts, do away with the normative contractions of descriptive theory and result in more critically-aware transformations of social context than positive theory, which failed to see it replicated the very dimensions of context it sought to do away with.

N Pepperell: So now my responses below the fold… Read more of this post

Temporal Mobility in the Academic Labour Market

I received an interesting backchannel observation yesterday, prompted (I think) by the Counter-Factual Immanence post:

The problems you raise are, perversely, quite ahistorical problems – I imagine you too could command an audience in Edinburgh in the late 1700s!

So there you have it: if my current situation doesn’t work out, the Scottish Enlightenment is hiring…

Tragedy or Hope

The things you find when putting together course materials… I was trawling through the Internet Archive, trying to find some short video material on postwar history that I could use to illustrate some points for the planning theory class. And of course I couldn’t help but get distracted when one of my searches pulled up: Tragedy or Hope: Educating 1960s campus protesters as to “what’s right with America.” Online reviewer Max Grody comments appreciatively:

This is just as appropriate today, except the creepy self-loathing sorts in America today can barely get more then 50 people to go to any protests. Thank god.

Though it is a strange idea, with revolutionary American clubbing down the dumb kid, it makes sense. Nothing wrong with America except the lazy abdicate their participation in government. Most who criticize America slough their responsibilities and cry because the world doesn’t dance to their childish, narcissistic whims. Instead they wish to enslave everyone to work half heartedly for communist ideas, or socialism (communism-lite).

In the 60′s people really purchased sophistry wholesale, and it still screws up this country. If this was tighter, with a slightly better direction, it should still be shown today…. if we have to indoctrinate our kids, why not use positive messages?


What interested me most in the film, I have to admit, is what was chosen as the main positive message – which is, in the words of the film, “America’s contribution to the world in materialistic ways” – material invention (or, where even this film becomes self-conscious about its more elaborate claims, something more like the capitalisation or commercial distribution of invention…). Our protagonist John Smith – “honours student, football star, Vietnam veteran” – has chosen “the way to anarchy and self-destruction” because he fails to appreciate America’s material contribution to the world – apparently he was rendered vulnerable to communist propaganda, because, like so many youth of his time, “he is a victim of irresponsible parenting – he has missed the stabilising influence of a good home and religious upbringing” and has therefore fallen under the influence of the wrong people, who have led him into “drugs, loose morals, and wanton destruction”. Fortunately for John, his many ancestors who return to haunt him during the short, as well as a concerned and clear-thinking history professor, are able to compensate for this lack, and turn John from his radical ways – just in time, for he was on the verge of opening the doors to let rioters in to destroy the medical books from his college’s library…

This piece is apparently a slimmed-down version of a longer effort titled Brink of Disaster, which I haven’t viewed. These films are part of a collection of materials on the virtues of capitalism generated from Harding College.

Counter-Factual Immanence

One of the questions that comes up often in the reading group discussion of my project is why I don’t simply treat core concepts like immanence and self-reflexivity as something like a prioris – as posited starting points, from which the other theoretical moves can then be derived. Everyone involved in the reading group discussion presumably understands the logical contradiction involved in doing this: immanence posits that there is no “outside” to context, and therefore logically rules out the existence of “objective” grounds from which other trusted propositions can then be derived; self-reflexivity follows from immanence, and posits that the theorist remains embedded within the context they are analysing.

Both of these positions carry implications for the form of a theoretical argument, as well as for its content: to be consistent with the principles of immanence and self-reflexivity, the theorist must find the analytical categories that apply to a context, within that context itself. This is sometimes phrased in the form “categories of subjectivity are also categories of objectivity”: the theoretical categories in terms of which the theorist apprehends a context, are generated by the determinate properties of the context itself. Treating concepts like immanence or self-reflexivity as a prioris is an intrinsically asymmetrical approach, which deploys theoretical concepts whose determinate relationship to the context they grasp has not been explained. This asymmetrical move is therefore a performative contradiction, undermining the very concepts whose importance it seeks to assert.

The reading group understands, I think, what’s at stake on this logical level. Their question is, more along the lines of: who cares? ;-P Is there any practical significance to avoiding this kind of performative contradiction? Any purpose served other than a kind of pedantic desire for comprehensiveness and consistency? This is a fair question. To answer it, I may need to take a step back, and talk a bit about the special problems posed by notions of immanence and self-reflexivity for critical theory, in the specific circumstance in which critique understands itself as a determinate negation.

First to run through a few quick and somewhat simplified descriptions of ways theories can position themselves in relation to context. Descriptive or positive theories take context as a “given” and either perceive the context as essentially static, or as transforming itself in a necessary direction. The analytical categories expressed by such a theory can be understood – immanently and self-reflexively – as forms of subjectivity related to either the reproduction or the non-random transformation of the context.

Descriptive theories that adopt principles of immanence and self-reflexivity are generally normatively relativistic – tacitly retaining the notion that normative stances require a non-immanent standpoint – an “outside” from which societies can be judged – and thus viewing normative judgements as a necessary casualty of the move to immanent theory. It’s not unusual for individual theorists to embrace this relativistic understanding of immanent theory, but to produce theories with a strong normative “charge” – Weber is the obvious example. In terms of the reading group’s recent selections, Bloor might be another. Such theories tacitly break with the immanent frame – voicing a critical perspective for which the theoretical analysis of society does not account.

I always find myself wondering why theorists committed to principles of immanence and self-reflexivity don’t pay more attention to these sorts of normative “charges” in their own work: assuming the normative perspective is not a purely individual one – assuming that it resonates to some degree with others – then the presence of critical norms is a marker of complexity and nonidentity within the context. If the theory cannot account for the existence of such norms, then the context has not yet been adequately grasped: in these circumstances, I think the theorist should foreground the unexplained normative charge of their own approach, and ask how their understanding of context would need to transform, to accommodate the recognition that this context also generates such critical normative ideals… This problem, of course, does not exist for theoretical approaches that are content to embrace the context as a nonconflictual totality, which is itself then perceived as a normative ideal.

Positive theories can have a normative charge, and can therefore be non-relativistic. The normative standpoint, though, is derived from the theory’s affirmation of what exists or what is in the process of being generated by a context. The context itself – generally understood either as a non-contradictory entity, or as a conflictual entity whose contradictions will necessarily be resolved in a particular way – provides a normative standpoint. The most widely-known example of a positive theory with a critical normative charge would be the variant of Marxism that viewed the forces of production as exemplars and motivators for critical forms of perception and thought against which other dimensions of the social context could be found wanting. Other positive theories have pointed to the direction of the historical process, or to the perspective offered by society as a whole, as providing normative standpoints from the perspective of which other, more partial or more backward-looking, dimensions of social practice might be judged. The normative standards provided by positive theories take the form of asking whether particular practices or beliefs are adequate to enable some privileged existing institution, social group or trend to realise itself more fully. The realisation or achievement of a specific substantive endpoint would thus be the goal of this form of critique.

In terms of the reading group’s recent selections, some elements of Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia experiment with articulating this form of normative standard – pointing to the historical process as a sort of normative benchmark, and suggesting that forms of thought and practice can be judged by their adequacy to the dominant historical trend of the moment. Mannheim thus suggests (in some sections – the text as a whole is, I believe, somewhat contradictory) that forms of thought and practice that fall behind – but also forms of thought and practice that point ahead – can be criticised for not embodying fully the potentials of their historical moment.

Such positive theories have suffered over the course of the 20th century for many reasons – not least of which is the historical disappointment that set in, as it was recognised that the targets of early Marxist theory could be overcome, without the result being emancipatory – that the institutions of private property and the market could be superceded by conscious planning, without greater freedom resulting as the intrinsic and inevitable counterpart of this transformation. The concept of critical theory in its Frankfurt School sense emerged through these theorists’ confrontation with this historical experience, as they began to wrestle with the notion of what immanent and self-reflexive critique might mean, if it did not entail the alignment of critical ideals with some existent or trending element within the context. Their question of how to conceptualise critique as determinate negation – determinate in the sense of being in some way immanent to a particular context, and negative in the sense of not expressing the standpoint of some privileged element or totality – proved a complex and vexing one.

In terms of the reading group’s recent selections, Adorno’s contributions to The Positivist Dispute – which revolve around the notion of how certain things can be “real” or “objective”, without thereby being “facts” – are orbiting around this question. Adorno asks, in effect, how we can render immanent Popper’s understanding of science as an ever-restless “critical tradition”, how we can understand the forms of subjectivity Popper expresses, but in a self-reflexive way, by grasping the associated forms of perception and thought in their determinate relation to a specific context. Adorno argues, in effect, that the sort of restless critical perspective Popper identifies with science – which Popper frames as an intrinsically counter-factual ideal that could never be achieved – suggests the existence of something counter-factual about the context itself. Adorno then criticises Popper (I’ll leave aside for present purposes whether this critique is correct) for denying the possibility that something non-factual might also be “objective” – a criticism that hits home, for Adorno, precisely because Popper shares a largely compatible vision of the critical process as a form of negation – missing only the analysis of why even this type of eternally restless and counter-factual critique is not a pure negation, but a determinate one – one that can be analysed immanently and self-reflexively in its relation to a specific context.

Adorno suggests that, for such a counter-factual critical ideal to seem plausible, something counter-factual must exist – not only as some kind of subjective ideal or conceptual abstraction, but as an “objectivity” in our shared context. In some sense, this objectivity itself must be something that cannot be characterised or captured purely in terms of “facts” and “givens” – our context must have something intrinsically counter-factual about it, which this vision of critique then expresses. Yet how to capture, how to grasp, the reality or objectivity of a counter-factual? Adorno suggests that dialectics is required – and yet, in this and other writing, also suggests that dialectics is no longer adequate to this task: the critique of Popper thus crashes into the very point where the first generation Frankfurt School theorists themselves ran aground. For this generation – armed primarily with conceptual tools related to concepts of class domination – never quite grasps, conceptually, what it nevertheless also argues must exist: something restless, ceaseless, churning through time, at the very heart of our context – something that can dispense with concrete social institutions and practices – something that is itself a kind of “real” counter-factual – a counter-factual that instantiates itself through transformations of concrete social institutions in time. The first generation Frankfurt School theorists mean, but can never quite get their theories to say – to grasp – how a particular vision of critique can be inspired immanently by such a restless context, with its intrinsic, but ever-shifting, contradictions between what has been factually realised, and the counter-factual restlessness that smashes through all such realisations in the end. They thus never quite fulfil their own self-reflexive standard. This failure itself points to how this tradition fails to grasp the determinate character of the context – a pessimistic impasse that the first-generation Frankfurt School theorists acknowledge, but never overcome.

Habermas sees, and then recoils from, this precipe, seeking his counter-factuals elsewhere, on firmer ground – I’ve criticised his position in detail elsewhere, and won’t revisit the issue here. The reading group may look at his work later in the year, and can discuss the pros and cons of his approach at that time, if it seems appropriate to revisit this issue.

For present purposes, and in conclusion, I want to step back a bit from the sort of sketchy (and necessarily oversimplified) intellectual history I’ve tossed out above, to return to the reading group question that motivated this post: why not simply posit the standards of immanence and self-reflexivity as arbitrary ideals – as axioms, if you will – and move on from there? Leaving aside pedantic and purist concerns with logical consistency, what would be the “payoff” from trying to “close the loop” by exploring how these ideals themselves might be consistently grasped?

What I have tried to suggest – very incompletely – above is that, if the concepts of immanence of self-reflexivity are valid, then these concepts actually provide important substantive clues about the nature of our context – about what our context is. This means, among other things, that our inability to grasp such concepts – to relate them in some determinate way to our understanding of what the context is – provides an important feedback mechanism – a form of theoretical double-entry bookkeeping ;-P – to let us know that we may have another think coming, that we may need to go back to the drawing board to see what we’ve overlooked – or at least to follow the first generation Frankfurt School theorists in acknowledging openly the existence of an impasse we don’t currently know how to resolve.

At the same time, certain kinds of ideals – and I would include immanence, self-reflexivity and determinate negation specifically here – suggest that our context might contain some very peculiar qualitative characteristics. Among other things, the existence of such ideals suggests – as I’ve hinted above – that the context may be peculiarly layered, generative of a restless pattern of social practice and thought capable of tossing aside and rending asunder any institutionally embodied forms of social practice – while also embedded within, and existing nowhere other, than in those same institutionally embodied forms of social practice: such a vision of social context suggests that the contradiction between is and ought should be understood as introjected into the heart of all concrete social institutions, rather than between some institutions and others, or between totality and moment. It suggests, in other words, that something like a practical counter-factual is operative in what Adorno would call an “objective” sense – that counter-factual visions of critical tradition do not arise simply as conceptual ideals, but express something that we also do in our collective practice. It also suggests some more complicated things (you weren’t thinking we had reached the complicated stuff yet, were you? ;-P) about the historicisation of history – about whether immanence itself must be understood as something achieved, and therefore as something not true, or not true in the same way, of earlier historical periods. Similar arguments can be made for self-reflexivity.

So my position would be that the inability to deploy concepts like immanence and self-reflexivity symmetrically is a sign that something has not been adequately understood about the context and about these ideals. This failure of understanding can have practical consequences for individuals and movements trying to achieve specific goals, who may be blindsided by the unanticipated character of a context whose contours are – I have been suggesting – by no means fully defined by the sorts of concrete social institutions and practices that we all find it intuitive and easy to see.

Much critique targets the concrete – as do most movements – and perceive it as liberatory when the concrete dimensions of a social context prove vulnerable to political action. Criticisms and struggles against concrete institutions and practices can of course be pivotal, and nothing in my approach would diminish the importance of political action around such targets.

At the same time, the nonsymmetrical nature of such critiques – which aim themselves at concrete institutions, without also understanding why such institutions might be vulnerable – leaves us poised to reproduce, endlessly, the more abstract, restless, and counter-factual dimensions of our social context, without even being aware that these exist. As a consequence, we close off conscious deliberation on this practical counter-factual, confusing it – as I’ve begun to hint in various posts on the determinateness of “nothing” – with a pure negative, with what remains when everything determinate has been stripped away. I am trying to call attention to the determinate characteristics of what is often taken to be a pure negation, to demonstrate the practical basis for what is often taken to be a conceptual abstraction – and thus, potentially, to open up a realm for conscious action that is currently walled away. And all of this, unfortunately, lands me in a position where I don’t think I can slice through the Gordian knot presented by my theoretical categories – however tempting this might sometimes be – by framing them as axiomatic starting points: I suspect this would precisely and specifically direct attention away from where it is most required… But perhaps the reading group members or others will have a different view.

Been There, Done That

L Magee has recently discovered that social scientists are confused by how the Semantic Web community uses the term “ontology” to refer, not to the study of being, but to formal representations of knowledge. LM has recently fielded a suggestion that this confusion is best avoided by appending some prefix or suffix to the term “ontology” when used in its specialised Semantic Web context – e-ontology has been suggested – while reserving the unmodified term “ontology” for the standard philosophical meaning. This suggestion has understandably caused some concern, as the use of the term “ontology” has an established meaning in a Semantic Web context, and appending a suffix or prefix would break with the established conventions of this field.

As a possible resolution for this dilemma, I would suggest that LM consider instead placing a suffix or prefix on the term “ontology” when the philosophical meaning is intended.

My personal suggestion would be to use the prefix “ger” for the classic philosophical meaning. Just as the prefix “e” was intended to capture the newness of the Semantic Web concept of ontology, the prefix “ger” can capture the ancient character of the philosophical conception.

I’m sure that everyone would agree that gerontology would get the desired distinction across.

The Matter of Madness

A few days ago, Sinthome from Larval Subjects wrote a beautiful reflection on the capacity to desire difference, which led Joseph Kugelmass to offer an intriguing response, which prompted both Sinthome and me to ask for more information. Joseph has now provided this, in a post over the Kugelmass Episodes – Sinthome has responded, and I’ve tossed in comments at both sites… I thought it might be time to post a pointer over here.

The original post in this conversation was Sinthome’s “I Think You’re All Lunatics”, which offers a series of meditations around the theme:

Of course I can say abstractly that I desire difference, that I aim for difference, that I would like to promote difference. But the simple fact that I, for the most part, encounter each and every person that I talk to as being mad reveals, I think, the truth. I confuse the symptoms of others– or better yet, the sinthomes of others, their unique way of getting jouissance –with insanity. I am confusing difference with madness.

Joseph’s response included a series of lines that piqued both Sinthome’s interest and my own:

I hope for a common project of sanity emerging from a common recognition of one’s own madness. A madness that lacks even the distinction of being individual, being one’s own possession.

Joseph elaborates on these comments in his post “We’re All Mad Here”, which reflects, among many other things, on the issue of guilt in critical discourse:

The problem of difference, and the desire for difference, and a feeling of guilt over not desiring difference enough, is not just a Lacanian problem. It is really the major source of guilt and anxiety fueling the majority of postmodern writing, which, taken together, constitutes a canon that has practically no other subject besides self-incriminating, self-ironizing anxiety.

Sinthome picks up on Joseph’s post in “An Episode of the Kugelmass Show”, and asks whether the breakdown of stability or order within our social context has caused a collapse of meaning at the individual level:

There has been a collapse of our sense of who we are as individuals, (the “selfness of our self” as Kierkegaard might say), the orderliness or lawfulness of the world, and of purposes and goals. Or maybe this is just me. I cannot seem to find any fixity for my identity. I am suspicious of any goals I set for myself, suspecting some hidden catch behind them. And the world appears chaotic to me. Where is the joy in schizophrenic processes of desiring-production promised to me by Deleuze and Guattari? Why do I experience this as so anxiety provoking?

I’ve responded at Larval Subjects with some reflections on the different ways in which conventional sociological theory, and critical theory, understands the connection between dynamic, differentiated and complex societies, and the generation of certain forms of dysfunction. And I’ve posted a quick additional thought over at the Kugelmass Episodes on whether the category of “difference” might be understood as normatively underdetermined.

Thought it was high time I posted a pointer to the conversation…

Critical Self-Reflexivity

So L Magee has apparently decided to branch out into some independent research on the question of immanent theory – and as a result has now obtained independent confirmation that there’s no place like home. Apparently, googling “immanent theory” brings up, as a prominent result, the two dialogues we’ve jointly written on the issue here. For some inexplicable reason, LM found this frustrating:

I’m thinking, I don’t need to see my own discussion with N. coming up as an authority…

But LM: don’t you trust me?

Transmutation vs. Management

In more than a rush today, but was struck by this passage from Keynes, on reasons for retaining private wealth:

There are valuable human activities which require the motive of money-making and the environment of private wealth-ownership for their full fruition. Moreover, dangerous human proclivities can be canalised into comparatively harmless channels by the existence of opportunities for money-making and private wealth, which, if they cannot be satisfied in this way, may find their outlet in cruelty, the reckless pursuit of personal power and authority, and other forms of self-aggrandisement. It is better that a man should tyrannise over his bank balance than over his fellow-citizens; and whilst the former is sometimes denounced as being but a means to the latter, sometimes at least it is an alternative. But it is not necessary for the stimulation of these activities and the satisfaction of these proclivities that the game should be played for such high stakes as at present. Much lower stakes will serve the purpose equally well, as soon as the players are accustomed to them. The task of transmuting human nature must not be confused with the task of managing it. Though in the ideal commonwealth men may have been taught or inspired or bred to take no interest in the stakes, it may still be wise and prudent statesmanship to allow the game to be played, subject to rules and limitations, so long as the average man, or even a significant section of the community, is in fact strongly addicted to the money-making passion.

No time for commentary…

Monkey See…

In a post about why he doesn’t want to discuss candidate preferences in the US Presidential race, Tyler Cowen from Marginal Revolution has managed to write the most depressing sentence I’ve seen in while:

Chimps will give up bananas, just to be able to gaze at photos of high-status other chimps.

Sinthome over at Larval Subjects also appears to have chimps on the brain – although (particularly in light of Tyler Cowen’s comments) it may be important to point out that too much ground may have been conceded here on origins:

Just because a human comes from chimpanzees it doesn’t follow that a human is a chimpanzee. A thing is not identical with its origins.


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