Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

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…

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.

I’ll respond to these first few points more grandiosely than is probably required, mainly because I think it might be helpful at the outset to clarify some points about the strategic intention behind the original post. While these comments may not quite “belong” here in the sense of being direct responses to your first few points, I suspect they do belong at the beginning of this discussion, so I’ll toss them here for convenience.

I should perhaps clarify that the term “critical theory” isn’t by any means owned by the Frankfurt School line of critique that is my focus in this post. There are independent traditions that would also refer to themselves by this same term, as well as a gestural academic-colloquial use of the term (which I often use myself when teaching and occasionally in blog discussions) to refer to any kind of theory that seeks to identify potentials to transform, rather than simply describe, what currently exists. I point this out because the definition of critical theory above won’t apply equally to all of these meanings of the term. In particular, the Frankfurt School has a strong focus on what I call “critical standpoint” – on what you describe above as theorising “a position from which the social can be critically appraised” – that is not reflected in everything that could be characterised as “critical theory”.

The posts that I classify under the “scratchpad” category are generally intended as something like condensed versions of arguments I intend to expand into articles or chapters, and therefore may assume a very specific context or audience – they are often very, very rough proto-drafts, and generally contain material I am struggling to write about at all. I say this, not at all to discourage critique, but just to explain why, in a sense, these pieces may be particular causes of confusion – including meta-confusion over why I didn’t do a better job expressing what I was trying to achieve in the first place.

This particular post was an attempt to outline a few broad brush ways of categorising theoretical approaches from the specific standpoint suggested by the Frankfurt School line of critique. I took for granted when I was writing that this voicing or perspective would be obvious – and therefore probably confused everyone who read the post… ;-P What I was basically trying to explore here, was how “my” theoretical problematic could be said to have been prefigured in specific ways by an earlier theoretical tradition – sketching the contours of what will likely become a much longer argument that the need for an approach like mine is already evident if you look closely at this earlier tradition – that this earlier tradition seems to be casting about for theoretical categories like the ones I plan to unfold.

This is a fairly common argumentative strategy within this particular tradition, and points back ultimately to a Hegelian notion that the nature of critique is fundamentally altered, once you try to operate consistently within a framework that rejects subject-object dualism. On the one hand, theoretical errors are no longer “mere” errors, but instead reflect plausible – if also inadequate – forms of subjectivity that express determinate aspects of the context in which they unfold (my post only provides the slightest of hints as to how I might address this issue – which is why Sinthome, for example, expressed concern that I was suggesting that the core problem was an insufficiency of theory). On the other hand, theoretical approaches demonstrate themselves to be more adequate by, among other things, engulfing their competition ;-P – by showing that their own theoretical categories and interpretive schemes are already suggested by, and would resolve problems encountered within, competing approaches.

If you think about the discussion we’ve had here of Hegel’s lordship-bondage discussion: Hegel’s argument develops by demonstrating that particular orientations to intersubjectivity are not adequate to their own notions – that they are struggling to achieve something that simply cannot be achieved, the way they are trying to go about it. This failure (for Hegel) then drives the search for a more adequate solution – so that, in essence, the underlying problem continues to be passed from one approach to the next, with learnings or historical achievements along the way, until finally a solution arises that seems adequate to the problem it’s attempting to resolve. This gives some idea of how the Frankfurt School line of critique approaches the formal criticism of other approaches – and also of how I approach it. There are differences, of course. Hegel’s approach suggests, for example, that the inadequacy of the earlier orientations to intersubjectivity itself might generate a restlessness that drives forward the historical process. I’d tend to invert this and suggest that, whatever might be generating historical shifts, those shifts themselves have the effect of making certain problems in earlier approaches easier for us to see, as well as making certain theoretical alternatives lie more readily to hand. Nevertheless, since I’m looking back over a set of theoretical traditions all grappling with an object of analysis – capitalism in this case – that we take to have been continuous in some way over the sweep of history in which the theory unfolds, it becomes meaningful to offer a Hegelian-style critique, without accepting Hegel’s specific understanding of why history unfolds as it does. (I realise I’m being very condensed here, and am happy to explore this in greater depth if it would be useful.)

So… the post was a very, very abbreviated sketch – a sort of reminder to myself – of how I might develop an argument about the trajectory of the Frankfurt School tradition in the spirit of this kind of critique. The discussion of non-Frankfurt School theoretical traditions is itself Frankfurt-School centric – categorising and criticising those traditions from the standpoint of the first generation Frankfurt School view of critical theory. This part of the discussion, though, is extremely gestural and, with the exception of the aside on normative standpoints within explicitly relativist theories, is intended to capture how the Frankfurt School theorists might have positioned themselves in relation to other kinds of approaches, rather than to present my own classificatory system. I then use this gestural discussion to talk about how the first generation Frankfurt School theorists understood historical shifts to have pointed to the need to move beyond these other approaches, and into their own approach.

My voicing was obviously very confused here – this comes out, not only in your attempt to translate my argument, but in the question René Daumal asks in the comments, expressing scepticism about whether the market was ever truly overcome. Among other things, there is a tension in the text between my intention to write something from a first generation Frankfurt School eye view, and the fact that I’m also speaking to questions that have arisen in the reading group discussion, bringing in examples of more recent texts that fit into the categories I’m outlining, etc. Again, I have to apologise for this – the post was speaking on a couple of different levels, one of which was clearly much more tacit than the other.

In any event, the post moves on – and this is where, as you note below, things get very, very condensed – to what’s essentially an outline for an argument I will need to develop, for the ways in which this tradition could be interpreted to be casting about for the sorts of theoretical categories I am trying to develop. So I’m essentially trying to lay the groundwork here for a kind of Hegelian absorption of the tradition – suggesting that the tradition itself suggests the need for the sort of approach I am trying to develop, and won’t be able to resolve some of the problems it defines without moving to such an approach. This may of course be complete nonsense, but this is what those murky paragraphs are struggling toward… ;-P

The post comes nowhere near making this kind of critique in full – nor does it explicitly spell out why it takes the form that it does – and, in retrospect, I should at least have addressed the latter in some programmatic form. I would certainly do this in more formal writing. All I can say by way of apology is that, as with all posts that push the boundaries of what I’m currently thinking, I was focussed on getting the contours of an argument in my mind, and not thinking as much as I should have been about the reception of the piece…

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.

This is a tricky issue, which was explored a bit more in the exchange between Sinthome and me in the comments to the post. The “broad” meaning of the term immanence is something like secularism – so, a rejection of appeals to mystical claims. Within this specific tradition (and a few others), the concept of immanence (note that this specific term is not commonly used) also also has a “narrow” meaning, generated by adding some further qualitative specifications, in addition to the commitment to secular theory. One of those further qualitative specifications is the notion that the subject-object dualism is not valid.

So, in terms of the specific question of performative contradiction: it is possible to conceive of many kinds of secular theory that continue to operate within the framework of some kind of subject-object dualism – most scientific theories, for example. Such theories can be criticised in various ways – you can argue that there are things they can’t explain, etc. – but they aren’t guilty of performative contradiction per se. Issues of performative contradiction, symmetricality, etc., are charges I tend to level at theoretical approaches that set themselves the explicit task of overcoming subject-object dualism, or that make other moves that strongly suggest they would require this concept, but fail to remain consistent to their own concept.

The reality, though, is that the focus on performative contradiction is a presentational shortcut for me – a way for me to bracket (temporarily) a set of much more complex issues relating to why I personally believe the concept of immanence arises, so that I can first explore some of the implications of the concept itself. If I were outlining my approach as a whole, immanence would be a sort of practical hypothesis, or a possibility suggested by the way that we practice and experience our collective lives, rather than some sort of theoretical starting point from which I then deduce a set of other things. It’s just that this aspect of my argument is quite difficult to outline quickly – I’m not sure it’s something I’ll ever be able to explain adequately in a blog post, for example – and so, for presentational convenience, I tend to spend a lot of time playing off against kinds of theory that, for their own reasons, already take this concept to be important. This provides me with an opportunity to talk about how those approaches aren’t actually adequate to their own notion – which then sets up for… er… Hegelian engulfing… at a later point, as any tradition that does this is, in a sense, a tradition suggesting the need for something like my approach…

This does, though, place me in the perverse position – and we’ve obviously discussed this in person – of frequently talking about immanence from a perspective that is “backwards” from the point of view of my own theoretical approach. The proper starting place, from my point of view, would be to look at what we do – at the ways in which this concept might be suggested as a kind of practical potential by the way in which we enact our collective lives. Having been suggested in this way, the concept can then be corrosive for various reasons – again, the full argument takes some making… I’ve made some gestures toward presenting the argument in the “correct” order in some discussions of Marx. Those discussions, however, focus solely on the issue of secularism, and don’t touch the issue of subject-object dualism (which, for various reasons, is a more complex argument, and is therefore even more difficult to present briefly).

If I were doing this adequately, I would actually be presenting something more like a critical reappropriation of the concept of immanence. That said, because this kind of critical reappropriation is quite complex, there will probably continue to be some convenience value to being able to bracket the issue for purposes of exploring the implications of the concept, with people who already accept the validity of the concept for their own reasons.

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.

Again just a note of caution that there are plenty of descriptive theories that aren’t immanent even in the broad sense – religious theories, for example… And plenty of secular descriptive theories that aren’t immanent in the narrow sense – most scientific theories, etc.

And descriptive theories don’t always sneak norms in through the back door – although they often do.

This particular post was focussing on a red thread that runs through a particular tradition of sociological theory (with some gestures to places similar issues might arise outside that tradition), but wasn’t intending to claim that the options explored were the only options possible.

Again, I focus on approaches that have a clearer connection to ideals of immanence because it’s convenient – it spares me from needing to cover a range of issues that would burden an already complex discussion. If a theory rejects the notion of immanence – narrow or broad – then I need to engage it in a different, far more complicated, way. I’m comfortable doing this – it generally involves pointing to phenomena whose existence can’t be adequately explained by the theory being criticised, and then showing that only a theory that does operate within some sort of immanent framework could provide an adequate explanation, or similar. I’ve basically just bracketed this issue for purposes of this and other recent posts on the topic, because I’m worried it would distract from the issues I’m trying to explore.

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).

Just a small pedantic correction on classical Marxism: the forces of production are not, within that theoretical tradition, understood as the target of critique. Instead, the relations of production (private property and the market) are the target, while the forces of production are the standpoint from which the critique is offered. The basic argument went something along the lines of: capitalism has developed the potential – and the need – for socialised forms of production – technological development, organisational development, and other changes associated with the development of mass production for mass markets all point in the direction of a need for centralised regulation of production. This trend toward central regulation provides a standpoint that casts into relief the anarchy and irrationality of the market and private property. Critique therefore aligns itself with a particular “positive” or existent dimension of social life (one perceived to be trending historically), and against another existent dimension of social life (one perceived to be anachronistic and regressive).

This conflict between forces and relations of production makes social life “two dimensional” (I find this term personally irritating, but it is the term actually used in this tradition) – the Frankfurt School thesis of the “one dimensional” society refers to the overcoming of this specific contradiction, leaving society structured according to the dictates of the forces of production – but in the unanticipated situation that this contradiction should have been overcome in a non-emancipatory way. When Adorno talks about dialectics perhaps no longer being possible, this is part of what he has in mind: if dialectics was the form of theory appropriate to the contradictory society (which is how Adorno understands it), and the contradiction between forces and relations of production appears to have been overcome, then in what sense can we still talk about dialectical theory? etc. (Note that I don’t agree with much of what I’m outlining here, but just providing background information.)

The Frankfurt School theorists, though, recoil against the way in which critique had aligned itself – had chosen for its standpoint – the very aspects of society that now appear to have become the instruments of repression: centralised administration, socialised production and distribution, etc. The Frankfurt School theorists start trying to understand how this was possible – and end up concluding that the advocacy of anything that is involves a level of violence, and thus that critique resides in an vigilant and restless negation. (On a more meta level, Adorno does hold out the notion that this vision of critique is specific to the context it is criticising – it’s just that this dimension of the theory remains, I think, “pessimistic”, in the sense that I don’t believe Adorno ever actually manages to explain in any determinate way a potential for structural transformation.)

On another, more minor note: my use of the term “positive” theory here is experimental. It has some historical validity – there would have been a period when some traditions, including some Marxist traditions, would have called themselves “positive” theories. And, of course, I’m also picking up on some valences from the Positivist Dispute readings. I just wanted to flag, though, that I’m not sure I’ll keep this term for this concept, and that I don’t regard the meaning of the term of be intuitively obvious.

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.

I wouldn’t actually make this claim in such a strong form – although some theorists certainly have done so. My argument is more along the lines of: historical circumstances related primarily to the failures of one specific strand of positive theory – classical Marxism – provided one of the historical irritants that led the Frankfurt School theorists to reposition critique as negation. I’m agnostic on the issue of whether all sorts of positive theories would lead necessarily to equally bad historical outcomes. The issue for me is more that this particular historical transition cast certain dimensions of the social context into relief – made certain things easier to see, placed certain concepts more readily to hand. Some of those concepts might be valid or interesting, even if – hypothetically – we might now look back and wonder why the Frankfurt School theorists drew these specific conclusions about the transition, rather than others.

So we might hypothetically be able to look back – as René Daumal has done – and ask whether the market and private property were really as “dead” as they appeared, etc. This is undoubtedly worthwhile – it just doesn’t directly touch on the issue I was exploring in this post, which is that, regardless of how the Frankfurt School theorists came by the concept, the notion that there is something counter-factual about critique actually does capture something interesting – something much more difficult for positive theories to grasp. I would then argue that the Frankfurt School theorists never quite figured out exactly what it captured – what this notion of critique implied about the context in which the critique was unfolding. If they had, I would suggest, they could have conceptualised critique as a determinate negation.

5.1. Critical theory arises from such failures:

This comment is fair enough, based on what I wrote, but doesn’t quite capture what I think. Again, the issue is that what I actually think is very difficult to present briefly, while following a line of argument that’s tracing something else. So, this piece was mainly an intellectual history sketch, with only very occasional gestures to other kinds of historical experiences. Those gestures, however, are important: I tend to think that theoretical systems don’t collapse solely under their own weight, but through the confrontation with a shifting constellation of other experiences, which may both draw attention to shortcomings of the theoretical approach, and make other concepts more readily available. So a full account, within my framework, would require much more work than I’ve provided in the post – with particular attention to the qualitative characteristics of forms of practice and forms of thought.

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

This is complicated, but for somewhat pendantic reasons. What I’m calling positive theories may not have thematised immanence in the same way – or, for that matter, determinacy. The Frankfurt School folks draw their concepts much more directly from Hegel, than from the intermediary theoretical traditions – although they do also see themselves as the heirs to earlier forms of Marxism. Also just another note that theories can, in principle, have a commitment in the broad sense to immanence, and not incorporate notions of determinate negation – it’s the specific way this tradition understands immanence in the narrow sense of overcoming subject-object dualism that places them in the position where self-reflexivity (and therefore determinate negation) becomes important.

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.

No further commentary other than what’s already been said above.

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.

I actually do think this, but wasn’t trying to make an argument to this effect in this piece. Instead, I was just using the discussion of science in the Positivist Dispute because it was a convenient way to draw out those elements of the Frankfurt School approach that most clearly presage what I’m trying to do.

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).

Again, I agree, although these sorts of points were included in the post more for the reasons stated above, than because of their intrinsic importance to any theoretical discussion of this sort.

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.]

This paragraph is hard and unclear :-) Basically, it’s the nucleus of a chapter, and – however rude this may have been for me to do in a public space – is really more a set of notes to myself on the argumentative moves I need to make, than it is something that could stand on its own in a discussion.

I take Adorno to be trying to be honest, rather than catty, when he expresses concerns about the potential inadequacy of dialectics. The reality is that this tradition has a serious problem – and it knows it. The concept of dialectics is, for Adorno, bound intrinsically to the concept of structural contradiction. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know what the contradiction could possibly be: the only categeories he had for grasping one (the contradiction between forces and relations of production) aren’t adequate – the “forces” have won, and the result is the totally administered society… So, by this line of reasoning, dialectics ought to be impossible.

At the same time, Adorno knows this can’t be right – critique does continue. But he can’t quite grasp why or how. It’s this inability to link critique to determinate potentials – rather than any personal scepticism about how likely change is to occur – that renders Adorno’s work “pessimistic”. The tradition runs aground here – the relationship of critique to practice – of forms of subjectivity to forms of objectivity – simply does become very murky.

All of which would be an enormous problem for me if I were trying to apply this theoretical tradition. Fortunately, that’s not my goal. Instead, I’m seeking to show how this theoretical tradition could never solve the problems it was trying to solve, as long as they hung on to their core theoretical categories – but (the claim would be) I can solve these problems through a different theoretical approach – and also explain (if I’m complete enough in the argument) why this solution might be a bit easier to come by in the present moment, than it might have been when Adorno was writing.

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”.

I’ve basically punted on Habermas because I’ve written on him formally in a number of contexts – most recently here.

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?]

The presence of resonant concepts – concepts that can be demonstrated to have broad appeal – suggests something about the broad sweep of collective practice, within this kind of framework. You can and do get all sorts of individual weirdness – and small-scale collective weirdness – that, from the standpoint of what this theory is trying to grasp, are essentially aleatory (whether they are “truly” aleatory, or are determinate in relation to a more local form of context, is – for various reasons I won’t go into here – not really important for the kind of theory I’m trying to outline). But concepts that can be demonstrated to be quite widespread are of particular interest once someone posits an immanent and self-reflexive framework, as they should – if the framework is correct – be pointers to some significant and widespread practical experience of the context.

All of this needs to be said with a recognition that the mode of presentation here is “backwards”, from the standpoint of my actual approach: in other words, I don’t myself actually say “I believe in immanence, and therefore I better take these forms of thought seriously” – it’s just presentationally convenient for me to be able to say, to other theoretical approaches: “you believe in immanence, so you should have taken these forms of thought seriously”. It enables me to make a critique of competing approaches more efficiently.

My underlying position, though, is more empirical than this: I’m interested in “determining” (in the sense of grasping the qualitative characteristics of) our context, including its characteristic forms of subjectivity and objectivity. I think I can make an empirical case that the forms of subjectivity and the forms of objectivity are qualitatively homologous to one another in a few very specific (and very abstract) respects, in a way that then suggests the plausibility of the hypothesis of self-reflexivity, etc. I also think that some of the characteristics of our context enact a kind of immanence, in the “broad” sense of secularism. I don’t expect either of these placeholder observations to make sense or be plausible as stated here – I’m just flagging that, while it is often convenient for me to push other theorists by, as Scott Eric Kaufman memorably described it, hoisting them on their own petards, I don’t actually believe this is adequate to establish the plausibility of my own position. If I’m speaking with someone who does – for whatever reason – accept one of the various positions that falls out of my argument (like immanence or self-reflexivity), though, this presentational strategy can save a lot of time and let us move straight to the issues that might actually be in contention between the approaches.

Immanence and self-reflexivity aren’t, though, the only normative standards I think I need to ground – they’re just significant for various reasons: immanence (in the sense of secularism) is a major point of differentiation between modern and non-modern social contexts, and therefore is something I want to establish on a “first pass”; the kind of argument required to explain immanence (when I’m not discussing the issue “backwards”, as I have been here) also happens to lay much of the groundwork for other kinds of normative values I want to explore. Self-reflexivity differentiates between theoretical traditions, and the exploration of this concept in conjunction with the broad concept of immanence casts some light, I think, on why certain dimensions of our context are difficult to “see”. These arguments are extremely complicated – which means, essentially, that no one needs to believe I can make them successfully. In a sense, in discussions like this – where I’m taking immanence and self-reflexivity as starting points for particular traditions, and then criticising those traditions against these standards – I’m saying “let’s assume I can adequately demonstrate these concepts – where would this take us? What would it imply?”

On your questions about other normative standards – “traces”, “difference”, etc. – there’s no in-principle difference between how concepts like these would be treated, and how concepts like immanence and self-reflexivity would be treated, within this kind of approach. There may be some empirical differences – in the sense that some concepts may have a demonstrably longer history, or a demonstrably wider geographical spread – and this would then have an effect on how you understood the various layers of context within which particular concepts operate. I tend to target my analysis extremely abstractly – mainly because I think it’s at these very abstract levels that other theorists seem to have the greatest difficulty grasping how concepts could possibly be related to collective practice in any determinate way – and I think this happens because a very peculiar dimension of collective practice is finding expression in these very abstract concepts. But I have no in principle problem with looking at other sorts of concepts in roughly the same way – with the recognition that more local kinds of practices and forms of perception might be involved.

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.

This is hard to say… It may in fact be that the concept of immanence is conceptualised just fine – it’s more that they aren’t applying that concept to their own normative stances: they’re exceptionalising themselves. But they do realise this – so it’s probably not so much a conceptual failure, as an inability to work out how to live up to their own concepts…

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.

This isn’t so much a consequence, as a hypothesis – or, more accurately, a sort of opening volley gesturing at how my competing theoretical approach will try to tackle some of these issues.

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].

There’s an extremely complex argument about reification that runs through my approach – I might need more information here to know for sure whether you’ve accidentally stumbled across something that touches on that dimension of the theory (which I haven’t been trying to discuss thus far on the blog, in this post or any other), or whether the issue just boils down to some poor expression on my part. I am making an argument that resonant abstractions are not solely conceptual in nature – that we aren’t arriving at these concepts by generalising up from some kind of empirical experience from which we conceptually abstract the most common elements to arrive at our abstract categories. I am arguing, instead (and I absolutely cannot develop this point here, so apologies in advance) that our collective practice differentiates some dimensions of our social life into visibly “social” practices, beliefs, etc., while simultaneously differentiating some other dimensions of our social life into practices, beliefs, etc., that are practiced and experienced as asocial – and that a particular kind of real abstraction is generated in and through this kind of context.

Those dimensions of our social life that we practice as “asocial” have certain determinate qualitative characteristics – characteristics that are the specific social form of this asocial sociality (sorry about the language – I’m not trying to be obscurantist – honestly, there’s just no easy way to say this…). Because we practice these dimensions of our social life as “asocial”, however, these determinate characteristics tend to remain “doxic” to us – we tend to think they are nothing – that they are absence – that they are what remains when everything artificial has been stripped away. The tendency to experience these determinate qualitative characteristics as doxic is further reinforced by the tendency to practice other dimensions of our social life as “social” in a fairly aggressive sense – easily perceiving the artificiality and contingency of a range of what I tend to call “concrete” social relations. As a result, it’s quite easy to fall into a situation where we are distracted by certain dimensions of social life – particularly as targets for political practice – while ignoring others.

Within this overarching argument, immanence and self-reflexivity are concepts that reflect certain experiences of the interaction between doxic and nondoxic dimensions of our context – so the concepts don’t reside in any one dimension of social practice, but express a kind of internal tension that haunts the context. I don’t know if this would help you decide whether I’m reifying the concepts or not… Particularly given that I can’t actually provide anything close to a full argument… But this is – in a very sketchy way – how the concepts operate in my framework, at least as I understand it at this time…

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.

The comments above obviously provide some further information on what a “pure” or “abstract” negation might be…

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.

Yes, but I’d also have to show how the context tips its hand, so to speak. Any time you talk about why a context renders something difficult to “see”, the question automatically arises of why the theorist can see that thing. To me, the analysis of the context needs to be probabilistic to deal with this (unless, of course, you think history is trending in a direction that is gradually bringing a potential to light – which might be a viable position, but which isn’t my own): you can talk about what is likely to happen within a context, and you can also talk about various countercurrents that also remain possibilities – and then you can begin to theorise how, given that a countercurrent exists, it might be possible to act in such a way as to make the countercurrent more likely, more widespread…

But more than enough from me on this – and apologies for how very much remains unstated and unclear… Thank you so much for this – I’m still somewhat stunned at the work you put in, and appreciate it more than I can possibly express. Hopefully I can at least somewhat reciprocate in relation to your own project, as it develops further.

12 responses to “Whereof We Cannot Speak

  1. Joseph Kugelmass April 28, 2007 at 11:37 am

    NP, thank you for this long and graceful post.

    I’m remarkably interested in the following, given my current work on authenticity and inauthenticity:

    Those dimensions of our social life that we practice as “asocial” have certain determinate qualitative characteristics – characteristics that are the specific social form of this asocial sociality (sorry about the language – I’m not trying to be obscurantist – honestly, there’s just no easy way to say this…). Because we practice these dimensions of our social life as “asocial”, however, these determinate characteristics tend to remain “doxic” to us – we tend to think they are nothing – that they are absence – that they are what remains when everything artificial has been stripped away. The tendency to experience these determinate qualitative characteristics as doxic is further reinforced by the tendency to practice other dimensions of our social life as “social” in a fairly aggressive sense – easily perceiving the artificiality and contingency of a range of what I tend to call “concrete” social relations. As a result, it’s quite easy to fall into a situation where we are distracted by certain dimensions of social life – particularly as targets for political practice – while ignoring others.

    Is this in fact aiming at some kind of critique of authenticity, as a sort of asocial sociality that claims to be separate from artificial ways of behaving around others, and yet at the same time exists through its relation to sociality (and vice versa)? Is the standpoint of the critical theorist or sociologist being compared to the assumption (in the sense of a “taking-up”) of authenticity?

  2. N Pepperell April 28, 2007 at 9:08 pm

    Joe – It may depend on what you mean. If I can pull the analysis off, I think I might be able to cast light on some of the qualitative characteristics that are expressed in ideals of authenticity and artifice. And I would use the concept of what I’ve called “asocial sociality” to do this (hopefully I’ll come up with a better term ;-P).

    But I wasn’t sure from your questions whether you were looking for an analysis of a form of sociality that might manifest itself directly “on the ground” – a form of interpersonal conduct or performance of self that might be characterised as “asocial sociality”? If so, just a quick clarification that I don’t intend the term “asocial sociality” to directly capture anything that happens immediately in any face-to-face (or, for that matter, intersubjective) interactions – although the term is intended to cast light, probabilistically, on why certain experiences or performances of self or of intersubjectivity might be more likely to take place at particular times.

    It’s very difficult for me to discuss – both because I’m working the concepts out as I go, and because – at least as I understand it at the moment – it’s just intrinsically a complicated concept. The forms of practice I’m trying to capture via the term “asocial sociality” appear as what they are: they are genuinely “asocial”, in the sense that they are impersonal in form: they have to do with a relationship constituted by the impacts our collective practice exerts in a very impersonal way – with the collective constitution of a specifically impersonal form of domination or constraint.

    The argument hinges on the notion that there might be a complex pattern of the mutual constitution of a unique form of impersonal social relation, and all the various messy and contingent personal social relationships (gender relations, states, institutions, etc.) that we more readily recognise as “social” because of their intersubjective character. The relative ease with which we can recognise intersubjective relationships as contingent and “social”, and the relative difficulty we experience in recognising the determinate social character of the more impersonal forms of constraint that our collective practice also generates, are mutually-constitutive phenomena.

    As I’ve said, I think it’s possible to get from this sort of analysis to the issue of why certain ideals of authenticity (and artifice) might be more likely (probabilistically) to arise or resonate, although a great deal of the detail of how such ideals come to be articulated and inflected “on the ground” remains essentially aleatory, from the standpoint of my approach. (This doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily aleatory “in truth” – only that I have no direct way to theorise the issue, and am therefore agnostic on it.)

    Critical standpoint within this framework is complex – but the standpoint should, I think, reject an attempt to ground critical norms in either the abstract or the concrete dimension of the context – as though one existent side in this practical dichotomy would necessarily be emancipatory, if only it could be freed from the other. The overcoming of the context, within this framework, would entail the overcoming of the dichotomy itself – not through a kind of abstract negation or leap outside the context, but through the reclamation of ideals and practical potentials generated by the context itself. But at this level, the discussion is probably too vague and general to be very useful… Sorry about this…

  3. Sinthome May 1, 2007 at 11:57 am

    I’ll second Joseph’s remark and say that this is a remarkable post. It’s exciting to watch you working out your ideas with such rigor and systematic unity. I’m envious that I don’t have a similar clarity with regard to my questions or what I think about, well, just about anything. I don’t have much to add as I’m feeling battered, beaten, and abused and therefore full of exhaustion and even a little of despair, so perhaps I’ll just ask a question (not job related, that’s all good). I’m still extremely unclear on just what you mean by “determinate negation”. Throughout it seems as if the sense of this term is treated obvious, yet I’m left scratching my head whenever you evoke it. Perhaps you or L Magee (for some reason his/her name always makes me think of a magician… I imagine a guy in a blue robe with a wizard hat with stars and all) could give the “determinate negation” explanation for dummies.

  4. Sinthome May 1, 2007 at 11:59 am

    I’m printing this post out for closer reading and obligatory marginalia, so I can steal your questions or telos, translate them into my own theoretical vocabulary, and spit them out as something that’s my own (a naturalized version mind you… I suspect I’m Schelling to Hegel here).

  5. N Pepperell May 1, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    I was actually thinking earlier today that your recent posts on Spinoza are both exciting and very beautiful – and was envious of them myself :-)

    Just a placeholder for the moment, as today is what my friends locally have learned colloquially to call my “hell day” – I teach from first thing in the morning until late in the evening, don’t get home until 10 p.m. – and then generally spend the next day shattered and conceptually useless (which is quite handy, actually, for marking ;-P)… But I will respond – it just may take me a bit to recover first, before I’m worth listening to – for me, this is actually a particularly productive question, as I’m not really meaning to suggest that the term should be obvious – it’s just the latest attempt to communicate something that I really struggle to convey (or even to see…). I keep hoping that I’ll hit on a magic word or phrase that just does away with this problem – but it seems that I’m condemned to actually figuring out how to say what I mean…

    Folks at my university keep warning me that if I post concepts on my blog, someone will come along and steal them. This tells me that they never read my blog – if they did, they would realise that my main worry is that I will never manage to be clear enough that anyone would be able to steal my ideas… ;-)

    I’ll try to pick this up again, more substantively, when I’m recovered a bit…

  6. Sinthome May 1, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    Lacan talks about a certain signifier in a signifying organizing called a “master-signifier” that does not itself have meaning but that organizes all the other terms. It’s a sort of term that’s subtracted from the rest that can take on any other meaning without being able to be pinned down by any of these terms. For instance, “freedom” floats about without content and only takes on meaning by being attached to another signifier. Perhaps this is the way “determinate negation” is functioning for you. As a sort of organizing empty signifier.

  7. Sinthome May 1, 2007 at 5:17 pm

    But honestly the degree of systematicity and clarity you’ve attained is really exciting here. I’m thinking I need to bit the bullet and just run with my individuation concept and develop all its implications and consequences, no matter how painful (I dropped the word as I was initially writing) might be.

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